Friday, 18 May 2018

Thoughts on the Marvel Cinematic Universe and "Avengers: Infinity War" (2018)

(Potential Mild Spoilers)

More than once as I caught up on the previous 18 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) in preparation for the latest installment – Avengers: Infinity War – I found myself thinking the same thought: I am becoming just a face in the crowd.

To simply call the Marvel films successful would be a great understatement. Collectively, they have grossed more than Star Wars, Harry Potter, and the 24 installments in the James Bond series, and they are adored the world over. The Marvel movies have become a staple of popular culture; t-shirts bearing the insignia of Captain America’s shield are just as common now as vinyl recordings of Guardian of the Galaxy’s “Awesome Mix.” And now it’s not difficult to see why. Marvel has cornered the market when it comes to entertainment which combines adventure and laughs and – perhaps most importantly – spectacle. While the action in these action/adventure sagas may not match that of the Bond or Mission: Impossible films, Marvel compensates with the sheer scale and scope of each of their movies.

The latest – Infinity War – is no exception. In fact, it may very well be the height of spectacle for the series as it assembles as many of the diverse threads of their epic tapestry bringing together all of their heroes in one film. One needs only look at the film’s poster which is simply overflowing with star’s names (Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlet Johansson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Holland, Chadwick Boseman, Chris Pratt, and Josh Brolin to name only a few) to know that this is not your typical ensemble action flick. And though unlike the previous two Avengers films, the heroes may not congregate to do battle together, their separation into smaller groups allows for multiple storylines to carry on simultaneously and never allows for a dull moment.

What Infinity War does best of all, though, is give its scenario emotional depth and weight, and I think that it cannot be a coincidence that the directors of this film, Anthony and Joseph Russo, also directed my other favorite installments in the MCU, Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) and Captain America: Civil War (2016) both of which never let their epic stories overshadow their emotional core. Indeed, there were moments in Infinity War when it was almost heart wrenching to see what happens to the characters we have come to know and love throughout the rest of the series.

Avengers: Infinity War leaves the story open to be concluded in further installments of the MCU proving that the comic juggernaut will not be relinquishing its grip on the movie market anytime soon. Until recently I may have rolled my eyes at the notion of a lengthy future for Marvel, but now I don’t mind too much. The studio is releasing consistently good content, and if they continue to entertain millions – myself included – that’s not so bad, is it?

To be convinced, it was worth acquiring my anonymity.


For Marvel fans who may be reading this and wish to know where I stand on the other 18 films in the MCU (with the exception of The Incredible Hulk) which I have not seen, I have ranked the Marvel movies below from favorite to least favorite:

Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Avengers: Infinity War
Captain America: Civil War
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
The Avengers
Spider-Man: Homecoming
Thor: Ragnarok
Iron Man 3
Doctor Strange
Captain America: The First Avenger
Iron Man
Guardians of the Galaxy
Black Panther
Thor: The Dark World
Avengers: Age of Ultron
Iron Man 2

Monday, 9 April 2018

300 Words on "A Quiet Place" (2018)

I can’t remember the last time I was in a movie theater that was so silent.

A Quiet Place is, simply put, a triumph of modern horror, avoiding so many of the worn-out tropes of the genre and telling a unique, character-driven story. The film seems to affirm my belief that the very best horror movies are the ones which are built upon the simplest of plots, and storylines do not get much simpler than a family (quietly) fighting for their lives against monsters which hunt them through sound.

It is not the monsters, however, that makes A Quiet Place such riveting viewing: it’s the tightly-written script by John Krasinski (who also directs and stars alongside his real-life wife, Emily Blunt) which leans upon suspenseful set-pieces to tremendous affect. Seldom has the upsetting of a lantern, the creaking of floorboards, or the ticking of a simple egg-timer elicited such thrills from an audience who were undoubtedly anxiously chewing their fingernails just as much as I was.

The film’s screenplay also strongly built up the characters of the family and from the outset they emerged as likable, empathic characters whose plight we feel for. Of course, this is almost entirely done visually, so much of the movie carried out in virtual silence. A masterclass of visual storytelling in an age when so many movies rely on exposition-laden dialogue to convey its ideas, the silence of A Quiet Place not only sets it apart from so many other mainstream films today but managed to subvert the horror genre trope of the loud-noise jump scare and make it feel justified and rightfully scary. Even if the acting, direction, beautiful cinematography from Charlotte Bruus Christensen, and brilliant sound design were not as excellent as they were, A Quiet Place would still be a very clever horror film.

And that, in itself, may have been enough to stun some into silence. 

Thursday, 5 April 2018

300 Words on "Ready Player One" (2018)

One of Steven Spielberg’s greatest strengths as a director is his presentation of material which can only be described as epic. From the beginning of his career, Spielberg has pushed the envelope when it comes to the use of technology in his filmmaking; the results creating spectacles which can rightfully be called jaw-dropping. And though his latest, Ready Player One, may not showcase all the hallmarks which have come to exhibit a Spielberg production, that spectacle is on full display.

And my jaw was on the floor.

Any viewer who goes into Ready Player One prepared to embrace its fun, fast-paced glorification of popular culture is in for a fun time: from spotting the Easter eggs placed for sharp-viewed viewers to find, to it’s graphics and cinematography which feel just like something out of a video game, Ready Player One is a feast for the eyes. And the ears - the film’s retro soundtrack consisting of one ‘80s earworm after the other. It is so easy – not unlike the players of the film who enter the virtual reality world of the Oasis – to get lost in it all.

The spectacle, therefore, more than makes up for the cliched storylines and trite dialogue which drives the plot forward, and though some exposition is dropped like half-ton weights upon the audience, it was never long before we plunged once more into a set-piece which had me on the edge of my seat and grinning from ear to ear.

Ready Player One is unconventional Spielberg for sure, but it surely cements his place amongst the very best auteurs to step behind a camera. Though it may call back to the classic films of the past (The Shining, Back to the Future, and Spielberg’s own Jurassic Park just to name a few), I feel that it has potential to be considered a classic on its own someday very soon.

Sunday, 4 March 2018

300 Words on "Red Sparrow" (2018)

The world of the spy thriller is an inherently intriguing one. The mercurial landscape of shifting alliances, double-crosses, and shielded secrets makes for engaging and exciting viewing in just about any espionage adventure. What happens, however, when a movie has too many secrets, double-crosses, and shifting alliances? It’s very likely to turn out like Red Sparrow.

While the plot of Red Sparrow is pretty straightforward compared to some of the more complex plots weaved in spy thrillers, the movie feels needlessly bogged down by its hefty script which makes its two-hour-twenty-minute run-time feel even longer than it is. It is a film which requires much of its audience; prerequisites for any viewer including having an ironclad stomach. Even I must admit to having found the copious amounts of gratuitous sex and violence in the film to be extreme, and director Francis Lawrence does nothing to stylize the bloodletting on screen to feel like anything other than a moment of shock for the masses.

Where the film was stylized, however, was in its breathtaking cinematography, editing, and musical score – all of which complemented each other so well and gave Red Sparrow an at once lush and gritty aesthetic of the sort which put me in mind of David Fincher at his best. But, as noted above, director Lawrence is no master like Fincher and, though he coaxed a good performance from lead Jennifer Lawrence (whose Russian accent is actually quite excellent), there were no few occasions when I felt that a truly skilled hand was behind the camera.

Red Sparrow was an engaging watch – its genre almost guaranteed that – but I was left feeling rather hollow, and unsatisfied. Though it is clear that Red Sparrow wanted to bring the beloved Cold War thriller firmly into the modern day, this attempt at doing so fell just short. 

Thursday, 1 February 2018

The Strange Case of Brian De Palma

Once upon a time there lived a group of directors…

Steven Spielberg. Martin Scorsese. Francis Ford Coppola. George Lucas. The names read like a veritable who’s who of the new wave of American filmmakers, each one doing their part to revolutionize the world of film and go on to attain international fame and recognition to this very day. Of this revered group who emerged during the 1970s, one name is quietly neglected, seemingly forgotten despite his numerous contributions to world cinema. His name: Brain De Palma.

After watching the recent HBO documentary on Spielberg which went in-depth on the relationship forged by this group of young directors, I was compelled to take a deeper dive into De Palma’s body of work. Why, I had to wonder, could this one director be so easily forgotten today when he inhabited a sphere alongside so many luminaries of his time – and perhaps all time. The simple answer to this question is that De Palma lacked the talent of Spielberg, Scorsese, and Coppola. This sentiment seems to be verified if one takes a look at his filmography on Rotten Tomatoes (admittedly a source always to be taken with a grain of salt) and sees a number of his films with very low ratings. However, this is circumstantial evidence at best to say that De Palma is a poor director because after having taken that deeper dive myself, I can honestly say that Brian De Palma is one of the most underrated and unique directors to ever work behind a camera.

De Palma (left) photographed with Steven Spielberg (center)
and Martin Scorsese (right)

Where do I begin, then, in this critical reevaluation of Brian De Palma as a director? Perhaps by using his own words: “I like stylization. I try to get away with as much as possible until people start laughing at it.” When one watches a De Palma film in isolation, only the most overt of his stylistic decisions are easily read. Who, for instance, can forget the camera spinning around and around John Travolta’s sound studio replicating the spinning of a reel of tape in Blow Out (1981), or the impressive thirteen-minute long one take which opens Snake Eyes (1998), never actually allowing us to glimpse the pivotal, fixed boxing match? While these scenes are likely to linger in the mind, if one studies De Palma closer, one will notice his repeated techniques - like overhead shots which look down on all his characters like some omniscient presence and his habit of placing large, disorienting objects in the foreground of his shots giving them great perspective and depth - are common to all his movies.

These methods pulled time and time again from the De Palma playbook give all of his films a unified, distinct look, something which few other famous directors can lay claim too. While other auteurs may be known for their style of writing or thematic approach to film, De Palma capitalizes on the visuals created from his movies. And, what is fascinating to take notice of is how consistent he was throughout his career employing these approaches to his films. De Palma’s second mainstream feature, Phantom of the Paradise (1974) shows De Palma’s early fascination with those overhead shots and sweeping long takes. Perhaps even more so than his contemporaries, De Palma – from the beginning – was forging a style all his own. Even in his later, more commercial properties like Scarface (1983), The Untouchables (1987), and Mission Impossible (1996), De Palma is able to pull a few novelties from his usual bag and tricks and hide them in plain sight.

A masterpiece of suspense in the midst of Mission Impossible (1996)

The three films mentioned immediately above are unique in the canon of Brian De Palma’s films as they represent a departure from his usual genre work. From the outset with his first true film, Sisters (1972), De Palma has had a predilection towards the genres of thriller and horror, no doubt spawned by the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock who De Palma cites as his primary influence. Indeed, De Palma’s earliest films owe a great deal to Hitchcock whether it is overt – the use of the Psycho strings used throughout Carrie (1976) – or more subtly. Dressed to Kill (1980) is itself one long homage to Psycho from the casting of well-known blonde actress who is murdered little more than a third of the way into the movie, down to a psychiatrist’s explanation of the killer’s motivations acting as the film’s resolution.

Blow Out is the obvious highlight of this period for De Palma, a grand homage to the kind of thriller for which Hitchcock was so well known, but De Palma’s script manages to balance the tributes to Hitchcock alongside an equally engrossing political conspiracy and the story of a twisted serial killer; both tropes being ones with which the Master only ever flirted. Hitchcock, himself, called De Palma’s films mere fromage instead of homage, but De Palma’s movies stand tall and as heretical as it may be to claim, the elevator murder in Dressed to Kill is executed just as well and packs just as much of a punch – if not more – than the similar shower scene in Psycho.

Directing John Travolta and Nancy Allen in Blow Out (1981)

Of course, not every one of Brain De Palma’s films has emerged quite as strong as his early thrillers, but every director has missteps and De Palma should not be judged on The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) alone. Indeed, throughout his career, De Palma has seen some positive press; when John Carpenter released his horror masterpiece, Halloween in 1978, some critics put it down as simply being a cheap imitation of De Palma’s style mixing suspense and out-and-out horror. Even today, I believe, the reevaluation of De Palma’s career is beginning: the 2015 documentary De Palma shed some light on what made the director tick and allowed him to defend even such lambasted films as Bonfire, and Kenneth Branagh’s more recent adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express (2017) pulled from the same cinematic stockpile which De Palma has made his own employing many long takes, POV, and overhead shots.

Perhaps the only reason that Brain De Palma has seemingly never generated the same praise as the others he ran with in the ‘70s is the simple reason that his film never revolutionized the artform in some way. De Palma was never granted a project which turned into the proto summer blockbuster like Jaws (1975); his original projects never had the same grand, operatic vision as Star Wars (1977); his films were less thematically challenging than Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976); and his gangster movies were never embraced with the same universality as The Godfather (1972).

That in no way diminishes the films he created, though. Almost always operating on a far smaller scale than those others and dabbling in territory which they would seldom touch, De Palma created a series of visually striking, and memorable films. Once seen, it’s unlikely that one is going to easily forget a Brian De Palma movie. 

Saturday, 20 January 2018

300 Words on "Phantom Thread" (2017)

Why did I like Phantom Thread so much?

I guess the best place to start would be the powerhouse performance from Daniel Day-Lewis, who had me mesmerized whenever he was on screen. Even with the most minute of movements like sewing a piece of fabric – which as high-class dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock – Day-Lewis does a lot, he was able to imbue the action with so much meaning and gravity.

Giving a performance just as striking is Vicky Krieps as Alma, the object of Woodcock’s affections. Krieps delivers a nuanced, mannered performance which packs so much sublimating, dark emotions that when finally glimpsed, feel so incredibly justified.

The original screenplay written by director Paul Thomas Anderson is no less intriguing. Any viewer who expects an intricate, labyrinth-like story from Phantom Thread may come away feeling cheated, but the screenplay is layered and complex all-the-same. I often found myself wondering just where the story was going with no idea what was in store for these mesmerizing characters. Anderson’s screenplay is swathed in an intangible uneasiness and I found myself riveted by its strange – at times inexplicable – sense of foreboding.

Complimenting that mood is outstanding, lush cinematography which lovingly lingers on the colors and textures of fabrics in just the same way that Day-Lewis’s Woodcock surely would. And the score – seemingly one long symphony – composed by Johnny Greenwood is just as fitting.

I left the theatre unable to put into words my feelings for Phantom Thread and few movies are able to do that to me, but I now see clearly that I, not unlike the characters of the film, fell under the spell of Phantom Thread. A beautifully-acted and produced enigma, Phantom Thread proves to be an engaging and ultimately disquieting picture. Its defies its audience to understand it all at once.

My silence leaving the theatre seems justified. 

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

300 Words on "Darkest Hour" (2017)

Watching an actor transform and totally disappear into their character on screen is thrilling. I derive a certain amount of fun out of trying to see behind the make-up and manufactured accent looking for something which I recognize in portrayals of this kind, but few, I think, have been quite as seamless as Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour. Indeed, there were moments when outfitted in the period costume and chomping on a cigar, that Oldman and Britain’s war-time Prime Minister could have been one and the same. Oldman’s performance is central to Darkest Hour, and he has rightfully been lauded for his work here as he brings just the right amount of larger-than-life magnetism and subtle character to one of the most recognizable (and often portrayed) figures of history.

Oldman is surely the most memorable and watchable member of the cast, but he is supplemented by a fine directorial sense under the hand of Joe Wright who enlivens some of the film’s slower, and more historically arcane bits with some inspired cinematography. Darkest Hour, I say without hesitation, boasts some of the most striking visuals for any film of 2017, and from its opening overhead shot of a bickering Parliament, I was intrigued.

Darkest Hour has been accused of being by-the-numbers Oscar bait, but I could not disagree more. The film stands on its own as an intelligently-written historical drama which makes for an interesting complement to other Oscar-worthy films depicting the era such as The King’s Speech (2010) and Dunkirk (2017). Unlike those other films, however, Darkest Hour doubles-down on the historical content but never loses sight of what it truly is: a character study, and it emerges as an engaging – and surprisingly moving -  piece showcasing Gary Oldman in what is surely the pinnacle of his achievements as an actor.