Editorial: My Top Five Marvel Cinematic Universe Movies

Coinciding with the release of Marvel Studios’ upcoming eighteenth film- Black Panther and the tenth anniversary of the famed comic book movie studio: I thought it would be great opportunity to present my top five movies in the ongoing shared universe canon.

5) Captain America: The First Avenger

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In retrospect, it’s easy to look back at the original Captain America movie as a necessary box that needed to be ticked. However, Joe Johnston’s 2011 picture is sincere and resplendent war epic that presents an earnest portrait of its central hero and the conflict between his societal function as an idealised image of propaganda and the genuine help he can provide to the war effort as a soldier on the frontlines. Like Superman The Movie, Wonder Woman and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy: The First Avenger reminds the audience of the inherent appeal of comic books via the heightened portraits of good and evil they depict.

4) Avengers: Age of Ultron

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Joss Whedon’s follow up to his 2012 blockbuster juggernaut is a thoughtful piece of work about the nature of heroism and control. The film is also a fascinating reconceptualisation of the Frankenstein story, resulting in a compelling prism in which our creations perceive humanity as a species. Out of all my selections, Age of Ultron feels the most undervalued and deserves revaluation.

3) Iron Man 3

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Shane Black, the maestro of edgy and ingenious eighties genre fare deliveries a personal threequel that focuses on Tony Stark and the demons that plague him. But in between the amusing repartee and stripped down narrative is a development that harkens back to the crassness of Drew Pierce’s short-lived British sitcom- No Heroics. More crucially, the plot twist is a significantly potent commentary on manufactured evil in the post 9/11 age.

2) Thor: Ragnarok

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In the context of the comic book films that graced the silver screen in 2017, Thor: Ragnarok seems like a big budget frolic. However, Taika Waititi’s first foray into tent pole moviemaking subtly reconfigures the formula of the Marvel Studios movie into something that feels effortlessly unconstrained. Filled with the sublime comic flourishes that permeated his earlier films, Waititi’s second sequel is an off-kilter and lavish comedic sketch of a movie with a penetrating central theme of a deterministic reckoning for an ailing society that has attempted to cover up its bloody past.

1) Captain America: The Winter Soldier

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Delivering the best film in the franchise to date: The Winter Soldier pits the black and white sensibilities of Captain America against the murky morality of the contemporary world in an utterly engrossing political thriller with monumental implications for the cinematic world the characters inhabit. Coupled with claustrophobic and tense action sequences as well as a personal storyline that forces Steve Rogers to reconcile the past and present: The ninth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a stunning piece of pop art that illustrates the enduring appeal of the genre and the ever fruitful tales it can spin.

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Review: Phantom Thread (2018)

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Much like the lavish and regally constructed dresses that the renowned central character makes throughout Phantom Thread: Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest feature is a nimble and cunningly made drama that has many surprises woven within its fabric. Set in 1950s London amid the bustling couture world: Phantom Thread depicts the tempestuous relationship between a celebrated society dressmaker- Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his newly appointed muse- Alma Elson (a warm and brash Vicky Krieps).

Perhaps more than the director himself, whose films draw an intense devout fervency from enthusiastic cinephiles: Phantom Thread has a massive tidal wave of curiosity due to it featuring the last ever performance from the illustrious English actor- Daniel Day-Lewis.

With this in mind, it’s hard not to read Day-Lewis’ solemn last bow as a post-modern critique of the actor’s persona. In a perfect melding of actor and character: Reynold Woodcock’s fiendishly fussy habits and manner can be equally ascribed to the actor whose craft is painstakingly regimented. There are many scenes dedicated to Reynold’s morning routine in which even the most minute sound and whisper of confrontation sends the designer into a flustered state of annoyance and creative idleness.

The series of scenes can be interpreted as a metaphor for acting: Woodcock’s prefered approach of stony silences and calmness match the complete immersion of method acting. Whereas, Alma’s intuitive everyday actions represent the moment to moment discovery of a character through life’s various eccentricities.

Phantom Thread is also a remarkable white gothic that is bathed in loss and innocence. If the essence of a gothic story is in its portrait of a decaying and forlorn house that is a stand-in for the protagonist’s soul, then Thread is steadfast in subverting this usual conception of the genre. In stark contrast to large and looming ecclesiastical buildings with flickers of shadows emerging from candlelight: Reynolds’ luxury fashion house looks like a pristine and elaborate doll’s house with white walls that are decayed by the bright beams of the morning sun.

Anderson’s pictures have always portrayed fascinating relationships, and Phantom Thread reconfigures the way in which we perceive the artist and muse relationship. Usually, the creative person devours their source of inspiration much like the big bad wolf in Little Red Riding Hood. However, Phantom Thread is an illustration of the wolf being tamed by the muse. Alma loves Reynolds but poisons him at random intervals to make him vulnerable so that she can take of him and lower his defensive side.

The relationship takes on Gothic resonance in a scene when Reynolds in an intensely feverish state sees a ghost of his mother. She is dressed in white and has a heavenly glow that fills the room. Earlier in the picture, Reynolds says that he has always found the idea of the dead watching over their loved ones as a comforting as opposed to a horrifying notion. He sees her while Alma is taking care of him in the aftermath of a poisoned incident.

Alma represents a surrogate mother figure, and their relationship is, in essence, a soothing of a little boy who has never stopped playing with his dolls and their clothes. Accentuated by Jonny Greenwood’s masterfully elegant symphonic score: the passing of the torch scene between Reynolds’ idealised and metaphorical mother is vital in further painting this portrait of a white gothic picture that soulfully laments.

Despite all this, Phantom Thread’s Achilles heel comes in the character of Cyril Woodcock (Lesley Manville). The film never truly conveys that her character and Reynolds are siblings. Sure, it is stated a few times, but one never feels it from the emotional distance Cyril has with Reynolds. She also has no perspective let alone a semblance of a relationship with her mother. And despite Manville’s stirringly dry and sharp performance, it does not give the character any sense of internal life. Worse yet, the screenplay relegates her most significant revelatory moments to offscreen purgatory.

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Editorial: My Top Five Questions for Cinema in 2018 (Inspired by Filmspotting)

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In an attempt to make my blog seem less like a cranky and sputtering machine that magically manufacturers reviews: I have resolved to write more editorials for the express purpose of making the blog much more accessible much like a warm mug of milk before bed. In my first of the year, I have decided to look ahead at Cinema in 2018. But rather than presenting an arbitrary list of the most anticipated films: I thought it would be much more interesting to pose questions about the upcoming year in film.

 

5) Will Halloween (2018) revitalise the slasher genre?

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In recent times, the slasher genre has significantly dwindled. The Nightmare on Elm Street franchise has stagnated. Friday the 13th has been stumbling around in development hell, and the Child’s Play as well as Texas Chainsaw Massacre series has joined the swarm of smaller movies vying for attention in the digital download market. Even films outside of the prestigious all-stars of the sub-genre have been far and few between. With this in mind, will the touted direct sequel to the 1978 film provide the genre with a new lease of life? Boasting the return of John Carpenter and Jamie Lee Curtis to the franchise, David Gordon Green’s entry has a lot to live up to and comes out on October 19th.

 

4) Will Christopher McQuarrie do anything interesting with Mission Impossible: Fallout?

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The Mission Impossible series has always been propelled by Tom Cruise’s boyish enthusiasm to test the limits of stunt work along with each film having a firm directorial vision that works within this framework. The sixth picture represents the first instance of the same director returning to the series. The move begs the question of what Christopher McQuarrie has to add to the twenty-year spy franchise. Fallout hits UK cinemas on the 27th July.

 

3) Is Sicario 2: Soldado going to be a worthy sequel?

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The announcement of a sequel to Sicario was quite astonishing because it felt like hearing something from a bygone era where medium budget films were in vogue. Despite the notable absence of Denis Villeneuve in the directing chair, the second picture will have Taylor Sheridan coming back to pen the script. It will be interesting to see how this sequel compares with the first film’s singular depiction of the duplicitous and murky war against the Mexican drug cartel. Soldado is in UK cinemas from the 29th June.

 

2) Will Pacific Rim Uprising prove the worth of television directors?

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In the current climate, many film directors venture into the world of television because it’s a medium that can tell overarching and personal stories that the cinema no longer caters for. When the reverse occurs, the result varies from excellent to mediocre. Steven S. DeKnight, who was the showrunner for Spartacus and Daredevil, takes over the directing duties from Guillermo del Toro. Part of the curiosity of Pacific Rim Uprising will be seeing how DeKnight transitions from television to the silver screen, and the implications of how it will affect the current paradigm. The sequel comes out on 23rd March.

 

1) Will Duncan Jones’s Mute be a return to form?

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Duncan Jones makes personal and poignant science fictions films with concepts that give rise to earth-shattering revelations for his protagonists. Jones’s third film, Warcraft, was a fascinating labour of love that felt conceptually adrift in its portrayal of the warring feud between Humans and Orcs. Mute represents a return to science fiction for the British director. It will be interesting to see if he can recapture the unique blend of interpersonal drama and big ideas that made Moon and Source Code so indelible. The dubbed “spiritual sequel” to Moon will be available to stream on Netflix from the 23rd February.  

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Brief Consideration: A Ghost Story (2017)

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David Lowery’s A Ghost Story is an unflinchingly forlorn film that in its every breath conveys more truth about the human condition than most movies could ever hope to achieve. Told in a minimalist style that comprises of a single location, a few ghost costumes and a 1.33:1 aspect ratio: the film’s storyline of a man (Casey Affleck) coming back as a spirit to witness his wife’s real-time mourning of his death, has the touching intimacy of a play.

In fact, some of the most memorable sequences are the ones in which the central characters are in each other’s company. An early scene depicting the couple trying to sleep after being awakened by a series of unknown noises is heartening in its depiction of the sacred closeness the couple share as they embrace, kiss and eventually fall asleep in one another’s arms.

The first half of the film authentically portrays the bleakness of loneliness with languid wide-angle shots of our central character watching his wife go about her everyday routine without him. The choice to hardly show the husband after he has passed allows the audience to project an inherent fear of being a lost soul onto the solitary ghostly figure.

The 1.33:1 aspect ratio seeks to isolate us further in the eternal cycle of the central character’s plight and gives the film a weight of history due to many of the shots looking like sepia-tone Polaroids from another era. Even the music has this sense of haunting recurrence as director Lowery revealed during an interview that the score was written with trace elements of the song that the wife character (Rooney Mara) listens to throughout the film.

The second half of the film has a soul-crushing speech about the futility of trying to create a legacy. While it could be interpreted as presenting the central idea of the film, A Ghost Story is subtler than that. In actuality, the picture is about how we can be a ghost within our lives. In recalling memories, we can become lost spirits who are forever trapped in a cycle of trying to understand the moments that have emotionally shaped us, even with the knowledge that they’re slowly crumbling to dust within our minds.

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Review: The Disaster Artist (2017)

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The Disaster Artist is a movie that is continually searching for an epiphany and never finds it. James Franco directs and stars in a story about Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) and Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) coming to Los Angeles and their subsequent pact of making the critically lambasted 2003 picture- The Room together. The film sincerely feels empty and hollow in a way that the source material never did.

At the very least, Wiseau felt like he was throwing the idioms of American prestige pictures into a cauldron and the result was a film that felt like a stitched together Frankensteinian concoction of established genre trappings we take for granted. Between the bouts of spoon throwing at the screen, the film got us to sit up in our seats and question the entertainment we consume.

By comparison, The Disaster Artist has the creative impetus of a shrugging lark. Crucially, Franco opts for fiendish recreation as a majority of the film is dedicated to showing the behind the scenes drama of The Room’s most infamous scenes. But in staging these sequences, the film is devoid of a viewpoint and Wiseau is never elevated.

Instead, in many of these scenes, the character feels like a piñata of revulsion and mockery. This is problematic because the film tries to present as Tommy and Greg as outsiders who are breaking into the Hollywood system. However, the film runs afoul of this premise because it eventually leaves Tommy spinning on a hamster wheel of sneering suspicion.

Worse yet is the finale set at the premiere of The Room in which Tommy in a miraculous life-affirming heel-turn embraces his artistic endeavour being viewed as a black comedy that unites people in joyous revilement.

In many ways, The Disaster Artist owes an enormous debt to Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, a film that is equally interested in exploring a notoriously bad filmmaker and the personal impulses of his work.

Burton elevated and found kinship with Wood by juxtaposing his struggle for creative freedom with Orson Welles in the movie’s most touching moment. He also used Woods’ words as an empowering eulogy to old Hollywood as Bela Lugosi delivers a speech from Plan 9 from Outer Space while standing outside the Sanitarium where he spent much of his remaining years.

In stark contrast, The Disaster Artist is made with the same fervent snarkiness that audiences display at The Room. Even its shining virtues such as Franco’s central performance feel unduly smug. A post-credit sequence showcasing an inane conversation between Franco in character and Wisusu as another person comes across like an exercise in acting navel-gazing and one-upmanship. And aside from a dramatic use of a 360-degree panning shot to reveal Wisusu at an acting class, Franco never really does anything cinematically engaging for the rest of the film.

In a brief post-screening discussion of the film, an older woman expressed her admiration for the film’s fidelity to the over the top nature of the story. While this can be perceived as a good thing, I think it’s genuinely ironic that Wisusu appears to be more human as Johnny in The Room than Franco allows him to be in The Disaster Artist.

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Review: Ocean’s Eleven (1960)

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With the release of Ocean’s 8 looming over the horizon, the prospect of seeing the original Ocean’s Eleven held as much appeal as being dragged to an antique show in the middle of a desert. However, much to my surprise, the Rat Pack’s crime caper was an amusing gem of a film.

The title eleven is a group of Second World War 82nd Airborne veterans, led by charming tomcat Danny Ocean (Frank Sinatra). Their motive for robbing five Las Vegas Casinos on New Year’s Eve is wryly surmised in one scene by Ocean when he says, “Why waste those cute little tricks that the Army taught us just because it’s sort of peaceful now.”

If you did not already guess, the film is littered with these cute interjections, to use an old-fashioned phrase, they’re kind of swell. At the same time, the screenplay is surprisingly biting in its comedic riffs that if it was a person, it would be a vampire. From sharp dress downs delivered by the majority of the female characters to various phone pranks that would make a schoolboy blush, Ocean’s Eleven works on the level of a boisterous reunion.

In fact, in one scene, Ocean turns to an associate, puts his hand on his shoulder and says, “You know something, I think the only reason I got into this caper is so I could see you again.” Despite the film containing a melange of sparkling interaction and amusing asides, the screenplay only aspires to Count Chocula in terms of depth.

The existential strife of ageing and post-war blues is never really addressed or factored into the motives for the heist and the screenplay needlessly vocalises sentiment. One particular egregious scene has a character describing Danny Ocean’s entire emotional state in the aftermath of a death in the midst of the heist. To compound matters, Sinetra never convincingly portrays the weight of a burdened general who is utterly dismayed at the sudden loss of one of his former comrades. Most problematic are the heists feeling as light as a visit to a massage parlour.

Steven Soderbergh’s 2001 remake picks up the slack in this regard with fun and cinematically engaging musical montages that enforce the tension of the heist as well serve as comical deadpan stand-ins for the dialogue scenes.

Though the original 1960s film does have some inspired sequences. In particular, a protracted panning shot elegantly conveys a sudden revelation of failure as each member of the pack sequentially express their shock (via facial expressions) at their entire looted money being cremated with their dead friend.

The sequence ends with all the characters in the frame as though it’s a glorious and iconic group shot. However, with the knowledge that has been imparted, the moment instead looks like we have witnessed the end of an emotionally taxing game of Chinese Whispers.

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My Top Ten Films of 2017

1) Blade Runner 2049

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In many regards, the sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 film resonates with the hermetically sealed innocence of a snow globe.

2) Dunkirk

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Dunkirk has a genuine emotional truth that both horrifies and enlightens in the same breath.

3) The Beguiled 

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The Beguiled is a sumptuous and terse Southern Gothic that uses the conventions of the rarefied genre to illustrate the brewing tensions between old-fashioned respectability and individualistic desire.

4) Moonlight

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The most astounding aspect of Moonlight is its generous gift of lingering. The camera allows the viewer to remain in a moment and feel its raw emotions. An early scene has a close up of a young Chiron reacting with annoyance to an offered hand of apology by his surrogate father figure. In most other films, a moment of this nature would not even be alluded to let alone shown. Much like the central character holds on to the memories from the past, the audience will not soon forget Barry Jenkins’ tough and touching depiction of coming of age in contemporary America.

5) The Lost City of Z

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James Grey’s ambitious and enthralling chronicling of Percy Fawcett’s exploratory venture into Amazonia reminds us of the multi-faceted nature of discovery. It can be maddening, generational and sometimes sincerely transcendent.

6) Star Wars Episode VIII- The Last Jedi

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The Last Jedi is an assuredly bold and subversive film that digs beneath the surface of the space fantasy franchise, finds its mythological heart and puts it on a monumentally striking canvas.

7) Get Out

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Much like Roman Polanski, Jordan Peele can make the banal unnerving. But the sheer masterstroke of Get Out is the first time director taking that one step to make the audience experience the realities of racism in today’s age while also subtly alluding to its horrific past.

8) T2 Trainspotting

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T2 Trainspotting is a compellingly sobering follow-up to the much admired 1996 film.

9) Silence 

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For the much revered and venerated Martin Scorcese, Silence represents the director’s magnum opus. The film is a tremendously soul-stirring odyssey of devotion, persecution and theological struggle with Scorcese’s firm directorial hand at its most contemplative and visceral.

10) Baby Driver

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With Baby Driver, Edgar Wright has crafted a sly, whimsical and hardening genre film that emanates with wry invention and visual exuberance

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