Brief Consideration: The Predator (2018)

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Depending on the viewer, The Predator will either be a howling laugh riot with the occasional instance of shocking, bloody violence. Or it will play like a tedious, tone deaf and persistently erratic revival of the B-movie franchise. Count me in the second camp. Trying to explain the plot would be akin to weaving a narrative out of the various body parts of Frankenstein’s monster.

But here goes nothing. In essence: A biologist, small boy and group of ragtag soldiers all team up against an improved Predator, who upgrades itself with DNA from other species.

The Predator is a film that dies the slow death of a thousand cuts. Some of these include grossly overlong comic interludes, poor aping of Spielbergian sentimentality and bewildering plot points. The film feels like it has a profound identity crisis and from scene to scene revels in it.

Conceptually, the film is pitching itself as Close Encounters of the Third Kind. There is even a scene where two characters are framed like the long-limbed aliens (via a blurring effect in a long shot), from the 1977 picture. However, it lacks the awe and sheer tragic nature of that film.

Crucially, director Shane Black doesn’t harmonise the film’s various disparate elements together. In his other films, Black has been deft at balancing wonder, postmodern joshing and vicious violence. Even Black’s usual postmodern riffing feels desperate rather than sharp. A gag about the definition of the franchise’s name is bandied about at least three times.

The problem partially comes from the material itself. Predator has always been a one-note franchise. It has been about humankind embracing its primal nature to fend off creatures that consider our race to be prey in the galaxy-wide pecking order. The 2010 entry, Predators, peaked in an ever engaging genre picture that paralleled earthly predators against their alien counterparts.

Perhaps, wonderment in the vein of Close Encounters could not be achieved with a monster, we have collectively seen too much off. As it stands, there is a slice of three movies in The Predator. It’s a shame nobody knows which one to go for.

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Review: BlacKkKlansman (2018)

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BlacKkKlansman spins a fiendishly hilarious yarn that would even make Kirk Lazarus from Tropic Thunder pause in sheer bemusement. Set in the early seventies, BlacKkKlansman chronicles Detective Ron Stallworth’s (John David Washington) infiltration and subsequent exposure of a local Ku Klux Klan group. He does this by employing a deceptive double act, wherein he keeps in contact with various members of the clan on the phone, and his partner, Detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) attends their gatherings (in person) to extract information.

While Spike Lee’s new film is undoubtedly a crowd-pleasing comedy that will often unite audiences in regular fits of laughter and disgust, it is the moments shaded in the margins that are particularly resonating.

The infiltration operation is a jumping off point for an exploration of a different kind of bigotry as Zimmerman is confronted with a pervasive anti-Semitism streak within the organisation. Consequently, the character has to come to terms with his Jewish upbringing and faith.

With this in mind, there is a parallel that the film draws between the marginalisation of black and Jewish people. This comes from the tension in the stake that both officers have in the undercover operation. In one scene, Zimmerman points out that Stallworth sees the endeavour as a crusade and he sees it as a job. Stallworth responds by pointing out that he ought to be as outraged at the clan for their views on Jews. This scene illustrates that much like Ron Stallworth has to display a considerable amount of calm and restraint in the face of institutional prejudice, so does Flip Zimmerman in dealing with members of the clan.

Adam Driver delivers a nuanced performance that impresses in evoking a subdued sense of uneasiness, particularly evident in the moments between the pleasantries and friendly gesturing with the clansmen. Equally as impressive is John David Washington who walks a fine line between being a spirited embodiment of blacksploitation coolness and worldly sombreness.

At the heart of BlacKkKlansman is a genuine showcasing of the role that cinema plays in giving power to ideology. The film opens with a scene from Gone with the Wind in which an elaborate crane and tracking shot shows Scarlett O’Hara attempting to find a doctor amongst a train deport of wounded soldiers. The scene ends with the camera panning up to reveal the Confederate flag. With the use of the footage, Spike Lee reminds the audience that the typically rosy cultural portrait of the Victor Fleming picture was rooted in a Southern viewpoint of the Civil War.

Crucially, Lee posits that cinema has given much more power to white supremacy movements then it has to the disenfranchised minority. A protracted cross-cutting sequence of clan members enjoying D.W. Griffith’s 1915 silent film- The Birth of a Nation juxtaposed with a black community leader telling his fellow brethren about the ensuring violence it had on black people is powerful in illustrating this fact.

Throughout the film, there is a persistent debate between Stallworth and Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier). Dumas is the president of the local black student union. They argue about the best course of action advocating for black rights. Stallworth thinks its best to work within the system, and Dumas contends that protesting against oppression will get people to listen and engage.

During one of their discussions, they both bring up Blaxploitation as a subgenre in cinema. Dumas concludes that it does not ultimately help the cause because fantasy can’t offset the problems of reality.

Lee wonderfully evokes the stylish nature of the genre for the ending by framing Stallworth and Dumas like Blaxploitation characters. Soon after, there is a hellish sequence involving a KKK cross burning ceremony. The film then employs an extensive amount of newsreel footage from the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. With this choice, Lee suggests the empowering nature of Blaxploitation and how it has armed an entire generation against an incoming wave of disenchantment.

Despite being rough around the edges and having too many ideas thrown at the dartboard in a fragmented fashion, BlacKkKlansman is a potent parable for our times and a reminder of how movies have helped in shaping it.

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Review: The Incredibles 2 (2018)

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In hindsight, it’s hard not to view Brad Bird’s 2004 animated feature- The Incredibles as a breezy, heartfelt and sobering postmodern bow to the minuscule superhero genre that existed in the early 2000s. Through its family-focused story, the film grappled with the pragmatism about exceptionalism, insofar as when it is right to show off genuine ability in a world that favours mediocrity and shuns excellence. At the same time, the film was an unabashed love letter to a long-gone era of James Bond films that were sly and elaborately designed.

The Incredibles 2 now enters a superhero movie landscape that feels like it’s persistently expanding in its scope. This year alone has seen the sub-genre make cultural strides with Black Panther and tear up its cinematic universe-building rulebook with the death infested, cosmic epic- Avengers: Infinity War. It’s a credit to the fourteen-year follow-up that it manages to retain the spirit of the original picture, while still having enough to say about the genre.

Rather than setting the narrative in the far future, The Incredibles 2 immediately picks up after the events of the first picture. After stopping an attack from the amusingly named villain- The Underminer (John Ratzenberger): the Parr family are called to task for causing damage to a government building.

The inciting event means that the family have to embrace domesticity, due to the slowly eroding public trust of superheroes. To counter, a tech company (DevTech) run by ardent superhero devotee, Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) and his technologically inclined sister- Evelyn (Catherine Keener); seek to restore the reputation of costumed crusaders with a series of publicity stunts involving Elastic Girl (Holly Hunter).

At its best, The Incredibles 2 engages as a mirror image of the 2004 film. Part of its appeal is in seeing the ripple effects of the reversed dynamics. The original had Robert Parr (Craig T Nelson) embracing the Mr Incredible identity for a sense of self-worth. Whereas, Helen Parr was at peace with her civilian identity and role as a mother. The sequel has Helen pragmatically adopting the persona of Elastic Girl for the potential of legalising costumed crime fighting. Consequently, Robert has to hang up his tights and embrace his role as a father.

In its most resonating moments, The Incredibles 2 is a potent reminder of the stresses of parenthood, in which the act of keeping up with the everyday activities is as divine as lifting a heavy truck. Writer/Director Brad Bird injects these sequences with a zippy and energetic pace that results in a charming series of vignettes about a frustrated father. Though, a protracted sequence involving Jack-Jack’s ever-morphing powerset in a showdown with a squirrel wears out its welcome with its inherently one-note premise.

On the other hand, The Incredibles 2 frustrates with its half-baked central antagonist. The character of Screenslaver is a thematically timely character, who directly plunges a knife into the heart of superhero fiction, by equating its existence with the passivity of the technological age. The mid-film monologue in which this point was delivered filled me with an incomparable dizzying surreality.  In the immediate aftermath, I felt as though a deleted reel from David Cronenberg’s Videodrome had been accidentally inserted into the film.

Despite this early promise, the character is never quite so engaging again. Crucially, Screenslaver is posited as a dark mirror of Helen. However, in execution, this comes off as an underdeveloped idea that can’t help, but feel superficial in terms of the paralleling. To make matters worse, the reveal of the character’s identity feels like its cinematically evoking the oldest archetype in the book, with the Film Noir shot composition. This is a shame as the design of the Screenslaver was unique because it felt like an interesting riff on the glasses motif from John Carpenter’s 1988 film- They Live.

By comparison, the antagonist of The Incredibles, Syndrome (Jason Lee) was a clear and prophetic mirror for Robert, whose self-gratification of his heroic identity could equally lead to familial resentment, as much as it did to the inventive young kid that adored Mr Incredible. And his design was frightening because it felt like a twelve-year-old’s fantasy of hero worship gone array as the character had framed himself as Mr Incredible’s ultimate nemesis.

The Incredibles 2 never ceases to be charming, engaging, or beautifully animated, particularly with its darker colour palate comprised of green and black. However, it feels less potent then it ought to be. What the original film conveyed in one powerful line, the sequel stumbles in evoking throughout its running time.

 

 

 

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Brief Consideration: Lady Bird (2018)

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At their worst, coming of age movies are fraught with the over-egging of bludgeoning teenage antics that make their journeys seem severely unremarkable, as maddening hysterics are favoured over sobering personal growth. Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, Lady Bird, commendably bridges the gap with effortless ease. The picture captures the teenage experience in all its endearing and frustrating dimension.

Lady Bird refers to the given name that Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) gives herself. On the cusp of going to college, Christine attempts to deal with the increasingly mounting pressures of the opposite sex, college funding, the ever-morphing social hierarchy of her Catholic high school and a turbulent relationship with her mother- Marion (Laurie Metcalf).

Ronan plays Christine with a delicate balance of brash assuredness and honest acknowledgement. She often portrays the volatile nature of the character with an air of sympathy, most evident in some of the film’s most tumultuous sequences. In many ways, Lady Bird’s external confidence has ripples of Jason Schwartzman’s Max Fischer from Rushmore (1998), insofar as being a character who can be equally wise and frustrating in the same moment with their intelligence being wielded for insight and mockery.

Laurie Metcalf is equally as potent with her counter-intuitive performance. Rather than play Marion as the adoring mother, Metcalf allows for the moments of sheer frustration to be brought to the fore.

In her direction, Greta Gerwig achieves a delicate balance between illustrating the sheer fast and dizzying nature of growing up with the sobering reality of adulthood. The first half is edited with the quickness and efficiency of a Jazz drum solo as moments abruptly end and intersect. While the effect is showcasing how mere moments pass us by like the sand going through an hourglass, the editing is often employed for comedic effect. One particularly humorous scene homages Orson Welles’ famous opera scene from Citizen Kane with a quick succession of the adults’ facial expressions reacting to a school play. In the second half, the camera lingers like a distant observer as many of the characters’ private moments are revealed to the audience.

With the cinematic approach of the second half, Gerwig illustrates that Lady Bird’s character arc is of overcoming self-absorption and ultimately acknowledging people’s struggles in life. In a broader sense, this aspect is irrevocably tied to the personal shame of her hometown, which she gains a greater sense of pride about in the film’s closing moments. Lady Bird’s great virtue is that it’s made with a sense of humbleness that never fails to feel personal and universal.

 

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Review: Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

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One of the many reasons why Star Wars has endured is because George Lucas’ cinematic space saga has portrayed burgeoning adolescence with touching sincerity and universality. As the Disney era has worn on, the spirit of this mantra has lingered with the roman numeral instalments. However, the spin-off films have represented a new schism for this paradigm; namely, the tension between making essential stories in a universe that generations of moviegoers are so accustomed to seeing in a particular way.

Disney’s second attempt at indulging in the galactic sandbox has carried enough weight to pull down the ears of a Gundark. Famed comedic and computer animated directing duo, Phil Lord and Chris Miller were let go in the midst of principal photography, and Ron Howard was brought in to turn a troubled mess into a finished film. Like its title character, this second stand-alone feature smiles with the ease of an endeavour that feels like it has shaken off its burdensome production woes. In fact, in its best moments, it has the brash confidence of a rousing adventure picture of yore. But its broad wry gesture cannot extinguish a paramount problem that lies at the heart of the movie and significantly undermines it at every turn.

Solo: A Star Wars Story depicts the early years of Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) as the budding famed pilot and smuggler attempts to return to his impoverished homeworld (Corellia) to release his loving girlfriend- Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) from a life of crime. Along the way, he meets his famed Wookiee co-pilot, Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), his debonair long-standing friend, Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) and Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson). Beckett is the man who comes to cement much of the character’s cynicism in the original Star Wars and functions as an entry point for the criminal underworld. Together, Solo and Beckett pull of a series of daring heists in the hopes of being rid of a terrible price on their heads and freedom to live a normal life.

Conceptually, Solo: A Star Wars Story is a fascinating inversion of the burgeoning adolescence theme of the saga. In stark contrast to the journeys of Luke and Rey that had parental strife, which resulted in a newfound faith and self-actualisation. The 2018 film attempts to depict how Han’s tumultuous early experiences of the world via a surrogate family shaped his lack of faith and self-interest instinct. Unfortunately, in execution, the theme has no emotional resonance due to a deficient central performance.

Alden Ehrenreich plays the younger incarnation of the character as though he is in a comedic sketch that is hyperbolically riffing on Solo’s worst qualities. Starting at smug and ending at cheeky, Ehrenreich never convincingly portrays any sense that Han has been affected by the events of the film. It is a performance that lacks sincerity, internal strife and most importantly humanity.

The film is also somewhat marred by an unexpected sense of pacing that comes from the screenwriters jettisoning Han’s early years at the Imperial Academy in favour of narrative propulsion. The choice does mean some of the following scenes have hollowness as we are told Han got kicked out of the Empire training programme as opposed to seeing how and why he was let go. Moreover, the picture suffers from a whirlwind of third act double-crossings that make more sense at the moment then upon reflection. More crucially, Solo becomes entirely overshadowed by the supporting cast.

Emilia Clarke plays the noir-inspired Qi’ra in a counter-intuitive manner by putting on the front of a sunny and eternally hopeful young girl that hides the woman who has become a duplicitous and morally shady minion of the underworld. Donald Glover adds a dimension of ego and empathy to a younger Lando Calrissian without forgetting the inherent smoothness of the character. And Phoebe Waller-Bridge steals the show as a socially conscious droid called L3-37, whose demented physical gestures and whetted line deliveries prove that droids continue to be the secret weapon of the franchise.

Solo: A Star Wars Story is at its best as an exercise in world building. The film creates a rich and sumptuous new corner of the universe that made me want to linger for hours on end. Cinematographer Bradford Young composes a majority of the shots with an eye towards natural light. Consequently, a lot of the scenes are fundamentally dark but are lit by lamps and gauzes that create an interesting juxtaposition between the elegance of the surroundings and the seedy nature of the characters. The lighting choice also visually punctuates the saga’s persistent battle between the light and dark in a vivid new way.

Ron Howard’s staple as a director is taking contemporary stories and imbuing them with a mythical grandeur. Frost/Nixon framed the famous televisual debate between the two real-world figures as a David and Goliath story. Rush made a Formula One rivalry of a hotheaded speed demon and socially aloof, calculated engineer resonate with the import of a tale from Greek Mythology.

In Solo, Howard applies this same directorial trademark to interesting and subtle effect. Through persistent uses of long and low angle shots, Howard makes Chewie and Han’s first encounter seem like Theseus is entering the labyrinth to fight the Minotaur. In collaboration with Young, Howard also makes seemingly throwaway moments into instances of memorable imagery. The end of one scene illustrates how the hissing flames of a campfire combined with the close-ups of Han’s famous DL-44 heavy blaster pistol underscore its eventual use.

With moments that are bawdy and salacious, Solo’s portrait of the underworld owes a debt to David Lynch’s Dune as much as the midnight movies of the seventies and eighties. At the same time, the filmmakers also understand Star Wars’ cinematic heritage and heed to it admirably. The third act on Savareen plays like a greatest hit package of Sergio Leone Westerns; complete with cowboy shots, mundane objects becoming a soundscape of boiling tension and a narrative twist that makes the amorality of the main characters seem insignificant compared with the wave of an ongoing war. And John Williams’ Han Solo theme embodies the retro heroic spirit of the serials that inspired the space saga.

In the first fifteen minutes, there is a recurring visual motif of characters attempting to jump-start vehicles via flashy blue strips of wire. Solo: A Star Wars Story has a seductive visual flair that makes it wholly unique, but it’s a shame that the title character does not feel as interesting as his surroundings. This is not the young Han Solo I was looking for.

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Brief Consideration: The Ides of March (2011)

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The Ides of March depicts the underhanded duplicitous tactics, and overt power plays in a crucial Ohioan primary election for the aspiring Democrat candidate, Mike Morris (George Clooney). Squeaky clean and optimistic Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) is Morris’s junior campaign manager who finds himself embroiled in an ever-escalating series of personal and career-compromising situations.

Despite commendable direction from Clooney, who makes the proceedings like a shadowy noir with some inspired lighting choices; while also injecting the numerous political chatter scenes with the tension and speed of Hitchcock and Hawkes respectively. One can’t help but find Ides of March’s various plot twists and character revelations surface-level in their depth.

Crucially, the entire narrative hinges on Gosling’s character succumbing to the shader side of politicking due to a fatal mistake that leads to desperation. While the storytelling cogs for these series of events are effortless and logical, they inherently lack any sense of tragedy or real aftertaste. This is due to Meyers having no real internal life and his sanguine worldview being solely shaped by Morris.

The Ides of March is an efficiently crafted political thriller with spirited performances from all its actors. But it has a fundamental tension between the reality it purports to represent and its characters being shackled by their archetypical and narrative trappings. The film would have been much more interesting if it embraced the origin of its title, by delivering a harrowing and tense tale of internal leader assassination in the context of an American presidential race.

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Brief Consideration: Only Lovers Left Alive (2014)

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Jim Jarmusch’s 2014 film- Only Lovers Left Alive reimagines the vampire tale of accursed eternal life into a meditation on the effect of art on society. Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is a creature of the night who has been a source of great inspiration for many revered historical figures throughout the centuries. His melancholia of immortality does not come from the boredom of existence, but rather the sense of inevitability stemming from the fact that most of the significant people of the past were reviled and unappreciated in their time. This sense of prolonged depression and frustration becomes a source of tension in his career as an underground electronic musician. Jarmusch elegantly parallels the plight of the vampire with that of the disgruntled a rock star who spurns their fame and worries about relevance.

However, the picture honestly comes alive in its leisurely excursions and genuine moments of discovery, courtesy of Adam’s lover and centuries-old wife- Eve (Tilda Swinton). In stark contrast to her withdrawn partner, Eve embraces life in all its strange and wondrous turns. Swinton plays the part with a measured resignation that never diminishes her enthusiasm of the moment. Glacially paced, wryly amusing and seductively directed, especially one montage in which Jarmusch equates the vampire’s blood drinking with the feverish euphoria of a drug trip: Only Lovers Left Alive imbues the proverbial vampire myth with a contemporary edge that feels fascinating and heartfelt. 

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