Review: Rachel Getting Married (2008)

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In Rachel Getting Married, the late Jonathan Demme combines the form of Cinema Vérité with a candid fly on the wall style that has the awkwardness and intimacy of a pristinely preserved wedding video. In fact, in an interview with Post Magazine, Demme stated he wanted to make “The most beautiful home movie ever.” The result is a subtle use of the camera in illustrating the seclusion and underlying familial disenchantment as former drug addict Kym (Anne Hathaway) returns home on the eve of her sister’s wedding- Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt)

Despite the loose and free roaming style requiring minimal setup, Demme’s framing proves to be essential and purposefully designed to evoke his characters’ strife. Kym’s persistent and palpable vying for attention is given fascinating life as the character is like a pervasive shadow that comes close to engulfing the narrative and shots. Demme commendably portrays the tug of war conflict between Kym and Rachel in a wonderfully engaging cinematic manner.

Rachel fears that her sister is attempting to ruin her wedding by upstaging her with her crippling psychological outbursts and Demme conveys this with careful placement of focus. In the aftermath of a particularly nasty argument, which has their father, Paul (played with indelibly heartening charm by Bill Irving) side with Kym; Rachel announces that she is pregnant. The news is greeted with boundless enthusiasm, and Demme orients the dynamics of the scene away from Kym as all the characters gather on one side of the kitchen while she remains stupefied in the corner.

In the tail end of the film, both characters appear united not only concerning their behaviour towards one another but also in the framing. Kym stands proudly looking on at her sister getting married to her betrothed, and there are many instances where they are positioned in perfect harmony with one another. In the film’s most touching moment Rachel washes and attends to her sister’s wounds while a Violin rendition of “Here Comes the Bride” is heard in the background. The moment signifies that Rachel has temporarily set aside her desire to be the centre of attention to help her sister and acknowledges the mental anguish she has experienced.

The power of Rachel Getting Married is in some of its ruinous family entanglements never being resolved. Much like life, there is no flawlessly wrapped bow on events; opportunities are missed, important words are never uttered, half-hearted painful truths cease the day, and soul bearing words never soothe the conscience. And in the picture’s most devastating scene, trauma can be induced by the most seemingly mundane and innocent household item as an amusing generational battle, fought over stacking the dishwasher, is soured by Paul stumbling upon a plate belonging to his long dead son.

Demme juxtaposes this with a unique portrait of marriage. Many of the scenes in the film are dedicated to showcasing the various members of both families bonding over memories of their time together. Screenwriter Jenny Lumet conceives of marriage as a union between two families as opposed to just being a state enacted commitment between man and woman. The choice of the bridesmaids to be dressed in sarees punctuates this idea because in Indian culture it’s a tradition that when a girl gets married, they leave their family to become part of the husband’s in-laws.

With this in mind, Kym’s alienation becomes all the more potent as her emotional seclusion is put on a bigger canvas. In many of the wedding sequences, the audience can barely see the live wire character as she gets lost amidst the various guests. In the moments we do see Kym, Hathaway’s intense facial expressions portray a convincing isolation and detachment.

Fundamentally, Demme used the cinema to chronicle human beings, and in the best moments of Rachel Getting Married, he does out this ostensibly mundane endeavour with touching and vivid authenticity.

Review: Alien Covenant (2017)

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A covenant is an agreement that can be made between a nation or people. In the context of the new film from Ridley Scott, it’s the name of the colony ship bound for a distant planet to repopulate and start a new life for humankind in the cosmos. The original Alien film was many things. Crucially, it was a narrative of feeble human choices resulting in the unveiling of a creature that acidly twisted the knife into the very notions of morality and compassion and replaced it with a savage survival instinct. This was demonstrated by way of a terrifying life cycle, that felt in equal parts- biologically credible and sexually transgressive. The aptly named Covenant continues this tradition of the horrific entangled web of events being spun by problematic judgements.

A reluctantly stern captain of faith impulsively responds to a human distress call and brashly thinks the sourced planet to be much more habitable for the two thousand colonists than a rigorously simulated and scientifically mapped out planet further out in space. The central antagonist of the picture arrogantly proclaims he loved a woman who showed him compassion and sees fit to still experiment on her for the sole purpose of curiosity. If Alien Covenant is about anything, then it is about the delusional egotism in leadership and creation.

For a film that bestows the central creature of the accoladed horror franchise to title status again, the Xenomorphs prove to be the most problematic aspect of the picture. Essentially, there is no dimension added to the creature’s life cycle or a new manner in which we could perceive them.

In Aliens, the sheer multiplicity of their race come from an Alien Queen, and they function as a nightmarish subversion of a truism parents tell their children, encapsulated when Newt says to Ripley- “My mummy always said there were no monsters, no real ones, but there are.” In Alien 3, the lone Xenomorph has an animalistic fury as it takes on the attributes of its non-human host resulting in the tense and frenetic point of views shots in the tail end of the picture. At the same time, the creature is seen as the embodiment of divine punishment by the prisoners of Fury 161 who create a nihilistic and cruel religion to deal with their crimes. In Alien Resurrection, there is a human/Xenomorph hybrid as Ripley’s DNA is replicated and modified. Even the woeful Alien Vs Predator movies had some sense of creativity in melding both creatures into an amusingly hissing new creation complete with dreadlocks and a new set of jaws.

In Covenant, the Xenomorph have lost their majestic sense of terror that came from their ability to be simultaneously horrifying and striking in their design. Additionally, the subtext of their attacks playing on fears of rape and male pregnancy become clumsy overt text as David (Michael Fassbender) lures the unsuspecting Captain Oram (Billy Crudup) to his lair. When asked what his creations need to be successful, the android retorts in a matter of fact manner- “A Mother.”

The best sequence involving the creature is when it attacks a couple during a heightened moment of passion in a running shower cubicle. Ridley Scott’s framing is impeccable as the Alien is seen through a mirror as it violently lunges at the male partner. The aftermath is the Xenomorph looking as though it was kissing Upworth (Callie Hernandez) and a darkly comic moment as blood gushes over the female crew member in what seems like an ironic twist of climaxing. As good as the sequence is, it does represent a sobering moment for the series; as it seemingly sinks into the slasher movie genre waters that it once transcended so masterfully.

From the ashes of the Xenomorph’s mediocrity, the android David arises to become the malevolent heart of the series. In Prometheus Fassbender’s performance subverted the Pinocchio portrait of an artificially intelligent being with a seemingly aloof and obedient nature that hid ominous intentions which occasionally manifested themselves in his wry sense of humour. In Covenant, Fassbender takes David to new heights of passion and all-consuming arrogance.

However, the most striking quality that the Irish actor adds to the character is a protracted sense of wistful sadness. In many of David’s exchanges with Walter (the newer android model again played by Fassbender), he expresses his love for Dr Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and his misery of not having her around. Even though the sentiments can be read as a ruse because he experimented on Shaw for his creations; there is still a deep-seated sense of love that went unfulfilled. (A starker reading of David’s feelings of unrequited love could be read as physical and retain the sexual subtext that the series always has at its core)

The added quality presents David with a fascinating dichotomy. In the opening sequence, the character stands before Michelangelo’s David sculpture as he chooses his name in view of his creator- Peter Weyland (Guy Pierce) Through the course of his conversation, David reflects on his creator’s mortality and concludes that he will outlive his human master. In many ways, David believes he is a supremely perfect being who has far exceeded humanity yet still revels in the sentiments of man as embodied in his feelings for Shaw. This conflict of egotism and emotion has particular resonance when thinking of it in the context of the beings that David has created. The creation of Xenomorphs could represent a purging of this conflict in lieu of a pure instinct of survival.

As David, Fassbender channels Vincent Price’s pomposity and cleverly echoes Rutger Hauer’s seductively impassioned portrait of Roy Batty. Whereas, Fassbender imbues Walter with a sense of innocence and discovery that is manifested in many of the interactions he has with David. A particular noteworthy scene has Walter acknowledging the parameters of his programming after learning to play the flute. At this moment, Fassbender’s subtle facial expressions of awe, wonder and reflection are endearing to watch.

Equally as compelling is Katherine Waterston’s performance as Daniels who repurposes a particular facet of Sigourney Weaver’s performance from Alien to interesting effect. In the 1979 picture, Weaver played Ripley with an economical stillness: her physical movements had a purpose, conviction and ultimately conveyed an assuredness about her duties aboard the Nostromo.

Waterston takes this stillness to a much more empathic place. While her physicality is efficient, there is something also undeniably warm and embracing about it too. In a scene towards the end, Waterson wonderfully encapsulates all these qualities as her solemn reflection on the terrible events of the film turn into a moment of an outward affection as she hugs Tennessee; (Danny McBride) and in so doing they share the losses they have both experienced.

For all its apparent deficiencies, Ridley Scott’s sense of scale and grandiosity has not lost its cinematic potency. From the wide angled shots of the Covenant’s long corridors to the Pompeii esque scene of mass genocide, you have a mainstream horror picture of utterly deprived beauty. The grislier imagery (which admirably retains a fidelity to the work of HR Giger) such as Shaw’s mangled form rival the repellent visual concoctions of Alien Resurrection; the only picture in the franchise that makes one feel as though they want to have a shower after watching.

In essence, Covenant represents a paradigm shift for the Alien series. The creature who travels through vents and hides in the darkest corner of the ship no longer scare us. Instead, the synthetic being and his freedom to experiment while we all sleep gets the heart beating just a little bit faster.

Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

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Writer/Director James Gunn makes films with the eternal optimism of a nine-year-old, who desperately attempts to get two identical magnetic poles to attract one another. Often his movies contain contrary elements that depending on the subject matter and genre sensibility; either beautifully harmonise or result in a woeful mess. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 represents a further division in this reading of the director’s work; namely the stark contrast between his low budget endeavours and blockbuster fare.

His indie pictures are like slyly crafted cinematic Jenga games, where one misstep results in a spectacular collapse of the entire construction. In particular, Gunn’s 2010 film Super fails due to a shrugging nihilistic subversion of superhero fiction; it takes the bestowing power motif to a bleakly delusion endpoint, and attempts to synthesise it with a romantic edge in an intrinsically whiplash-inducing ending.

As a result of the canvas being bigger Gunn’s sensibilities are let loose like an energetic and ravenous Tasmanian devil. The result can be an unusual blend that fuses contemporary tentpole moviemaking with old Hollywood craft. In remunerating on the original picture, it is incredible to conceive how much Gunn owed to Sergio Leone. (indeed, Gunn cited the Italian director as a source of inspiration in an interview with Elvis Mitchell in 2014) Much like Leone, Gunn’s closeups were striking in their detail, immediacy and emotional heft. While Gunn did not use the widescreen format to depict a mythical shoot-out, he nevertheless employed it to interesting effect. In the jailbreaking sequence, Gunn juxtaposes Rocket’s (Bradley Cooper) oral plan of escape with Groot (Vin Diesel) enacting a separate action that undermines his partner’s intentions.

Most notable of all is Gunn’s incorporation of music in the Guardian’s films. In a recent social media post, the director said “Tyler {Bates} (the film’s composer) creates the score BEFORE we shoot the movie. He writes the music from the script, and we play the music on set while we shoot so the actors and camera crew know exactly the tone we’re setting, and so that the music is an organic aspect of the film.” The process of music being used during production harkens back to Ennio Morricone’s scores being used on the set of many Sergio Leone films.

These cinematic flourishes accompany a visual scheme that is not beholden to film. Instead, Gunn wholeheartedly embraces the digital revolution and the potential imaginative power of computer generated imagery. Though, a lot of characters in the films are made with the same imaginative, practical spirit of the canteen scene in Star Wars. Gunn combines this with a postmodern snark, that is more likely to call out the absurdity of its extraordinary galactic sights, rather than longingly look upon them with awe and wonder.

With this in mind, the audience’s enjoyment of Vol. 2 will depend on how cool they find the idea of David Hasselhoff rapping in a seventies disco/eighties power ballad about the title characters. At it’s worst the film is a bloated, floundering and an occasionally adrift piece of work, that has all the terrible qualities of a sequel. In many ways, it is bigger, stupider and much more flimsier.

Nevertheless, there is an undeniable richness to the picture that remarkably improves upon its predecessor. If the original presented striking looking characters who were empty vessels for coolness, then the sequel provides these characters with weight, meaning and most importantly a voice. For example, Nebula (played with commendable seething hatred by Karen Gillan) has the most heart-wrenching moment of the film; as she reveals the reason for her animosity towards Gamora. (Zoe Saldana) Every time her adopted sister would win a bounty or conquest, her adopted father, Thanos would change her into a more of a cybernetic being to compete with the green-skinned being.

In its more reflective moments, Gunn’s characters do grapple with their mangled forms and internal conflicts. Rocket finds a kinship with Yondu (played with fascinating stillness by Michael Rooker) because they both present an obnoxious facade that hides the emotional and fearful sides of themselves. Drax’s (Dave Bautista) finds a sense of innocence in the course of his conversations with the naive and sweet Mantis. (played with touching sincerity by Pom Klementieff) Gamora comes to acknowledge the mistakes of her past by seeing Nebula as someone who has suffered and ultimately offering her familial shoulder as well as a new purpose.

The heart of the film lies in the relationship between Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and his father Ego. (Kurt Russell) In many ways, the handling of the narrative thread is the most problematic aspect of the picture. Just as it starts becoming absorbing and poignant, Gunn cuts to a frustratingly elongated comic interlude. In fact, the film seems engulfed with them. This problem is compounded with how repetitive they become; much like ceaseless clapping at a dog show. There are only so many times the name of the blustering Viking esque ravager (Taserface) is funny. Or the many wrong things Baby Groot brings back to Rocket and Yondu, while they are in a prison cell.

Crucially, the film never gives much time to Quill grappling with his future and his inherent Demigod nature. Moreover, there should have been much more of a parallel between Yondu and Ego. While one could argue this comes later in the film; they are handled in an obnoxious manner. Most of the dramatic moments in the tail end of the film are marred by occurring during intense action sequences, and the snarky humour ruining these sustained moments of importance.

Gunn is capable of elegant paralleling. In his first film, (Slither) the gossiping nature of a quiet American town is contrasted with the central creature; whose travels across the universe cause it to postulate in a human manner. Moreover, through the creature, the people of the small town still voice their opinions and feelings of Starla Grant (Elizabeth Banks) with reckless abandon. There is a darkly comic edge to the emotional climax; as Grant and her husband’s relationship is being worked out in front of the town with a frightening new dimension. The flurry of half whispered rumours, lies and judgement become public discourse.

Most egregious of all is the timing of Ego revealing that Peter will lose his divine essence if he dies. The moment happens when the rigged bomb in Ego’s central system is close to blowing up. Because Quill has not reflected on his identity throughout the picture, the moment loses tension and instead becomes hollow as opposed to emotionally resonating.

At the same time, the central relationship does offset a problem that persisted with the original Guardians movie. A goofball charm and humour pervaded that film, and it became rather tiresome after a while. However, in Vol. 2 it is used as a pretence and source of subversion. With the character of Ego, we are presented with a being who is the complete antithesis of a God. He is fair, laid-back and seems to observe the value in humanity. As he says when we first meet him, “I am a God with a lower case g.” Kurt Russell’s understated and effortless blue-collar charm accentuates this portrait. In many ways, it is an atypical Russell performance, sans the sense of buffoonish superiority, and instead replacing it with a worldly wisdom.

Later in the film, this brittle portrait is shattered as Ego reveals the extent of his bleak world view. In these sequences, Ego becomes a Zeus esque figure; whose petty and all too human isolated feelings cause him to reshape the universe in his image. This is contrasted with Quill, who subverts the traditional perfect heroic figure from Greek Mythology; with a childlike attitude. This is encapsulated in his delivery of the line- “You killed my Mum and broke my cassette player.” Something is endearing about seeing deities wax about the meaning of retro pop songs and their little disagreements resulting in detrimental universe spanning consequences.

The Marvel pictures of late have suffered from their asceticism: chiefly manifested in their colour palette, that has comprised of a murky grey wash and desaturated real world look. Fundamentally, the sequel oozes with exuberance and vibrancy that is worthy of its four coloured source material. From the gold and blue coloured palace of the Sovereign race to the rich uses of green, yellow and orange on Ego’s planet and you have the most beautiful picture in the cinematic canon.

In many ways, Vol. 2 takes on certain aspects of the original movie with interesting effect. The opening credits sequence depicts Baby Groot dancing while his teammates are fighting a hideous monster. The scene is amusing in its wry detachment more than any single moment of the previous picture. And Gunn’s heart seems to be in a lot of the Rocket sequences. In one particular scene, he is springing a trap for many Ravagers and does it to Glen Campbell’s “Southern Nights.” There is a distinct feeling that Rocket represents a cinematic avatar for Gunn. He functions as the mastermind: spearheading the ploys and finessing them with black comedic elements, much like Gunn in all his pictures. Moreover, the change of Rocket being the one who picks the source music in the film is an amusing touch.

The most sobering moment of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 comes in its fifth and final post- credit sequence. It shows Stan Lee with some of his creations. (The Watchers) He says to them “I have many more stories to tell”, as they are walking away from the comic book creator. The moment illustrates that the Ringmaster who once opened shows with “Excelsior” and “True Believers” has been replaced with James Gunn. Even with the more problematic aspects of the picture, the circus that is the Marvel Cosmic Universe is in good hands.