Saturday, November 13, 2021

Eternals

 

Image credit: IMDb

Continuing on with the newly-reignited glee that comes from physically going to the cinemas, last week the partner and I took a little date night (seems like it’s been forever since we had one) and went and saw Marvel’s newest achievement: Eternals. Great night!

The film follows a ragtag team of ageless, magical beings who have been on Earth saving the human race from the monstrous deviants that invaded thousands of years ago. Still awaiting the all-clear to go back to their home world of Olympia, the estranged team reunites when a clutch of new deviants emerge and take out their leader. Things continue to snowball when the true nature of their mission is revealed and the people and planet that they’ve come to love is threatened. 

No doubt I have before mentioned that I’ve gone into all these Marvel movies completely unfamiliar with the original source material, so it’s fair to take my opinions of narrative and character progression with a grain of salt. However, my lack of knowledge allows me to interpret these movies as movies and not as adaptations, to comment on the craft and not rave or moan about how characters or key plot points get screwed up. 

Having absolutely no idea about who or what the Eternals are really made me appreciate this movie as an introductory film in the new phase of the MCU as well as appreciate the cleverness of the screenplay and the performances, both of which are mwuh (chef’s kiss). 

My absolute favourite thing about the screenplay was how big it was on show-don’t-tell. There are some pretty deep and strong relationships that are going on within this group and rather than using words to say how deeply they love one another, it’s all done through lingering camera shots and actions. The most gorgeous being the relationship between Gilgamesh (Ma Dong-seok) and Thena (Angelina Jolie): mostly unspoken and on the surface rather unromantic, but I still could not stop the lump rising in my throat and the hot tears forming when drama struck. The writing is just so raw and good, it’s an organic blend of sight and sound with important plot points being vocalised and key dramatic points being just shown, not hammed up with dialogue. 

Image credit: The Guardian

The narrative structure and plot itself is far from perfect, but for the sake of introducing a glut of new characters into a wider story world, we can let the questionable red herring plot device slide. Actually, it’s not so much a red herring more of a narrative catalyst that then lost its entire meaning and point of existence when the real Big Bad came into focus. But I’ll let you all be the judge of that. 

Despite the iffy trailers and movie posters that made it sort of look like Dune, I came out of Eternals really satisfied and quite impressed. While the story itself is kind of predictable, the performances are great, the narrative structure is really good and expertly piques interest in these characters, and the achievements in costume, set design, and special effects are extraordinary. Not to mention this is the first Marvel film which features a same-sex kiss, very gorgeously and naturally shown. I would absolutely recommend this movie!

Director: Chloe Zhao

Cast: Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Lia McHugh, Kumail Nanjiani, Brian Tyree Henry, Lauren Ridloff, Barry Keoghan, Harish Patel, Ma Dong-seok, Salma Hayek, Kit Harrington, & Angelina Jolie

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

 

Image credit: Disney Australia

After the entertaining, yet unimpressive Black Widow I’ve developed a bit of scepticism towards the movies making up the next phase in the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe). Maybe because Endgame was so final on a number of levels, in some strange way the next string of movies are a sort of grieving or adapting period: it certainly feels that way.

Regardless I’m happy to report that Marvel’s latest film Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings brings us back to a comfortable and happy time in the MCU. This film worked beautifully as a stand alone, as well as seamlessly getting audiences to take the next step in moving on with their Marvel lives.

Shang-Chi, aka Shaun, (Simu Liu) has built a comfortable life for himself away from the traumas of his past. He’s got a paying job and his best friend Katy is always there for him. But when the two of them are attacked on the bus to work, Shawn is forced to reveal that he’s more than a nice-mannered valet: he’s a kung-fu master and trained assassin. When their attackers steal a pendant that was given to him by his mother, Shaun and Katy travel to find his sister, which snowballs into a family reunion with their tyrannical father who’s got plans to destroy their mother’s legendary home village. Suddenly Shaun and Katy’s lives become all kinds of complicated as they discover the existence of magic, lost martial arts, and monsters of darkness that threaten to destroy the world. 

Like Spider-Man: Homecoming or Thor: Ragnarok, Shang-Chi is a fun, stand-alone chapter in the MCU tome, this time paying homage to celebrated mainstream Kung-Fu movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Split between English and Chinese it’s a visually stunning blend of action and fantasy with plenty of well-timed humour thrown in as well as some fantastic cameos and character-resurrections. 

Image credit: IMDb

The movie delivers on all aspects: intriguing plot, character arcs, action sequences, set and costume design,  and dazzling CGI magic, all still having the feel of a Marvel movie as well as delivering those satisfactory titbits of the bigger adventure yet to come. And while there are some places where it could have been better, places that felt like they were being micromanaged to uphold the glossy Hollywood sheen of the Marvel movies, ultimately I can’t really think of anything truly negative to say about it. 

As the first movie to watch in a cinema since coming out of lockdown, the whole experience of Shang-Chi was completely wonderful, it made me feel great, and this movie is definitely the one that reignites the excitement of the MCU post-Avengers. It’s a perfect movie to move on with!

Director: Destin Daniel Cretton, 2021

Cast: Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Tony Chiu-Wai Leung, Meng’er Zhang, Fala Chen, Michelle Yeoh, & Ben Kingsley

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Black Widow

Image credit: IMDb

I have to admit that, with the world being the way it is currently, I have found that my passion for cinema has taken a bit of a battering. Indeed it feels like ages since I watched a new movie, I have only just reignited the flame. The most recent addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe has hit shelves now, so it seemed the perfect time to come out of retirement. 

Black Widow, as its name suggests, focuses on the elite assassin Natasha Romanoff (Scarlet Johansson). Taking place after the events of Civil War, the film chronicles Natasha’s war against Dreykov when a strange chemical is sent to her. When she discovers that the man who controlled her violent past is still alive and continuing to subject young girls to torture and mind control to turn them into assassins, Natasha does the unthinkable; reunites with her estranged ‘family’ to take down Dreykov once and for all. 

I’m sure like many people I was quite excited for this film. Black Widow is a kick-arse female lead and, finally, there is now a film devoted to her. A film that honestly doesn’t really meet expectations I’m sorry to say.

But let’s first start with a compliment, as the sandwich technique is always good. I did appreciate the fact that this was a feminine action movie. There’s enough fight sequences, explosions, and brawls to satiate anyone’s need for testosterone, but there can be not doubt that girls rule, as the only male characters with faces and lines are the villain and a loveable supporting character. But even praises for it being a feminist movie must be taken with a grain of salt, as the approach is very ham-fisted, clumsy, and rather annoying when you consider that the main message is about having a family; apparently women are unidentifiable without them.

What is most disappointing though is that the film brings absolutely nothing to the character or to the wider universe. We don’t really learn anything about Natasha that hadn't already been explained or hinted at, which makes Black Widow a bit of a lame filler movie to bridge the gaps in the timeline. Indeed it seems like the main reason this movie is in existence is for introductory purposes, hinted by the stinger at the end. 

Image credit: Variety

The central characters and their complicated relationships are kind of fun and interesting enough, however there was a rather half-hearted feel to the script, which dissuaded any sort of emotional attachments towards the characters. This is perhaps the worst thing a film can do, it robs the audience of the voyeuristic adventure and leaves a dissatisfied feeling, which no one wants. 

The actions sequences are all very cool and the performances are great with the central cast chemistry being quite entertaining and providing the film with some of its funnier and more touching moments, but ultimately Black Widow is just another action movie; and sadly not one that stands out in any way.

Director: Cate Shortland (2021)

Cast: Scarlet Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, Rachel Weisz, O-T Fagbenle, & Ray Winstone

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Wuthering Heights

 

Image credit: IMDb

Romantic tales, both tragic and uplifting, are a staple of cinema. While there are new rom-coms and dramas being written all the time, sometimes what you’re really after is a classic. And literature is full of them. It seems that I am now going on a bit of an iconic-literature-adaptation binge because this afternoon, to pass a few hours, I curled up with Robert Fuest’s 1970 adaptation of Emily Bronte’s gothic tragedy, Wuthering Heights.

Chronicling a love that begins when Cathy Earnshaw and adopted brother Heathcliff are but children, the film favours the romantic tragedy of the story as opposed to its more gothic nature. When Cathy comes back from a stay witch a rich family transformed into a lady, Heathcliff feels the sting of betrayal and while Cathy determines that all her choices are for the betterment of their relationship (including her marriage into the family who transformed her) disaster strikes again and again as the two grow further and further apart. 

Fuest’s adaptation focuses on the doomed relationship of the two lovers with money and social standing being the manipulative villain behind its demise. Both Cathy and Heathcliff (both of whom are horrible in the book, by my memory) are victims of the brutalities of society: their wild romance (depicted by their constant forays into the moors) being muzzled by money and the status that comes with it. While Cathy tries to manipulate this to their advantage, Heathcliff seeks to destroy it, which he does by gaining wealth himself and then reducing the family of Wuthering Heights to little more than beggars and savages. 

The film’s modest budget accommodates the power of the story and its allegorical aims perfectly with only costume, cinematography, and the cast’s performances to create the drama, romance, and despair. All of which is achieved incredibly.

Image credit: IMDb

Timothy Dalton and Anna Calder-Marshall as the freedom-seeking lovers work wonders together with each performance standing strong and toe-to-toe with the other. There is absolutely no weaker sex here, and indeed the battle between the genders ends equally well/tragically for both of them.

Filled with drama, remorse, despair, and occasionally hope, Wuthering Heights is a captivating adaptation of story that’s iconic for a reason. 

Director: Robert Fuest (1970)

Cast: Anna Calder-Marshall, Timothy Dalton, Harry Andrews, Pamela Brown, Judy Cornewell, James Cossins, Rosalie Crutchley, Hilary Heath, Julian Glover & Ian Ogilvy

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Emma

Image credit: IMDb

 Everyone has their own guilty pleasures in absolutely everything: food, literature, movies, etc. Of course, these tastes are subject to change: they grow as we grow. Five years ago, if you asked me what my guilty pleasure was when it came to movies, I would have said something along the lines of Rock of Ages or some trashy rom-com. Times have changed. Nowadays I have discovered that my guilty pleasures when it comes to movies are Jane Austen adaptations. Whether it’s the stories or the period setting, something about them just makes me feel better when I am stressed or down. Last week, during a particularly ‘meh’ mood, I surfed a few streaming services and came across Hollywood’s 1996 adaptation of Emma

Emma Woodhouse (Gwyneth Paltrow) is a celebrated matchmaker, but soon finds herself in over her head when she determines to match up social nobody Harriet Smith to charming Mr. Elton. Against warnings from her family friend Mr. Knightly, Emma embarks on a little scheme to bring to the two together. But when things don’t go according to her plans, Emma’s own confidence in her kindness and her ability to read society are shaken; even more so when she discovers love for herself.

A classic and comedic tale of misread signals and romantic misinterpretations between the sexes, Emma is always going to make a good movie. Honestly, Jane Austen is kind of hard to screw up. And while this adaptation is indeed very enjoyable, it is by no means the most stirring of romantic comedies. 

The ‘90s was a strange period for period adaptations, especially romantic comedies. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there is something about period rom-coms that was just a little bit off. It’s as though the direction and some of the cinematographic choices were too modern to blend with the vintage setting and thus some weird feeling of modernity creeps into the mix, ever so slightly disrupting the voyeuristic vibe. 

Image credit: Britannica

But this is not to say that this version of Emma is bad. The film has a very interesting cast, all of who give wonderful performances, the music is perfect, and the achievements in set and costume design steals the show.  All in all, this is a true and very entertaining adaptation of a classic piece of romantic literature, it’s sweet, and funny, and just mindless enough to make for a perfect afternoon-filler. 

Director: Douglas McGrath, 1996

Cast: Gwyneth Paltrow, Greta Scacchi, Denys Hawthorne, Jeremy Northam, Alan Cumming, Toni Collette, Sophie Thompson, Polly Walker, & Ewan McGregor


Wednesday, February 17, 2021

The Birth of a Nation

Image credit: IMDb

It’s often enlightening and sometimes disturbing to watch a film from over a hundred years ago and realise that some things never change, and that aspects of modern culture continue to be influenced by it or follow in its shadow. For my afternoon it was disturbing, as I sat down to a film that is critically acclaimed for its innovations in cinema and socially disdained for its subject matter. Yep, I sat down and watched The Birth of a Nation.

Told in two parts the film follows two American families: the Northern Stonemans and the Southern Camerons. Part one follows them through the Civil War, beginning with the introduction of slavery to America and then jumping right in to the fighting, before ending on the assassination of Lincoln. Part two then follows the families through the Reconstruction era and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.

Writer/director/producer D. W. Griffith makes a point of claiming his indifference to the racism of the subject material, the film being an adaptation of Thomas Dixon’s play The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan, but that did not stop the film being absolutely reviled upon its release for its horrendous and disturbing depictions of the Ku Klux Klan as heroic saviours. It’s undoubtedly one of the most racist and shocking films ever made and yet it’s still studied to this very day. Why?

Here’s why. It was the first real cinematic epic, a film so artistically compelling that audiences would stay put for the entire three hours despite the shocking content. It was the birth of modern camera techniques with Griffith introducing dramatic close-ups and tracking shots amongst others as well as the birth of cinematic editing with the introduction of crosscutting, parallel action sequences, and more. A lot of modern cinema owes its very skeleton, consciously or not, to this film and while the artist did not agree with the message of his medium, he still put everything into making undeniable art. 

Image credit: Britannica

It just goes to show that the ‘don’t shoot the artists’ mentality in cinema has been around for over a century and debates are still surrounding this piece. 

The Birth of a Nation is probably one of the rarest films ever, being both morally condemned and artistically celebrated. However it’s a film for people who love film; I most certainly would not recommend it to those who enjoy watching moves, but aren’t so invested in the inner workings of the medium. 

Director: D. W. Griffith, 1915

Cast: Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Henry B. Walthall, Miriam Cooper, Mary Alden, Ralph Lewis, George Siegmann, Walter Long, Robert Harron, Wallace Reid, Joseph Henabery, Elmer Clifton, Josephine Crowell, Spottiswoode Aitken, & George Beranger


Tuesday, February 16, 2021

20000 Leagues Under the Sea

Image credit: Rotten Tomatoes

Book vs. Film is an interesting skirmish in the creative realm because it’s one where there are more than two sides. Some people are staunch readers before viewers. Others prefer to have some semblance of the story mapped out for them first, as reading is a harder venture. And then there are some, like me who stand behind the ‘circumstance’ banner: I do both depending on whichever piques my interest first. I recently closed the cover on Jules Verne’s 20000 Leagues Under the Sea and it was only after doing that that I was curious to see how it’s been adapted for film. So yesterday I sat down with Disney+ and 20000 Leagues Under the Sea. 

A pretty close adaptation, the film follows professor Aronnax, his apprentice Conseil, and harpoonist Ned Land, as they venture on a voyage to prove or disprove the existence of a sea monster that has been ravaging warships. When the monster attacks their ship, the three a thrown overboard and find themselves at the mercy of the monster: the monster being a giant submarine and its captain a bitter, eccentric genius that has washed his hands of civilised society. Prisoners aboard the Nautilus, the three heroes embark on a voyage around the world under the sea, all the while trying to make sense of their strange captain. 

When we think ‘Disney’ we think animation, musicals, we don’t think of science-fiction action-drama. Yet here we are. 20000 Leagues is a close adaption to Verne’s classic novel, though with a few narrative liberties taken so that there is more action and drama to the story. A solid action-adventure film, it’s got everything from majestic underwater shots to outdated, but still hugely entertaining creature effects and climactic fight scenes. 

Image credit: Pinterest

It’s also got quite an interesting cast behind it with Kirk Douglas as the hot-headed hero Ned Land and James Mason as the cool and calculating Captain Nemo. Mason is glorious, bringing great depth to an already complex character and Douglas ticks all the boxes for swashbuckling adventure on the high seas (despite the lack of pirates). 

It’s certainly a fun take on a classic tale and Disney does right by making it a close adaptation as well as one that the whole family can enjoy. 

Director: Richard Fleischer, 1954

Cast: Kirk Douglas, James Mason, Peter Lorre, Paul Lukas, Robert J. Wilke, Ted de Corsia, Carleton Young, J. M. Kerrigan, Percy Helton, & Ted Cooper.