Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing: Perry Lam reviews ‘Dr Strange’

Marvel’s dominance in the arena of blockbusters has allowed for the brand to introduce more obscure characters in their catalogue, characters that are otherwise ‘hard sells’ if introduced without the knowledge and universe building executed by the previous films. Without Iron Man, Dr Strange would have continued to languish in the brightly coloured pages of the comic books, suffering in his role of the ‘fan favourite’ character. Loved by the fans of the House of Marvel but ignored by everyone else.

Therefore, it is easy to see why Marvel has decided to go all out with Dr. Strange, with its attempts at high concept special effects, big name actors in an ensemble cast, Michael Giacchino on score, and a marketing budget the size of the GDP of small nation, this is the production ‘dream team’ of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. One area Marvel is still unwilling to spend big on though, is the traditionally ‘important’ role of director. And it shows, for all the stops that Marvel has pulled to ensure Dr. Strange’s quality, without a director with a creative voice, this movie ends up being a dream team with no interesting direction.

After a horrific car accident robs Dr Stephen Strange of his physical abilities as a neurosurgeon, he travels to Tibet to seek out a cure. As he trains in the ways of the mystic arts, he comes to terms with his purpose in life, not just as a doctor but also as a person.

null

Everything about this film screams intense focus group meetings and obsessive market research, rather than a director’s artistic or creative choice. The Marvel Method works, the director is now a puppet, a messenger to dictate the whims of the executive board. Everything feels like a Marvel movie, from the opening pop track to ease the viewers into the character of Doctor Stephen Strange, to how the cinematography looks, and it does look like every other Marvel film out there (more on that later). Similar to other origin stories in the Marvel slate of films, this film has an extremely distinct pattern in its narrative. Hero is arrogant, hero loses everything, loses redeems himself and figures his role in a greater world. I could list several Marvel movies in this mold but to put it simply, and boldly, Marvel’s formula has not changed a day since Robert Downey Jr suited up in 2008’s Iron Man.

Nothing in the story particularly stand out, the characters do what they need to do to establish the story and nothing more. There is a pedestrian tone to the film, swap Dr Strange for Antman, or Iron Man and with a few minor, adjustments in terms of powers and villains, it is still the Same. Exact. Story. The hero’s journey is stretched to its maximum load bearing weight.

null

There isn’t no attempt at relating the character to the audience, there is no reflection over Stephen Strange’s arrogant behaviour, he just is until he no longer isn’t. When he is humbled, it is not because he has learnt his lesson or his place. It is neither, he just behaves because that is how the script needs him to behave. The audience becomes a bystander instead of an active participant in the movie going experience, just watching events go by, unable to relate to the cosmic battles that unfold before our eyes.

Likewise to the rest of the characters, Mordo’s disillusionment does have an arc but it appears only at moments of convenience rather in moments of genuine narrative interest. Even Strange’s cape gets the laziest introduction ever, it chooses him without Strange even having to earn its use, the entire film is filled to the brim with all too convenient moments like these in order to generate plot momentum. A sudden attack by Mads Mikkelsen’s villainous Kaecilius is used to move the narrative, there is little that is in Strange’s control and as a character, he is guided from one action set piece to another with no agency of his own.

Considering that the cast is made up of phenomenal talent, it is a tragedy to see them go to waste in generic and rigid roles. The formulaic script hampers the performances, actors are burdened by the script rather than empowered by it.

Benedict Cumberbatch is up to the task of Dr. Stephen Strange but that is not saying much, he does not have a lot to work with in the first place. While the character is established adequately, characterization remains a problem. Cumberbatch mopes around for much of the film, relying on his awkwardness to generate some physical comedy and his stoic arrogance to emote. Beyond that, there isn’t an ambitious streak in his performance, he still is the Cumberbatch that fans are familiar with but non fans would not care for.  His chemistry with the rest of the cast is also wanting, Rachel McAdams is forced into the role of the love interest, achieving nothing with her screen time other than serve as comic relief and to build up Strange as a character, their interactions are forced ‘ping pong’ dialogue that attempts to highlight the charm of both but it fails, only reveal how choreographed and unnatural their performances are.

ds2

Mordo fares better but not by much, he is a full on exposition machine, constantly informing the viewer about backstory, but Chiwetel Ejiofor infuses the character with a sense of world weariness and bitterness that allows the character to be the most memorable in the film, even if these moments are few and far between.

The Marvel Villain Syndrome strike again, as even the talented Mads Mikkelsen is unable to salvage a bland, badly written villain in Kaecilius. More caricature than character, Mikkelsen gives a stone faced performance with nothing to his backstory other than a few choice exposition by Mordo, the fatal flaw of too much telling and not much showing. Mikkelsen none the less tries his best to lift the material he is given but it is a case of too little too late.

This is an alarming trend in Marvel films. After 8 years of constant, intensive worldbuilding, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has yet to have an iconic, centerpiece villain that could hold a movie on his or her own. This lack of quality villains affects the quality of the overall film, as the hero literally has nothing to struggle against, Strange is fighting himself more than he is fighting Kaecilius. The navel-gazing protagonist approach clashes widely with the blockbuster narrative that Marvel is trying to sell with Dr. Strange and the end result is neither an intimate character piece nor an epic blockbuster. It just feels mechanical and generic.

null

Audiences should all now be familiar with the Marvel ‘look’. Similar to the Marvel Comics’ ‘house style’ which is enforced on its comic artists, the cinematography is similar in style and execution with the other Marvel films. I understand the need to have a consistent look across the entire Marvel universe but this enforcement of visual style is starting to adversely affect the end product. Generic framing and the abuse of the mid shots turns the cinematography into unspectacularly visual monotony. The visual splendour of the scenes in the multiverse  is contrasted with drab, parking lot aesthetic of the real world scenes. You got to wonder though, if all these movies look alike, with similar narratives and storylines, offering nothing visually interesting, then what exactly are we paying to see?

Maybe the visual effects, which are spectacular, especially with Strange’s journeys to the multiverse, ethereal vistas and space gates that owe a debt to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It showcases a brilliant, vibrant universe that could have been explored. But we spend too little time there, with a weak narrative that is focused on boring ol’earth and lack of visual ambition in its cinematography, the visual effects are reduced to a spastic lightshow. Sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Speaking of sound, Marvel somehow manages to squeeze out the most generic score out of Michael Giacchino, one of the greatest score composers working today. There is nothing of note in the aural Marvel universe and rather than choose to break new ground, Dr. Strange only reinforces the Marvel house style of generic action and emotional themes. You won’t hum any musical themes as you walk out the theatre, though you probably wonder what’s next for the sequel. Maybe in terms of movie marketing, Marvel did something right by leaving out an iconic soundtrack.

null

I do believe the lack of strong direction is responsible for the film’s weaknesses. Scott Derrickson is primarily known for low budget genre fare and he does not manage to get any of his stylistic signatures on this film at all. Derrickson’s direction comes across as mercenary-like, hired only to execution the board’s vision and that is all to it. There are no obvious artistic or creative considerations, no moments of strong cinematic interests. Once again, in the battle between Marvel Studios and ‘The Director’, Marvel gets their hands raised again, this is Marvel’s film more than it is Derrickson’s.

While the ensuing whitewashing controversy is overblown and is the least of the film’s problems, there is still much to be said about how the film ends up turning out. Tilda Swinton is a great actress and puts up a great portrayal of the Ancient One, that said, she offers nothing special to the role that any actor or actress of Asian descent could have similarly pulled off. Still, that would be stereotypical casting of the ‘Old Master’. This is a problematic character, as are the Dr. Strange mythos. Borne out of Orientalism and the west’s obsession with the ‘Far East’, Dr. Strange tries to be faithful to the comics while being as inoffensive as possible.

null

Asian actors only serve as window dressing, hovering around the actors of western descent, never truly penetrating the narrative, they are part of the background, props and production design. Even Wong only serves to provide comic relief, while it is an admirably attempt to break Wong out of his offensive manservant role that he occupies in the comics, it is still messy in its execution. Unlike the comic relief characters of previous Marvel films, from War Machine to Drax the Destroyer, Wong is written to be unthreatening to anyone, we do not see him kick ass, instead he gets schooled by Dr. Strange when the latter steals books from the library. Can you see the same thing happening if it was Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Mordo who was the librarian? No, there will be hell to pay if that happens and the outrage will be much bigger.

I do not believe that ‘social justice warriors’ are going to go after Marvel for this, but I do believe that Marvel missed the argument. Dr. Strange, with its hero’s journey and Far East window dressing, is reminiscent of every white saviour fantasy film that came before it, from Karate Kid to Last of the Mohicans to The Last Samurai.

null

There is a lot going against Dr. Strange, weak direction and cinematography, generic score, mundane performances. However there is an old sports adage that states that ‘Offense wins you games but Defense wins you championships’. In the film industry, there is no bigger championship than reigning supreme at the box office. Instead of a director led offense of artistic daring, Marvel has proven that it is the defensive mentality of formulaic filmmaking, great branding and ambitious marketing that leads you to the title. For better or for worse, Marvel movies are now in a league of their own, every new entry, no matter the quality, only serves to reinforce their dominance. There is no doubt Dr. Strange will rule at the box office but it will also change the way filmmaking will be perceived as an artform and the roles within film production.

** Out of 5

Great actors, great visual effects are let down by a bad script, lacklustre direction, generic cinematography and weak soundtrack. The Marvel brand has bailed out its product for a quite a while now, the big question is, how much longer can it do that?

After Dr. Strange, you should watch:

Iron Man- The bible of which the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe is built on, every film that came after is slavishly influenced by this one.

Karate Kid- Probably the definitive movie in the ‘white saviour’ subgenre. This is 80s kitsch at its finest.

Inception- Visual effects weaved into an intricate, compelling plot. This is how CGI is supposed to be used.

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning- Scott Adkins, one of Kaecilius’ henchmen, is better known as an extremely talented direct-to-video action star. His greatest film and also one of the greatest direct to video films ever made, is Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning. The only way to describe it would be a Jackie Chan film by way of David Lynch. It has to be seen to be believed.

Valhalla Rising- Mads Mikkelsen plays a one eyed slave on a journey to Jerusalem. The term ‘cinematic experience’ has been bantered about too often but they are a fitting description to Nicolas Winding Refn’s films. Valhalla Rising is a brutal, unforgiving fever dream.

——————————————————————————————————

Perry Lam is an Associate Editor of Rochford Street Review and a film and commercials director. He directed the documentary short film BLACK RAT,  which has been screened at over 10 film festivals and showcases and won 3 awards, including Best Documentary at Phoenix Comicon 2016.  His latest short film Hard Vision, is currently on its festival run. You can follow him on Instagram at: perrylam29

 https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2016/02/02/welcome-perry-lam-rochford-street-review-associate-editor/

It Borders on Ruin Porn: Perry Lam reviews ‘Suicide Squad’

‘Bad vs Evil’ is the theme that David Ayer constantly reminds everyone in his interviews and comic convention appearances. This is true not just for Suicide Squad but of David Ayer’s directorial career. Ayer’s output functions as character examinations of bad people with badder intentions. In ‘Fury’, it is a bitter journey with a war weary tank crew in their struggle against the Nazis and in ‘End of Watch’, we are witnesses to a pair of cops running afoul of a Mexican cartel, with horrific consequences. However, with the shift to mainstream blockbuster filmmaking, Ayer’s penchant for delving into his protagonists’ psyche is put to its ultimate test in Suicide Squad.

Probably the most anarchic blockbuster release of the year, not only is Suicide Squad David Ayer’s blockbuster debut but Warner Bros. last ditch scramble to resuscitate their fledgling cinematic universe, their earlier effort, Batman v Superman only serves to disconnect the audience to the DC Comics brand. Not that it needs any resuscitation in my opinion, it is a fine piece of comic book myth forging but there is a popular consensus (that is slowly revising itself) that the film did not serve the audience. While Suicide Squad is more of a crowd pleaser that DC’s previous attempts at comic book adaptations, which often take the form of super serious, spandex clad social commentary, Suicide Squad does not close to being their best effort at mainstream entertainment.

SUICIDE SQUAD

Clay Enos/ & © DC Comics Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) forms a motley crew of incarcerated super villains for a black ops mission, a ‘suicide squad’. Unwanted and expendable, the criminals have to learn to trust each other, as well as their leader, Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) and do it fast, as they are sent to battle an otherworldly threat in the form of the Enchantress, a former member of the squad that went rogue. At the same time, the psychotic criminal mastermind Joker (Jared Leto) lurks in the shadows, waiting for the right time to strike.

The strongest portion of the film is easily the first twenty minutes. Be in awe of a rip roaring, neon drenched primal scream of an introduction. Through rapid fire vignettes and flashbacks, explosive exposition and a rock and rumble soundtrack, each character’s motivations and personality are displayed in violent flamboyance. Deadshot! Harley Quinn! Captain Boomering! Killer Croc! El Diablo! Boom, boom, boom, boom. The vignettes turbocharge the narrative, giving the most amount of exposition with the shortest amount of time, achieving more storytelling that the next two acts of the film combined. The vignettes/flashbacks also creates the opportunity for cameos to serve a more important story purpose: How these super villains ended up in prison. A not-so-subtle hint, most of them fought the Bat and the Bat won.

Once the opening rush of accelerated adrenaline simmers down, the plot struggles with what it wants to be, going into several different directions at once. A hydra tearing itself apart. The story’s weakness isn’t that it is messy, it is pretty coherent. The problem is its indecisiveness. There are traces of Ayer’s confrontational and robust approach to character building, especially in scenes with character interaction. Deadshot and Rick Flag get to cross verbal swords on several occasions, debating the moral differences between an assassin and a soldier. El Diablo’s tragic origin story infuses an otherwise throwaway character with a strong sense of relatability. The characters also provide one of the best scenes in the film, the squad go barhopping in the midst of all the chaos, giving us a glimpse at the crazies behaving in the brief respite of normalcy. But these strong character work never truly enter the ring as the main event, serving only as supplement to the confusing main plot. Katana and Killer Croc are the biggest victims of this, the former only getting two scenes of character establishment while the latter has none.

SUICIDE SQUAD

Clay Enos/ & © DC Comics Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

The lack of character development  is a consequence of the weakly established tone. The film is a mess tonally, after the Dirty Dozen-esque freakshow of an opening act, we take a sharp left to fantasy action movie territory. While simultaneously there is a psycho-thriller romance angle serving as a minor story arc for Harley Quinn and the Joker. It is three genres too many. The film works overtime to fulfil its story obligations and while it is coherent, the tone constantly shift between a supervillain examination piece to a fantasy, Hellboy-esque action picture to a toxic romance, the characters simply aren’t given a chance to establish themselves and if they do it once, there have to do it another two more times within those genre conventions, which they never do.

There is also the problem of protagonist and antagonist relations. I know it is a comic book movie but the Suicide Squad itself seems ill equipped to deal with a threat of this magnitude, the Enchantress is a supernatural, lovecraftian cosmic level threat. The Suicide Squad on the other hand are a black ops outfit rostered with killers, crazy people and a crocodile man. It feels like they got the wrong assignment. Who you gonna call? This mission is right up the Ghostbusters’ alley.

As bad as the second act is, it is nothing compared to the third act, when it assumes control, you will feel the nosedive. Firstly, all character nuances in the first two acts are forgotten, suddenly everyone is friends because they must battle a common threat. These are super villains we are talking about, crazy in their crimes and monstrous in their grandiosity, it is a stretch to even consider that all of them would suddenly work together for the greater good.

 

suicide-squad-movie-image

Clay Enos/ & © DC Comics Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Secondly, the third act transforms (I don’t know if this is intentional or not) into a 1990s action movie. Remember the hilariously cheesy third acts of those 90s Jean Claude Van Damme movies, the ones which ends with a climatic kung fu fight scene to decide the fate of the universe and all its inhabitants? Of course not. But when Enchantress suddenly becomes a sword wielding kung fu master, this movie robs Van Damme clichés and gives a sharp jolt to refresh your memory. It makes no story sense whatsoever although I do admit, I loved that scene for utterly ironic reasons.

While lacking development, characters are still the best part of the movie. A testament to Ayer’s ability to create strong personalities, even against a script with this much tonal chaos. Viola Davis gives a committed and intimidating performance as Amanda Waller, the Suicide Squad’s creator. Davis’ is stoic for most of the film, uncompromising in dealing with the vicious band of criminals at her disposal, she is brutal authority personified. Though this leads to comedic moments, like watching Captain Boomerang’s ego shrink as Waller lays down the dubious benefits of volunteering for the squad. 10 years off three consecutive life sentences is all that was offered. Ouch.

Joel Kinnaman plays it straight and narrow for Rick Flag, there is not much to say about Flag, other than he is a soldier’s soldier. As the only non-costumed squad member, his only purpose is to serve as a voice of reason and sanity against the deranged point of views of his band of criminals.

Suicide Squad’s take on Harley Quinn does have some traces of the comic counterpart but make no mistake, this is Margot Robbie’s rendition and not a straight adaptation. Robbie owns the punk rock, tongue out rebellious aesthetic and due to the Joker’s lack of screen time, she manages to carry the bulk of the dramatic scenes that showcase the dark, poisonous relationship between her and the Clown Prince of Crime. It is ‘The Notebook’ for sociopaths.

Deadshot is the heart of the movie, or should I say, Will Smith is the heart of this movie and the film would not be the least bit interesting without him. Will Smith’s portrayal is wholly inaccurate to the comics but it does not matter, Will Smith is back! In a watchable movie! In Smith, Suicide Squad displays the fundamental difference between an actor and an actual HOLLYWOOD STAR. While everyone else is going full on method playing their roles, Will Smith is STILL Will Smith and that is all he needs to be. With his charisma tuned to gigawatt levels and his screen presence oozing out the frame, you will forgive and forget that he does not resemble Deadshot in the slightest. Smith’s magnetic allure gives a significant boost to Ayer’s character development; the face offs and dialogue exchanges with cast not only serves to develop Deadshot character but also creates interesting creases on the other characters as well, as they work off Smith’s force of personality.

SUICIDE SQUAD

Clay Enos/ & © DC Comics Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Against the current of modern superhero blockbusters, Will Smith’s Deadshot is an oddity. Smith himself belongs to a forgone era in Hollywood, a time when the actor is bigger than the role he plays, one of the last outlaws in a new world. Similar to his contemporaries, Cruise and Schwarzenegger, Smith has the ability to carry an entire movie on his back and in the case of Suicide Squad, he is able to make a bad script good, solely pulling it past the finishing line with his strength of character and line delivery.

As for the rest of the squad, they do not get beyond one or two scenes of development, so we barely know them. Jai Courtney is hilarious as Captain Boomerang but otherwise, he adds very little to the actual plot beyond a few funny one liners and being a literal narrative boomerang, leaving the squad for a while before reappearing in the next scene. El Diablo is probably the only minor squad member with an actual story arc, and props to Jay Hernandez for giving a tortured performance as the squad’s resident pyrokinetic and making the most out of his small role. As mentioned, Katana and Killer Croc fairs the worse, the former is utterly wasted despite having the most interesting backstory in the team and a confident performance by Karen Fukuhara, the film affords only two scenes that expand on her otherwise underwritten character. As for Killer Croc, he is just there. He does not do anything beyond standing around and acting tough.

Speaking of standing around and acting tough, Cara Delevingne is appalling as the Enchantress, the weakest link in the entire film. The script seems to treat the Enchantress as a throwaway villain, not giving her any great acts of villainy beyond turning a few extras into unimaginative Lovecraftian zombies, Delevingne’s portrayal only aggravates the already awful situation. It is all cheese and camp, she hangs around a beam of light, jutting and twitching her limbs in odd angles every few seconds. The villain is one of the most important pieces of a film, providing a counterpoint to the hero’s struggle. So it is shocking to see Suicide Squad completely misjudge this aspect of the production and botching it to the high heavens. It might not come a surprise, Ayer’s body of work does not feature compelling villains at all, he is great at deconstructing his heroes but rarely does he succeed in providing a villain you love to hate. In a film of ‘Bad vs Evil’, evil simply didn’t show up. It’s all bad.

SUICIDE SQUAD

Clay Enos/ & © DC Comics Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

In terms of cameos, every Joker embodies the problems of their time period. Heath Ledger’s was a critique of the terrorism and its single-minded pursuit to ‘watching the world burn’. Jared Leto’s does away with the dogmatic terrorist ideology and philosophical musings in favour of gold plated guns and neon lit sports cars. This is the Joker for the materialistic, success obsessed Instagram generation. Leto’s Joker performance is impressive, relying on his menacing snarl and  boisterous but gradual hyena laugh to unnerve and intimidate. He is the most comic accurate of the long line of Jokers and at times feel like he stepped out the pages of an Alex Ross painted comic book.

Yet due to his disappointing lack of screen time, the jury is still out on Leto’s ability to carry the villainy of an entire film. Also worth mentioning, personally, it feels like a total crime to have both the Joker AND FREAKIN’ BATMAN in the same movie and not let both of them go at it or at the very least, face off. One can argue that a confrontation of this magnitude will probably be better served in a solo Batman feature. Still looks like a wasted opportunity to me.

Technicals are what we come to expect from a DC movie adaptation, no one does production values like DC. The movie is gorgeous to look at, especially the prison that houses the squad, it is wonderfully photographed and by that I mean the prison looks decrepit. The same goes for Midway City, where the bulk of the plot takes place, it has shades of John Carpenter’s 1981 cult classic ‘ Escape from New York’, everything either appears destroyed or broken down, it borders on ruin porn. The production design of the film is spectacular across the board, with different prison cells highlighting each character’s personalities. It looks fittingly dreary and nihilistic. A serious house on serious earth.  The character designs retain the visual essence of each character while adding onto the tapestry. I dare say it, most of the costumes look better here than in the Suicide Squad comics, Deadshot’s crimson armor, Captain Boomerang’s tradie inspired ensemble and Katana’s clean but menacing uniform are all interesting additions to their character’s mythology.

The opening vignette and flashback sequences stand out the most visually, Katana’s flashback fight scene in exquisitely shot, a furious ballet in the rain. Eagle eyed comic book fans will also notice several references to iconic DC comic book covers in the flashbacks, including one legendary Alex Ross painting of Harley Quinn and the Joker. Much of the action is competently shot but also serves a reminder that there can be too much action in the movie, with the script force feeding one action scene after another, we lose the opportunity to immerse in the story world. Instead of an exhilarating experience, the action scenes grow tedious, and the audience end up waiting for the next volley of character building scenes so we can hear Captain Boomerang quip again.

SUICIDE SQUAD

Clay Enos/ & © DC Comics Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

In terms of soundtrack, DC has a reputation of producing the best soundtracks for their films, a reputation that continues with Suicide Squad. It is loud, eclectic and extravagant. The tracklist reads like a who’s who of the music industry. Kanye West. Skrillex. Eminem. With a bit of The Animals and Creedence Clearwater Revival thrown in for good measure. These music tracks work best in the character introductions, transforming each vignette into each squad member’s personal music video. Once again, the indecisive script rears its head, adversely affecting the music. The dazzling pop, rock and hip hop tracks evaporate within the first 40 minutes. As the Enchantress puts her plan into action, the rock and rolling is replaced by a generic action score by Steven Price. The score isn’t bad but it is nothing special, especially when compared to the vibrant aural assault in the opening act.

At their best, DC movies are known to provide societal critique with pop culture entertainment, like in the case of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy and Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman. At its worst, DC tries too hard to be ‘cool’ and we end up with Green Lantern. Suicide Squad is not that bad though, the best way to put it is, the film wants to be cool but in its attempt, it forgot what made it interesting in the first place.

This is not a bad movie but I cannot say it is a good one either, it is a movie that despite its best intentions, fall into a grey area of ‘I guess its okay’. Unlike the polarizing Batman v Superman, this film wants to please mainstream audiences, promising a lot of action and humor and less brooding and angst. I would surmise that is why didn’t succeed as well as it should have. The result, while mildly entertaining, never reaches its full potential as a fun time and also strays too far from the DC formula of pop culture creative statements.

 

** and a half / 5

An uneven rock opera. Interesting characters, great visuals and music are undone by a horrible third act, an appalling villain and a tonally confused script. Suicide Squad is a life lesson. It is proof that massive potential does not mean anything unless you fulfil it.

I also reviewed Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which I felt is one of the best films DC  and Warner Bros. has put out, the review is available here.

 

If you like this, go watch:

Street Fighter (1994)- Colourful, dumb and starring Kylie Minogue. Also includes a climatic fight to decide the fate of the world. This is Suicide Squad without the crazy people, although everyone still kind of acts crazy anyway.

Mean Girls (2004)- If you like all that inter-team bickering, this movie takes it to the next level. A definitive movie of the 2000s.

Fury (2014)- Ayer’s best to date. A harrowing, claustrophobic journey with a WWII tank crew in the waning days of the war.

Tokyo Tribes (2014)- Sion Sono’s manga adaptation is vibrant, eccentric 90 minute rap video, one of the coolest movies ever made.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice: The Ultimate Cut (2016)- If The Dark Knight Trilogy is the Old Testament of the DC Extended Universe, then Batman v Superman is the New. This movie encapsulates all the strengths and weaknesses of Warner Bros. fledging cinematic universe.

 

 

——————————————————————————————————

Perry Lam is an Associate Editor of Rochford Street Review. He is the director of  the documentary short film BLACK RAT  has been selected for numerous film festivals both in Sydney and overseas.  https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2016/02/02/welcome-perry-lam-rochford-street-review-associate-editor/

New Shoots Poetry Prize banner 2


.

 

A 1990s Japanese Mecha Anime: Perry Lam reviews ‘Independence Day: Resurgence’

The problem that I have with blockbusters with this day and age is the necessity to be “highbrow” entertainment, in order to be taken seriously. Everyone wants a bit of “conflicted protagonists” or disagreements between the heroes to go along with the popcorn. Which is why Independence Day: Resurgence is so refreshing. Its the 90s action extravaganza updated for the Netflix generation.

20 years after the events of the first movie, Earth has recovered from its devastation at the hands of the alien menace. Using salvaged alien technology, humanity is now in a golden age, its military upgraded with the intention of preparing for another assault. Of course, the aliens do come back but they are bigger, smarter and obsessed with finishing what they started, wiping humanity out. Once again outmatched, humanity now has to rely on heroes both old and new, to make sure we will not go quietly into the night.

id4-gallery3

No surprises here, Independence Day: Resurgence’s plot is pretty much the same deal as the first one, big ugly aliens come to earth to invade, we fight back. But there is no tedium to this predictability, in fact, it is this familiarity that makes the film endearing. Narratively the film is tight enough and heavy on plot, the first act is arguably the film’s most well developed and established in terms of storytelling.

While the plot is well established, it is the scale that truly brings out the screenplay’s grandiosity. In a time where blockbuster films would navel gaze and offer us an examination of a hero’s morals and character, Roland Emmerich dusts off the old playbook and gives audiences a reminder about what blockbusters are really about. Scale. Big heroes and even bigger threats. Emmerich offers up massive science fiction vistas, stuff you only have a glimpse of on the covers of retro futuristic science fiction pulp novels, characters climbing up a grounded mothership’s exterior hull, the alien worldship’s gravity well tearing up cities from London to Singapore in a continent sized storm of fire and steel.

The film begins fading in the second act, struggling with what it wants to be. Splintered into two parallel narratives, the first and more interesting one follows the characters from the first act as they find a way to retaliate against the alien threat. However, the film introduces a second ‘everyman’ narrative, where we follow a group of kids in order to experience the devastation of ‘ground zero’ that the aliens have caused, it is here the film introduces 5 characters too many and the main plot line suffers for it. With the script’s emphasis on plot and spectacle, the addition of more characters does not help the film, as this dilutes the entire roster as a whole. We spend some time with each group of characters but never enough to actually give us any relatability.

id4-gallery5-gallery-image-1200x646

Along with the weakly established characters, another sore spot in the film is the third act, which while frenetic, does not exactly pay off as it should. To blame is plot driven script, we do not care for any of the characters and as we race towards climax after climax (there is more than one), one does not ask the question ‘Who is going to survive?’ but rather, we are left with ‘When is it going to actually end?’. The finale nosedives down to power rangers territory, as the aliens transform into bigger threats but since you are not really invested in the threat, you just find it hilarious.

One of the most curious highlights of the film would be the scenes on the moonbase. Straight out of a 1990s Japanese mecha anime, the bitter relationship between Liam Hemsworth’s Jake Morrison and his rival and former friend, Jessie Usher’s Dylan Dubrow-Hiller is very much a classic example of anime rivalry. This is also carried onto the supporting moonbase characters, as Travis Tope’s Charlie is the lovelorn comic relief who pines for the unattainable, stoic Rei Ayanami surrogate, played by Angelababy. Even the premise is steeped in anime tradition, young men and women flying futuristic spacecraft to battle overwhelming extra-terrestrial odds. This is the Evangelion live action film no one expected.

There is a prevalent sense of nostalgia in the film, even beyond the anime influence, other characters like Nicolas Wright’s Floyd is the typical 1980s and 1990s bureaucratic wimp that cowers in face of the ‘macho’ violence that the heroes partake in, yet in an interesting twist, Floyd manages to evolve as a character beyond his perceived lack of masculinity as he gradually warms up to killing aliens, albeit played for comic relief. Which is where the film gets it strengths, it refuses to be taken seriously, it knows what it wants to be and is unabashed in casting itself as such. The dialogue is heavy on one liners, almost all of which are groan inducing, they rarely work as serious lines of character building dialogue but as fun, ‘I can’t believe he/she said that’ moments, they are a riot.

Independence-Day-Resurgence_2016-15

This cheesy throwback approach works as a great time at the movies but upon closer inspection, it is all the film has to offer. It is coasting on old glory, a well-worn road we have been down on. Perhaps it is more accurate to describe it as Emmerich’s style, the nostalgic approach that worked for the script, giving it a fun upbeat attitude only serves to amplify the weaknesses of the technical aspects of filmmaking. In short, the film looks dated, the overabuse of mid shots, so we can see AND hear what is going on screen instead of one or the other, is an extremely safe approach to large scale movie making in a bygone era.

Close ups rarely factor into the story, only used to capture pilot faces during dogfights. And wide shots don’t even serve a storytelling purpose beyond establishing shots to show where are the characters visiting next, which is usually accompanied by ominous looking government style font on the bottom screen to remind us we are in Area 51. This ‘play it safe approach’ is not exactly problematic but it turns the movie into a really generic looking one, you will enjoy your time in the theatre but you will have have a hard time remembering them past a few establishing shots.

Aurally the film is nothing to shout about either, it is a typical action movie score that does not add to the story, there are no cool motifs or powerful anthems. There is nothing that the music can do that the dialogue already did, all it serves is a reminder that we are supposed to feel sad if a character dies or happy when lovers are reunited. It is utterly mechanical.

id4-gallery2 (3)

Mechanical can also be used to describe some of the performances, though one can argue, with the plot driven narrative and the focus on spectacle, the actors really do not have much to work with. The new hires fail to capture the imagination, Liam Hemsworth and Jesse Usher are serviceable as the two leads but they can’t hold a candle to Will Smith’s charisma and screen presence in the first film. Angelababy is awful in her role as Rain, clearly a shoo-in to capitalize on the booming Chinese market, she nonetheless looks out of a league in her scenes, overwhelmed by what is happening around her. On the flip side, the old guard fares better, proving they still got it. Jeff Goldblum is one of the better things of the film, as David Levinson he is quirky as ever but never annoying. Bill Pullman’s President Whitmore is now a broken old man, he isn’t the heroic, hotshot pilot and orator anymore and Pullman manages to humanize the iconic role, offering an intriguing take on the character as well as providing the film with one of its only character arcs.

In face of the non-existent character development and its generic craftsmanship, I still have to say, they don’t make movies like this anymore. This is not a good film but it is an enjoyable time at the pictures. The film dares to be old school and succeeds at capturing the tone and storytelling methods of a more innocent time, it is mediocre, it is uneven but above all else, it is fun. That makes it an endearing film to cheer for.

 

***/5

A live action saturday morning cartoon. For those who were old enough to have watched the first film, this is a grand time at the movies. For those who don’t, this is a lesson in film history, of how tentpoles used to be made.

——————————————————————————————————
Perry Lam is an Associate Editor of Rochford Street Review. He is the director of the documentary short film BLACK RAT has been selected for numerous film festivals both in Sydney and overseas. https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2016/02/02/welcome-perry-lam-rochford-street-review-associate-editor/
.

Gimme Shelter: Perry Lam previews ‘Essential Scorsese’ Selected by David Stratton at the Sydney Film Festival

There are filmmakers whose work deeply affects audiences, many whom will be inspired to take up the craft of filmmaking themselves. Many filmmakers have drunk from the poisoned chalice of David Fincher’s Fight Club; others bask in the glow of the film school cool that is Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Yet, perhaps no one else in our time has consistently influenced generation after generation of filmmakers more than Martin Scorsese. A living legend, a master of the medium, even superlatives fails to fully comprehend the brilliance of his body of work. Martin Scorsese films aren’t viewed, they are witnessed.

In conjunction with the Sydney Film Festival, esteemed film critic David Stratton will be curating a retrospective showcase entitled Essential Scorsese: Selected by David Stratton at the Art Gallery of NSW. An icon of Australian television, David Stratton is the director of the Sydney Film Festival from 1966 to 1983 and he is also well known for co-hosting the SBS program The Movie Show with Margaret Pomeranz from 1981 to 2004 before they moved onto the ABC program At The Movies, which they continued hosting from 2004 to the show’s finale in 2014. Essential Scorsese: Selected by David Stratton features 10 of Martin Scorsese’s most iconic and influential films in 35mm film, and is necessary viewing for every fanatical film buff or serious filmmaker.

waitressing_alicedoesntlivehereanymore

David Stratton’s retrospective allows the opportunity for viewers to chart the monumental career of one of modern cinema’s most important visionaries. From early work such as Mean Streets (1973) and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), we are allowed to witness the prodigious raw talent that made Scorsese stand out from his contemporaries of the New Hollywood era.

The 70s continue with Taxi Driver and New York, New York, the former is a defining film of the 1970s, and is arguably Scorsese’s most famous work, while the latter is Scorsese’s ambitious attempt at an unfamiliar genre, the musical.

0002131-1920x1080

If Taxi Driver is Scorsese’s most well-known work, then Raging Bull is his greatest. Infusing Old Hollywood expressionistic lighting with New Hollywood cinematography and gritty narratives, Raging Bull is Scorsese working at the top of his game. Along with Raging Bull, the 1980s also produced Scorsese’s first attempt at dark comedy, with The King of Comedy, generally misunderstood at its time of release, the film’s reputation has grown steadily in the years after, confirming Scorsese’s reputation as a filmmaker ahead of his time.

The 1990s is Scorsese’s most productive decade, directing six films, three of which are part of the retrospective. Goodfellas in 1990 and Casino in 1995 essentially reinforces what we already know but is worth repeating, that Scorsese is the undisputed master of the crime genre, while Age of Innocence (1993) sandwiched between both releases, is a Gilded Age epic of love and loss.

ragingbull4

Thematically, Scorsese is as paradoxical as directors come, unafraid to delve into religious iconography and ideas, be it tackling Jesus’ own struggles with the concept of sin in The Last Temptation of Christ to chronicling the life of the 14th Dalai Lama in Kundun. Religion and the act of it is a constant in his oeuvre, even money becomes religious to Scorsese’s characters, they constantly find themselves worshipping the material and defending it at all costs, most of the time, in violent fashion. He has made as many films about priests as he made films about killers, often toeing the line between who we can be and what we are, the struggles of being a saint or sinner or both. His material is telling of his upbringing of course, Scorsese grew up in Little Italy watching gangster films and at one point considered being a priest.

goodfellas

Fortunately for the world, he didn’t hang onto his dreams of priesthood too tightly before cinema came a-calling, for the man is a prize fighter among filmmakers; his visual style is robust and muscular, a boxer taken celluloid form. Through the dynamism of his cinematographic arsenal, with the use of vicious quick pans, forceful zoom ins and hypnotic tracking shots, Scorsese is more pugilist than artist behind the camera, hellbent on delivering one cinematic haymaker after another. You know a Scorsese film when you see one, and with Essential Scorsese, we are allowed a journey through time, watching Scorsese’s craft evolve with the times.

While Essential Scorsese: Selected by David Stratton is a cornerstone of this year’s Sydney Film Festival program, playing from 11th to the 19th of June, the showcase is also stopping by Melbourne from the 27th of May to 12th of June at the Australian Centre of Moving Image (ACMI) and at Canberra’s National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) from the 1st to 23rd of July. Thus allowing films fans the opportunity to familiarize themselves with the trailblazing career of Martin Scorsese.

 

——————————————————————————————————

Perry Lam is an Associate Editor of Rochford Street Review. He is the director of  the documentary short film BLACK RAT  has been selected for numerous film festivals both in Sydney and overseas.  https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2016/02/02/welcome-perry-lam-rochford-street-review-associate-editor/

The Sydney Film Festival runs from 8 to 19 June at The State Theatre, Dendy Opera Quays, the Art Gallery of NSW, Event Cinemas George Street, the Hayden Orpheum Picture Palace Cremorne, Dendy Newtown, Casula Powerhouse, the Festival Hub at Sydney Town Hall, the SFF Outdoor Screen, and the Skyline Drive In Blacktown. To book tickets visit the Sydney Film Festival website: http://www.sff.org.au/

Avengers Disassembled: Perry Lam reviews ‘Captain America: Civil War’

It is safe to say that Marvel Studios are officially the team to beat, dominating the market and leaving their competitors wondering what to do with their respective ‘cinematic universes’. While there are certainly flaws within their slate of films, the Marvel way has yet to produce an out and out bad movie, each of their offerings only serves to strengthen their brand and satisfying audiences, both the diehards and newcomers alike.

After the collateral damage of their previous adventures, the governments of the world seek regulation of the Avengers, putting them directly under the watch of the governments of the world, this decision splits the team into two camps, with Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) leading the team who are pro regulation and governmental oversight, while Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) takes the other argument, refusing to sign up for what he see as a political powerplay. As the ideological conflict escalates, Captain America’s friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), the Winter Soldier, resurfaces by orchestrating a terrorist attack. Iron Man and his pro regulation team are tasked to bring Barnes in but Captain America forms his own renegade band of heroes in an attempt to seek out his friend, to investigate the reason for Barnes’ actions.

captain-america-civil-war-winter-soldier-bucky

Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War Winter Soldier/Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) Photo Credit: Film Frame © Marvel 2016

As past films by the studio can attest, storytelling is the name of the Marvel game, the plot comes first and foremost. Every other element of production works for the script than with it, this benefits the film, as it gets a solid backbone for the rest of its production components to work around. Captain America: Civil War is the most refined attempt at perfecting the plot driven Marvel Method. The economy of the screenplay shares more characteristics with a well-oiled engine than a piece of art. Every character and action has a function to serve the movie’s two major narratives, the simmering conflict between Captain America and Iron Man as well as Bucky’s past operations as the Winter Soldier, the two story-lines gradually gaining momentum, funneling towards the climax.

The film wastes no time in setting up its twin narratives, each scene built upon by the next, there is nothing superfluous and every dramatic action adds to the overall story. Simple touches like a university presentation by Tony Stark adds to tapestry of the plot. Even the opening battle in Lagos isn’t a throwaway, as the Avengers battle paramilitary soldiers, the scene establishes the classic Marvel theme of ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. It is the small elements that make the movie more than the sum of its parts. All the set up, in order to deliver a big pay off. The climax of the movie only cuts deep into the viewer because the first act manages to put all the pieces in place so brilliantly.

By the second act, with the foundations of the narrative set in stone, the Avengers are ready to be disassembled into their respect ideological beliefs. Resulting in an action packed second act, full of car chases through busy rush hour traffic and fight scenes on rooftops, culminating in the glorious superhero battle royale at the airport. Aside from its occasionally problematic cinematography, the second act is where the film truly takes shape. The airport sequence is one of the most inspired moments in the film, unstoppable forces and immovable objects clash in a storm of laser and steel, throwing all the caution and grimness that has been built up in the first act to the wind. As if, the movie suddenly remembers that it is a Marvel movie. We have to have fun.

captain-america-civil-war-team-cap1

Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War L to R: Falcon/Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), Ant-Man/Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), Hawkeye/Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Scarlet Witch/Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), and Winter Soldier/Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) Photo Credit: Film Frame © Marvel 2016

The second act also highlights one of first of many problems with the characters due to its emphasis on plot. Character motivations are in constant flux, such as Captain America’s reason for going rogue. His motivations constantly flip flop between taking a stand against government oversight and saving Bucky. The tone is more or less consistent but the characters, due to their service to the plot, rarely are.

Aside from a few problems with cinematography, the airport scene is not only a well-executed one but its importance cannot be overstated, simply because as audiences, we are truly spoilt now. Bear in mind, a decade ago, with character movie rights all over Hollywood, a Marvel superhero team up at this scale is supposed to be impossible, creatively, legally and logistically. Fast forward to 2016, it may be the norm but it is still a massive undertaking. For crying out loud, we get ringside seats to a battle between two superhero teams, we have Iron Man and the Falcon trading aerial skirmishes, Captain America locked in a battle of New Yorkers with Spider-Man (Tom Holland), this is a HUGE DEAL. In many ways, it is a privilege to be alive now, to get the opportunity to be observing something like this. I had to pinch myself a few times. I am not worthy.

captain-america-civil-war-iron-man-war-machine

Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War L to R: War Machine/James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) and Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) Photo Credit: Film Frame © Marvel 2016

The first act finally pays off in the third, as Marvel proves it is not how you start but it is how you finish. Once the climax is reached, the narrative dots connect instantaneously and in a magnificent feat of storytelling, Marvel plays its final trick and produces a remarkable revelation that will leave you both slack jawed but thoroughly satisfied. For those who have not yet pick a side, this film is taking it down the wire, you may think you know who you are rooting for but really, you don’t.

As tight as the script is, there are consequences for placing the story at a pedestal. It very nearly renders every character a function for the script. They do not act out of character but neither do they act in it, just plot devices wrapped in brightly coloured spandex. This is the unfortunate case for the title character. Captain America is criminally underwritten, he does something not because he is compelled to as a character but because the script demands it. It might be his movie, but it is in name only, you can substitute Captain America with any other character and the plot will still turn out the same way. The struggle against regulation and assisting his alleged terrorist friend could have opened up interesting questions on the morality and ethical code of the Star Spangled Avenger, but they remain untested.

Evans puts in a serviceable performance, there is not much for him to do dramatically, he is still the same Captain America we are familiar with. But perhaps that is the problem, Steve Rogers quite literally, behaves like the man out of time, there is no character evolution since his first appearance on film in 2011’s First Avenger, what we have on screen remains a shell of the character. This is a superhero who wears the American Flag as his costume but there is no attempt to factor it into the plot of his own movie, his iconography and myth left unexplored. A wasted opportunity.

chris-evans-captain-america-civil-war

Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) Photo Credit: Film Frame © Marvel 2016

Sebastian Stan’s Bucky Barnes is more plot device than character. He is the reason and driving force for the plot but he never gets a dramatic, character developing moment on screen. Bucky is usually on screen punching something or running away. Regardless of his importance to the story, he gradually fades into the background, as the conflict between Captain America and Iron Man comes to the fore. Sebastian Stan isn’t bad as Bucky, you just expect him to have more to do than just scowl and lunge at people.

Iron Man’s much more serious demeanour is an interesting, if not an always successful experiment. This new focused and humourless Tony Stark does add a new dimension to the character and really intensifies the seriousness of the film’s tone. That said, Robert Downey Jr’s charisma is heavily reliant on reacting to the performances of his co-stars, so if said co-star is written uninterestingly, Tony Stark’s monologues fall flat. This is the case with every interaction Downey has with Chris Evans, both of them are trying to make you care about their arguments and opinions but it resembles petty squabbling. You just want them to hurry up and start punching each other.

Tony Stark fairs better in scenes with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Spider-Man, the former manages to hold her own as a character and the latter’s small appearance brings back the fun factor of the first Avengers movie. But once again, similar to the comic book mythology of Captain America and Bucky Barnes, Tony Stark’s pragmatic and futurist leanings are left untouched, the Iron Man as technological saviour is reduced to a mere man in an iron mask, obeying his superior’s orders and shooting laser beams.

captain-america-civil-war-robert-downey-jr-iron-man

Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) Photo Credit: Film Frame © Marvel 2016

I understand that Marvel Studios has a tendency to portray their superheroes as regular joes and janes, they are not gods and goddesses. Despite their costumes and appearances symbolizing a higher, elemental purpose, the heroes are neither iconic figures of pop mythology nor cultural touchstones. But everything that makes them unique besides their costume is stripped away in this film. This is a fun, entertaining summer movie but with an overemphasis on plot, the majority of the superheroes featured in Captain America: Civil War aren’t really that interesting. They are written like a formulaic boyband, their roles divided into a single mode of emotion, the serious one, the bad boy, the clown and the leader. A reminder that the script, while a remarkable feat of narrative construction, serves both as the film’s strongest point and biggest limitation in terms of creative exploration.

If anything, along with the theme of power and responsibility, the superheroes’ characterization really displays, clear as day, Marvel’s cinematic intentions, they are more than willing to ask hard questions but if it detracts from the overall cinematic product, they are not afraid to play it safe and leave you without a definite answer.

The supporting cast fare much better in their limited screentime, perhaps because of it, we don’t spend too much time with them to get tired of their single mode character work. The highly anticipated appearance of Spider-Man is well worth the wait. The crown jewel of Marvel has finally returned home, clearly inspired by Steve Ditko’s beautifully traditional character design from his masterful 1960s run on the comic, Spider-Man reinvigorates the film at its halfway mark, his arrival immediately lightens the mood and giving Tony Stark a much needed verbal sparring partner with his motor mouth delivery. Credit to Tom Holland for the amazing portrayal, not many actors can cross verbal swords with Downey’s Stark and walk away the last man standing, but Holland manages to out-quip Marvel’s residential quip master.

spider-man-captain-america-civil-war

Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War Spider-Man/Peter Parker (Tom Holland) Photo Credit: Film Frame © Marvel 2016

Chadwick Boseman is phenomenal as T’Challa, giving a layered, relatable and at times tortured performance as the Wakandan king. I dare say it, Black Panther is probably the most well developed character in the entire film and the only one who has a defined story arc that runs the character through several stages of emotional conflict. You come in for Captain America and Iron Man but Black Panther will be the one on your minds after the dust is settled. One does wonder though, with his origin story out of the way, what does Marvel plan for the character. T’Challa brings a more serious tone to the Marvel universe, one that clashes with the overall foundational aesthetic. Is the Marvel universe growing up? Highly unlikely, but worth a thought.

In spite of Marvel turning their heroes into everymen and women, the greatest example of such a treatment does not come in the form of any of the heroes but in the villain. Colonel Zemo is a refreshing counterpoint to the Avengers, he stands out as a villain, due to his ordinariness. Daniel Bruhl plays it straight and understated with a damaged serial killer’s edge. In several scenes, Bruhl looks so mundane, he actually merges with the crowd of extras. A colourless John Doe in the midst of a colourful world.

The creative timidness that has plagued other aspects of the film also extends to the technical aspects of Civil War. Cinematography is, for an epic superhero beatdown, shockingly generic, it looks too clean for a film about collateral damage. Visually, there isn’t anything that is different from the other Marvel Studio movies. It may be a shared universe, and consistency is key but there are no stylistic flourishes or excellent use of imagery. The cinematography rather tell you the story than show it. The fight scene and chase sequences in the second act when Captain America searches for Bucky is mired in incoherence, while not shaky cam, the cinematography still generates a similar effect by zooming in too close into the punch. The action is neither crisp nor comprehensible, they tell audiences of the aftermath of a punch but never show you the impact.

captain-america-civil-war-black-panther-image

Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War Black Panther/T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) Photo Credit: Film Frame © Marvel 2016

Glaring misuse of wide shots also dampen the otherwise stellar airport action setpiece, while it is an improvement over the other fight and chase sequences in the second act, there are several indications that visual style is not something that is prized in the MCU. Wide shots of the heroes in a tense standoff can be photographed as monumental events. Instead, we are left with tiny, almost insignificant figures running into each other. With the abuse of wide shots, one gets the effect of standing in the airport looking out and watching the heroes in combat. It is realistic sure, but do we really want it to be realistic? Don’t we want such an experience to be Amazing? Spectacular? Sensational? I would.

The music while not atrocious, is also nothing to shout about, it is good enough but lacks any character or soul. None of the characters have any iconic motifs, nothing that truly signal the arrival of a hero or a victory after a hard fought battle, nothing that you can hum on your ride home.

Considering the sheer scale of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this should not be happening, these are iconic characters with rich, illustrious histories. The notion that none of the characters have any aural significance diminishes their mystique. It is an extremely damning and tragic fact, that after 3 movie phases, 8 years and 13 movies since the first Iron Man, the only instantly recognizable sound, the only thing that is truly aurally iconic, is Iron Man’s repulsor blast sound effect.

Marvel's Captain America: Civil WarPhoto Credit: Film Frame © Marvel 2016

Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War Photo Credit: Film Frame © Marvel 2016

This is cinema now. This is what it looks and sound like. With the current trend of movie franchising and branding, we just might be witnessing the evolution of the director in blockbuster filmmaking. The artist has taken the back seat to commerce, formula has overruled artistic (but not commercial) ambition, the Russo Brothers has done an amazing job as directors at the helm and yet we do not see any stylistic elements that would qualify as their own directorial trademarks, their artistry and craftsmanship are all but invisible.

For better, Captain America: Civil War is a thoroughly entertaining and terrifically crafted film with a intriguing story. For worse, you don’t have to scratch too far past the surface to notice that, Marvel’s latest offering is aesthetically and stylistically identical to the rest of their previous output. What happened to all the artists and creative visionaries? Who cares! The movie is fun! Too far gone, are the days of ‘Jolly’ Jack Kirby and ‘Smilin’’ Stan Lee.

The Marvel house style is now the only style, the House of M reigns. If you enjoy it, fair play to you but if you don’t, you better get used to it, this winning team looks like it will be winning for a long, long time.

 

****/5

Offers nothing stylistically original to the table and is hampered by weak protagonists. But the razor sharp focus on plot carries the movie through its weaker moments, allowing it to succeed as a piece of popcorn entertainment. To put it in context with the rest of its rivals in the genre, Marvel is so far ahead on points, it is their game to lose now.

——————————————————————————————————

Perry Lam is an Associate Editor of Rochford Street Review. He is the director of  the documentary short film BLACK RAT  has been selected for numerous film festivals both in Sydney and overseas.  https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2016/02/02/welcome-perry-lam-rochford-street-review-associate-editor/

Character Shields at Full Power: Perry Lam reviews ‘The Divergent Series: Allegiant’

The Divergent Series: Allegiant is the third film in a four film franchise based on the popular young adult book series. Allegiant takes place in a post-apocalyptic Chicago which is walled up around the city’s perimeter. Tris (Shailene Woodley) rounds up a group of her friends to escape the city, when they venture out the safety of walled up Chicago, they discover that the world outside is not as desolate as it was thought to be. They slowly adjust to their new surroundings but a brewing civil war back in Chicago will test where their loyalties lie.

Films are supposed to stand on their own legs, with no help from backstory or relying on past entries in the franchise. I am going to make it clear, I did not watch the rest of the films in the Divergent series. However, I find that it should not be an excuse for a film’s flaws and problems. Allegiant fails as a  movie, stuck as a transitional entry in between the beginning of the franchise and its end, it suffers from lack of clear focus on what it wants to be. The plot is rarely coherent, with the film attempting to overcompensate by info dumping on backstory or previous films, but such frequent uses of exposition only confuses or bore the audience, barely giving them enough time to digest the previous scene before being force fed another.

ct-new-trailer-released-for-the-divergent-series-allegiant-20150916

The dialogue runs the gamut of hammy to overwrought with teenage angst, Tris and her lover, Four (Theo James) constantly remind us they are in love, as they stare lovingly into each other’s eyes. Not only is it hackneyed, it comes across as extremely lazy, none of their scenes together actually progress their romantic arc, serving only as a weak reminder so we don’t forget they are actually a couple.

While the romantic scenes are reminders, the action scenes attempt to entertain but fails due to their predictability. The escape over the wall comes to mind, we all know Tris and her group of escapees would find their way over the wall, so why waste time on an unnecessary action scene that only serves to kill off a minor character that everyone forgets? There is no sense of consequence and stakes in the screenplay and all major characters have their character shields at full power, which makes the narrative predictable.

divergent-series-allegiant-still-bubble-1000x547

By the third act, Tris has faded to the background, as underdeveloped characters from the first two acts start taking up the screen, due to little to no prior character development, we don’t really care about their sudden emergence and the film is unable to balance these various plot points.

There is a dominating perception of genericity in the film, nothing truly stands out, the cinematography is serviceable but really, considering this is a science fiction film, one that has their characters running through crater filled crimson deserts and majestic white towers, one would expect better. Despite spending a significant time outside the wall, we never truly experience the world, every scene that had visual potential was shot in close up, probably for budgetary reasons, while anything shot in wide is either on a set or animated with poor CGI. With the exception of a scant few gorgeous establishing shots that haunt us with all the missed opportunities, there is nothing that visually pops from the screen.

allegiant

Performances by the principle cast tend to be dry and mechanical. Shailene Woodley is docile and disinterested as Tris, droning away her dialogue, never truly coming alive. The characterization of Tris is also problematic, despite being the protagonist, she evaporates as the film progresses, as other characters such as Four take up more screen time.

Four does not get to do more beyond being part of several Jason Bourne-esque fight scenes and perhaps it is for the better, as Theo James seems way out of his league in emotional scenes with his mother, Evelyn (Naomi Watts), who owns every scene she is in with her son. Along with Watts, Jeff Daniels tries his best to add layers to his role as the manipulative David, constantly tugging on the strings of characters like a grandmaster on a chessboard, but the character himself lacks screen time, and it is simply isn’t enough to save the film.

Watching Allegiant, they are obviously pandering to two sections of audiences, it wants to work as a film for newcomers, hence the expository dialogue and it wants to appeal to fans of the franchise. It fails at doing both. Despite a few beautiful establishing shots, there is nothing Allegiant can offer that hasn’t already been done in its two genres, young adult film adaptations and post-apocalyptic science fiction.

 

*1/2/5

With the exception of a few beautiful shots of scenery and good performances by Naomi Watts and Jeff Daniels, newcomers to the franchise will be put off by the film’s banality while fans will find this a forgettable entry in the series.

——————————————————————————————————

Perry Lam is an Associate Editor of Rochford Street Review. He is the director of  the documentary short film BLACK RAT  has been selected for numerous film festivals both in Sydney and overseas.  https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2016/02/02/welcome-perry-lam-rochford-street-review-associate-editor/
.

 

Hitchcockian in its Execution: Perry Lam Reviews ’10 Cloverfield Lane’

10 Cloverfield Lane is another product straight out of J J Abrams’ dream factory, Bad Robot Productions. Like its previous offerings, 10 Cloverfield Lane is shrouded in mystery up to its release, what we do know is, it is a ‘blood relative’ of the original Cloverfield film, whatever that is.

The film starts with Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), waking up in an underground bunker after a car accident. The bunker is inhabited by two other people, the owner, Howard (John Goodman) a paranoid survivalist and Emmett (John Gallagher Jr), another survivor. Howard warns them that the air outside the bunker is polluted due to a chemical attack and is unbreathable, insisting they stay in the bunker, both Michelle and Emmett complies. Until Howard’s controlling and abusive personality starts to reveal itself, along with his past activities in the bunker, forcing Michelle and Emmett to plan their escape and find out what really happened outside.

cloverfield5-xlarge

10 Cloverfield Lane does not waste any time on anything that you do not need to know, every frame, every dialogue, every piece of music is there for a reason, to highlight a plot point, to accentuate a mood. The screenplay is razor sharp and taut; its only function is to tell a story. This narrative coherence and tonal consistency allows the film the ability to gradually build the narrative tension to its climax, like a domino effect, every piece of the film is set to bring the conflict between the characters to a head.

This does not mean the film is predictable, there is a sense of inevitability but at the same time, the screenplay is layered with enough twists and turns that you never exactly know what is going to happen next. Dan Trachtenberg direction is admirable, it is laser guided, totally focused on the film’s most important element, its suspenseful storytelling. The film works like clockwork at setting up narrative suspense before knocking it down, every piece of narrative information gives an answer but raises two more questions in its stead, so it gives you enough to go on in every scene but only barely enough so that it keeps you on the edge of your seat. It is suspense building 101, Hitchcockian in its execution.

The screenplay is excellent in its storytelling and build-up, yet this would not have the ‘Cloverfield’ name unless there are monsters to do with. As a consequence, the final 10 minutes clashes with the rest of the film, as the narrative wills itself into jumping the proverbial shark and switches genres from a taut thriller to a sci fi monster movie. It does weigh down heavily on your suspension of disbelief and a better job could have been done easing the audience into another genre territory. Even a character yells out in disbelief ‘Oh come on!’, at the said character’s preposterous predicament.

ZZ3CE60F3F

Yet, while the change of genres could have been better, the film does add a lot more intriguingly cosmic ideas to the larger Cloverfield mythology in its last 10 minutes. One can argue that while the film itself is well constructed, it is these final 10 minutes that takes the film out of its genre constraints and make the film a memorable viewing experience. It is a big budget Twilight Zone episode where its ambiguity and suddenly genre swerves actually leaves a stronger impression on the viewer.

Unlike the original Cloverfield’s use of shaky cam, the cinematography for 10 Clovefield Lane contrasts greatly with the original’s frenetic camera. It is minimalist and measured, generating a simmering, claustrophobic ambiance, fitting the film’s overall thematic elements and setting. There is rarely any dynamic camera movement until moments of turmoil in the story, the lack of camera movement is actually terrifying, as if restricting what you can or cannot see. The stillness is scary.

There are also several novel uses of framing and production design that enhances the claustrophobic nature of the cinematography, the bunker’s recreation room is always cluttered with books, DVDs, a jukebox and other objects, forcing the illusion that room is smaller than it really is. Another instance would be the scenes in Michelle’s room, or one could argue, cell. It is bare, desolate and utterly depressing to look at, the clever manipulation of negative space makes Michelle look insignificant, giving off a sense of hopelessness that makes us root for her efforts to escape even more. In addition to expanding on the characters, the cinematography also adds personality to the bunker itself, which despite its homely décor, looks like an unforgiving and sinister environment.

10-cloverfield-lane

Bear McCreary’s soundtrack is sparse, relying on distortions or staccato notes to build an eerie, hair prickling aural world. But it is the amazing use of sound that brings out the tension and drama in the film, through the use of silence and fade outs in pivotal scenes, it maximises the effect of what is going on, it forces you to feel every harrowing second of the scene and forces an emotional understanding on why it is absolutely necessary for Michelle and Emmett to escape the bunker.

The performances are terrific, Mary Elizabeth Winstead is phenomenal as Michelle, whose indomitable resourcefulness and wide-eyed edginess shows shades of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in Alien (1979), battling the monsters at her door. Like Ripley, Michelle is put in a terrifying situation and left to fend for herself, and Winstead’s performance successful runs the gauntlet of emotions her character has to endure, she allows us to root for her not out of pity but because we genuinely care for the character, giving us an emotional anchor to gravitate to.

While some may argue about Michelle’s over-resourcefulness bordering on Macgyver-esque cliché, I do not feel that cheapens her as a character in anyway. If anything, it makes her more interesting. In a film where the storytelling is so immediately straight and narrow in focus, we need a protagonist who is similarly clear cut without being one dimensional. Michelle works as a protagonist due to her dogged determination and intelligence when faced of overwhelming odds, her actions in bad situations are her opportunities at character development. She is a character that reacts to the narrative, not act on it.

10_cloverfield_lane_paramount.0

There may not be a city wrecking monster this time around but there is at least monster in the film, in the form of John Goodman. Goodman puts in a career best performance as the domineering and psychologically disturbed Howard, his portrayal lends Howard an unpredictable and sociopathic edge, you never know if he is going to kill you or offer you ice cream and you probably want neither of those options. Despite saving Michelle, he has his own dark motivations for doing so and by the third act, Howard’s true face is revealed and Goodman’s performance becomes utterly horrifying to behold.

Assisting Goodman in his performance is the cinematography, which frequently frames and enhances Goodman’s size and stature, thus transforming Howard into a frightening, monolithic man-mountain that is constantly standing in the way (sometimes literally) of Michelle and Emmett’s plans of escape.

John Gallagher Jr rounds up the cast and he makes most of his minor role, only serving to function as character interaction for the other two characters, in order to develop both Michelle and Howard and create stronger emotional and dramatic conflict. He does not get to do anything in particular that stands out, but he doesn’t do anything wrong either and works well enough as the middle man in the emotional and narrative tug of war between Michelle and Howard.

At the end of the day, there is no larger philosophical theme or idea this film is aiming for, it only seeks to serves as a piece of captivating storytelling and if judged by that, everyone is a winner on this one. Dan Trachtenberg hits a home run on his feature film debut, J J Abrams pulls out another brilliant yarn out of his mystery box and the audience gets a film that is purely here to entertain and nothing else.

****/5

With heavy emphasis on storytelling, great use of music and sound and claustrophobic cinematography, 10 Cloverfield Lane is an entertaining thrill ride. This is the better Cloverfield film.

 

——————————————————————————————————

Perry Lam is an Associate Editor of Rochford Street Review. He is the director of  the documentary short film BLACK RAT  has been selected for numerous film festivals both in Sydney and overseas.  https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2016/02/02/welcome-perry-lam-rochford-street-review-associate-editor/
.

Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow: Perry Lam reviews ‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’

Darkness and dread seem to be the words of the day in the DC Comics Extended Universe, in face of stern competition in the overcrowded superhero movie genre and facing other ‘cinematic universes’ from competing studios, DC Comics and Warner Bros. attempt to outplay its rivals by giving their heroes the epic spandex opera treatment. The resultant product is Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is the second entry of the DC Extended Universe, following 2013’s Man of Steel and the selling point is obviously in the title, it is the Fight Night between Gotham’s brooding vigilante and Metropolis’ big blue boyscout. After the destruction of Metropolis from Man of Steel, Superman (Henry Cavill) becomes a controversial figure, with many seeing him as a messianic figure that has arrived to rid the world of wrongdoing. Not everyone shares this opinion however, one of his critics is billionaire playboy and vigilante Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck), who makes it his mission to rid the world of Superman, as he views Superman as absolute power unchecked and a massive threat to global security. As Superman comes to terms with his new role on earth and Batman seeks out the means to defeat the Man of Steel, Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) has his own schemes aim solely to discredit the work that Superman has done.

batman-v-superman-trailer-screengrab-4

Image via Warner Bros.

The film suffers from a Jekyll and Hyde syndrome, there is a lot of amazing, sublime stuff in the film, but at the same time, when this film hits a low, it goes all the way down the bottom of the barrel, yet as a whole it never feels completely bad or totally good, even appearing to have an even spread of pros and cons. There is one massive, Krypton sized flaw that plagues the film and drags it down though. It is necessary to talk about this flaw first, as it is central to the film and burdens whatever success this film has. The screenplay essentially wants to do two things; it wants to be a film about Superman discovering his purpose on earth and deal with the people who are still cautious of his power, that is its first aim. Secondly, it also wants to be the first brick in setting up the DC Comics cinematic universe, launching the Justice League and a plethora of spin off franchises based on their characters. Both are doable, and this movie manages both with some degrees of success, but this crucial flaw breaks the film, as the screenplay does not place priority or importance of one objective over the other, and while the film is tonal and thematic consistent, due to its narrative indecision, the film’s story is confusing as it is unable to fully commit to either of its aims.

The first objective is gone midway through the film, leaving Superman in a state of limbo for the latter half of the film, only appearing out of nowhere towards the end of the film, attempting to tie up the story rather too neatly. The narrative functions like a tour of a supercar showroom, it drags you from one scene to another showing you one beautiful image after another (more on that later) but due to no character development or dramatic build up, these images does not fully hit the emotional or dramatic notes as high as they could have, it’s not that its bad, it’s just passes by so many missed opportunities that could have taken the film to another level. As many as the missed opportunities are, there are also way too many characters in the film, not all of them serve a purpose other than to establish a pre-existing world.

batman-v-superman-trailer-screengrab-25

Image via Warner Bros.

It is a case of too much world building and too little actual character development, character motivations are lacking and it leaves the audience hanging on a vine, an example of this, is a character arc towards the end of the film that involves a person attempting to retrieve an object that said person initially disposed of, creating a narrative loop that is totally devoid of logic. We also never get a clear sense of who is doing what and why, heck, there isn’t even a clear cut justification for Luthor’s hate for Superman, Luthor just does so because he is Lex Luthor.

Despite the visual accuracy of their costumes, there are a lot of out of character moments, most glaringly, Superman. Superman is shockingly grim in this film, scowling and brooding over his struggles and doing absolutely nothing else, skirting close to being a parody of Batman. Poor writing and too much world building are not excuses, this is Superman we are talking about. Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer should have done much more with a character that has such a strong legacy. As a result of bad characterization, this weakens the performance of Henry Cavill and turns the film from one about Superman to a film with Superman in it. This darker take does beg the question, who thought it was a good idea to give Superman the grim and gritty treatment? Is it because we want him to be relevant to the events of today? If that is the case, whatever happened to the Man of Tomorrow?

It is also a film that wants to be taken seriously, and in that regard, it doesn’t pull its punches. Immediately when the film starts, we witness the 9/11 imagery of Superman’s fight with General Zod in Man of Steel, told from the point of view of Bruce Wayne as he navigates through the chaos and panic down in the streets of Metropolis. Yet while the tone is aptly set by the opening scenes, the film constantly reminds you how serious it is taking itself; we are relentlessly bombarded with scenes and montages that question Superman and his intentions in the first hour and a half, adding nothing to Superman’s actual character development. Editing appears to need a lot more work, there are times in this film where scenes feel like should have not even be in the final cut, only taking up significant running time while doing nothing other than serve as constant reminder that ‘Superman is potentially a threat and we could be in great danger’.

batman-v-superman-trailer-screengrab-2

Image via Warner Bros.

By the time of the third act, which tries to make up for the tepidness of the first two, all hell breaks loose and Snyder gets to do what he does best, action extravaganzas. The third act begins with the Fight of The Century, Batman versus Superman. The fight does not disappoint, it is a battle between two forces of nature, brutal and surprisingly evenly matched. It is well choreograph and makes full use of Snyder’s trademark zero to 60 in 2.5, slow-mo to accelerate visual arsenal that served him so well in the past, a fight of epic Wagnerian proportions.

The final battle against Doomsday, while a slight waste of an iconic DC villain, is apocalyptic in its execution, it fancies itself the Twilight of the Gods. Lightning and smoke crack and simmer as our heroes struggle against the unstoppable beast, we have seen our heroes and heroines tangle with faceless armies of bullet fodder but we never actually seen them in a desperate struggle with a single, unstoppable beast of comic book  revelations like this before.

The sense of scale and spectacle is gigantic, this is Wrestlemania, this is the Superbowl. One does get the sense that, the strength of the third act is due to its inclination to straightforward popcorn fun, it gives you what you want and more, Bayhem by way of Batman. A total contrast with the first two acts, it doesn’t waste time with introducing peripheral characters, alternate reality dream sequences or purposeless cameos that add nothing to the plot.

batman-v-superman-trailer-screengrab-28

Image via Warner Bros.

Zack Snyder is primarily known as a visual director and this is where Batman v Superman not only stands out but completely decimates its competition. We have never seen superheroes look like this, we seen superheroes look realistic sure but they don’t look like real, living breathing gods like in this movie. Snyder also serves up several religious and mythological references to cast superheroes in a celestial light. Flooded in mythic blue hues, the cinematography paints our heroes and heroines as divine figures in a harsh realistic world. They are Alex Ross paintings come to life. Aside from Snyder, much credit goes to the cinematographer, Larry Fong, every frame is a beautiful achievement in comic book myth forging and you can’t help but admire how gorgeous and original the film looks.

While slightly hampered by the thin screenplay, the aesthetics still soar. Highlights of Snyder’s mastery of iconic imagery, is watching flood victims look up in the sky as Superman hovers mightily above them, and we also get to stand side by side in a thunderstorm with Batman, as he switches on the Bat Signal to call out Superman to begin their bout, there is nothing Snyder can’t do in terms of visual storytelling, he even successfully makes Superman walking into a courtroom look monumental. We are standing on the shoulders of Gods, and the view up here is gorgeous.

These scenes are beautifully constructed pop culture exhibitions that immerses the viewer in the world. We might not know why we are there but it gives off a sense of wonder. As a result, the film metamorphoses into a majestic visual tour of the DC Universe.

batman-v-superman-trailer-screengrab-10

Image via Warner Bros.

 

How good the performances are is heavily dependent on the role of the actor, due to, you guessed it, the problematic screenplay. Ben Affleck is Batman, clearly inspired by Frank Miller’s take of the comic character, Affleck succeeds in infusing the caped crusader with a world weariness and grim demeanour that is worthy of the character, but still sets his Bruce Wayne apart from the other actors who came before him. Hands down, Batman is the best character in the movie, he crackles with intensity when he is on screen and when he is in action, he explodes with force and fury that is unmatched, no other movie Batman comes close to the ferocity that Affleck displays. This is the Batman we deserve, and probably need.

Gal Gadot makes a triumphant entrance as Wonder Woman, while her role may simply be an extended cameo and the jury is still out on her dramatic chops, she otherwise holds her own against the two other members of the DC trinity in terms of screen presence. Henry Cavill is unfortunately given the short straw among the trio, Superman’s role is criminally underwritten. Cavill looks lost and out of his element, especially when he shares the screen with Batman. With very little given to do, Cavill’s performance is severely limited and lacks any agency.

Jesse Eisenberg fares the worst out of the principal cast though, his Luthor is an amalgam of Mark Zuckerberg’s eccentricity and a court jester’s manic enthusiasm. An interesting take, one that could definitely be explored in future films but for now, his line delivery falls flat at every single turn, his rapid fire bullet point dialogue clashing with the brooding tone that is set with the film.

Comic book films can work well with comedic villains, they serve very well as the contrasting trickster deities, but in the case of Eisenberg’s Luthor, he does not come across as someone who could outwit both the Man of Steel and The Dark Knight, especially on the same day.

batman-v-superman-trailer-screengrab-34

Image via Warner Bros.

Soundtrack, besides the cinematography, is the other aspect of the film that is universally impressive, Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL lends the film an operatic sweep, each character has their own iconic themes that truly embodies their respective personalities and motivations, Batman and Superman has their own themes that both respect their traditions, while adding to the aural mythology of their characters. Batman’s brawny, almost obnoxious theme is a perfect fit for the character, while Superman’s built on the already solid soundtrack of the Man of Steel movie. Yet, the tracks would give you a severe case of earworm would be Wonder Woman’s frenetic warrior anthem and Lex Luthor’s classically elitist and arrogant motif, both add fresh new sound textures to the DC universe that we never heard until now.

Batman v Superman is a film of extremes; there is a lot to hate and a lot to love. It has familiar faults but original ambition. Its polarizing reviews is very much evidence of this. It is unlike any superhero film that came before. It is interesting to see the reception to Batman v Superman, the film takes the role of a cinematic litmus test of sorts.

It is a reflection of its viewer. After watching the film, you will understand your cinematic taste much better than before you stepped into the theatre. If cinema is all about the story to you, then you’ll hate it, citing the movie’s weak and incoherent narrative, forced world-building as well as its overly long running time as reasons why the film is an abject failure. Yet, if your personal stance on filmmaking is primarily about the visual and aural experience, then you’ll love it, rally around the visuals of the film, how operatic the score is, boasting about its technical superiority and for giving us the opportunity to witness the deification of our pop culture icons.  I found myself loving it for its strengths than dismissing it for its flaws, while there is an incoherent mess within this film, the sheer amount of technical beauty and innovative myth creation is simply impossible to ignore.

This isn’t a bad movie, it is actually an impressive one, but one whose strong pillars are built on weak foundations.  It really comes down to one thing, the viewer. The greatest gladiator match of all time is a battle within you. Story or imagery?

*** and a half /5

A cinematic paradox. Beautiful to look at and a technical wonder in comic book filmmaking. It is also a poorly written narrative mess. If you love it, you love it by forgiving its flaws. If you hate it, you hate it by forgetting its strengths. I loved it.

——————————————————————————————————

Perry Lam is an Associate Editor of Rochford Street Review. He is the director of  the documentary short film BLACK RAT  has been selected for numerous film festivals both in Sydney and overseas.  https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2016/02/02/welcome-perry-lam-rochford-street-review-associate-editor/
.

subscriber01

Blast from the Past: Perry Lam reviews ‘Gods of Egypt’

Gods of Egypt is Alex Proyas’ first film in 7 years, known for noir inspired cult classics The Crow and Dark City and the science fiction adventure I, Robot. Proyas films are always known for their atmospheric and inspiring production and costume design.

Gods of Egypt takes place in a fantastical ancient Egypt, and tells the tale of Horus played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, a would-be god king who is overthrown by his jealous uncle, Set played by Gerard Butler, on the day he is supposed to be crowned. With the aid of a mortal thief, Bek, Horus swears vengeance on Set.

151128124440-gods-of-egypt-super-169

Gods of Egypt seems like a blast from the past, a nostalgic yarn seemingly inspired by the fantasy films of the 1980s. Films that, while tremendously flawed, offer the audience to a world that we will never ever experience (judging by the film’s box office performance, we won’t be seeing a film like this in a long time). Gods of Egypt is cut from the same cloth as Flash Gordon, Krull and Dune. These films are all known for their gorgeous production and costume design, and detailed world building. On the other hand, they are also infamous for their weak narrative, performances and overly ambitious special effects.

With that said, Gods of Egypt does have glaring flaws, and shares many of them with the fantasy films of the 80s. Its screenplay is bogged down in the standard three act structure and is extremely predictable, I would say Bek and Horus’ journey to seek out Set is a variation of the overused ‘Hero’s Journey’. The dialogue is ham-fisted and conversations between characters don’t add anything to the film, they only seem to serve the purpose of filling audio space. Due to this, there is almost no character development, we are ushered from one scene to another, each scene an individual silo that is part of a bigger film. The editing exacerbates this problem by having jarring cuts from one scene to another, we usually end one scene with a one liner, and then we cut to an establishing shot of the next scene. With no easing into the next scene, this creates a very awkward rhythm and takes not only takes the viewer out of the film but also create unintentionally comedic moments.

Gods-of-Egypt-trailer-screengrab

While there is controversy regarding the casting of the film, there are attempts at diversity in Gods of Egypt; however it only makes the problem more glaring. The diversity only applies to the peripheral characters or extras, all of whom spend all their time on screen worshipping the gods, who are played by white actors, making it much worse than it already is. Nevertheless, while it would have helped the film had there been more a diversified principle cast, even if they did cast actors who look like Egyptians, this does not solve many of the film’s problems.

The performances the actors have given aren’t bad but they just come across as too generic. Gerard Butler’s Set, comes across as an amalgam of cocky gym bro and grumpy uncle, infusing Set with his rugged charm so that every time he is on screen, he steals the show. But the dialogue and one liners are a burden to his character and turns him into a caricature of a villain. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is grim and stone faced as Horus but is otherwise serviceable as the lead but one would expect more from the man who played the Kingslayer in Game of Thrones. The rest of the cast, Bek (Brenton Thwaites) and Zaya (Courtney Eaton) give passable performances as the star crossed lovers, not that they are given much to do besides look pretty and pout. Between the generic performances, gawky editing and formulaic screenplay, the biggest gripe with Gods of Egypt could be despite its gorgeous visuals, it plays it too safe and the film misses out on a lot of narrative and creative opportunities that would have enhanced the film.

maxresdefault (1)

As with Dune and Flash Gordon, visually is where the film shines. Literally. Gods of Egypt is a glittery feast of silver and gold. The world is a unique achievement in cinematic visual worldbuilding, filled with lush vistas, golden spires and ethereal locations. The film’s CGI tends to overreach its ambition on occasions but it is one of the film’s lesser issues and ambition can rarely ever be faulted. The scenes that present the best looking CGI are the ones that offer an exquisite look at mythological figures and creatures, sequences on Ra’s celestial barge are awe-inspiring and Ra’s eternal battle with Apophis is a truly a sight to behold. The action sequence in the desert when Bek and Horus battle the giant twin snakes is a definite highlight as well, as we see our heroes struggle against the monstrous serpents. It is these utterly outrageous moments of mythmaking that make the film rise from its generic trappings.

Alex Proyas does some of the weirdest popcorn flicks ever, they don’t just entertain or make you think, they go out of their way to rethink your tastes in film. Gods of Egypt unfortunately doesn’t exactly do any of those but it works as an entertaining throwback to the fantasy genre of the 1980s. It is a flawed film that plays it too frustratingly safe, but is bailed out by the crazy visuals that suggest a greater ambition to showcase Egyptian mythology.

 

**1/2

Gods of Egypt has a few bright and beautiful moments, but it is weighed down by its glaring flaws and formulaic approach.

 

 

Bluster and Badassery: Perry Lam reviews “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi”

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi is the film adaptation of Mitchell Zuckoff’s nonfiction book, ’13 Hours’, based on the events of the 2012 Benghazi attack. The film is told strictly from the point of view of six G.R.S. operatives that repelled the assault. Perhaps, most noteworthy, is that ’13 Hours: Secret Soldiers of Benghazi’ marks Michael Bay’s return to the genre he started his career with, the military action movie.

The film follows Jack Da Silva (John Krasinski), an American private military contractor who heads to politically unstable Libya for a C.I.A. assignment with the Global Response Staff (G.R.S.), there are six members who make up the G.R.S, all are ex-military personnel, one of which is Tyrone ‘Rone’ Woods, an old friend of Jack. Their assignment complicates when on the 11th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, when the embassy housing the American ambassador to Libya is overrun by Libyan militants, with American military reinforcements hours away, the G.R.S. steps in to attempt a rescue of the ambassador and defend their base against overwhelming odds.

13-hours-movie-review-james-badge-dale

Chuck Hogan’s screenplay is strong, it may come light in character development but the meat is in the blood and thunder narrative, the actual assault does not take place until the middle of the second act but you are never bored, due to the varied plot beats, we see the operatives in action, escorting C.I.A. agents and getting in and out of car chases to lose their tail. When the assault is launched, you are led into a harrowing account of the battle, as the American operators repel wave after wave of Libyan gunmen. It is a nonstop, white knuckled ride.

The narrative does have issues, as mentioned, the character development is flimsy, and does not fully establish the characters. We witness the Americans’ daily lives as G.R.S. security operatives in Benghazi, such as escorting CIA officers to meetings and talking to their families back home on skype. The former is intriguing enough, as we see how the G.R.S. team operate, but the latter seems to be an attempt by Bay to infuse some character into his otherwise faceless (but bearded) American heroes. It succeeds moderately though, as we do feel invested in the character’s survival but it gets old pretty quick when Bay falls back to old habits and overuses plot devices, we are shown every security operator on the team skyping their families, consecutively.

maxresdefault

Visually, 13 Hours is textbook Michael Bay. You know his strengths, you know his weaknesses. Fortunately, his style is well suited for the genre. His visceral, quick cut editing allows for maximum impact in every cut, giving the narrative a sensation of unstoppable momentum. The editing is supplemented by Bay’s trademark cinematography; the shallow focus creates a strong sense of claustrophobia as it allows a sense of audience intimacy to creep into the film. You do feel you are in with the soldiers on their long desperate night of battle. The camerawork is kinetic, the camera moves, a lot. When it does not move, it is the mise en scene that moves in place of it, a film that is made of perpetual motion.

While this helps improve the action sequences or dramatic stand offs, it also exposes a problem. Everything moves but they don’t move with a purpose, they move because it looks good moving. The problem occurs when it involves two or more people sitting around a table talking, and it is extremely distracting as it occurs several times. There is a particular scene in the first hour that highlights this recurring problem, John Krasinski’s Jack Da Silva is called into the office of The Chief (David Costabile), while there is a conversation going on,  we see, through the window of the office, Tyrone Woods (James Badge Dale) is in the background working out by lugging large truck tyres around, shouting out his reps, adding nothing to the overall story other than adding another visually interesting element in the background that distracts the viewer and obscuring whatever dialogue we wanted to hear between Jack and The Chief.

Unlike his Transformers films, where the action is disorientating and perplexing puzzle, with giant, predominantly grey robots clashing into each other in an orgy of steel and sparks, leaving the viewer to figure out what is going on. The action in 13 Hours is clear and crisp, bullets fly and bodies fall but there isn’t a point of time you will lose sight of what is happening. If you do, Michael Bay has enough coverage shots to get you covered, don’t worry, there are 2 more after that that will get you up to speed instantly if you are confused with the first shot. Coverage may be a dirty word, but in this case, it adds another alphabet to the explosive visual language of the film, allowing for greater visual legibility.

The performances are great across the board, if similar. James Badge Dale as Tyrone ‘Rone’ Woods brings the best of the bunch, exemplifying the no nonsense All-American attitude, able to be grim or humorous depending on the scene, or to contrast with the situation. He is funniest when their predicament worsens. John Krasinski is barely recognizable as Jack Da Silva, providing a layered take to the archetypical concept of the disillusioned warrior out for one last op. The rest of the security contractors, played by Max Martini, David Denman, Dominic Fumusa and Pablo Schreiber all put in realistic performances as soldiers, filled with military bluster and badassery.

13 HOURS

The Chief, played by David Costabile, is like every Michael Bay diplomat/pencil pusher in every Michael Bay movie, except this time, Hogan’s screenplay gives a proper reason as to why bureaucracy isn’t working. Pompous, conceited and he views the G.R.S. as all brawn no brains ‘security guards’, he is also weak willed and hapless when the shit eventually hits the fan, having to rely on ‘Rone and the rest of the G.R.S. to save the day. It is a time honoured Bay tradition of muscle, machismo and guns trumping diplomacy and paperwork.

The heroes may be in full view but the concept of the villain is murkier, the Libyan gunmen are surely the bad guys but they do not come across as the villains, instead serving the unfortunate purpose of bullet fodder. We do not know anything about them or their motivations, other than they really want to kill everyone in the compound. American bureaucracy though, serves as the primary instigator of conflict in the film, as every form of military assistance from gunships to air strikes are rejected, leaving the compound and its inhabitants to fend for themselves against wave after wave of enemies. It is extremely reminisce of popular first person shooter videogames, many which have game modes that involves a similar ‘Last Stand’ premise. This is Call of Duty in cinematic form.

When the dust has settled and the smoke cleared, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi is one of Michael Bay’s best, it has all the ‘Bayism’ that make Michael Bay films such unique box office entertainment and coupled with the strong screenplay, it negates most of what are Bay’s notorious weaknesses.

 

Rating: ****/5

Despite a few signature hiccups Bay is known for, the film soars as an action thriller, due to its frenetic visuals, intense action sequences and robust screenplay.

——————————————————————————————————

Perry Lam is an Associate Editor of Rochford Street Review. He is the director of  the documentary short film BLACK RAT  has been selected for numerous film festivals both in Sydney and overseas.  https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2016/02/02/welcome-perry-lam-rochford-street-review-associate-editor/