Concise Review: Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders (2016)

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The sheer elation of Warner Bros latest animated feature Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders arises from the following aspect. The film takes Adam West’s Batman from the sixties television show and injects him with an arrogant and egomaniacal edge that results in a fascinating interplay between the absurdly virtuous portrayal of the hippie era and the grim, edgy and no-nonsense characterisation from the comics and movies.

At the same time, the picture impresses in taking the famed pop art ascetic of the original program and translating it to animation. The opening credits elevate the famous dynamic duo to comicdom immortality as they appear in many of the famous comic covers that have graced the Dark Knight’s long history as the audience are shown flicking comic books and the team travelling through them. They stop at one of their foes which result in the iconic cover being conceived. These are punctuated with the onomatopoeia speech bubbles that were a signature trademark of the show.

Elsewhere the film impresses with its scope and vision. There is death trap that has Batman and Robin as part of a large cooked dinner, which includes some amusing off the cuff remarks from the famous team. Moreover, the crime fighters face their dastardly foes in space, which the film commendably wrings enough ridiculousness and dry wit out of the situation.

The most striking visuals come from Gotham City being animated at night and Batman’s shadowy silhouette looming over his cowardly foes. They illustrate the picture’s tightrope nature of portraying The Caped Crusader with a goofy reverence and a sense of fidelity to the original conception of the character.

Concise Review: Arrival (2016)

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In the heartfelt final moments of Arrival,  (the new film from French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve) a Theoretical physicist called Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) says to linguist expert Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams) that his life has fundamentally changed because of meeting her as opposed to the encounter that he has had with extraterrestrial life. The moment is an encapsulation of the picture’s personal and intimate interpretation of humanity’s first encounter with beings beyond our world.

Villeneuve crafts many scenes in this vein. For example, when Banks first meet the aliens, the filmmaker combines scale with the gargantuan silver interior of the ship engulfing the frame and the experiential nature of the situation with close-ups of the character who portrays abject terror. The scene had echoes of the crew of the Nostromo exploring the vastness of LV-426 in Ridley Scott’s Alien. Another great moment is an elegantly constructed 360 degrees aerial shot that slowly pans across the shell alien craft amidst green pastures and visible clouds. The shot ends with a top down view of the military base of operations and signifies the potential threat that the visitors pose.

Both scenes embolden the central theme of the picture, which can be read as the inherent miscommunication and perception that resides within humanity. In the background of the central story, that showcases two teams communicating and ascertaining the alien’s purpose on Earth are news reports. They serve as a chorus of intense fear and escalating tension as people around the world perceive the shells as looming threats to be combated, which results in many countries aligned in their view to destroy the crafts. In the tail end of the main narrative thread, the creatures send a message to the two main characters that say “offer weapon.” Immediately, the military and bosses of the operation view the message as a threat as opposed to a possible miscommunication based on the difference between a weapon and a tool.

Nevertheless, the unfeigned potency of Arrival comes in its ending, which introduces a philosophically intriguing question that combines the terrifying implications of determinism juxtaposed with the touching dimension of parenthood. In essence, Arrival is a magnificently cerebral and emotionally moving triumphant.

Review: The Babadook (2014)

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The Babadook is a powerful and disturbing film that illustrates the way in which grief and pain can manifest themselves in our everyday life and become metaphysical forces of terror that embody destructive emotions. Aside from this central idea, the picture also impresses with its employment of archival horror movie footage that suggests at the underlying tensions within the narrative. The best example of this comes in the third act as single Mother, Amelia Vanek (Essie Davis) watches a small moment from the segment “The Drop of Water”, which comes from Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath. The scene depicts a dead old woman coming back to life as she starts to terrorise her young carer and nurse.

The small instance hints at Vanek’s boiling anger and fury as she becomes fully possessed by the Babadook. Director Jennifer Kent cleverly keeps the shot of the old woman from Black Sabbath in the background of the frame and Davis’ terrifying facial expression in the foreground, which elegantly communicates the relationship between the two elements.

Moreover, the titular creature is fascinating for the following reasons. In the narrative, the Babadook refers to a supernatural entity in a pop-up storybook who preys on people who become aware of his existence. He is a towering and lanky figure who wears a top hat and has long pointed fingers. There is a scene where the monster’s clothes appear in the background of the frame when Vanek is conversing with a group of police officers. The scene has echoes of the dream/reality melding hospital sequence in the original Nightmare on Elm Street.

The stop motion effects that are employed for the creature’s manifestations serve to remind the audience of its storybook roots as well as place it in the cannon of Ray Harryhausen’s immortal creature effects. However, the biggest inspiration for the Babadook seems to be early Hollywood. On the one hand, one could argue that the monster looks like a creation of Germen Expressionism with its long contorted hands. Most interestingly, Kent has cited that Lon Chaney’s “The Man in the Beaver Hat” from the lost 1927 silent film “London After Midnight” was an inspiration in the conception of the creature in its humanoid form.

Like many monsters that have existed throughout the history of cinema, the Babadook represents an inherent fear that genuinely resides within human beings. The title creature reminds us that our biggest psychological hang-ups can start when we are in childhood with its origin of living within the confines of a children’s pop-up book. With this in mind, the haunting last scene speaks to the importance of negative emotions. Vanek goes down to the basement of her house and leaves a bowl of maggots and dirt for the presumably deeply slumbering Babadook. The scene illustrates that one must always acknowledge their the source of their mental anguish as it never truly dies and defines who we are.

Review: Doctor Strange (2016)

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Marvel Studios’ recent cinematic endeavour, Doctor Strange feels like a beginner’s course in surrealism. It holds the audience’s hand so tightly that to let go would mean instantaneous disengagement. As a result, most of the psychedelic scenes lack potency and the sheer lingering nature that is associated with the style. Even the film’s arguably most trippy scene, which is an introduction to the Mystic world for the main character Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) feels tame. He is shown remarkable sights as he is sped through space and time in a manner similar to the Stargate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Firstly, the sequence is engulfed with muted blues and purples, which intrinsically makes the scene feel bland and generic as that is the same visual scheme that was used for the infinity stone finale in Guardians of the Galaxy. Secondly, the queerest image in the sequence is when Strange looks down on his hand, and another set of hands start to grow. The moment is a microcosm for the film’s safe surrealism that on the one hand feels organic insofar as representing Strange’s overarching desire. However, it ultimately lacks an inherent atmospheric edge that makes the audiences process the perceived imagery. No frame or shot within the picture demands to be grappled with or solved as to what it is supposed to be.

Moreover, the movie has a pristine and sterile look, which while apropos for the myriad number of hospital sequences proves to be toxic for the surreal sequences, which is accentuated with the muted colour palette. One feels that they are watching the entire film through a transparent glass window of a penthouse, where the view is cloudy and grey. Visually, the film fundamentally is missing the richness, texture, colour and detail of Steve Ditko’s comic book artwork. Famed comic publisher, editor and designer, Dean Mullaney made the following observation of Ditko’s style. “In Dr Strange, he added the influence of Salvador Dali’s works and created something never previously seen in comics. He took the ethereal and made it tangible.”

Nevertheless, Doctor Strange has some fascinating virtues. One of them is whenever the picture is slyly subverting its comic book mythos. Many small moments illustrate this aspect. For example, when Strange first enters the domain of the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) in Kathmandu, he greets a male master as though he is the venerated teacher. However, the real master of the mystic arts welcomes him, and in turn, she dismisses the mediating teacher. As the seemingly immortal Ancient One, Swinton plays the part as though she is a child who has been imbued with monumental power. Despite her advanced age, she never seems burdened by the responsibility and in many instances there is still a sense of youthful relish in her actions which is coupled with a matter of fact optimism and commendable calm acceptance.

The most emblematic example of this quality comes in the aftermath of Strange’s first battle with three sorcerers. The conflict culminated in him having to kill one of the men who was attacking him. Strange bemoans this action by stating that he has taken an oath and consequently he will not kill anyone in the future. The moment represents a subversion of the character’s stance in the comics, which was a pledge to the Ancient One as opposed to his medical profession. Screenwriters, Scott Derrickson and C.Robert Cargill, have taken an aspect of Strange from the comics and have used it as a clever means to illustrate that the character is still in conflict as he refuses to let go of his past, which includes his status as a Doctor. Moreover, the moment illustrates the irrevocably morally grey nature of the role he will undergo should he choose to commit and become a fully fledged sorcerer.

Finally, Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as the titular character is excellent. While conceptually, it could be argued that Cumberbatch is conveying the same qualities and emotions that he imbues Sherlock with, such as a cold, aloof and sardonic sense of humour. He does add some other shades to his usual manner of playing characters, which is in the form of a captivating weariness and vulnerability. Cumberbatch’s conveys this with his physical acting as he portrays the precise strain in his hands after an accident that renders them unusable. Additionally, Cumberbatch through his facial expressions conveys the sheer anguish and toil that Strange undergoes throughout the film. The performance is accentuated by director Scott Derrickson’s use of closeups as we see Strange at various times through the course of the movie- bruised, damaged and broken.

The filmic choice illustrates the picture’s fundamental dichotomy. It understands and encapsulates the appeal of its comic book sourced character and world through exemplify writing despite in the same breath not embracing the exuberant and imaginative artwork of its early source material.