Thoughts on Suicide Squad

It feels good to be bad.

Suicide Squad, based upon the DC comics line popularized by John Ostrander in the late 80s, has finally hit theatres. Centered on a group of ne’er-do-wells, sociopaths, and killers, the film’s function is two-fold: it continues to build and expand the DC Extended Universe of films while also serving as an art-punk response to the more straight-laced, level-headed heroes audiences are used to. Though critically maligned like its predecessor, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Suicide Squad has steadily broken records since its release last Friday, once again showcasing a disconnect between general audiences and critics. Whether the film has the legs to be considered a massive success remains to be seen, however, like BvS, I must once again count myself among those pleased by the film. In fact, I’d go beyond saying I’m pleased; I loved it.

Why?

After two viewings I’ve come to the conclusion that at its (blackened, Enchantress) heart, this film is a character piece. By no means is its plot the most original, nor well-executed story in a modern cinema, but here are the basics: Amanda Waller, government operator and leader of the shadowy organization known as ARGUS, has assembled a team of supervillains to be sent on assignments that require their particular array of skills. Given incentive to succeed by miniature explosives implanted in their necks, Task Force X or the Suicide Squad allows the government to run covert ops with plausible deniability should anything go wrong. After a misstep by Waller jeopardizes Midway City (and perhaps the entire world), Waller activates Task Force X, ordering it to infiltrate the besieged city and extract a high value target before it is too late.

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SKWAD! Property of Warner Bros.

Though the plot sounds involved, it doesn’t have that many moving parts, but that is alright. It serves its purpose as the foundation upon which the strengths of the characters and their chemistry can be displayed. The performances (at least for me) all worked, with a few especially meaty roles that the actors fully inhabited.

Margot Robbie is the standout performance here, fully transforming herself into fan-favorite Harley Quinn, girlfriend and accomplice of the infamous Clown Prince of Crime himself, the Joker. Robbie goes for broke, chewing bubblegum and scenery with a thick New York accent and generally acting in the way fans have wanted to see since Harley’s introduction in a 1992 episode of Batman: The Animated Series. She’s funny, demented, and more than capable of handling herself in a fight, but Robbie also manages to instill within her intelligence (she does have a doctorate in psychology after all) and flashes of humanity; the moments are brief, but it becomes apparent that Harley’s manic glee is not always genuine, her crazed posturing an act as often as it is the real thing.

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Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn. Property of Warner Bros.

Much of this has to do with her relationship with Jared Leto’s Joker. Their history is illuminated through a series of flashbacks that show how Dr. Harleen Quinzel fell for the man she was supposed to be treating, in turn becoming his accomplice and lover. The bizarre codependency of Harley Quinn and the Joker is something I never thought I would see on the big screen, and thankfully (once again, for me) Suicide Squad nails their relationship. The Joker, for all his sociopathic tendencies, does share some connection with Harley, though the extent of his feelings at any given moment seem to be as unpredictable as the rest of his behavior. He’s just as likely to save her as to put her life in danger, just as likely to use her as he is to help her. In turn, Harley possess a mad sort of love for the Joker, something deep and illogical, but not all that unrealistic given the realities of abusive, manipulative relationships. Robbie and Leto are electric when onscreen together and I hope we get to see more of them in the future.

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Harley (Margot Robbie) and Joker (Jared Leto) go for a ride. Property of Warner Bros.

As for Leto’s Joker, I was incredibly impressed. Leto had the extremely unenviable task of following Heath Ledger’s classic take on the character from 2008’s The Dark Knight. Though not given half as much screen time as Ledger (Leto’s Joker is not Suicide Squad’s main antagonist), Leto makes the most of it, presenting what is perhaps the most unsettling Joker to date. There is a palpable sense of meanness to this iteration, something that was present in Ledger’s Joker, but not at the forefront of his character’s message-based mayhem. In contrast to Ledger’s more anarchic villain, Leto’s Joker is full gangster; a blinged-out, dead-eyed monster with a silver-grilled smile who preys on others’ discomfort and pain. His singular obsession in this story is Harley Quinn yet who knows what he would do as the primary antagonist of a Batman film. How would he and Harley interact with the looming threat of the Bat? How would Affleck’s Batman react to Leto’s Joker since we know Leto’s Joker killed Robin? I can’t help but be excited by such thoughts and I hope Leto gets the chance to reprise this role in a much larger capacity.

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Jared Leto as the Joker. Property of Warner Bros.

Continuing with the squad itself, one cannot avoid talking about Will Smith as Floyd Lawton, aka Deadshot. A marksman of uncanny ability, Deadshot is the world’s most wanted assassin; however, he has one glaring weakness which gives Waller control over him. Smith brings his effortless charm and charisma to the character and his interactions with the rest of the squad as well as their government handlers are some of the best scenes in the movie. Assuming the position of the leader of the squad itself, Smith does admirable work; his chemistry with the rest of the cast, especially Margot Robbie (who costarred with him in last year’s Focus), is stellar. On top of that, Deadshot’s abilities are wonderfully showcased in a number of scenes, making the seemingly mundane power of being “really, really good at shooting stuff” far cooler than you ever thought it could be. If Deadshot was not a popular character before, he’s about to be.

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Will Smith as Deadshot. Property of Warner Bros.

 

Despite being impressed by both Robbie and Smith, for me it was Jay Hernandez (Friday Night Lights, Hostel) that stole the film. He plays a former gang member and powerful pyrokinetic called El Diablo. Once a man of violence, now sworn to peace, El Diablo grudgingly goes along with the squad, reluctant to use his powers until the situation forces his hand.

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Jay Hernandez as El Diablo. Property of Warner Bros.

 

I won’t say anymore for fear of spoiling the film, but I will say that El Diablo has perhaps the most satisfying emotional arc of anyone in the squad and Hernandez’ soulful, somber performance takes what could have been a caricature and makes his character’s journey not only interesting, but moving as well.

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Viola Davis as Amanda Waller. Property of Warner Bros.

Rounding out the main players, Viola Davis brings it as Amanda Waller. In a film full of bad people, Amanda Waller is perhaps the worst. If there ever was an “ends, not means” person, she’s it. Fully committed to her purpose, Waller is a stone cold personification of everything a normal person fears about the government: her resources are unlimited, her reach vast; she’s ruthless, manipulative, and worst of all, self-righteous. Everything she does is to protect the United States of America and she believes that Task Force X is the first step in developing a program that will protect the US in the new metahuman wars to come. Viola Davis ably embodies Waller, filling her with a palpable tenacity and brusqueness that’s straight off the comic book page; even when she’s not in control, Davis conveys a sense of assuredness that makes Waller’s mistakes seem like they were part of her plan all along. As frustrating as she is fascinating, I can’t wait to see Davis’ Waller pop up in more of the DCEU.

As for the rest of the squad, they don’t necessarily get much development, but they do serve a purpose. Jai Courtney (Spartacus, Terminator: Genisys) is at a career best as the beer-swilling, unicorn-fetishizing Captain Boomerang, whose ability is just as ridiculous as his namesake suggests. Courtney showcases great comedic chops, serving as comic relief in a number of scenes, yet offering some real heart when necessary.

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Jai Courtney as Captain Boomerang. Property of Warner Bros.

Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje plays Killer Croc, a metahuman with mottled skin, immense strength, and cannibalistic tendencies. Though he rarely speaks, Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s physical performance is great and the practical effects used to bring his character to life are truly impressive. Here’s hoping that we’ll get to see Croc cross paths with Affleck’s Batman sometimes in the near future.

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Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as Killer Croc. Property of Warner Bros.

Karen Fukuhara plays Katana, a government agent who wields a katana that steals the soul of whoever it kills. She doesn’t have much to say, but man does she look cool doing just about everything.

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Karen Fukuhara as Katana. Property of Warner Bros.

Rounding out the squad is Special Forces leader Rick Flagg as played by Joel Kinnaman (The Killing, House of Cards); Flagg is suitably authoritative and capable, yet perhaps not in as much control as he’d like people to believe. Kinnaman’s arc, though spoilerific, is a fun aside and one that makes his relationship with the squad and especially Deadshot that much more interesting by the end of the film.

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Joel Kinnaman as Rick Flagg. Property of Warner Bros.

Kinnaman is an interesting actor and one who I find charismatic in a way not unlike Tom Hardy, whom he replaced after The Revenant’s shoot had to be extended. I would love to see Kinnaman push this character into a different, more challenging direction should the opportunity arise.

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Cara Delevingne as Enchantress. Property of Warner Bros.

Lastly, Cara Delevingne portrays archeologist June Moone, and more importantly, her sorcerous alter-ego, The Enchantress. A lot of criticism has been levelled at Delevingne’s portrayal of the Enchantress, particularly in her movement choices for the character, but in this case as in many, I feel people are being a bit unfair. Acting, like writing, is a difficult, easy job in the sense that it’s not like working hard physical labor day-in and day-out, but it is an art form and there are interpretations and choices that must be made in any given project. For all that criticized her acting choices, I offer this scenario: You’ve just been cast as the Enchantress, a 6000+ year-old entity who is now once again walking the earth. Convey her otherness with your movements. Go.

It’s a difficult role to play, just like the Joker, but with even less direction and absolutely no other iterations from which to draw. For me personally, I enjoyed Delevingne’s performance and thought she conveyed the dichotomy between her characters well for the material she was given.

As far as the directing, it’s no secret that I really like David Ayer (you can read my glowing review of his WWII tank-drama Fury here). Though Suicide Squad is not plot heavy, Ayer excels with character drama, and just like in Fury, End of Watch, and Training Day, he has a clear written voice and style that bleeds into his work. Though the film’s editing may seem slightly off-kilter and disjointed at times, overall it worked for me and I hope Ayer gets the opportunity to continue to explore the world of the Suicide Squad, hopefully with a little more freedom and time to develop his ideas. With DC’s new Chief Creative Officer/writer Geoff Johns (who is a DC comics superstar if you didn’t know) now in charge of all DC Extended Universe films, I’m sure it would be an even wilder ride.

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Director David Ayer and Jared Leto discuss a scene. Property of Warner Bros.

In the music department the film is also a lot of fun, sprinkling original tracks with recognizable hits in a pleasing manner that never felt out of place or forced to me. The original score by Steven Price (Fury, The Hunt) is incredibly atmospheric and heroic while retaining the all the darkness of the premise; its climactic track, “One Bullet is All I Need” is sure to make it into my Epic Writing Music playlist.

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Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn. Property of Warner Bros.

In short, I disagree with the majority of critics on the merits of Suicide Squad. I think it is a wonderfully-acted ensemble piece that, though light on plot, delivered what I desired from the start: it touched on the Joker and Harley Quinn’s twisted relationship; it gave me a suitable taste of Leto’s unnerving and utterly bizarre take on the Joker; it had some stylish, fun sequences involving a group I never thought I’d see onscreen; and most importantly, it showed bad guys doing some good.

Whatever Task Force X’s next mission, count me in.

Thoughts on Hunt for the Wilderpeople

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I love comedy as a film genre, but I don’t see very many comedies. Having grown up with Monty Python, both the British and American versions of The Office, and most importantly, the films of Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World’s End, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), my comedic sensibilities veer far more toward the dry and witty than the extended sketch improvisation of many hit American comedies today. This may be a reason why I loved Hunt for the Wilderpeople so much, but its quality far surpasses my bias toward this style of comedy. Like the best comedic storytelling, the laughs in Hunt for the Wilderpeople are organic, stemming from character conflict and clever situations rather than the outrageous or grotesque. Most importantly, the comedy is appropriate for the world that’s created within the film’s opening moments.

Twelve year-old Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is a troubled child in the foster care system. After a string of failed relationships with host families, Ricky is given one last chance to make a match or he’ll be returned back into New Zealand’s juvenile detention system. He’s given over into the care of a kind woman named Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her gruff bushman husband named Hector or “Hec” (Sam Neill). Though Hector doesn’t seem to care for Ricky, Bella loves him immediately, helping him to finally feel as if he’s found a true home.

However, after tragedy strikes, Ricky and Hector are left alone in a decidedly antagonistic relationship that will no doubt end in Ricky being returned to juvenile care. Determined to not be taken back into the system, Ricky runs into the bush. Hector pursues him, but after an injury strands them in the wild, Ricky’s child services officer assumes the worst. Due to this misunderstanding, the police soon mount a countrywide manhunt to find Ricky and Hec who, against their own wishes, must band together to evade their pursuers and maybe finally make it out of a world from which they both feel extremely disconnected.

As with the best comedies, Hunt for the Wilderpeople’s humor is built upon a solid foundation of drama and character. Ricky and Hec’s journey is hilarious, but also full of heart and warmth as both of them struggle to push past the emotional walls they’ve constructed to protect themselves from a society that shuns them. Julian Dennison as Ricky showcases an incredible talent for line delivery and is equally game for the more dramatic scenes in the film, holding his own against a stellar Sam Neill’s whose Hec begins as a gruff caricature and ends the film as a fully realized, three-dimensional man. Even the bit players are great. Rima Te Wiata makes the most of her brief screentime as Bella, imbuing her with an effortless warmth that makes it easy to see why Ricky takes to her so quickly; and Rachel House is hilarious as Ricky’s unhinged child services officer, Paula.

The great performance are supported by an even sharper script (based upon the book by Barry Crump) written by Taika Waititi, who also directed the film. Waititi, best known for the vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows and the romantic comedy, Eagle vs Shark, brings his trademark wit and visual flare to Hunt for the Wilderpeople, making it not only one of the funniest films of the year, but also one of the most beautiful. Waititi and cinematographer Lachlan Milne use New Zealand’s sprawling, varied landscape to their advantage, creating a film made up of picturesque static shots, epic aerials, and hysterical crash zooms that will make any fan of Edgar Wright smile. All of this visual beauty is wonderfully supported by an off-kilter, almost John Carpenter-esque synth score by composers Lukasz Pawel Buda, Samuel Scott, and Conrad Wedde.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is the funniest film I’ve seen this year. It is also one of the sweetest, using New Zealand’s unending natural beauty as the setting for a story about two people estranged from society coming to learn to trust and love again. From the script, to the editing, to the music and the performances, it’s a truly excellent film and one which I cannot wait to see again.

Waititi’s next project is Thor:Ragnarok. To say that I’m excited would be a vast understatement.

Thoughts on Warcraft

Much has been written about director Duncan Jones’ cinematic adaptation of Blizzard Entertainment’s video game franchise, Warcraft. Beyond all of the lazy comparisons to The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, many seem to dislike Warcraft simply because of its stalwart adherence to its source material. Contrary to that opinion, I believe Warcraft‘s unswerving loyalty to the extremity of its fantastical nature, and the earnest way in which it approaches its thematically complex story, is what makes the film so endearing. Beyond that, on a narrative level, it offers one of the most unorthodox and surprisingly challenging stories in a blockbuster in recent memory. Make no mistake, Warcraft is the most fantastical fantasy property we have seen for quite some time: the orcs are hulking monsters, wizards shoot blue bolts coruscating with energy, mystics’ eyes glow with otherworldly light, elves sport foot-long ears, and knights ride griffons into battle. However, beneath that extremity is a tragedy that explores the meeting of two very different cultures, both motivated by fear. This fear drives them to mistrust, betrayal, and violence. The heroes of Warcraft attempt to bridge this gap and push past desperation and xenophobia to find sanity and fellowship in a time of madness. The result, to Warcraft’s credit, is not what you’d expect.

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Toby Kebbell as Durotan. Propert of Legendary Pictures.

The story begins with an ending. The world of Draenor is dying. An influx of dark magic has destabilized the land, causing its inhabitants to seek a new home. In order to save their race, the orc tribes have united under the guidance of the warlock Gul’dan, whose life-powered magic, called “the Fel,” allows him to open a portal to Azeroth, a world populated by humans, dwarves, elves, and more. However, Gul’dan only has enough power to allow a relatively small war party to pass through the portal. This group shall serve as a ranging party whose purpose is two-fold: 1) to construct a great gate that will serve as the Dark Portal through which the rest of Gul’dan’s horde will pass and 2) collect prisoners from Azeroth’s native peoples so that Gul’dan can siphon their life-force to power the Dark Portal.

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Daniel Wu as Gul’dan. Property of Legendary Pictures.

Among this ranging orc war party is the Frostwolf Clan, led by their Chieftain, Durotan, and his lieutenant and old friend, Orgrim Doomhammer. After passing through the portal, the orcs begin to raid the countryside, collecting prisoners for Gul’dan’s portal. Despite Durotan and Orgrim’s desire for the orc race to continue, Gul’dan’s slash-and-burn crusade sits poorly with them. Durotan in particular is an adherent to the tenants laid down by his orcish ancestors: strength and honor. Pillaging villages full of unarmed innocents speaks to neither of those ideals. Durotan’s partner, Draka, has also recently given birth to a son, further adding to Durotan’s anxiety about the uncertain future of his race.

As Durotan’s already tenuous loyalty to Gul’dan begins to fray, in the human kingdom, Anduin Lothar, leader of Azeroth’s armies, faces his own challenges. He and his warriors have to contend with the new orc threat; physically overmatched and uncertain of their abilities, Lothar is commanded by his King Llane to find Medivh, a great sorcerer whose powers have saved Azeroth many times over. Along with the young mage, Khadgar, Lothar journeys to Medivh in hopes of enlisting him against this new orcish threat. After convincing Medivh to come help them, Lothar and co. return to confront Gul’dan and his horde.

Thrust into the center of this conflict is a half-orc, half-human called Garona. At first a slave to Gul’dan, she eventually escapes only to be taken prisoner by Lothar. Though Lothar is initially distrustful of her, Garona comes to serve as a bridge between cultures; she attempts to teach Lothar about the orcs and their ancestral dedication to war and honor, as well as the hope for the future that she sees embodied by Durotan. Softened by Garona’s counsel, Lothar begins to wonder if a lasting peace could ever be achieved.

As Gul’dan’s powers grow and the Dark Portal nears completion, both sides become desperate for a solution. Durotan, driven by shame at his race’s actions and anger at Gul’dan for his needless cruelty, attempts to meet with Lothar in hopes of forging an alliance that could put an end to the cataclysm that Gul’dan’s success would guarantee.

If that description seems very involved, it is. However, I don’t think this is indicative of poor writing on the part of the writers, Duncan Jones (Moon, Source Code) and Charles Leavitt (Blood Diamond, In the Heart of the Sea). It is simply a film that demands the audience’s undivided attention. Exposition is kept to a minimum; character relationships, past experiences, etc. are all alluded to or referenced contextually through conversation, just as they would be in real life. This is not to say that hearing certain fantasy lines doesn’t sometimes sound inorganic to our boring, reality-based ears/brains, but the breadth and depth of information presented is done so in a mature way that asks the audience for its trust and belief. If you don’t have enough of those to offer for two hours, I would not recommend seeing this film.

But if you do, then prepare yourself for one of the most narratively interesting experiences you’ll have in a theatre this year. However, before we move into spoiler territory, which really defines why I enjoyed this film so much, let’s talk about the performances. Toby Kebbell continues to prove himself to be one of the most capable actors of his generation. He’s come a long way from his mesmerizing role in Guy Ritchie’s Rock’n’Rolla, recently having been in one of the best episodes of the techno-horror/sci-fi show, Black Mirror, as well as embodying the erratic, unpredictable fury of Koba, the bonobo antagonist of 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. As Durotan, Kebbell continues to elevate his craft, giving a soulful performance that really serves as the moral center of the film. His Durotan is proud, yet not quick to judgment, willing to examine issues from all sides before resorting to violence. Yet there is an honor in violence and the art of warfare for the orcs (some might venture to call it war…craft), and the deeply important cultural value of conflict is what is put into question under the guidance of Gul’dan, whose cruelty undermines all notion of honor. Kebbell effortlessly embodies Durotan’s struggle to act honorably, to find reason and nuance in a situation others see as simply binary. Ultimately, it’s a compelling, powerful performance and one of my favorites this year.

Second in command to Durotan is his trusted lieutenant, Robert Kazinsky’s Orgrim Doomhammer. Though not given much screen time, self-professed Warcraft-lover Robert Kazinsky shows his passion for the source material by imbuing Orgrim with a palpable sense of inner conflict which plays out in a very different way than Kebbell’s Durotan. This is mainly due to Orgrim’s level of intelligence. Though by no means stupid, Orgrim is a being of action; violence and war are his great indulgences and he engages the orcs’ enemies with vigor, tearing through them with his ancestral weapon, the mighty Doomhammer. However, what makes him more than just a mindless brute is his loyalty to Durotan. Their friendship grounds him, opens him up to considering the humans as more than a mere enemy, and makes Orgrim reflect on just what exactly Gul’dan is attempting to do by ushering the Horde into Azeroth. Kazinsky makes the most of his limited screen time, and by the picture’s end, given his inner struggle, Orgrim has one of the most interesting arcs in the film.

Which brings us to Gul’dan, Warcraft’s main antagonist. Gul’dan is played by Daniel Wu (Into the Badlands) with all the sneering, snarling villainy one could hope for. Though Gul’dan is dedicated to bringing the full might of the Horde into Azeroth, it is clear that his loyalty lies with himself more than anyone else and he will do anything to become more powerful. Though perhaps not the most nuanced villain, Wu plays Gul’dan with such swaggering confidence that it’s hard to dislike him. His movements in particular are unique and feel very different than those of the other orc characters; Gul’dan hunches and sways as he moves, as if the Fel has twisted him in body as well as his mind. Furthermore, more than a war chief, Gul’dan is an extremist, trying to sway an entire people into a quasi-religious fervor over the Fel, a power which he preaches only he can control. Despite his cruelty, it is understandable why so many would follow Gul’dan; he is a peddler of promises and deceit, a being wholly committed to his own elevation through manipulation, using a message of hatred and exclusion as his platform (sound like anyone else we know?).

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Travis Fimmel as Anduin Lothar.

Of the other stands outs, I would cite Travis Fimmel as Lothar, Ben Foster as Medivh, and Paula Patton as Garona. Though I have not yet watched Fimmel in Vikings, his natural charisma and presence permeate his performance of Anduin Lothar. Even though he is perhaps more standard in terms of fantasy characters (bearded white male with a gruff voice), Fimmel plays Lothar with an almost indescribable casualness. Fimmel gives Lothar the laxity of a predator; outside of combat, he’s a soft-spoken, almost disinterested player in part of a larger game, but when it comes to fighting for king and country, there is no one better. Like Orgrim, Lothar’s loyalty lends depth to his convictions and the way in which he struggles to remain loyal to his King while events spiral out of control are incredibly compelling.

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Lothar (Travis Fimmel) and Garona (Paula Patton). Property of Legendary Pictures. 

Ben Foster, an actor I’ve always admired, brings his trademark off-kilter sensibilities to the role of the mage, Medivh. Whether it’s Charlie Prince of 3:10 to Yuma or The Stranger from 30 Days of Night, Foster is always different in a very palpable way and Medivh is, likewise, hard to categorize. A hermit of sorts and absent from the human kingdom of Azeroth for six years after his last act of heroism, Medivh is at once suspicious and sagely. His reasons for his withdrawal from humanity remain mysterious, but at the same time he always seems to act with the kingdom’s best interest at heart. He treats Garona with the same respect he’d pay to anyone else and even counsels King Llane to make an attempt at peace before turning to all-out war. Medivh’s motives remain clouded until the end of the film, but it is a testament to Ben Foster’s talent and acting ability that he makes Medivh so utterly confounding and interesting for the entirety of the film.

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Ben Foster as Medivh. Property of Legendary Pictures.

Lastly, I’ll spotlight Paula Patton. I was not initially impressed with Paula Patton’s Garona, who speaks a halting, broken sort of English for the first few of her scenes as she seeks to communicate with her human captors. Yet as the film went on, I found myself growing increasingly attached to her as a character. The reason, I think, is that Garona is what I would like more female fantasy heroines to be. She is strong and capable, but she is not an ice queen, nor is she simply a quick gender swap of a character with no defining qualities. Garona is strong and capable, yet also never loses a sense of vulnerability. She wants to belong to a tribe, to a people, but existing between both the humans and orcs leaves her an outsider from both. Her quest to reconcile this difference, with both the orcs and the humans, is truly affecting, and her arc, as with many in the film, takes a surprising turn by the last reel, further deepening an already layered character, bolstered by Patton’s committed performance.

 

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Paula Patton as Garona. Property of Legendary Pictures. 

On the more technical side, Duncan Jones is an incredible director and storyteller. Moon and Source Code, showed us that he could do hard sci-fi and succeed. Warcraft gives him the ability to branch out and showcase his more epic storytelling sensibilities. The choreography of his scenes is impressive and he, along with cinematographer Simon Duggan (The Great Gatsby), create a plethora of staggeringly beautiful images that contrast well with the kinetic brutality of the film’s many fight scenes. Beyond the incredible effects work done by ILM, the practical sets and props are beautiful; they make the world feel like a living, tangible place. The music, by Game of Thrones composer Ramin Djawadi, is propulsive and epic, weaving tribal drums with triumphant horns, and creating a number of memorable themes that are sure to accompany my writing for a long time to come.

All this being said, I loved Warcraft. It is a dazzling fantasy that mines heavy, relevant themes, focusing on the conflict between two peoples’ beliefs and cultures and the incredible violence that can result from misunderstandings and mistreatment. I’ll be brief with my spoilers, but below illuminates why this film is so successful in my eyes as a storytelling feat.

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Toby Kebbell as Durotan. Property of Legendary Pictures. 

SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS!

This film, above all things, is a tragedy. It is inherently unsatisfying in a dramatic sense, a heart-wrenching anti-popcorn flick for the masses. Despite the action and adventure, when it comes down to it, the film is about a failed alliance between two different cultures and not a single relationship escapes the film unscathed.

Agents from each side attempt to bridge the culture gap, but ultimately they fail and fail hard. Durotan challenges Gul’dan to an honor duel and fails to beat him, losing his life in the process. Garona, about to be killed, is forced by King Llane to assassinate him so that she might live on to sabotage Gul’dan’s enterprise from the inside. Lothar, ignorant of this development, thinks Garona betrayed him and the humans, siding with the orcs. Angered by this perceived betrayal, he returns to the human kingdom of Azeroth to become its king, now hell bent on the destruction of the orc invaders.

Nothing is consummated and no friendships survive save perhaps that between the novice mage Khadgar and Lothar. Beyond them, any hope for love between Lothar and Garona died with the King; Orgrim lost his friend to Gul’dan, who now has complete control over the Horde, and both the humans and the orcs are now prepared to go to war for ownership of the world.

It’s heady stuff. Thematically challenging stuff that constantly wrestles with our expectations as viewers, and for that, I applaud Warcraft. It succeeded in keeping me guessing until the very end, and sadly, I don’t think that happens enough in modern films today, especially blockbusters. Think about the first time you saw Quint dragged into the sea by the shark in Jaws. That feeling permeates the end of this film and it is something I think we should strive for more. Unfortunately, this does not engender love from a wide audience, but I have a great amount of respect for Duncan Jones for approaching this material as earnestly as he did and staying true to the heart of the games. The orcs were not actors painted green. The magic was outlandish and showy. The elves had foot-long ears. The heroes lost, evil won, and only more war and bloodshed will follow.

I know many people don’t feel like I do about this film, and that’s alright, but I loved this film and I ardently hope we get another journey into the world of Warcraft.

Thoughts on Captain America: Civil War

WARNING: Minor spoilers to follow.

Marvel continues to rule the box office, this week passing the 10 billion dollar mark for the total gross of all its films. Beyond the spectacle, the reason this has happened is simple: Marvel Studios knows how to make a good film. Captain America: Civil War, like its two excellent predecessors, is not just a good superhero movie; it’s a compelling drama with real stakes and true heart.

We are now thirteen films into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The triumph of Civil War is that despite that number, character development still happens; people that we’ve known for three or four movies grow in this film, they change or take even more steadfast stances on what they believe is right. Credit must be given to writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (both of whom were responsible for the two previous Captain America films) for managing to accomplish this given the weight of history that comes with these characters as well as the sheer number that appear on screen; not only does Civil War manage to create a morally gray, complex conflict between established characters, but it also introduces the Wakandan king, Black Panther, and Queen’s very own, Spider-Man to the mix. That being said, Civil War is packed with content, the longest and easily the most emotionally wearying of any Marvel film to date.

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Team Cap. Property of Disney.

The conflict arises from an early tragedy involving the Avengers. Having been involved in a string of catastrophes (the most recent of which being the destruction of Sokovia in Age of Ultron) world leaders in the UN think it is time that the team be given oversight by a committee of elected officials. Steve Rogers, also known as Captain America, is against this idea. To him, ideologically, the Avengers’ function is to do good; people may get hurt along the way, but overall the world is a safer place because of their actions. It’s here that Cap’s roots as a soldier show; he knows there is always a cost and that seeking to eliminate that cost – as Tony Stark attempted to do with the Ultron project – often results in disaster.

Credit again must go to the writers for making Steve Rogers a consistent, nuanced character that is anything but a square; he may be a positive, hopeful force, but he is also colored by his experiences with the darkest parts of humanity, particularly with those that represent governmental authority. These figures failed he and his team in The Avengers as the World Security Council (they tried to nuke Manhattan) and as S.H.I.E.L.D. which was revealed to be infested with agents of the villainous organization HYDRA in The Winter Soldier. Cap’s unwillingness to accept oversight (detailed in a document entitled, “The Sokovia Accords”) is completely in line with the character we’ve come to know. The people in the oversight council would have agendas, individual desires that could not always be trusted; the people that Cap trusts are the members of the Avengers. Cap’s argument is best summated by his question to the team: “What if this panel sends us somewhere we don’t think we should go? What if there’s somewhere we need to go and they won’t let us?”

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Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man. Property of Disney.

In contrast, Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, seems to have developed an even more deeply buried, debilitating form of the PTSD we glimpsed in Iron Man 3. Despite his efforts to improve the world and move on (evidenced by the destruction of his suits in Iron Man 3 and his failed attempt at the Ultron Project in Age of Ultron), Tony has finally realized that he doesn’t want to stop being a hero, or rather that he can’t stop. The results of his recent actions caused the dissolution of his relationship with Pepper Potts and the deaths caused by his deeds weigh heavily on him; his guilt drives him to support the Accords, despite protests from Steve.

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Sebastian Stan as Bucky Barnes, the Winter Soldier. Property of Disney.

The catalyst for the “civil war” alluded to in the title comes from the reappearance of Cap’s old wartime buddy (and hetero life-mate) Bucky Barnes. After his supposed involvement in a terrorist act stirs up international controversy, Steve, Tony, and the rest of the Avengers are forced to choose sides in a conflict that will have no true victor. Loyalty is Steve’s greatest asset; his disbelief that Bucky would commit an act so brazen after spending more than a year in hiding leads him to clash with Tony who has already cast judgment. The conflict is further complicated by the involvement of T’Challa, the King of Wakanda, whose involvement in proceedings is extremely personal and tied directly into the apparent actions of Bucky.

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The Avengers discuss the Sokovia Accords. Property of Disney.

Though there is a lot of set up, what follows is two hours of glorious action, dramatic confrontation, and intensely personal stakes that lead to a reveal so painful and so well-done, the film’s ending is completely earned. The true success of the film is that there is no clear answer to the dilemma presented. Both Steve and Tony make compelling cases for their sides, backed by their experiences in the events of the previous films. The moral grayness of the situation and the way in which each of the characters play into it is very impressive; not a single scene or act by the characters rings false. This film only works because of the strength of its performances and everyone here is at the top of their game.

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Chris Evans as Steve Rogers. Property of Disney.

Once again, Chris Evans embodies the near impossible goodness of Steve Rogers with ease. Steve’s commitment to his ideals and, above all, his friend Bucky is beyond touching and you can’t help but be caught up in his moral quandary as the situation spirals out of control.

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Team Iron Man. Property of Disney.

Robert Downey Jr. turns in his best performance to date as Tony Stark. Just like Steve, Tony’s character has come a long way while remaining true to himself. Though the sharp-tongued, smartass still exists, more than ever before Tony’s quips come off as a defense mechanism and there’s a weariness to him now that wasn’t present before. This is definitely the most somber and dramatic the character has ever been and RDJ handles each and every scene with aplomb; he’ll break your heart with a glance by the end and even if you don’t agree with him, it’s difficult to not feel sympathetic to his pain.

Finally, Sebastian Stan is given more material to work with as Bucky Barnes, ably portraying a man attempting to rebuild himself, ashamed of his past and seeking to make amends. Steve’s relationship to Bucky was very one-sided in The Winter Soldier. Thankfully, here, we’re finally allowed to see more of the the enduring friendship we glimpsed between Steve and Bucky way back in The First Avenger. Bucky’s struggle to become himself once more is compelling and it is easy to understand just why Steve would fight so fiercely for his friend.

The rest of the cast shine in their respective roles, though some are given more material than others considering the difficult position Steve and Tony’s conflict puts them in. Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow struggles with herself, caught between her loyalty to Steve and the constancy and support she desires given her complicated past. Paul Bettany’s Vision must grapple with his developing humanity while also striving to prevent another disaster like Ultron to occur. Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch must contend with the fear she inspires as well as the fear she has of herself and the immense power of which she is capable. Everyone else, from Don Cheadle’s War Machine to Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye get their moments to shine, with Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man in particular having a movie-stealing scene.

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Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther. Property of Disney.

However, most of the buzz surrounding Civil War is because of two new characters: Black Panther and Spider-Man. Chadwick Boseman (42, Get On Up) is perfect as the king and protector of the fictional African nation of Wakanda. Black Panther is an intimidating, dynamic presence. Though he aligns with Tony, the reason for doing so is more circumstantial than anything, making him an unpredictable wildcard that lends energy to every scene that he’s in. As an actor, Boseman has such a huge presence; he’s regal and fierce, charismatic and intense in a way that few characters have been so far in the MCU. His appearance here only made me more excited for Ryan Coogler’s forthcoming Black Panther; news that 90% of the cast will be African or African-American only sweetens the deal.

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Tom Holland as Spider-Man. Property of Disney.

Finally, Tom Holland is Spider-Man. His Peter Parker is just a kid: pure-hearted and joyful in a way that we hadn’t yet seen in a cinematic Spider-Man until now. Beyond the levity lent by his youth, he jokes, quips, swings, and crawls on walls, performing everything you’ve wanted to see Spider-Man do; only this time with the characters you’ve come to love from other Marvel films. His innocence and well-meant heroism is as close to “with great power comes great responsibility” as you could get and I, for one, can’t wait to see him reprise his role in Spider-Man: Homecoming.

Which brings us to the villain of Civil War. Yes, there is a villain and another victory in this film (among a long list of victories) is that he doesn’t wear a costume nor does he need to fight our heroes directly. He’s a manipulator; a man with clear purpose and endless patience. His name is Helmut Zemo, played by Daniel Brühl of Inglorious Basterds and Rush. Though his motives come to be known in time, Zemo’s enigmatic presence pervades the entire film; his exact involvement and the particulars of his plan are not revealed until the climax, but when they are, it’s devastating. Once again, thanks to the strength of the writing, even Zemo’s motivations are understandable and, on the scale of a Marvel film, very small and intimate. Daniel Brühl’s performance goes a long way to make Zemo a layered, somber character rather than a cartoonish villain bent on destruction, and he’s all the more memorable for it. I think he sits comfortably just beneath Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, alongside the exceptional villains of Marvel’s Netflix shows.

Despite the excellent job the writers did wrangling this story into something coherent, Civil War wouldn’t be such a resounding success without outstanding direction. Thankfully, Joe and Anthony Russo (who co-directed The Winter Soldier) return to lend their considerable talent to the film. Their direction is imaginative, their framing (assisted by cinematographer, Trent Opaloch) is artful, and they nail the character drama as well as the action. Their choreography is incredible; the fifteen minute, super-powered airport brawl that takes place about 2/3rds through the movie is filled with so much geektastic joy that you’re unlikely to see a more memorable action sequence this year. Each character’s powers are utilized in a creative, organic way and each of the confrontations highlighted carry their own weight within the context of the world the Russos have helped construct. Black Widow vs Hawkeye means something. Scarlet Witch vs. Iron Man means something. Black Panther vs. Bucky means something. Everything builds, everything pays off. Truly, Civil War is a feat of filmmaking and probably my favorite superhero film since The Dark Knight.

There’s little more that could be said save for this: among one of the film’s greatest accomplishments is that it remains a Captain America movie. Though the Avengers and other heroes are present, this is not Avengers 2.5. This story orbits around Steve Rogers and his immense love for his friend. His struggle to remain true to his ideals in the face of adversity and well-meant opposition is presented in a compelling and mature manner, proving once again that superhero films can be more than just spectacle, but some of the most potent, affecting character dramas of our modern age.

Thirteen films in and Marvel Studios is still going strong. I can’t wait for the next thirteen and beyond.

Errant Thoughts – The Nonexistent Uncanny Valley and (Fantastical) Photorealism

This is the first post in a new segment on the blog which will mainly feature my opinions on various things, most likely entertainment related. Though I still plan to do an extensive defense of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy sometime in the near future, the subject of this post is tangentially related and has been simmering in the back of my mind for some time.
Having recently seen The Jungle Book, now seems as good a time as any to discuss the wonders of CGI (computer generated imagery also sometimes referred to as CG) and, perhaps more importantly, how audiences react to computer generated characters. Many times I feel that there is a distinct disconnect between me and the general populace when it comes to films that feature a lot of special effects. This is neither a good or bad thing, just a conclusion I’ve drawn from discussing feelings about recent films with people I know in real life, on the internet, and the aggregate “reaction” represented by sites like Rotten Tomatoes. Spectacle is about to become the name of the game once more as we move into the summer months, where the budgets of films expand along with the amount of fantastical, impossible special effects shots. I am not writing this in defense of straight eye-candy; explosions with no emotion don’t do anything for me. I do love when spectacle combines with character and offers something impossible and stimulating. However, it seems there exists an odd sort of double standard when it comes to computer generated characters and which ones critics and the general audience accept and champion.

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Baloo (Bill Murray) and Mowgli (Neel Sethi) from The Jungle Book. Property of Disney.

The most recent film I can site is Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book. Favreau is a wonderful director with a keen sense for character and well-paced storytelling – just look at Iron Man; that’s a ridiculously tight film. He used these skills to create a fun adventure film in The Jungle Book, one that sits comfortably among other recent profitable, nostalgia-inducing remakes such as Maleficent and Cinderella. Much of the film’s success can be contributed to Justin Marks’ imaginative script, which distilled the rambling fever dream of the original animated film into something resembling a coherent story. However, beyond the creative leadership of this project, it is the artistic team responsible for creating an entire digital world and cast of speaking animal characters that deserves the most credit for the film’s success. Aside from the main child actor, not a single character in the film is real, but rather a digital creation, painstakingly rendered using a number of impressive techniques.

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Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) and Mowgli (Neel Sethi). Property of Disney.

Many critics as well as members of the general audience have praised The Jungle Book for its “photorealistic” animal characters. The same sentiment was shared for the remarkable ape characters presented in 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Both of these films set a high bar for effects work and are artistic triumphs.

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Koba (Toby Kebbell) in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Property of 20th Century Fox.

And I agree, but there seems to be no such love (at least in the last five or so years) for creations that are not digital analogues of real world animals. What do I mean?

One of the main criticisms of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy was that it used too much CGI, abandoning the practical effects work that made The Lord of the Rings trilogy so aesthetically pleasing. I think this is an unfair comparison given that the breadth and scope of spectacle presented in LotR was only possible because of the amount of CGI used; however, I understand that the argument is presented mainly on the basis of the appearance of certain characters rather than the presentation of large armies of creatures, landscapes, etc. True, there is no reason they could not have used practical effects to render minor, minion characters such as the goblins in the Goblin Tunnels, etc., but it is the mixed-to-negative reaction to important CG characters that I do not understand.

It is here that we have reached my disconnect.

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Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett) in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Property of Warner Bros.

Azog the Defiler, the main antagonist of The Hobbit trilogy is a triumph of both performance and technology. Motion-captured from the performance of actor, Manu Bennett (of Spartacus and Arrow fame), Azog – an eight-foot tall, white orc – is expressive, moves in a realistic, dynamic manner, and most importantly, possesses a startling amount of visual detail. Pores show on his face, muscles shift and move beneath his skin, sweat glistens upon him as he fights, and his eyes burn with emotion and realistic movement.

A similar quality was attained on the villain Doomsday in the recent superhero film, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. A sore spot for many, Doomsday was criticized from the day he first appeared in the second trailer released for the film.

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Doomsday in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Property of Warner Bros.

Though he does not possess the most memorable character design (in this film or in the comics), he is still no doubt an impressive feat of digital sorcery. Like Azog, he is rendered with surprising clarity; veins stand against his skin, reflective spittle drools from his bared gums, and his eyes track as you would expect them to. As he takes damage, he tears away a semi-transparent outer layer of membranous skin as textured crystals spring from the flesh beneath to take their place.

Another recent example that springs to mind is Warcraft – a film that’s not even out yet – based upon the lore presented in the series of video games by Blizzard Entertainment. The CGI in the trailers is some of the best fantastical CGI I’ve ever seen; faithfully rendering a world in which I spent a ton of time in my years playing World of Warcraft. Yet looking at the comments, it doesn’t take long to see numerous posts complaining about the appearance of the characters belonging to the orcish race: seven-foot giants with tusks, ham hock fists, tree trunk legs, and skin tones that range from green and yellow to dark brown.

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Durotan (Toby Kebbell) in the upcoming Warcraft. Property of Universal Pictures.

Why do so many people dislike Azog and flat-out hate Doomsday? Why are so many already willing to dismiss Warcraft? It’s a strange phenomenon and I’m not here to say that anyone is wrong if they feel like CGI detracts from a film, I’m just curious why The Jungle Book has characters that are lauded, while equally impressive characters such as Azog the Defiler and Doomsday are met with an ambivalent shrug. I have pondered this ever since the release of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. I think I have come to a possible reason and I believe it has to do with the “Uncanny Valley.”

Coined by Japanese Engineer, Dr. Masahiro Mori in 1970 in relation to the development of advanced robotics, the Uncanny Valley is the hypothesis in aesthetics that states, “as [a simulated form] became more human-like there would first be an increase in its acceptability and then as it approached a nearly human state there would be a dramatic decrease in acceptance,” (Pollick, 2).

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A graph explaining the Uncanny Valley by Matthew Trump.

If we remove that definition from robotics and apply it to the strides made in animation, specifically character animation, the effect is clear. An oft-used example of the Uncanny Valley is 2004’s The Polar Express. Though digital technology allowed for Tom Hanks to play multiple characters (including a child), the glassy-eyed, rubber-skinned nature of the characters unsettle many audience members.

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Hero Boy (Tom Hanks) and Conductor (Tom Hanks) in The Polar Express. Property of Warner Bros.

The feeling of revulsion or wrongness comes from the disconnect of seeing something that’s obviously fake masquerading as something real. However, I feel as if the disconnect with a lot of viewers when it comes to fantastical creatures like Azog or Doomsday exists for the exact opposite reason. It is not because they exist within the Uncanny Valley; for them there is no Uncanny Valley.

Azog and Doomsday are humanoid in shape, but they are not approximations of something for which we have real-world examples, unlike the animal characters depicted in The Jungle Book. Shere Khan is an incredibly impressive effect, but the audience knows and can approximate what a tiger would look and move like.

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Shere Khan (Idris Elba) in The Jungle Book. Property of Disney.

An eight-foot tall orc has no real world analogue to anchor expectation, leading to a quick judgment that “it looks fake” or “it’s unrealistic.” Both are valid points. Both could be said for the characters in The Jungle Book. I loved the character designs in that film, but at no point did I think that Bagheera and Shere Kahn were photorealistic. They were clearly not real and perhaps that’s where I diverge from many people.

None of it is real. It’s a film.

Escapism, for me, is formed by the entire experience. All film is artifice; CGI is simply a tool to help enhance the illusion of reality. Some effects are better than others, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film completely broken by poor or aging CGI. It’s the reason why we still like The Matrix and are willing to sit through Terminator 2: Judgment Day every time it’s on TV; why we ignore the odd, character jerkiness and transitions of the Sam Raimi Spider-Man; why many maintain that the podrace is one of the few good parts about The Phantom Menace.

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Durotan (Toby Kebbell) in the upcoming Warcraft. Property of Universal Pictures.

Do the orcs in Warcraft look real? Of course not, but they look like realistic versions of the orcs in World of Warcraft and that’s all I’ve ever wanted from them. The same can be said of Azog and Doomsday. They are skillful approximations of the impossible and the fact that they exist in any capacity, at the quality at which they do, is incredible and indicative of how far computer technology has come since the early 90s.

I believe the reason why this post even exists is because as an audience we’ve been spoiled by spectacle, especially in the last five years. There are so many films with so much CGI that people have become inured to the incredible and that’s sad given the ridiculous amount of resources and artistry poured into every one of these characters. It becomes a question of how can the fantastic be depicted without CGI and if that’s possible, would you even want it to? Marvel’s big bad Thanos should be exactly that: big, beyond any possible humanoid stature and able to move with a swiftness that belies his size.

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Thanos (Josh Brolin) in the post-credits teaser at the end of The Avengers: Age of Ultron. Property of Disney.

Returning to the character of Azog, many state that he should have been an actor in makeup and prosthetics (which he originally was) like the character of Lurtz in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring; but could an actor emote enough, express enough through the makeup to make you believe that it was real?

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Lurtz (Lawrence Makoare) in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Property of New Line Cinema.

Lurtz only had to sneer and roar.

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Another shot of Lurtz (Lawrence Makoare) from the Extended Edition of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Property of New Line Cinema.

Could he have smiled like Azog, looked confused, looked triumphant? I find that doubtful.

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A stern Azog (Manu Bennett) in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. Property of Warner Bros.

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A confused Azog (Manu Bennett) in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. Property of Warner Bros.

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A triumphant Azog (Manu Bennett) in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. Property of Warner Bros.

Are there exceptions to the examples I’ve stated above? Of course. People loved Gollum from The Lord of the Rings when those films were first released, but I suspect that the reason had much to do with the novelty of the first fully-realized CGI character and Andy Serkis’ career-defining performance. Avatar as well is an exception and a big one at that – it’s still the highest-grossing film ever. However, I think a lot of that has to do with the immersive nature of the spectacle presented. James Cameron and co. gave us an entire world that was aesthetically consistent save for the practical sets and human characters. Since the interaction between the humans and the Na’vi is so limited, it’s easier to maintain the illusion, though the majority of Avatar is basically a high-budget an animated film. Smaug the dragon, a large part of the latter two films in The Hobbit trilogy seems immune to criticism on his appearance mainly because dragons are so prevalent in popular culture, lending the real-world anchor necessary to put people at ease with how he looks and moves (the sultry baritone of Benedict Cumberbatch may have helped as well).

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Azog (Manu Bennett) in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Property of Warner Bros.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that orcs don’t look real because they aren’t real. The same can be said for Azog and Doomsday. I’ve tried to move beyond being overly critical about CGI and have tried to accept the experience presented by the filmmakers, tried to immerse myself in the story and characters presented and judge films based upon those merits rather than if the CGI characters meet some nonexistent standard. Do I still see some effects shots that bother me? Of course, but if the rest of the film is awesome, then it’s really not that important. Case in point: even though the animals in The Jungle Book didn’t look completely real to me, the story and the performances were enough to reel me in and keep me entertained. So I would urge everyone to try and walk into every film with a more open, less critical mindset when it comes to CGI characters. Try to believe in the impossible for two hours at a time.

Do this and you might just leave the theater a happier person.

Bibliography: Pollick, Frank E. “In Search of the Uncanny Valley.” (n.d.): n. pag. Web. 3 May 2016.

Further Thoughts on Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Welcome to the first “Further Thoughts” post on my blog; a distinction given to those films that I just can’t quit thinking about. This week’s entry is about the highly divisive Batman v Superman. I wrote a thorough, non-spoilery post on my thoughts on the film, praising it for the weighty philosophical questions it raised as well as the strength of the performances delivered by its actors (yes that includes Jesse Eisenberg). However, many disagree with me, and that’s okay because of opinions! However, now that the film has been out for a few weeks to an endless parade of articles either criticizing or defending it, I thought it time to explore a few of the things that people take issue with and why they worked for me. So without further ado, here are my further thoughts.

WARNING: FULL SPOILERS to follow.

The Martha Moment –

Batman stands above Superman victorious, hefting the kryptonite spear. “You’re letting them kill Martha,” Superman groans. Batman frowns, confused. “Why did you say that name?” he screams. Many have found humor in this exchange, because not only does it give Batman a change of heart, but also sways him to immediately join Superman’s cause. Many think it abrupt and uncharacteristic of the Bruce Wayne that we’ve been following for the last two hours. Others likened it to the sudden friendship between the characters played by Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly in Step Brothers, a view which I find wildly reductive.

The reason why the scene worked for me was because Bruce had spent the whole film dehumanizing Superman. He never knew him as Clark Kent, only as the Kryptonian alien whose fight with members of his own race had levelled a quarter of Metropolis and killed thousands of people. This godlike being operated by his own rules, intervening in conflicts without much thought to the consequences of his actions. The absolutism of this version of Bruce Wayne (more on this in the Killer Batman segment) is startling and at the same time effective for that very reason; this is a brilliant man with seemingly endless resources, now all dedicated to the cause of taking Superman down. Until the Martha Moment, Superman had remained an alien, detached and unknowable.

Then, suddenly, Superman is a man with a mother. The significance of the Martha Moment is not merely the coincidence that both Bruce and Clark’s mothers have the same name (as many articles and memes have argued), but rather that it serves as an example of their shared humanity. Bruce, whose entire life has been fashioned by the tragedy of his parent’s murder, is suddenly reminded of that horrific moment when he is about to enact that very same violence against another. The alien that he so hated is suddenly a man who, facing death, is not worried about himself, but rather the one person that matters most to him in his life: Marth Kent.

The anger and frustration that follows this revelation as Bruce steps back and yells, casting the Kryptonite spear aside, is him realizing that he was wrong. That he, blinded by his anger, had nearly damned another Martha to death. Yet, unlike his mother, now he had a chance to save this Martha.

 

Armored Batman –

A short thought: many have complained about the slowness of the Armored Batman in the film. I feel like this is a misconception of the armor’s true purpose. Batman did not need speed so much as he needed protection and I appreciated the lengths to which the film went to illustrate how every punch that Superman inflicted upon Batman really hurt him, drove the breath from his lungs, and made it a struggle for him to recover. Without adequate protection and Superman holding back, Batman could have been dead from a single strike.

 

Killer Batman –

Yes, in this film, Batman kills, or at least he doesn’t mind collateral damage. What does this mean? It would seem that Batman’s “No Killing” rule has slackened to a “No Murder” rule after he experiences Superman and General Zod’s battle in Metropolis from the ground level. When he brands a criminal, Alfred calls him out on his growing bitterness and removal, saying, “New rules?” When Bruce glibly responds that they’ve been criminals from the start, Alfred warns him that the path to the point of no return starts with the type of rage he’s been harboring since witnessing the destruction of Metropolis caused in part by Superman. This is clearly a reference to Bruce only recently becoming more violent and perhaps more open to criminals dying during his outings as a vigilante. His startling absolutism (“If there is even a one percent chance, we have to take it as an absolute certainty”) is very unlike the Bruce Wayne that we know and representative of his disillusionment with fighting crime in a world gone crazy, where men fly and people die in the thousands. However, Bruce allowing deaths is not to say that he’s actively snapping necks (the only time that he directly kills anyone is in the Flash-induced vision called the “Knightmare Sequence,” which only represents a possible future, rather than a certainty); however he does allow criminals to die rather than going out of his way to save them.

This is contrary to most iterations of Batman in the comics, but not unheard of, especially within the cinematic versions of his character. People seem to forget the glee Michael Keaton’s Batman took in obliterating thugs with grenades, cannons, and fire, among other instruments in Tim Burton’s films. Even the Batman of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy is not completely innocent of lethal behavior, lest we forget the famous, “I’m not going to kill you, but I don’t have to save you,” line.

Overall, does Batman killing anger me as a Batman fan? No, because I don’t believe Bruce was like this for a long time given the contextual clues in the dialogue and also because Bruce’s whole arc in the film is about him regaining touch with his lost humanity. By immersing himself within the hatred he’d developed for an alien, he’d alienated himself from the very ideals that spurred him to take the mantle of the Bat in the first place. The Martha Moment was the defining moment in which he’d either retreat from murder or embrace it, and luckily for him and for us, he retreated, coming back to the Bruce Wayne that we know and love. His change of heart and admission of fault is clearly stated when he speaks to Diana Prince (Wonder Woman) at Superman’s funeral, when he says, “Men are still good.”

He’d forgotten that and it took an alien from Krypton to remind him.

 

Doomsday –

Most of the criticism levelled at the character of Doomsday has been directed at how he looks. Likened to a mutated troll from The Lord of the Rings films or a gray analogue to the current Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Doomsday joins the ever-growing pantheon of CG characters that people hate due to their appearance. I think the negative reactions to Doomsday’s appearance are indicative of the problem people have with the Uncanny Valley as it pertains to nonhuman characters. The Uncanny Valley as you most likely know is the feeling of wrongness or revulsion one gets when something looks natural, but is slightly “off.” In human CG creations this is apparent, however I feel that a problem many people have with CG monsters is that they simply cannot accept the reality being presented to them.

This is not to say that their opinion is wrong, but where I disagree with them spawns solely from what they’re choosing to judge in the first place. Yes, there is some questionable CG out there; in my opinion Doomsday is not in this category. I think he looks fantastic; the subtle folds and marking of his skin; the way he seems to erupt with energy, his signature crystal shards tearing out of his flesh as he becomes more powerful; all of it impressed me and made me excited to view more of the sequences involving him. Many people seem to dislike CG because it takes them out of the film, because it doesn’t look “real,” but to my thinking, of course that is the case. There isn’t a real world analogue for Doomsday the same way there wasn’t an orc we could look at to measure the “realness” of Azog the Defiler from the Hobbit Trilogy, a robot to measure Ultron from The Avengers: Age of Ultron, or the orcs from the upcoming Warcraft film. They are inherently unrealistic characters for which there is no obvious real life comparison.

Accepting their otherness is the key to enjoying them, because we know they are not real. The reactions to the CG creations stated above are a far cry from how people (on the whole) felt about Caesar and his ape brethren in the Planet of the Apes reboot and its sequel. I believe this is because we know how apes and monkeys are supposed to look and it is truly incredible that any technology and performance could get close to mimicking those qualities. Other exceptions seem to come from critically acclaimed films where people are more likely to ignore even apparent CG due to the depth of the escapism provided, such as many parts of The Lord of the Rings and the reigning, number one grossing film of all time, Avatar.

As far as how effective Doomsday was as an adversary and plot device, I think that he was a positive, unexpected inclusion. Exploring the Death of Superman arc this early in the DC universe surprised and excited me; I didn’t know it was going to go there, but it did, and now it’s a brave new world, one full of possibilities as far as adaptations go, with the freedom to make certain changes that could prove both satisfying and original. That being said, I also thought Doomsday was a suitably brawny antagonistic counterpart to the intellect represented by Lex Luthor’s character.

 

The Death of Superman –

The big one. At the end of the film, Superman dies as he kills Doomsday, sacrificing himself to save humanity. I knew that the Death of Superman arc from the late eighties featured Doomsday as the primary antagonist, but I did not expect for BvS to borrow from that source so heavily and literally end with the death of Superman.

Why it worked for me: Man of Steel was largely about Clark Kent struggling with his feelings of alienation and searching for his place in the world. His parents didn’t know if the world was ready for the philosophical, religious, and moral implications of his reveal, but in the end, Clark was forced to embrace the title of the Superman in order to defend Earth from General Zod, a dark mirror of himself.

What I like about BvS is that it continues this thematic exploration. Though Superman has now became a savior to many, he is still an outsider, a god apart from the humanity around him. Being that other metahumans (Flash, Aquaman, Wonder Woman, Cyborg, etc.) have not yet seen fit to reveal themselves, the onus of representing the super-powered falls squarely upon Superman. Everything he does, everything he says is representative of this immense power and no matter his actions, they will be dissected and interpreted in various ways just as if major religious deities/figures were alive today. As with most messianic figures, sacrifice is a main part of his story. In the story of the biblical Jesus, he had to become a man to sacrifice himself on behalf of humanity. Clark became Superman in Man of Steel by embracing his powers and using them for good, but he still struggled with these feelings of removal, of otherness. BvS is a story that continues this theme and culminates with Superman’s refutation of otherness.

The finale is as dire as it gets: Doomsday grows more powerful by the moment while Batman and Wonder Woman struggle to take him down. Lois kneels beside a weakened Superman who looks at the kryptonite spear and realizes that only through sacrifice can he defeat Doomsday. In the acceptance of this sacrifice, he also accepts his place on Earth, not as Kryptonian, but as a citizen of the planet. “This is my world,” he says to Lois, “You are my world.” Besides his mother, Lois is the only other human that understands him; she grounds him, provides him with a view of the best of us. She and people like her are the reason he fights and the reason he is willing to die.

This moment was extremely impactful and it really resonated with me. It also excited me for the future potential of the DC universe. Now that the Death of Superman is out of the way, the metahumans are going to be rounded up by Batman (director Zack Snyder said he’s going to do a sort of Seven Samurai inspired wandering of the world in order to find them), paving the way for Superman’s return to a world where his godlike abilities will be less out-of-the-norm, allowing him to rest a little easier and be the boy-scout that many fans desire.

 

So that’s that for my thoughts on Batman v Superman. If I think of anything else, I’ll add to this post, but for now, I eagerly await the August release of Suicide Squad.

Thoughts on Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

The greatest gladiator match in the history of the world has come, blasting into theatres amidst a cacophony of fervent hatred and praise. It is only appropriate that this film would stir such controversy; it’s the first meeting of two of pop culture’s most timeless figures, legends who have defined a medium for nearly eighty years: Batman and Superman. So what did I think?

The short answer: I’ve seen it twice and I really enjoyed it.

The long answer: Prepare yourself and read on.

Batman v Superman, like its predecessor, Man of Steel, was destined to be a polarizing film. People still talk about Man of Steel nearly three years after its release, debating the heroism of Superman’s actions during its finale where a large portion of Metropolis (Superman’s home city) was levelled, partly due to Superman’s fight with fellow Kryptonian, General Zod. It is refreshing to see a sequel that directly addresses the issues people had with the previous film and that is exactly what Batman v Superman does for the majority of its run time. It begins with the events of Man of Steel’s finale, viewed from the perspective of human witness on the ground; in this case, it’s the billionaire entrepreneur and alter-ego of Batman, Bruce Wayne. Wayne navigates the horrors of a city under attack, threading his way through terrified civilians and debris in hopes of making his way to the Wayne Enterprises building before it is destroyed. He doesn’t. People close to him die. Families are broken. Clutching a possibly orphaned child in the wreckage of his building, Wayne finally seems to understand the massive level of destruction of which Superman is capable. Moved by these events, Wayne begins to prepare for the day that he will face Superman, convinced that it is only inevitable that a being of such power would eventually decide to rule the world instead of aiding it.

The premise is immediately interesting given its clear focus on consequences, something that few other comic book films seem to address – oddly enough, Captain America: Civil War seems to be exploring this subject as well later this year. Superman’s alien origins and his politics of interference that function beyond any borders or international laws, have become an issue of controversy, given that he acts according to his own will and no governing entity. How then is he supposed to dispense his justice? Who does he save? Should anyone be allowed to have such power over life and death? These are only a few of the heady questions raised by the film and I admire writer Chris Terrio (who won an Oscar for writing 2012’s excellent Argo) for attempting to explore the fantastic through real-world problems.

The inherent dilemma created by the mixed reaction to Superman’s heroism stems from his unfaltering goodness. He’s confused and troubled that his efforts have led to more strife; a Reeves Era superhero embroiled in an age of modern ambiguity. Determined to honor the memory of both of his fathers, Superman believes he must use his powers for good, but given his god-like ability, this means actively choosing between evils daily. Going to one location to save a ship from a pirate hijacking means letting a group of workers die in a factory fire. Interfering in a struggle between African militant groups to save an innocent sets the stage for even greater violence once he’s gone. The ugly truth of Superman’s existence is that he can never be at all places at all times, and no matter his goodness nor his ardent desire to help the people of Earth, people will die. The best part of this dilemma is that there is no clear answer and this was perhaps my favorite philosophical point of the film. Like full-time Good Guy Steve Rogers, Superman is a hero hounded by his conscience and ultimately, he must learn that he can’t save everyone, but it is the attempt that is most important. The wide-ranging consequences of Superman’s actions are rarely expounded upon in this way in the source material since the comic book medium is more focused on singular events or arcs. Though you probably wouldn’t write a dissertation on it, I still feel that Batman v Superman raises these questions and plumbs their philosophical depths in a multifaceted, emotionally satisfying way. Unfortunately, the open-ended nature of the philosophical questions posed aren’t exactly satisfying to a general audience.

Thankfully, Henry Cavill makes for a hero worthy of the audience’s belief. Though his Superman is not necessarily charismatic, he is always well-meant and earnest. Physically, you can’t get much closer to the character’s appearance in the comics and Cavill looks (almost impossibly) more jacked than he was in Man of Steel. The size of his physique and the physical dimension of his performance make the miraculous look plausible as Superman lifts impossible weights and fights powerful foes. Meanwhile, Cavill’s humble alter ego also avoids the cartoonish clumsiness of Christopher Reeve’s Clark, instead portraying him as an intrepid reporter often meddling in affairs above his pay grade. Overall, despite the odd flat line reading, Cavill remains a great Superman.

Representing the other side of the coin is Batman. Ben Affleck shines as the Dark Knight, embodying the Bruce Wayne that I’ve always wanted to see onscreen. Like all film adaptations, Affleck’s Batman is an amalgamation of different sources pulled from the source material. This representation in particular derives most heavily from Frank Miller’s seminal The Dark Knight Returns, which featured an older, disillusioned Bruce Wayne, more troubled and brutal than ever. And this Batman is brutal. He beats people senseless, brands criminals during interrogation, and isn’t one to shy away from gross bodily harm, but he is indisputably Batman. Unlike the Batman of Christopher Nolan’s wonderful Dark Knight Trilogy, this Batman will never stop; he couldn’t even if he wanted to. He’s a soldier and an admitted criminal, working outside the bounds of the law, dispensing his own brand (heh) of justice. However, the events of the film’s prologue have marked a turning point for Bruce Wayne; he’s begun to question if all of his struggle, all of his pain (evidenced by a battered, bullet-ridden Robin costume that stands sentinel in the Bat Cave) has been for nothing. Despite the protests of his faithful manservant Alfred (played to perfection by Jeremy Irons), Bruce becomes convinced that his legacy will be ridding the world of its most imminent threat: Superman.

Affleck is the perfect Batman. Beyond the excellent, Kevlar appearance of his new suit (Miller-esque short ears and all), Affleck’s Batman is a terror. Above all, Batman is supposed to be imposing, a man whose very appearance should inspire fear, and that he does. He’s even more horrifying when he does burst into action, cracking heads, punching faces, and using all variety of gadgets in a manner not yet seen in a Batman film. As Bruce Wayne, Affleck also excels, more of a beleaguered, functional drunk than Christian Bale’s smarmy doofus. Yet the rough edges and hints of darkness remain. Affleck’s greatest accomplishment is this nuance: a superhero who plays at being a man; a deeply troubled, borderline sociopath whose dedication to justice only just eclipses his need to distribute pain.

The holy DC trinity would not be complete without Diana Prince, also known as Wonder Woman. I won’t spoil how she factors into the film, but I will say that Gal Gadot makes the most of her limited screen time as the Amazonian Princess. She imbues the character with age and wisdom while also maintaining the fiery spark that Wonder Woman is known for; even though she plays at being an aristocrat, she is a warrior at heart and when she enters the fray she is truly impressive. Given the initial, stupid controversy of Gal Gadot’s casting (with lame, misogynistic complaints ranging from “she’s not muscular enough” to “her breasts being too small”), I’m glad that Gadot proved naysayers wrong. Her strong portrayal of the character and the immediately memorable theme that often accompanies her make me extremely excited for her first solo outing in next year’s Wonder Woman.

Finally, a superhero film must have a villain; though Batman and Superman’s relationship is largely antagonistic for the majority of the film, Lex Luthor fills the role of the primary villain. Much has been said about Jesse Eisenberg’s idiosyncratic, neurotic portrayal of Lex Luthor. Though I am partial to the version presented in the animated Justice League and Superman: The Animated Series’ (voiced by the awesome Clancy Brown), Eisenberg’s Luthor worked for me. He is a man who laments that he is brilliant in mind, but weak in body, hateful that anyone would worship Superman when he is inherently alien and other. Disturbed that most of the world would eagerly embrace Superman after the desolation of half of Metropolis, Lex sets into motion a series of events in order to show the world that man, not God, remains the ultimate power on Earth (at least for now…). His immense wealth, manic speech, and difficulty maintaining conversation further solidify his position as an outsider, and one gets the impression that he enjoys that removal though he seems like a person unsatisfied with his social position, always striving to move higher, but not knowing how to earn it. The immediate extremity of his actions are representative of that removal from humanity, his belief that he is acting in the best interest of the world despite what the general populace might say is an example of his vast ego. Though the performance is the broadest of the main players, I still enjoyed Eisenberg and am excited to see him further develop this character as the DC universe continues.

The supporting cast is also strong. Laurence Fishburne reprises his role as Daily Planet Editor Perry White, a welcome sense of plain-speaking levity for a rather dour film. Likewise Jeremy Iron’s Alfred Pennyworth is a charming, yet stern voice of reason; he’s clearly ex-military, more grease-monkey than butler and evidently influenced by Geoff Johns’ Batman: Earth One. I can’t wait to see more of his relationship with Ben Affleck in the forthcoming solo Batman films. Amy Adams continues to be a good Lois Lane, hard-nosed and determined to ask Clark the hard questions that he’d rather avoid. Her goodness makes Clark a better person and in this manner, I found myself far more emotionally invested in their relationship in this film than I did during Man of Steel.

As far as the actual construction of the film goes, I did not find it convoluted as many negative reviews suggested. However, I will say that this was clearly a longer film cut for time – the deluxe home edition will have an additional thirty minutes of footage, including Jena Malone in a role rumored to be Barbara Gordon, a.k.a. Oracle/Batgirl. That being said, as far as direction goes, it’s a stylistic showcase of director Zack Snyder’s most apparent strength: his eye. Aided by cinematographer Larry Fong (Now You See Me, 300), Snyder once again manages to capture the essence of the source material on film. The shots are artfully framed, the action dynamic and filmed with clarity and style, which is saying something considering the effects-driven madness of the finale.

While visually stunning, the score is also worthy of note. Hans Zimmer returns with all the bombast and creativity that made his Superman theme in Man of Steel so memorable. However, this time he also enlisted the help of Tom Holkenborg a.k.a. Junkie XL, who’s had a whirlwind twelve months with his stellar scores for Mad Max: Fury Road and Deadpool. Not wanting to compete with his Batman score for Christopher Nolan’s films, Zimmer handed off the Batman portions of the film to Holkenborg, who has done some great work. Holkenborg has taken Batman’s theme away from the percussive, almost mechanical sound of Zimmer’s score and driven it back toward more gothic, Danny Elfman territory; it’s all blasting horns and ululating choral swells, further solidifying Batman’s darkness in opposition to the light, hopeful tone of Superman. Beyond the titular characters, Lex Luthor’s villainous theme also shines: a mixture of grumbling, low piano notes accompanied by playful, lilting violin notes. Even more impressive is Wonder Woman’s aforementioned electric cello theme that will, without a doubt, remain long in your memory whether you’d like it to or not. It’s catchy, immediately exotic, and definitely representative of the warrior culture of Wonder Woman and her people.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is bound to upset some people. Though it addresses the criticisms of its predecessor, it also doubles down in a number of places, and for that I almost respect it more. The makers of this film are committed to their vision; it may not be my vision or your vision, but it is the only cinematic version of these characters that we’re going to get for the foreseeable future (there are already over ten films planned for future release). That being said, I really enjoyed this film. It raised complex moral and philosophical questions and cast familiar characters and themes in a different, unexpected light. The acting was universally great to excellent, the clear standout being Ben Affleck’s pitch-perfect portrayal of Batman/Bruce Wayne. Technically, the film merits praise and demands to be seen on the biggest screen with the loudest sound system one can find. Overall, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice effectively reestablishes two of pop culture’s most important characters and sets the stage for greater adventures and struggles in the endlessly fascinating DC Universe.

Whether you doubt my words or find yourself excited by them, the only way to know what you think of the film is to see it.

ICYMI: Thoughts on Macbeth (2015)

It’s difficult to get recognition for certain genre films in the awards circuit. Until only recently the idea of nominating a fantasy or science-fiction film for Best Picture would have seemed out of the question. However, thanks to the paradigm shift initiated by The Matrix, emboldened by Peter Jackson’s perfect (and I mean perfect) Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the likes of other hits such as The Dark Knight, District 9 and the recent Mad Max: Fury Road, we have entered into a time where even the most outlandish tale, if well told, can aspire to Oscar Gold. The same cannot be said for Shakespearean adaptations, which is a shame considering Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth is one of the finest films I have seen in recent memory.

One of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies, Macbeth follows the titular Scottish general who, along with his wife, plots to murder his king and assume his position. After the deed is done, Macbeth’s life begins to unravel as the consequences of the king’s assassination become apparent and more dire actions are required of Macbeth to retain his precarious position. Madness has always been a potent theme of the play and here it is even more apparent. The strength of film as a medium is the totality of its illusion and director Justin Kurzel uses every tool available to him to make his adaptation of the stage play as cinematic as possible. The cinematography by Adam Arkapaw (Snowtown Murders) is beautiful and unsettling. Through his lens the Scottish highlands are a bleak, purgatorial wasteland, devoid of color and comfort; likewise Macbeth’s castle is shot in such a way that he always stands at odds with his surroundings, a brute amidst finery, clearly an impostor in another man’s house. The battle scenes, only alluded to in the play, are shown here in full, brutal yet stylistic, often depicted in ultra-slow-motion that makes them look like the grim renderings of some Renaissance painter. The score only adds to the nightmarish, fever-dream that is this film; composed by the director’s brother, Jed Kurzel, nearly every moment is filled with discomfort, a niggling dread that’s drawn out during the film’s monologues, then strengthened with discordant swells and shrieks into the atonal, pounding battle music of the film’s finale.

No matter how wonderfully crafted a film is, the majority of its success rests with its actors and thankfully the performances in Macbeth are universally excellent. Michael Fassbender makes for an incredible Macbeth. Casting his version of the character as a soldier suffering from acute PTSD and delusions of grandeur, Fassbender effortlessly navigates the manic, shifting nature of Macbeth in a way that reveals his bone-deep doubt and weakness. The main folly of Macbeth is his suggestible nature; though an able warrior, he is not one for far-thinking or deep-cunning. Lady Macbeth, however, is. The architect of Macbeth’s ascension, as well as a voice of questionable counsel, Lady Macbeth needs to be both clever and strong, a woman withheld from power by no more than the unfair and gendered restrictions of the time. Marion Cotillard captures the (seemingly) indomitable will of Lady Macbeth, showing a woman who will stop at nothing to take what she believes is hers. Together, Fassbender and Cotillard shine, their chemistry palpable, the complex power-play of their characters’ relationship revealed with every whispered line and cutting glance.

Bolstered by its great performances, Macbeth shines most in the subtle additions and alterations made by Kurzel and his writing partners. Though they alter not a word of the Bard’s language, the context of events take a different shape under their guidance, imbuing many moments and character turns with more power and depth. I will not spoil the full extent of Kurzel and company’s innovative choices, but I will say that they cast a well-worn play in an entirely new light.

These tweaks, along with the powerhouse performances of both Fassbender and Cotillard, the sublimely nightmarish quality of the cinematography, and the unsettling score make for a quintessential Shakespeare experience and the best time you’re likely to have outside of an actual theatre.

All hail Macbeth, indeed.

The Taylor Awards 2016

Academy_Award_trophy

The Oscars are upon us once more, which means another iteration of my own list of favorites from this last Oscar season/year. I have bolded my favorite selections from this year; those that do not have a bolded entry were simply too close to call. Multiple bolded entries signify a tie. Any films that I have done posts for will be linked, so just click on the title if you’d like a refresher on what I thought of them. Once again I must put the disclaimer that I probably forgot a few films/performances or I simply haven’t seen them, so sorry to those famous/creative minds who read this and are saddened by their exclusion, I still hope we can work together/be best friends someday.

Now without further ado!

 

Best Picture – Academy-esque Films

Beasts of No Nation

The Big Short

Carol

Creed

The Danish Girl

Ex Machina

Macbeth

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Revenant

Room

Sicario

Spotlight

Steve Jobs

Straight Outta Compton

 

This has been another tremendous year for film. Beasts of No Nation broke me with its unflinching portrayal of a child soldier’s life somewhere in Africa. The Big Short showed us the ins and outs of the 2008 financial crisis in a way that was both satisfying and infuriating to the layman. Creed returned the Rocky franchise to greatness by placing Rocky into a supporting role and reorienting its focus onto Apollo Creed’s son: a troubled young man who must forgive his father for his absence and persevere over adversity to become worthy of the name that has haunted him his entire life. The Danish Girl gave life to an important historical, transgender figure whose story of self-discovery still inspires people to this day. Ex Machina delivered an unnerving exploration of the idea of sentience and humanity’s place in a rapidly developing technological landscape. Macbeth is, in my mind, the quintessential version of the famed Scottish play about a would-be king’s descent into madness following a fateful decision. Mad Max: Fury Road roared into theatres, giving us another (and in my opinion, the best) Mad Max adventure as well as one of the greatest female protagonists of all time in the form of Charlize Theron’s unforgettable, Imperator Furiosa. Room showed us the depthless nature of a mother’s love for her child, even under harrowing circumstances. Sicario offered a chilling portrait of the politically complex and morally corrupt drug war taking place upon the border between the United States and Mexico. Spotlight told the story of a crack team of investigative journalists who discovered the horrifying cover-up of countless sexual abuses perpetrated by priests and other officials in the Catholic Church. Steve Jobs gave us a three-act character study that explored the complex, conflicted brilliance of one of our most important modern figures. And finally, Straight Outta Compton depicted one of the most important chapters in modern music history, following the rise, fall, and resurgence of the members of N.W.A., the socially conscious and incendiary rap group whose influences continue to be felt to this day.

These films are uniformly excellent, filled with memorable performances, eye-popping cinematography, imaginative direction, awesome art/production design, and masterful writing. However, The Revenant stands above them all. It is pure cinema; a relentless, unforgettable experience that, like Mad Max: Fury Road, could very well play out in complete silence and still be just as moving. Bolstered by Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy’s incredible performances as Hugh Glass and his embittered foil, Fitzgerald, The Revenant is stark in the simplicity of its premise. It is a revenge tale, beautifully told; an exploration of timeless, human concerns like life, death, morality, and purpose. Directed with aplomb by Alejandro González Iñárritu and lensed with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s distinct eye, The Revenant is a masterfully crafted work of art and without a doubt, a seminal film.

 

Best Picture – Science Fiction or Fantasy

Ant-Man

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Crimson Peak

Deadpool

Ex Machina

It Follows

Mad Max: Fury Road

Star Wars: Episode VII, The Force Awakens

 

            A list bursting with creativity and imagination, this year was filled with great science fiction and fantasy films; from Star Wars’ return to greatness to the perfection that is Mad Max: Fury Road, you’d be hard pressed to find anything more sensational this year. That being said, my pick for ‘Favorite Science Fiction or Fantasy Film’ has to be Alex Garland’s quietly thoughtful and entirely unsettling, Ex Machina. Writer of the excellent, underrated films 28 Days Later, Sunshine, and Dredd (where’s my sequel, damn it?!), first time director Alex Garland is no stranger to the sci-fi genre, but Ex Machina is a different beast entirely. At its heart, it’s a bottle film centered on three characters: a brilliant scientist, a human guinea pig, and a sentient A.I. creation called Eva. The layers of philosophical discourse, exploration of what it means to be human, and the complex relationships between these three characters showcase the strength of sci-fi as a genre: it is a platform for the dissection and discussion of important themes through fantastical circumstances. Garland’s film plays like the very best episode of The Twilight Zone, raising pertinent, timely questions while also offering a fascinating, unpredictable story that will keep you mesmerized until the very last frame. It’s a film that demands to be seen.

 

Best Action Film/ Best Films that Happen to Have Great Action Scenes in Them

Ant-Man

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Deadpool

Furious 7

Kingsman: The Secret Service

Mad Max: Fury Road

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

Star Wars: Episode VII, The Force Awakens

 

It was a great year for action films. Though I’m not sure anything can reach the hand-to-hand heights of last year’s The Raid 2: Berendal, we were treated to some truly memorable, wildly-imaginative action scenes and set-pieces. Beyond the superhero antics we have come to know and love (who dislikes seeing the Avengers crew get together?), this year saw Tom Cruise once again give his insurance rep heart palpitations as he hung onto the side of a cargo plane during take-off in Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation  – and that was only during the first ten minutes! – while Kingsman provided perhaps the most politically-loaded, darkly satisfying sequence of the year which not only took place inside a church tearing itself apart, but was also set to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Free Bird. Furious 7 gave us a touching send off to Paul Walker while also providing all of the outlandish, heart-pounding thrills we have come to expect from Dom and the family, including a string of unforgettable sequences (i.e. jumping a car from one skyscraper, to another, to another) that escalate in spectacular fashion. Meanwhile, Star Wars provided all of the lightsaber-clashing, laser-blasting joy for which we have hungered these last ten years. Given the raw, grounded vitality of Star Wars’ climactic lightsaber battle, it’s difficult to imagine any sequence more thrilling in a film this season; that is until you count the entirety of Mad Max: Fury Road.

Think about your grandpa. Now imagine a cooler version of him named George Miller. The original director of the Mad Max films returns to the genre he made famous with one of the greatest action films of all time. Featuring death-defying practical stunt work, clear, crisp editing, beautiful cinematography, and clever choreography, Mad Max: Fury Road is the action film all action films should aspire to be. Most importantly, it seamlessly integrates its action into a story grounded in a world dripping with atmosphere and history. Nothing happens without purpose and each set-piece serves to propel the plot forward, culminating in an unforgettable car-chase-fight sequence that puts most action films to shame. Truly, a triumph of action cinema.

 

Best Director

Lenny Abrahamson – Room

J.J. Abrams – Star Wars: Episode VII, The Force Awakens

Danny Boyle – Steve Jobs

Ryan Coogler – Creed

Cary Joji Fukunaga – Beasts of No Nation

Alex Garland – Ex Machina

F. Gary Gray – Straight Outta Compton

Tom Hooper – The Danish Girl

Alejandro González Iñárritu – The Revenant

Justin Kurzel – Macbeth

Tom McCarthy – Spotlight

Adam McKay – The Big Short

George Miller— Mad Max: Fury Road

 

A tough choice for me, but in the end I had to go with George Miller. Mad Max: Fury Road is a cinematic masterpiece and a labor of love for Miller who spent over ten years in development hell trying to get this film made. The sum total of his efforts is a breathless film that is perfectly paced, stylistically consistent, and full of potent themes and satisfying action. Without Miller, this film would not be half the movie that it is.

 

Best Actress

Cate Blanchett – Carol

Emily Blunt – Sicario

Brie Larson – Room

Saoirse Ronan – Brooklyn

 

I loved all three of these performances, but Brie Larson’s portrayal of a mother in a hopeless situation floored me. Larson imbues so much heart and depth into her character that it is impossible not to sympathize with her horrific situation. Powerful, powerful stuff.

 

Best Actor

Abraham Attah – Beasts of No Nation

Leonardo DiCaprio – The Revenant

Michael Fassbender – Steve Jobs

Eddie Redmayne – The Danish Girl

 

I love Leonardo DiCaprio. I love him dearly, but Michael Fassbender’s portrayal of Steve Jobs’ has to be my pick for best performance. Twisting his way around Aaron Sorkin’s rapid-fire dialogue, Fassbender is still somehow able to instill pathos and depth into a character that could have easily come off as caustic and cruel. I loved every moment of it.

 

Best Supporting Actress

Rooney Mara – Carol

Alicia Vikander – The Danish Girl

Charlize Theron – Mad Max: Fury Road

Kate Winslet – Steve Jobs

 

Alicia Vikander is the heart of The Danish Girl; her portrayal of a woman struggling with accepting her husband’s situation, and her subsequent support and friendship with Lilly Elba is absolutely stunning. Vikander is wholly deserving of this award, even in a category populated by sterling performances.

 

Best Supporting Actor

Christian Bale – The Big Short

Idris Elba – Beasts of No Nation

Tom Hardy – The Revenant

Michael Keaton – Spotlight

Sylvester Stallone – Creed

Mark Ruffalo –- Spotlight

Benicio del Toro – Sicario

Jacob Tremblay – Room

 

Christian Bale remains one of my favorite actors. His quirky, yet grounded performance in The Big Short literally carries half of the film. His The Dark Knight Rises co-star Tom Hardy, is likewise brilliant as the gruff, almost nihilistic Fitzgerald in The Revenant. If either won the Oscar, I’d be happy.

 

Best Cinematography

Adam Arkapaw – Macbeth

Roger Deakins – Sicario

Danny Cohen – The Danish Girl

Cary Joji Fukunaga – Beasts of No Nation

Emmanuel Lubezki – The Revenant

John Seale – Mad Max: Fury Road

 

Film Editing

Hank Corwin – The Big Short

Margaret Sixel – Mad Max: Fury Road

Stephen Mirrione – The Revenant

Chris Dickens – Macbeth

Tom McArdle – Spotlight

Elliot Graham – Steve Jobs

 

Writing – Adapted Screenplay

The Big Short – Charles Randolph, Adam McKay

Carol – Todd Haynes

The Revenant – Alejandro González Iñárritu, Mark L. Smith

Room – Emma Donoghue

Steve Jobs – Aaron Sorkin

 

Writing – Original Screenplay

Ex Machina – Alex Garland

Mad Max: Fury Road – George Miller, Brendan McCarthy

Spotlight – Josh Singer, Tom McCarthy

Straight Outta Compton – Jonathan Herman, Andrea Berloff

 

Music – Original Score

Carol

The Hateful Eight

Mad Max: Fury Road

Macbeth

The Revenant

Star Wars: Episode VII, The Force Awakens

Sicario

Spotlight

Steve Jobs

 

Visual Effects

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Ex Machina

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Revenant

Star Wars: Episode VII, The Force Awakens

 

Most Majestic

Unfortunately, Richard Armitage was not in a nominated film this year.

 

Best Film Insecure Men Completely Misread

Mad Max: Fury Road

 

Other Great Films This Year

Black Mass

Brooklyn

Carol

Dope

The Martian

Me and Early and the Dying Girl

Southpaw

Thoughts on Carol

It has often been said that you have to love yourself before you can love another. Though much of the new film, Carol  focuses upon its titular character (played by a pitch-perfect Cate Blanchett), the majority of its emotional weight rests upon the shoulders of Therese (played by Rooney Mara), whose journey from meek observer to vibrant young woman is one of the best onscreen transformations I’ve seen in recent memory.

Adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel, The Price of Salt, Carol is a love story between two women in the early 1950s. Therese is a quiet store clerk and an observer in her own life, whisked to parties by a group of shallow friends and in a relationship with a pseudo-boyfriend who is intent on bending her life to suit his white-picket fence dreams. Her life takes a turn when she meets the mysterious and intriguing Carol. Despite her charm, Carol’s life is complicated: she’s getting divorced from her controlling husband, determined to fight for the custody of her young daughter, and is, most importantly, living in a world that does not accept who she truly is. As the relationship between Therese and Carol develops, they come to complement one another; Carol urging Therese to be an active participant in her own life; Therese inspiring Carol to embrace love, fully and openly. Their relationship is tested time and time again and the sum result of these tribulations is a startlingly honest and moving film about love.

In fact, “sublimely understated” is about the best way I could describe Carol; for all its many accomplishments, it never tips toward grandiose, nor does it move to strike the viewer over the head with its message. It is simply an artful portrait of two women and a character study in the fullest sense. That being said, the film is carried upon the strength of its two main performers, Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. Both are sterling, delivering some of their best work to date. Blanchett’s Carol starts off the film mysterious and coy, but slowly begins to peel back the layers of this woman’s deeply unhappy life. She’s stunted, by her husband and the society around her, unable to live as she desires. Her unveiling of this to Therese is one of the film’s greatest strengths, as she shrugs off her false assuredness and reveals her true self. Completing this two-hander is Mara, who is also incredible. Her performance is so subtle that the true breadth of Therese’s transformation by the end of the film is startling, yet the character never ceases to feel real. There are no skipped steps or montages here. Therese’s growth, though slow at first, is only aided by Carol; her triumphs are hers alone and watching her develop this sense of agency and take charge of her life, especially when it comes to Carol, is beautiful to behold.

Lensed by Todd Haynes (I’m Not There., Velvet Goldmine), Carol is an utterly beautiful production. Thanks to Edward Lachman’s picturesque cinematography and Haynes’ simple, assured direction, the film is like peering into a moving photo from the period. Aided by some truly wonderful costume, art, and production design, Carol is one of the best looking period pieces I have ever seen. Yet all of this never detracts attention from the characters; this is simply the world they inhabit, another success for an already excellent film.

If you couldn’t tell from this glowing account, I loved Carol. It was strikingly simple and quiet in an age of blunt loudness (not that I don’t also love blunt loudness, but you know what I mean). However, perhaps my favorite part of the film was how normally the characters were treated. The initial, innocent attraction Therese has for Carol, them getting to know one another, falling for one another, was never treated as anything out of the ordinary (except for those who denied the validity of Therese and Carol’s sexual orientation like Carol’s husband). It didn’t matter that these were two women. They were two humans in love, something deep and true and beautiful. The Price of Salt is still considered a wildly progressive book for its time and I’d like to think Carol pays respect to the ideals it strove to present. People seem to think we’re living in a progressive age now, but recent current events seem to put that optimism in perspective. There is still work to be done, but hopefully more films like Carol are on the way, that give a voice to a large group of people that are still underrepresented when it comes to mainstream media. That being said, I have only the highest hopes for the future.