Living up to Tradition: Perry Lam reviews ‘Heukseok Kids’

This film review is part of Rochford Street Review’s coverage of the 2017 Golden Koala Chinese Film Festival.

The opening film of the Golden Koala Chinese Film Festival Heukseok Kids is a clear message of the festival intentions of both showcasing new Chinese cinema as well as to present the works of up and coming directors.

Heukseok Kids tells the tale of Defu, a Chinese film student based in Seoul, after 8 years overseas, he is informed of his mother’s terminal illness and has to return home. When Defu returns home, he not only has to come to make amends with his dying mother, but also discover his role in his dysfunctional family as a husband and father.

e697a0e6a087e9a2985

Arthouse features have a tendency to be extremely personal pieces of celluloid. Unlike commercial fare, the vision of the filmmaker takes priority over all commercial considerations, this is the case with Heukseok Kids, which is based on Chinese director Liu Defu (whom the character of Defu is named after) experiences living overseas in Korea as well as in his home country of Mainland China.

This personal quality permeates through all levels of the film, its screenplay, its performances and its cinematography. There is a sense of intimacy in the narrative, we are always close to Defu and his narrative transformation. The sequence in Korea features a confident, even more virile representation of Defu as a character, he is outgoing, engages in one night stands and cracks jokes with his food photography obsessed Korean friend. However, upon his return to China, all Dionysian traits are drained from his personality, as he comes face to face with, and at times fall short (due to his time abroad) of his responsibilities as a man in Chinese society. This Dionysian/Apollonian dichotomy is novel in its concept, and is an issue that is a rarely explored facet of Chinese cinema.

The film services extremely well as a character study of Defu but due to its prioritizing of its protagonist, it fails in developing its secondary characters, with most of them being reduced to caricatures that we know all too well. The bitter wife, the bum brother, the quiet and hapless father. The secondary characters serve more as shattered reflections of the protagonist than actual characters, every interaction with them only serves to inform us more on Defu, his past actions and their consequences than on the other characters themselves. This is not necessarily a bad thing, the narrative’s myopic focus on Defu actually paints a fascinating portrait of a man stuck in two cultures. A brilliant example of this is Defu and his wife’s discussion about their passionless marriage and his obligations as a husband and father, his wife carries much of the dialogue of this scene but it is Defu who gets the bulk of the character development, as he sits on the couch, too preoccupied texting his Korean buddies. He doesn’t care.

Audience.jpg

The narrative does take a weaker turn, as it limps to its ending, as Defu becomes a more confused and conflicted character, so does the narrative. The first two acts are strong in its execution of theme and tone but it abruptly ends with nothing resolved. I do understand that a film does not need to answer all its audience’s questions but while the build-up is consistent on the first two acts, we do not see any pay off for all the character development that was invested in Defu and that may leave some people wanting.

The cinematography isn’t beautiful in the aesthetic sense of the word but brings a poetic elegance to the film. Great cinematography has always been misunderstood as ‘great looking images’ but these images may distract from the narrative. This is not the case with Heukseok Kids, as the cinematography, while at times ugly, serves the story first, it is realistic and borderline documentarian in its approach. The world of Heukseok Kids is a claustrophobic one, constant use of over the shoulder shots and tight mid shots imprison Defu into the frame. An even bigger marvel is witnessing how Liu Defu (The Director) manages to make wideshots look oppressive and contrainted, one of the most haunting images of the film comes in the form of Defu (The character) eating in the corner of a dark living room, with old photos of family members and ancestors hanging prominently on the walls behind him. The message is clear, Defu is failing to live up to tradition.

director

Ray Argall, President of the Australian Director’s Guild presenting the Certificate of Selection to the director of Heukseok Kids, Liu Defu.

While the dysfunction of youth is a strong theme, the film offers a stronger examination of Chinese tradition. The male characters constantly fail constantly at being a ‘Chinese Man’, images and ideals that are set upon them whether through tradition or family. In a memorable scene, Defu’s daughter realizes that her father himself is also still a student, like her. Despite Defu being a father, as a student, he is unable to fully provide for his daughter, likewise to Defu’s brother, who in their father’s words, is a ‘loser’, more a hindrance than a provider to the family. On another note, the father daughter scene brings to fore Chinese society’s obsession with education and how this obsession has become a tradition, unchanged for generations, from father to daughter. Which adds an interesting crease to how we view tradition, if we don’t go against it, wouldn’t all our outcomes be the same?

At its source, Heukseok Kids is a film about questions. It questions the strict traditions of Chinese society, it questions its protagonist’s role in his life, most of all, it questions the importance of your obligations versus your aspirations. While it does not provide a solid answer nor a satisfying pay off, Heukseok Kids is nonetheless a strong debut from a talented young director and provides a thought provoking time at the movies, one to ponder over drinks with friends.

 

*** out of 5

A strong, if at times uneven meditation on the role of the man in contemporary Chinese society. Like the best of arthouse cinema, it is the questions they raise that are much more satisfying than the answers.

 

 

If you like this, you should watch:

Lost In Translation- All millennials should watch this movie. Beautifully written and acted film about loneliness and alienation in the big city.

Taxi Driver- Like how Heukseok Kids confront the idea of what a man is and should be in Chinese society, Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece does the same (and goes further) with American society.

Caché– Heukseok Kid’s narrative structure and visuals bears resemblance to Michael Haneke’s frustrating meditation on the scars of French colonialism. From its ‘drop  off’ third act to its realistic, if mundane visuals of everyday life.

 

 

——————————————————————————————————

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 Golden Koala Chinese Film Festival kicks off on 2nd of February 2017 and takes place at venues across Australia. For further information go to http://www.cff.org.au/.

This Is The Review You Are Looking For: Perry Lam reviews ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’

Star Wars has always been reliant on formula, what started out as a fusion of old samurai movies and Joseph Campbell myth making eventually (and this depends on who you ask) transforms or degenerates into a grand family opera told through time, space and the occasional teasing of creepy incestuous romance. Through seven massive franchise films, Star Wars has, for better and for worse, enforced the standard of blockbuster filmmaking. The Original Trilogy trailblazed in terms of cinematic storytelling, Lucas wanted to create something to ‘inspire the young’ and fight the then ailing studio system. With his use of mythic archetypes and borrowing heavily on Akira Kurosawa’s cinematic technique, Lucas created a series of films that reinvented cinema as not an artform but as a form of casual entertainment.

What was trailblazing eventually became the beaten, established path. With the prequels Lucas turns the franchise into effects driven spectacles, throwing the script to the wind, proving that story does not really matter in the grander scheme of marketing, merchandising and commercial interests. The transition from Original to prequel trilogies is ironic, what started out as a Rebel Alliance, bring the cinematic arts to mass audiences became the Galactic Empire, a commercial brand whose sole motivation is total market domination. George Lucas became the studio he fought so hard against. He has become, the Galactic Empire.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story Ph: Film Frame ©Lucasfilm LFL

With the sale to Disney, the films that are released thus far seem more interested in serving as a ‘Greatest Hits’ compilation for the franchise. Specifically, much of Disney’s cinematic and aesthetic style owes more to Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, than any other entry in the series. The emphasis on nostalgia, the use of desert locales, the ‘used future’ aesthetic and the narrowing down of lightsaber and Force users to two or less. These creative choices are all evident in The Force Awakens and in Rogue One. But as a film, Rogue One offers a few more surprises up its own sleeves.

Rogue One takes place between Episode 3 and Episode 4, with the Jedi wiped out, the Galactic Empire has risen to power, enforcing its tyranny across the galaxy. To further establish the Empire’s dominance, an ambitious Imperial Military Director, Orson Krennic leads the construction of the Death Star, a planet killing superweapon.

With the Death Star close to completion, it is up to a grizzled and war weary team of Rebel soldiers to steal the schematic plans of the superweapon, in order to find a way to defeat it and bring freedom back to the galaxy. Essentially, this is Death Star: The Origin Story.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story Death Star Ph: Film Frame ©Lucasfilm LFL

One of the great surprises of Rogue One is its willingness to break the franchise’s rules. Firstly, the film takes the series out of the saga of the Skywalker family and into the greasy hands and mudcaked boots of the regular joes and janes of the Galaxy Far, Far Away. By removing the familial and religious ‘Good vs Evil’ dynamic, we are left with compelling and previously unexplored shades of grey to both sides of the Galactic Civil War. Characters do what it takes to turn the tide of the conflict, at any cost. There is no ‘hate leads to suffering’ philosophical musings here, the only hate is between both sides and the only suffering is what each side subject to the other.

Previous entries in the series dealt in absolutes, Rebels are the good guys and the Empire are the bad, yet Rogue One is bold enough to roster both sides with horrible, broken people who probably have problems sleeping at night. Our two protagonists are cut from this tattered, bloodsoaked cloth, the stoic Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), wakes up to one too many traumatic dreams of childhood abandonment, and the serious and but no less dashing Han Solo surrogate, Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), not only shoots first but when we are first introduced to him, shoots people in the back too. Yavin 4 is as big a hive for scum and villainy as Mos Eisley Cantina.

Supporting characters are also filled out by intriguing and distinctly non Star Wars flavoured archetypes, adding new dimensions to the film and the overall mythos. The protocol droid K-2SO is a welcomed addition to the iconic line up of droids in the franchise, he is C3PO with the attitude of a scruffy-looking nerf herder, quipping and smart-assing his way through the narrative. K2 sets itself apart from the squeaky clean, kid appealing franchise icons that R2D2 and C3PO has become.

Substituted for that iconic droid duo, we are given a human alternative instead, in the form of the blind warrior monk Chirrut Emwe (Donnie Yen) and heavy weapons specialist Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen). While the gruff and no-nonsense Baze is badass in his own right, blowing away stormtroopers with his blaster rifle, it is Chirrut who wows the crowd with his intergalactic kung fu, constant sutra-like chanting, and that one joke related to his visual impairment. Yen’s Chirrut opens a new door for the Star Wars universe. Through him, we finally have an understanding of what The Force really means to the rest of the galaxy, it is a religion, to be accepted or rejected.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Felicity Jones) Ph: Film Frame ©Lucasfilm LFL

And I have not gone the villains themselves, the baddies aren’t exactly evil. As in the case with the lead villain, Director Orson Krennic. Played with snarly ambition by the great Ben Mendelsohn, Krennic is every middle management exec paranoid about his superiors taking credit for his own work, which in a twisted sense, makes him the most relatable character in the film. I would be pissed if someone takes credit for my work too.

Krennic may be the chief antagonist, but iconic villains in the form of Grand Moff Tarkin and Darth Vader do flank him in the narrative, though their appearance does at times weaken Krennic’s role as villainous authority and come across as fan service. It is justifiable though, as both have functions within the story. Grand Moff Tarkin’s appearance serves to highlight his role in Episode 4 and turns Krennic’s story arc into one of corporate and organizational infighting, this adds an interesting wrinkle to the Empire, who usually comes across as a faceless unit simply out to do the most evil thing possible.

Darth Vader, on the other hand, is something we REALLY need to talk about. While his appearance is brief, it re-establishes the character as one of the preeminent villains in film history. We always did hear either through the films or from other Star Wars media of Vader’s terrifying reputation, and skills in combat. But we have never actually seen him in action. Rogue One unleashes the Jedi formerly known as Anakin Skywalker and I’ll damn sure say it, he isn’t ‘just’ someone to be ‘feared, he isn’t ‘just intimidating’. This is Darth Vader in his absolute prime, he is genuinely terrifying. His single minute appearance transforms the film from a war movie into a slasher flick, as he mows down his opponents with supernatural ease and unchecked brutality. Anakin Skywalker is dead but Darth Vader is back.

As great as the characters are and as interesting as this new Star Wars universe is, the narrative does take a while to get going, to blame is the multiple set ups and character introductions. While they are absolutely necessary for the third act to function, there is also too much unnecessary traveling between planets that are redundant to the main plot. To be blunt, the main Death Star plans story arc does not actually get going until the end of the second act, much of the plot development in the first two is reserved to character establishment. That said, the greatness of the third act is because of the two acts that came before.

swro2-0

You will notice the narrative and tonal shift of the finale. It is not much a gradual change as it is stepping off a cliff.  The finale is one of the best for a blockbuster in recent memory. A non-stop, all or nothing pitched battle between the Rebels and the Empire, winner takes all. It showcases the extraordinary difficulty that the Rebels have, when confronting the might of the Empire head to head. The battle scenes get ugly and unflinching as we are in the thick of it, storming the beachheads of Scarif with the ragtag Rebels, or accompanying Y-Wing bombers on their attack run, trying desperately to delay inevitable defeat against a superior opponent. It is more Apocalypse Now than Star Wars.

The final battle itself is a thing to behold, we have never seen the Rebels fight this hard. We read the opening crawl of Episode 4, we know this is their first major victory, we know spies managed to get their hands on the Death Star plans. What we do not know is how much of a cruel, relentless struggle this is. Culminating in an ending that, once you catch a glimpse of the back of the familiar curved white Rebel Soldier helmet and a nostalgic looking white starship corridor, it will make you wonder “Are they really going to do that?”. Yes, they did.

However, I do not agree that it is the darkest entry in the franchise, sure a lot of bad stuff happens and it is significantly darker for a Star Wars film but it is nowhere near the nihilism that was displayed in 2005’s Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. Back then, your standard Star Wars protagonist could be a paranoid, selfish man who ends up murdering children, strangling his pregnant wife (who later dies in childbirth), and engaging his friend/mentor in a duel to the death that ends up with said protagonist having all his limbs chopped off before burning in a river of lava, and no one would bat an eyelid. Of course, you can’t do that now, its 2016.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Donnie Yen) Ph: Film Frame ©Lucasfilm LFL

With that said, blaster bolts still fly and the body count is racked up, as the characters you are invested in are forced into a desperate fight to the survive against wave after wave of Imperial troops. Much credit has to go to the writers Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, as well as director Gareth Edwards, for framing the Rebel cause as a courageous but ultimately hopeless one, with no reward other than a thermal detonator blast to the face.

Gareth Edwards is an inspired choice as director, having had previous experience playing around with the concept of scale in Monsters and Godzilla, we are now seeing the peaking of a young director. The Death Star looks monstrously grotesque in Rogue One, as Star Destroyers are dwarfed by the superweapon’s sheer mass. Edwards even manages to make establishing shots look cool. The opening shot of an Imperial transport vessel floating above the rings of a planet is gorgeous and novel in its approach to establishing locales.

The aesthetics of the film is perhaps its strongest point. Use of handheld cinematography accentuates the overall mise-en-scene, making us feel like we are right there with the rest of the Rogue One team. But it is the production design that gets to shine, the gritty ‘boots on the ground’ aesthetic is on full display here. Massive fallen statues of Jedi knights pepper the surface of the Jedi world of Jedha, Stormtroopers are no longer squeaky clean, their armor caked in grease and grit of countless skirmishes. These are details that are usually unnecessary but this meticulousness is what gives the film its deep immersion, a stand out sequence would be Jyn Erso’s escape from an Imperial prison transport on a miserable looking planet, this is the first time the Stormtroopers look bored and fed up with their jobs. And they got every reason to, even their dented and dirtied helmets tell their story before a single line of dialogue is uttered.

rogue-one-star-wars-story-trailer-image-07

The one aspect of the film that leaves us wanting however, is the generic score. Now, Star Wars is one of the most aurally defined fictional universes, but the score plays it too safe, relying on old motifs and the previous work of John Williams’ to define itself. Which clashes with the entire creative motivation of the film, with jaw dropping , previously unseen visuals of the Star Wars universe, including a scene where a Star Destroyer is literally chopped in half, it is disappointing that Michael Giacchino is unable to conjure up any orchestral magic to match the originality that permeates the rest of the film.

As a film reviewer, I would rather judge a film on its own merits but with Rogue One, its success lies with how it affects the film it chronologically precedes, Star Wars Episode 4: A New Hope. To judge this movie as a standalone does not appreciate what it has done, which is singlehandedly upping the ante and the importance of various plot points in the other films in the franchise. Bear in mind, this was supposed to be a ‘side story’ with no bearing on the events of the main saga. Yet Rogue One, with its compelling characters, intricate cinematography, production design and an absolute cracker of a third act, proves that being a side story does not mean you can’t be the main event.

 

 

**** and a half/5

One of the best films of the year and definitely the best blockbuster of 2016. With a great cast of characters, spellbinding production design and a killer final act, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story adds much needed originality and value into the events of Star Wars mythos, and in doing so surpasses most of the films it was supposed to play second fiddle to.

 

 

If you like this, you should watch:

Star Wars Episode 4: A New Hope- This should be first on your list after watching Rogue One, the blend is seamless and astonishing to behold, I cannot believe how both films work in storytelling so well.

Flashpoint- The plot may be thin but this film features Donnie Yen’s best choreographed fight scenes, and a viciously executed German suplex that has been emulated in Hollywood productions like Deadpool.

Monsters- Gareth Edwards low budget feature film debut. It is the epitome of sci fi indie filmmaking.

The Hidden Fortress- Akira Kurosawa is a tremendous influence on New Hollywood era filmmakers. And The Hidden Fortress is Star Wars’ greatest reference in terms of storytelling.

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/

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/
.

 

Just Think of All The Merchandising Opportunities: Perry Lam reviews ‘Zootopia’

Zootopia, at first glance, is something you’d expect something from Walt Disney Animation Studios, cutesy animals of all shapes and sizes, all running around in a bright fantastical land. Just think of all the merchandising opportunities. Yet, you don’t have to peel much deeper, before the real soul of the film emerges and the heady messages start pouring out.

At its core, Zootopia is a slight deviation of the time honoured buddy cop film. Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) is a recently graduated cop, she is also a rabbit and the first of her kind to be part of Zootopia’s Finest. She is posted to the heart of the animal metropolis that is Zootopia, a bustling city where all animals live in peace and civility. Initially stuck on parking ticket duty, she chances upon an opportunity to investigate a series of mysterious animal disappearances. However, this forces her to work with a cunning fox, Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) an obvious misalliance. As they get closer to the truth, both of them will discover that, not only will the case be at stake but their very natures as civilized animals will be called into question.

zootopia_city_full

One of the treats that separate animation films from its live action counterparts is to witness world building on an absolute colossal scale. There is no set to be built, or hundreds of extras to cast for background shots, while the animating of the world itself is a giant and intense undertaking, it is still feasible in the grander scheme of film production, as compared to live action films. Zootopia as a movie city then, is a technical wonder in animation, every shot is coloured in shades of fruity flavoured Mentos, and packed to the brim with details. Zootopia feels like an actual city, it feels busy, populated by everyone from the littlest office rat to the biggest yoga practicing elephant.

Every character appears to have personality and a life, and not just to serve the story. It is an expanded, animal city version of the Mos Eisley Cantina. Even the throwaway gags presents a dense and populated world, when Nick is bootlegging ice cream pops to rat businessmen on the break time, it actually seems like we just caught them in a daily routine. It gives the idea that, the world moves at its own pace, independent from the plot and characters, there is a lot of action in the background if you look hard enough, nothing ever stays still in Zootopia.

The world of Zootopia only gets more interesting but perhaps this gave the narrative an impossible act to follow. It is uneven in its pacing. The first half works as a tour of the city itself, as Judy first arrives in the big city, like us, with awe in her eyes. But as the film progresses, the narrative sags as the world seems to detract and distract from the plot, by the second act the investigation is underway but it is too bland to hold our attention.

ZOOTOPIA

After all the animation razzle and dazzle that was on display in the first half, the second establishes the character dynamics between Judy and Nick and it is a dose of mundane familiarity. Their relationship is one we have seen way too many times before, the tried and trite buddy cop formula that we have seen in Lethal Weapon, Rush Hour and a dozen more films of the genre. As the film chugs along, you just want to find out more of the city but outside a few choice scenes, you never do, the plot attempts a last minute volley in the third act, there is one major plot twist towards the finale but it comes too little too late, as the story limps to its finale. It is unfortunate to say this film offers nothing new to the storytelling table.

Another personal gripe, is the villain. As memorable are their heroines and heroes are, Disney films are equally well known for their bad guys. Unfortunately, this is another area Zootopia falls short. I understand that the villain must function for the narrative  and the chief villain of Zootopia serves the role well. Yet one could wonder, with such beautiful character designs of these anthropomorphic animals, a villain would have been an absolutely iconic addition to both the film and the illustrious roster of Disney villains.

While Judy and Nick as a screen duo do not work well together, their interactions together are weak and rely heavily on buddy cop conventions, but individually, they are surprisingly captivating as characters. Their individual story arcs are extremely fascinating, watching Judy gradually grow accustom to her new surroundings and breaking the glass ceiling is a real crowd-pleaser. While Nick’s slightly dark backstory is a heartbreaking tale on the consequences of discrimination and prejudice. These are interesting characters in an interesting world, too bad we are following them down a well-worn path that we have been on so many times.

Zootopia4

Throwaway gags often steal the narrative’s thunder, they are actually more interesting than the actual story, succeeding in informing the audience of the world and offering a sense of story depth. You just want to see these animals live their lives, and for good reason. We may have seen a lot of things put to film but we never really seen animals behave like us before, and it is both funny and surreal to watch them do so. Along with the aforementioned office rats and ice cream pops, another memorable scene is Judy and Nick venturing to a naturalist spa to find out more about a missing animal, while the scene adds nothing to the plot, the stoner Yak more than makes up for it, and the awkward comedy provides a few laughs.

The sound design is terrific, as it really gives every single species a distinctive sound, adding more character to the story world, be it the ruffling of fur or the clattering of teeth, it adds so much aural ambiance to the picture and make a lot of characters memorable, especially that scene with the sloths, the use of sound could make or break that scene but due to the stellar sound work, it works as comedy. The voices actors give great performances across the board, they actually sound like the animal species of their characters. Gennifer Goodwin’s Judy Hopps is filled with infectious energy, not enough to make her annoying but just good enough to make her likeable. Jason Bateman’s performance is dripping with sly douchebaggery, a perfect fit for Nick Wilde, and Idris Elba blows everyone away with his booming voice as Police Chief Bogo, an authoritative and powerful buffalo. The performances can be too good, J K Simmons adds a regal touch as Mayor Lionheart, a lion. Essentially a cameo, we do not get to see him factor much into the plot although it does leave you wanting to see more of him.

Zootopia_Bogo_interrupted

Narrative weaknesses it may have, but the film’s examination of racism and sexism is a welcomed surprise, most kids will not be aware of it but their parents will be. It cuts remarkably deep, several scenes explore these themes of discrimination to the absolute fullest effect, offering cringe-worthy moments, most notably is Hopps’ press conference after she cracks a significant case. You will cringe not because the scene is bad but because you can’t believe we actually say such awful things to one another in real life. This is where animation can pull off scenes that live action movies never could, it can be argued, Zootopia only got away with a scene like that because it was just a talking rabbit rambling about racial profiling. This film hits a little bit close to home but the way I see it, it is absolutely necessary.

Zootopia is an immersive and beautifully realized world. The animation is beautiful and the characters are captivating, it is slightly tragic that the screenplay while serviceable, isn’t on the same level as the rest of the film. But along with its animation and characters, one must also applaud its willingness to tackle heady and controversial themes like race and gender inequality. These animals got quite a bit to say about human behaviour, and Zootopia is extremely relevant to events of today, especially when there are actual human beings out there trying to Make America Great Again.

 

*** and a half /5

It may have a run-of-the-mill narrative but Zootopia is both beautiful and entertaining. With Zootopia, Walt Disney Animation Studios have another hit on their hands and we have another cinematic world to explore.

.

——————————————————————————————————

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

.

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/
.

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.