Obituary: Joel Schumacher

Somewhat lost amongst the latest comings-and-goings of that pesky COVID thing that seems to be engulfing the planet was the news of the death of one of Hollywood’s biggest characters; Director and former costume designer, Joel Schumacher.

While Ian Holm’s sad passing made top headlines, Schumacher’s passing went pretty much unmentioned, in fact, his death didn’t even make the top half of BBC News’ ‘Arts & Entertainment’ section, something which I felt was somewhat unfair.

Like many critics before me, and almost certainly, many after me, I have railed against some of Schumacher’s works, namely his work on the Batman series that so tainted the hero for almost a decade, but nonetheless I see an undercurrent of fun that the films were aiming for, no matter how far they may have missed their intended mark, you can’t deny that watching Batman & Robin has a similar charm to watching The Room, best enjoyed with a large group of people loudly guffawing at how terrible it is, yet still, so how, still having fun.

That’s what I feel will be Schumacher’s greatest legacy, a sense of fun, or at the very least a sense of outrageously camp pomp and circumstance.

‘Outrageously camp’ seems to summarise Schumacher in a nutshell actually, as an openly gay man in Hollywood pretty much throughout his whole career, he can be seen as breaking more than his fair share of barriers along the way, and his sexuality can be seen reflected in some of his work, subtly or otherwise.

It would be a great shame to remember him just for a few campy, and hilariously awful, attempts at Batman films, as he had a varied and ultimately successful career as a director whose best works can boast the likes of The Lost Boys, Falling Down and Phone Booth. He even embraced darker material later in his career with an adaptation The Phantom of the Opera and the often-overlooked thriller The Number 23. When working with the right material, Schumacher brought his ‘A’ game, it’s just a shame that his greatest creative failure will be his greatest lasting memory.

Well, I for one will hold a great place in my heart for Joel Schumacher, for the barriers he broke as a gay man in Hollywood, and his directorial abilities whenever the stars aligned, it would take a heart colder than Mr Freeze himself to deny his career the proper respect. We’ll never forget all those awful puns, and I hope we never forget you.

Train To Busan Review

Well, I couldn’t have picked a more appropriate film for the current times, could I?

There I was, watching a virus spread through the population, causing panic and hysteria, then I turned off the news, and put on Train To Busan instead.

Entirely obvious jokes aside, I had picked up Train To Busan as a recommendation from my podcast co-host, Angel, who is currently on a mission to turn me into just as big a Korea fanboy as they are, after seeing Parasite earlier in the year, I could see a lot I liked about the Korean film scene and wanted to know more, and this is one of the two films I’ve picked up to educate myself further on the countries recent cinematic output. (We’ll be talking Korea in more detail on next months podcast.)

You may have inferred from the completely hilarious second paragraph that there may be a fair few similarities between this film and the current situation we all find ourselves in, in that this film is about a virus outbreak and the attempts to contain it, but besides these details, there are very few real similarities.

Train To Busan tells the story of a work-focused, and somewhat neglectful, father Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) and his daughter Su-an (Kim Su-an) as they board a train bound for the Korean city of Busan to visit Su-an’s mother. Things swiftly take a turn for the worse as a virus quickly begins to spread throughout the country, and one of the infected finds their way onto the train.

So, we’re all very familiar with the ‘zombie apocalypse’ narrative by now, right? It seems to me like we’ve seen every possible incarnation of the plot device, and honestly, I’m usually very wary. I think popular culture badly needs to move on from zombies and find a new threat to face, that being said, however, things do seem to have calmed down a fair bit in recent years, we aren’t at the zombie peak right now, thankfully.

This isn’t to say that interesting things can’t still be done with the shuffling monstrosities, I love Shaun of the Dead, like seemingly everyone else, and I was also very absorbed by the Telltale Games The Walking Dead series, as that focused on the people at the heart of the apocalypse and not necessarily on the monsters themselves.

Train To Busan is best categorised as an action/horror film, with the emphasis on action rather than horror. Its main horror styling is that of body-horror, the contorting of limbs and visceral sound of snapping bones that feel so at home in Eastern horror, although, typically more in Japan than Korea.

I have said before that my favourite kind of horror film is the subtle horror film, where the less you see of the threat the better it is, as your mind has to do the work for you, well Train To Busan is on the opposite end of the scale when it comes to this principle, being pretty much relentless as soon as the threat is established. This also works as a tactic, as long as the plot paces itself. If you throw constant loud, obvious horror at people, we’ll get bored of what we’re seeing and it loses its effectiveness.

Busan does not have this problem, it is paced tremendously, striking a perfect balance between quiet unease and outright, frenzied panic; and it is those moments of quiet that draw the panic into greater focus, as we spend time with the characters and their interactions, it allows our brain to get sufficient downtime before leaping straight back into running from zombie hordes.

To this end, the horde themselves are incredibly effective antagonists, multiplying and swarming at such a pace that makes them impossible to predict, the transformation from corpse to a zombie is so fast that the swarm is continuously growing, adding more and more people swiftly and effectively.

That being said, the effects used to portray such a large and frenzied mass of bodies is at times a bit ropey, revealing its low-budget roots, but not in a big enough way to take away from the spectacle, as these effects are only employed sparingly, I get the impression that a lot of the horde were indeed real extras, and their sheer numbers are intimidating alone.

My earlier comparison to Telltale’s Walking Dead games was not made idly. At the heart of those games was an organic, emotional connection between people, and that’s where I see the most common ground with this film. We are shown different perspectives of the day from different characters, all aboard the train, and all in different circumstances.

The audiences natural response from there is to try and figure out how all these stories interlink, and how they’ll grow, and its narrative choices did catch me off-guard on more than a few occasions.

I, like me, you’re the kind of person who likes to predict who will die in a horror movie, you’ll find yourself wrong-footed on a few occasions, but not before we grow to admire the characters, and each of them can go through an arc; it really is a masterclass on how to write for numerous characters in a short space of time, as we are introduced to all the key players seemingly at random, but by the end, they’re all seamlessly three-dimensional characters, thanks to the outstanding script and performances.

All of the actors involved are unknown to me, as I would expect from a foreign production, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t impressed by what I saw. Kim Su-an is the emotional heart of the film, trying to change her seemingly selfish father. A lot of the film is viewed through her perspective, in fact, her curiosity puts her in danger a few times, but her kindness and heart drive the narrative along.

Another character arc I enjoyed was the relationship between Su-an’s father Seok-woo and Sang-hwa (Ma Dong-seok) an expectant father who views Seok-woo with contempt in the beginning, but throughout their ordeal, the men gain mutual respect for each other, and like everything else in this film, it is perfectly paced.

All of these relationships have conclusive, and frequently heartbreaking endings, leaving to the kind of bittersweet finale that many directors shy away from. Brave in its determination to not have an entirely positive, or entirely negative, ending, it’s the kind of closing to a film that really sticks with you, it’s not exactly satisfying or uplifting, but it shows a glimmer of hope at the end of a horrendous ordeal for these characters.

To conclude then, Train To Busan is a brilliantly-paced and sublimely intense film, cranking up the action at just the right moments, but also knowing when the pace needs to be slowed for maximum effectiveness, it’s also helped by emotionally-driven performances and frenetic direction that makes it stand out from the majority of its Western peers, keeping enough of its own Korean identity while also remaining accessible to foreign viewers too, it’s an experience sure to please any film fan worldwide.

A Word on Retrospective Censorship

Over the past few weeks, there have been a few instances of what I have titled here as ‘Retrospective Censorship’ meaning, an older property that has been pulled from release or edited, as it isn’t deemed acceptable in modern sensibilities.

At this time of especially heightened racial tension, I believe some of it is a desperate ploy to distract from the main messages and aims of prevalent groups, twisting the narrative from ‘human beings wanting equal rights’ to ‘the liberals want everything cancelled’.

This is especially true over here in the increasingly frustrating U.K. where people just don’t seem to understand that issues can be important without having to be about them, as certain TV shows have been pulled temporarily (very important, that piece of information) for different reasons that range from programs being generally in poor taste to issues over rights. However, this is emphatically NOT what I want to talk about, at least not at length.

Rest assured, the removal of Fawlty Towers is a transparent and cynical distraction tactic, that will delay the U.K. as a nation from coming to terms with our uncomfortable past; a way to twist the narrative to make those fighting for a fairer existence seem like the bad guys, there is a genuine conversation to be had over when older films do not match up well with modern times.

Of course, it is churlish to judge a film made in the 1940s by modern standards, that isn’t to say we should ignore them entirely, though.

There have been notices at the start of Tom & Jerry cartoons for many years, for instance, giving us a contextual explanation as to why certain depictions are the way they are, I even think that Whoopi Goldberg once recorded an introduction to certain episodes, to explain that the portrayal of African-American characters was unacceptable, yet at the time the cartoon was made, it was depressingly normal. This does not mean that the cartoon shouldn’t exist, it is healthy that a dialogue is opened around this issue after so many years, it helps us come to terms with past mistakes in representation, in the hope that we don’t repeat them.

The point I am trying to make with the above paragraph is that revisiting old products and attaching disclaimers to their content is not a new thing. It’s something that comes up periodically, the cycle seems to be: valid points are made about racial inequality, tensions rise, a product is taken off sale, attentions divert to the product, outrage is directed at those with genuine grievances who had nothing to do with the withdrawal. It’s inevitable and extremely sad.

The case that prompted this write-up from me was the recent pulling of Gone With the Wind (a film, I remind you, from 1939) from HBO Max, again only temporarily. HBO has taken it down to add some kind of disclaimer about the depictions of African-Americans, especially in regards to slavery, which is always a touchy topic, to begin with, and the way that the characters in servitude seem to have quite a happy life, a stance not at all representative of the real-life situation in the slightest.

I can’t say much on Gone With the Wind, as I’ve never seen it, I have however done a little bit of reading up in the past week or so to further understand the underlying issues, none of which are recent at all.

Its biggest issue seems to stem from the biggest black character in the film, Mammy, as played by Hattie McDaniel. McDaniel won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her part (the first African-American to win an Oscar) and the response to the character in the black community was always ‘mixed’ to say the least, the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) complained that her role conformed to damaging stereotypes surrounding POC’s from that time, some quarters went even further, accusing her of perpetuating negative stereotypes for personal gain.

As I say, the issue of slavery is a difficult one to discuss in any context, much less one that seems to be as nostalgic for it as GWTW, and no-one is suggesting that it should be erased from history, it’s just being re-assessed as all things should be.

It is possible to admire a work’s artistic merits without championing its ethics. Take for instance the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation. Without doubt, a horribly racist film, whose depictions of POC’s and admiration of the KKK make it incredibly difficult to view through modern eyes; but it is still being taught in some film schools for its revolutionary (for the time) camera-work. It is studied solely for its artistic merits and what it gave the world of film while being universally condemned on the grounds of ethics.

If you take anything away from this, let it be this: listen to those who suffer as a result of negative press. As a white man from a working-class background, I have no authority on what is and isn’t racist; on what does or does not constitute an offensive depiction. Because of the colour of my skin, there is nowhere in the world where I am in more danger of being profiled (I may be for other reasons, but that’s beside the point).

Before you leap to a Facebook comments section with the usual cries of: ‘you can’t joke about anything anymore’ or ‘well then, White Chicks should be banned too’ take time to actually listen to arguments, talk to those affected, and remember that you can joke about anything, but in the same breathe people can then criticise you if they find it in poor taste; and in response to the White Chicks argument, white people have never been victimised because of the colour of their skin, they’re not propagating a damaging stereotype that has actual real-world negativity attached to it, but mainly, you shouldn’t hate White Chicks because black people pretend to be white, you should hate it because it’s a terrible film.

Don’t let yourself get dragged down by the misdirection efforts of the media to try and make these past few weeks about old comedies from the past. No-one from Black Lives Matters asked for their removal, it wasn’t under duress, it was highly likely a cynical attempt to spin the narrative, to make the oppressors feel like they have even a tiny bit of oppression to struggle against, it’s transparent, it’s disgraceful, and what’s worse, it works, every single time people take the bait. We don’t want to rewrite history, we just want to build a better future.

Blade Runner 2049 Review

When it comes to long-awaited sequels, it’s fair to say that the weight of expectation is fairly heavy, especially when you’re following up a beloved cult classic that had no apparent need for a sequel.

Still, it has been shown before, that in the right hands, a long-gestating successor can be just as successful as the original. Take, for example, Mary Poppins Returns a few years ago, few expected that film to find the same charming wit and whimsy as the original, but nonetheless it did, despite its predecessors reputation; and that is, in all likelihood, the only time Marry Poppins and Blade Runner will be described in anything approaching a similar context.

While not quite as long-awaited as the aforementioned Disney sequel (MPR came well over 50 years after the original, this came after a 35 year gap) it was in extremely capable hands.

Not only did this film have to contend with following a beloved original, it also had the job of finding a replacement for an all-time great director, as Ridley Scott was only present in an executive producers role, and in his place was a director steadily building an incredible reputation: Denis Villeneuve, whose past works included tense thrillers like Prisoners and Sicario, as well as the modern sci-fi classic Arrival (he is also in the directors chair for the forthcoming Dune adaptation).

Employing a similar storyline time leap as was present between the sequels in real life, Blade Runner 2049 sees LAPD Blade Runner ‘K’ (Ryan Gosling) hunting down older models of ‘Replicants’ in the time since the original, businessman Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) has produced a new line of more subservient Replicants, but K soon uncovers a mystery that leads everyone to further question the true differences between man and machine.

Fears of this being a cash-in sequel are well-and-truly put to bed within the first hour of the film, as it delves into a new mystery in an expanded world from what we saw before, with much of the atmosphere that made the original great, but given an extra dose of energy by its performances and utilisation of modern technology.

It manages to maintain true to the original, all while maintaining its own identity and visual themes, both paying homage to, and expanding on, the 1982 original.

I especially liked the way it delves into human-replicant coexistence, both subtly and blatant. It draws a neat parallel between this world, and the real world, in terms of relations between races, that, given the current climate, has only become more prescient.

It also takes the central intrigue at the heart of the original and flips it around, creating a whole new layer of story to unpack, as K works to get to the heart of the all-encompassing question hanging over the film.

Despite all the film’s greatness, it is very difficult to review in too much depth. My usual rule-of-thumb is to not discuss and plot points or moments not featured in the trailer, and this is difficult, as the trailer does not give much away; sometimes I give myself more leeway with older films, but 2049 is only three years old, which means there is likely to be many people who haven’t yet seen it (especially given that it was somewhat disappointing at the box office).

So without wanting to give away the key plot points, it may leave the review sounding a bit vague, as I try and circumnavigate the sizeable elephant in the room, but I will try and remain as succinct as I can.

Putting the story to one side and focusing on other things for a while, the film is incredibly well-paced, especially given that it runs over two-and-a-half hours, it feels like a 100 minute movie, as the story moves along at just the right pace to properly space out the intrigue, while not letting the film feel like its flagging in the slightest. This was one of the issues I had with the original, was that parts of it felt like it was pushing its ‘slow-burn’ to its very limit, so I’m happy to report that isn’t the case here.

Also impressive is how the world the film inhabits is enhanced with the wonders of modern technology; there is a marvellous mix of practical cinematography and computerised effects on display here, the peak of which for me is a tender love scene between our protagonist and his holographic girlfriend, it really brings the wonders of a science fiction world to life before our eyes.

Yet, despite this, it also utilises some of the best cinematography I’ve seen in a sci-fi film. This is the film that won legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins his long-overdue Oscar (he’s since added to his collection, just this past year) and for good reason. The camera work and use of film as a storytelling device is jaw-dropping, making the desolate environments still feel alive through the wonder of film alone.

It’s also a film that mixes things up thematically. It takes what works from the original, and adds in a few more touches to make it still feel fresh. There are moments of body horror, the action is used sparingly, but explosively, and there are moments that make the tension and threat level feel like something out of a nerve-shattering thriller, it’s a perfect mix of everything that makes these subsequent genres work, all tied up in a neat little package, only enhanced by the absorbing narrative, and gorgeous visuals.

I haven’t even got around to the acting yet, and I’m almost 1,000 words in, that goes to show how much I had to talk about with this film, I even made notes, which is a rare occurrence for me, such was my determination to not miss anything.

The acting is noteworthy too, however, for a supremely talented and well-rounded cast. It did not get hung-up on the usual trappings of focusing heavily on the last characters, instead developing a new set of characters, and contextually linking them to the older characters in subtle ways, that leave you guessing, and constantly wrong-foot you, right up until the final reveal, where it all comes together so gracefully, making you feel glad that you were wrong in your personal predictions. It’s a really triumphant pulling of the rug from under the audiences feet, leading them to think one thing, while hiding the truth right in front of their eyes.

Anyway, forgive my side-tracking, the cast is lead by the always wonderful Ryan Gosling, whose ability to act with his face alone is rivalled only by Tom Hardy, but while Hardy relies on this ability, Gosling has considerably more strings to his bow. He goes through a character arc that sees him go from cold and standoffish, to the warm, beating heart of the narrative, a true reflection of the ongoing message of what separates man from machine.

Harrison Ford is also very good, actually getting to utilise his acting talent for once, rather than just simply turning up and being Harrison Ford. His character is significantly more worn-down and battered than cool and charismatic, and his performance reflects this.

I was also impressed by Jared Leto’s performance as the eerily unsettling head of the Wallace corporation, he sees precious little screen time, but manages to make use of the time he does have to really set your nerves on edge with his chilling delivery, which is occasionally reminiscent of Roy Batty in its coldness.

All of these things combine to produce that very rare thing: the worthy sequel. One that uses the lessons learned from the last film and expands them, and the world it occupies, and for that reason, I’m prepared to that that I preferred this film to the original. Of course, it wouldn’t exist without it, but its pacing is slightly better, and given the advances in technology, it can do more of what I feel the original wanted to do but couldn’t.

All at once it manages to be tense, emotional, atmospheric, and, ironically for a film about replicants, human. It taps into raw, human instincts of belonging and prejudice so elegantly that you wouldn’t notice they were there if you weren’t looking for them. It’s an immensely satisfying triumph that will make any film-going audience happy, no matter what their opinions on the original.

My Letterboxd Account

Hey guys! I’ve had this other account for a while, where I’ve transferred certain reviews, it’s a good little site and app, should you want to follow me on there, here’s the link: https://letterboxd.com/NathanKen95/

As I say, I put reviews from here up there, as well as curating lists in an easier format, it’s a really cool resource for cinema fans, and I don’t know why I haven’t posted about it before, but here it is now.

Blade Runner 2047 is coming up later this week, so keep an eye out!

Star Wars: Return of the Jedi Review

Trilogies seem to be the desired thing in the world of entertainment; for every film, it is seen fit to do a sequel for, a third instalment isn’t usually far behind (and sometimes a fourth, fifth, sixth, etc…) and this makes sense if the story demands it, sometimes the traditional three-act structure can’t be covered in one movie, in which case sequels are needed, such is the case here, a three-film arc worked perfectly for the story that was being told.

That being aside, I’d be hard pushed to name a trilogy where the third film is the strongest in the series. Usually, by the third film, you’ve used up all the series’ great ideas and are speeding downhill towards a conclusion, unless you have a firmly established arc in place from the beginning, your third film is usually the one that falls apart under the least pressure.

While I won’t go as far as saying Return of the Jedi ‘falls apart’ in any way, I will go as far as saying that it is the weakest of the original trilogy, not that it’s bad, I still like it a lot, just that after the one-two punch of A New Hope and Empire it had its work cut-out to both outdo its predecessors and wrap up the story in a satisfying way.

So, where are we in the story then? Well, after getting their collective arses kicked by the Empire last time out, the Rebellion are done licking their wounds and are ready to mount a comeback, starting with rescuing Han Solo, but it soon transpires that the Empire has a whole new Death Star nearing completion, the race is on to destroy it before it can be finished, meanwhile, Luke prepares to face his ultimate destiny by facing his father once again.

As a basic narrative skeleton, Return has all the basic ingredients to pay off the series’ running arcs in spectacular fashion, but like a moth at a firework display, it keeps getting distracted.

It doesn’t help that for my re-watch I watched the Disney+ version, which is the one with all the ‘Special Edition’ nonsense in it, which adds more ugly distractions to what should have been an easy road to concluding the saga.

As a whole, the film feels more sluggish than the previous two, like it’s lacking a certain spark that gave the series life, some parts are severely lacking in energy, one such area is the visuals, which on occasion seem dull and lifeless compared to the previous two entries. I couldn’t help but compare the set-pieces in Empire to those in this film, and they all feel so much worse off for it.

Maybe that’s being a tad unfair, as each Star Wars film has their own feel, and their own way of going about their action set-pieces, but putting special focus on the opening sequences in the original trilogy, Return‘s visit to Jabba’s palace just doesn’t measure up with the previous two, even if it has its moments, it still feels particularly low on energy.

That’s not to say the film is a complete bust, far from it, as I said earlier, I still like Return a lot, despite my critical brain pointing out its flaws. I wish it were better of course, but there’s still moments of greatness here that makes the Original Trilogy stand out.

Its final act is pretty much perfectly executed (give or take the Ewoks, who I’ll get to) giving us the final confrontation we’ve been waiting for throughout the whole series, as well as showing us the menace and power of the Emperor for the first time in the series. Vader’s change of heart is well-built and extremely well-paced, keeping us guessing right up until the final moment, and the flight of the Falcon to destroy the new Death Star is also thrilling, if not as ground-breaking as the first time around.

In a way, the film is redeemed by its final act, because it’s more or less the perfect ending to the story. It rounds off Luke and Anakin’s arcs perfectly, and has the element of emotion there too, in Vader’s final moments, actually satisfyingly humanising the monster. It’s a very touching moment, to say the least, and pays off three films worth of build-up surrounding Luke and Vader’s connection.

Some of the stuff on Endor is a sticking point for me, I must say, and it’s not even necessarily the Ewoks (I promise, I’ll get to them) it’s just that everything about it feels recycled, and even if some of the forest settings are quite nice on the eye, the effects in the action scenes are lacking, my mind goes to the speeder chase, which would almost look at home in the Prequels, for how fake it looks. This is what I meant earlier when I mentioned a lack of energy, it just feels like a film going through the motions, desperately wanting to get to the finale as quickly as possible, and the rush to get there is evident.

Then there’s the Ewoks. Full disclosure, I don’t hate them, I find them annoying and disconcerting, but I can’t register the same dislike I feel towards, Jar Jar, for instance; mainly because the Ewoks are actually useful, but they could have been useful AND a believable threat to the Stormtroopers (who I’ll remind you are soldiers, specially bred for battle) rather than cuddly teddy bears, specially designed for selling toys.

This isn’t a Star Wars-exclusive gripe, but I really hate when characters feel like they’re there to sell toys rather than to enhance the story, maybe that’s why I dislike the Transformers so much, but there’s no reason that the Ewoks couldn’t have looked at least slightly challenging to enemies because it just looks so out-of-place then they start successfully taking on stormtroopers; I remember reading before that at an early stage, it was supposed to be the Wookie’s who help the Rebels, and that sounds far better than what we have here. Still, I’m willing to live with them because of their eventual usefulness, but that isn’t to say they couldn’t have been better.

Acting-wise, everyone seems to have found their zone now with their characters. Mark Hamill is a much stronger performer here than he was at the start, and Carrie Fisher has transitioned from quiet nobility to headstrong leader in as natural a way as possible, adapting to her circumstances perfectly, and Harrison Ford is being Harrison Ford, that is to say, easily charismatic and charming, even when it doesn’t seem like he’s trying.

I could go on to say more about the changes made in the ‘Special Edition’ cuts of the film, but I think that dead horse has been flogged on the internet so much that there’s nearly any of its carcass left, suffice to say they add nothing but annoyance, but the film is still the same as it always was.

In conclusion, then, it’s not as revolutionary as the previous two films and feels lethargic at times, but for its final third, and eventually satisfying conclusion to the saga, Return of the Jedi still holds a special place in my heart. It’s in the shadow of Empire, but so is every Star Wars film since, in terms of concluding instalments of a trilogy, you can do a lot worse.

 

Major Film Reviews – New Podcast Episode!

For those of you following my social media platforms, you’ll see that I’ve returned to podcasting after a bit of a break, and I’m delighted to share my first episode back.

 

 

The above is a link to the podcast on YouTube, but it is available wherever you get your podcasts from, be in Apple, or Podcast Addict (my go-to for podcasting) just search for: ‘Major Film Reviews Podcast’ and you’ll find it.

Oh, I almost forgot, my new co-host!

Angel is a great friend of mine and was, in fact, a guest on the podcast in its previous incarnation, they too are a film student like me, and they’ll be joining me each month to talk shop about all things film. Their Twitter account is @AngelOrion87 go check them out!

Blade Runner Review

Well, after last week I reviewed a film whose behind-the-scenes dramas were more interesting than the final product, I thought it prudent to review a film that was as interesting as its production stories. Not really, of course, this was already wheeling across the firing range and I needed something fun to write for the opening paragraph, so there you go.

Ridley Scott is a filmmaker I greatly admire, he’s not perfect of course, and his CV boasts such duds as Robin Hood (the 2010 version, I know there’s been approximately 3 million films with that name) and Exodus: Gods and Kings, but when he’s firing on all cylinders, there are few better.

His good films read like a ‘who’s who’ of the greatest films of the last 50 years. There’s Alien and Thelma & Louise as examples of some of his older material, and even recently, he’s been behind The Martian and All The Money in the World, so his pedigree is unquestionable, which brings me to today’s topic; the film Scott himself considers to be his best work: Blade Runner.

Based on the classic Phillip K Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Blade Runner is a film that mashes together aspects of the classic Hollywood ‘hard-boiled detective’ plot with a cyberpunk, future dystopian aesthetic, telling the story of Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a police officer with the job of hunting down ‘Replicants’ androids built to resemble humans, while along the way finding out what it means to be truly human.

The thing that comes to mind when thinking of Blade Runner, at least for me, is its striking visuals. That’s not to say its story or characters are lacking, just that the visuals really help to realise this vision of a cyberpunk dystopian future, so much so that they form the core atmosphere of the film’s presentation. It says a lot about a films design choices when they’re influencing other films several decades later, as films continue to try and top Blade Runner’s aesthetic, and frequently fall short.

That word I used: ‘atmosphere’ was very deliberately chosen, as I think it’s the key strength behind a lot of Scott’s best film. When I think of Alien, I think of the oppressiveness and tension that is built throughout the narrative, similarly here the cyberpunk, futuristic design creates the feeling of a cohesive world, one that is so believable you can almost reach out and touch it, and the narrative utilises these settings much to its advantage.

The result is a film that feels almost ethereal and other-worldly in its vision, while explicitly being set on Earth, albeit a future (at the time) vision of earth that is so far removed from the reality of the Earth it occupies that it makes it feel like another planet, even when certain things are recognisable.

Further helping with this feeling is the soundtrack. Now, I don’t often talk about soundtracks, not that I don’t notice them, it’s just that by the time I’ve talked about the main talking points of a film, the review is well over 1,000 words and I assume you all have very important lives to get back to, so understand how significant a score has to be for it to warrant such an early mention.

A film’s soundtrack is crucial to its feel, to its style, it’s something we often take for granted, but we’d soon notice if it were taken away, chances are if you think of an iconic film scene, you could hum a piece of the score, it’s almost subconscious in the way it affects us, but it’s still there, and it’s even more crucial in Blade Runner, as it’s electronic, almost alien sounds merge seamlessly with this dystopian future that has been crafted before our eyes.

I’d say that Blade Runner was first and foremost a story of the setting in which it occupies, it’s about the world it’s built for us, and how that world works, but it also grapples with some serious ethical questions surrounding the difference between humans and androids.

It’s a very philosophically ambiguous film, one which leads its audience to choose who the villain of the story is, and manages a very rare feat of making an effectively unsettling antagonist seem very sympathetic too; it makes you empathise with their struggles, that of a machine being built to be human, and even being implanted with memories to fool it into believing that it’s human, leaving us to wonder who is the real monster in this story? Is it the creations or the creators, in much the same way that Frankenstein offers the same moral dilemma, Blade Runner further muddies the waters by not disclosing whether or not the lead character is also a replicant.

This is a very clever sleight of hand, although having just rewatched the film, it doesn’t tend to be as big an issue morally as the constant argument would have you believe, as it not only sets up the lead character as a mystery but makes his love interest a replicant too, adding another layer of uncertainty to Deckard’s motivations.

Ask any fan of this film about their personal favourite aspects of it, and they’re likely to say the climactic confrontation between Deckard and Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) in which Roy delivers an all-time great dying monologue, one which has become iconic in the years since, while it’s incredibly well-written and acted, it’s once again the visual design which steals the show, bathing the scene in a mixture of rainfall and futuristic neon which permeates the films overall design while encapsulating the films key messages.

Some viewers may find the film to be pretentious with its morally-complex sci-fi aesthetic and slower pace, and I can see how you would be disappointed if you came into it expecting something along the lines of other contemporary sci-fi films from that period, but I think of it like I think of 2001: A Space Odyssey, in that it’s contemplative sci-fi with a more complex and deep narrative that has proven to be so influential on the genre, one whose pretentiousness strikes just the right balance to make it entertaining, and its influence endearing, without threatening to lose itself in its own little world. In reality, it can be as deep and complex as you want it to be.

If you want it to be an action film where Harrison Ford hunts down dastardly androids, it has that for you, maybe not enough for those with a shorter attention span but it’s still there, you can engage with it on a basic level of understanding, or you can choose to delve within its layers of complexity and lose yourself in its world, and that’s really the charm of Blade Runner, you can lose yourself in complexity and atmosphere of you want to, but the option is there to enjoy it as a piece of escapism, it treads that line very effectively.

At the end of the day, it isn’t Star Wars, and I would understand your disappointment if you came into it expecting that, but if you allow yourself to be taken in by the world the film builds and the characters that populate it, you can become very quickly absorbed.

A Look Back at May

Another month indoors and more films on my list that I haven’t gotten round to yet; it’s strange, I can attend a cinema many times a week and never fail to motivate myself to want to see more, but stuck at home with nothing else to do, I just can’t find the energy or desire.

Still, I do try and review a few films a week, or work on a longer bit of writing, and this month saw me set a new record for most-viewed writing on this site, with my Robin Williams list attracting over 500 views!

So, thanks once again for your continued support during this tough time, I’m glad of all the views and that I can bring at least some entertainment to you, even if only for a while.

Film of the Month: The Conversation (1974) – Directed by Francis Ford Coppolla

Once again, slim pickings this month, and it was either this or The Empire Strikes Back and giving more praise to Empire felt like taking a sandpit to the Sahara, we know how good it is, but we don’t hear much about The Conversation, so it better be my film of the month.

I’m going to try and do more films this month, with both Blade Runner films lined-up to watch in the next week, as well as some more obscure ones, like Heathers and Shock Treatment, so I hope you enjoy those.

Hopefully see you all back in the cinemas sooner rather than later!

Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice – Ultimate Edition Review

Take this as the massive cry for help it probably is. I’ve gone so long without being in a cinema that I’ve decided to revisit an older film that I know I don’t like all that much, purely because I’ve never actually reviewed it and it seemed timely.

What with the long-awaited announcement of Zack Snyder’s Justice League now being official, I thought I’d go back and take a look at the film that preceded it, and not just a regular look either, no, this film is so dense with flaws and things to discuss that I can feel this is going to be more of a post-mortem than a review, a look at the extended version of this divisive (in the same way that Hitler is divisive) film, and look at the n numerous flaws, and even point out some of the bits I like, for I didn’t hate this film, I was disappointed, as there was enough in there to suggest an even better film was lurking beneath the surface, but I digress, let’s hold our noses and dive in.

For those who are a bit more slow on the uptake, and didn’t figure out much about this film from its title; Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (hereon in referred to as BvS) sees the DC’s two biggest characters clash on the big screen for the first time, that’s right we finally get the long awaited battle between Polka-Dot Man and Condiment King! Nah, I’m just kidding, that was a test to see if you’re all still awake.

The big issue hanging over BvS, like a pinata full of rancid luncheon meat, is one of studio interference. An issue that plagued the DCEU throughout its formative years, not only on this film, but also on Justice League and Suicide Squad. The studio behind these films (Warner Bros.) carved up these respective films, on the surface to make them more marketable and profitable, but in reality, they just made them all into incomprehensible piles of cow dung, soiling the reputation of these characters and the franchise.

But never fear, the creative force behind at least two of these movies (Zack Snyder) has found a way to convince Warner Brothers to let him release his intended vision, something that took significantly longer with Justice League, but is nonetheless a topic of much discussion amongst internet fans and critics.

The backlash began in earnest (at least as far as I can remember) with the casting of Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne/Batman, a backlash that was as inevitable as it was tedious, as the Batman fans never really know what they want until they have it, then they conveniently forget ever having not wanted it (the casting of Heath Ledger springs to mind) and as controversial as this film remains, Ben Affleck’s performance remains one of the aspects of it to be universally acclaimed.

So, I suppose that makes it as good a place as any to start.

For my review of this film, I took the uncharacteristic step of making notes, I can usually operate without needing them, as I write the review as soon as I’ve finished watching the film, and can, as a rule, be trusted to maintain my base opinions on what I saw. On this occasion, however, there was so much I wanted to say about BvS that I thought taking notes would be the only way to make sure I didn’t miss anything, and on the top of my page labelled ‘The Good’ is the name Ben Affleck.

If he’d featured in films that were better received, he could be considered the best live-action Batman ever seen, he’s a perfect fit for this version of the character, one who is established as a force, and has been for a while, and as a result is battle-scarred and jaded. He portrays this as a worn-down Bruce Wayne, looking to pin all the world’s problems on Superman, his usual black-and-white sense of morality is blurred in his single-minded determination to take down this otherworldly being.

The positives to the portrayal of Batman don’t end with the actor though, as BvS is home to some of the best Batman action ever seen on the big-screen, no matter how few and far between these moments are, it serves to remind us that this vision of Batman had the potential to be something truly special. Unfortunately though, as I say these moments are few and far between, there’s one particularly memorable moment where Batman takes down a room of thugs using his ingenuity, and his arsenal of Bat-weaponry, as well as a long-take sequence in a dream that really shows the potential of his iteration of the Dark Knight.

It makes it all the more disappointing then, that this potential is masked under a messy plot, full of contrivances and incredible stretches of logic. This isn’t the only potential wasted in BvS though, as I said in earlier paragraphs, one of the worst things about this film is catching a glimpse of a far-better movie, beneath the layers and layers of moist toilet paper that make up the insulation of this film. That was my ham-fisted attempt to say that this movie is more padded than an American footballer with brittle-bone disease.

Bizarrely though, even for a film with so much padding, some aspects of it are really rushed; the best example of which being the extremely clumsy shoe-horning in of cameos from other members of the Justice League, a blatantly transparent attempt to justify a team-up movie so early in the franchise continuity.

With all that said thought, here are a few more things I liked about BvS:

  • The introduction of Wonder Woman
  • The score by musical genius Hans Zimmer – in particular, Wonder Woman’s theme
  • Jeremy Irons’ portrayal of Alfred
  • The consistently good Batman action scenes, and the horror influence on his character
  • Some nice moments of cinematography (say what you like about this film, but for the most part, it looks nice)
  • The first confrontation between Batman and Superman
  • The duality of the Clark Kent/Superman character

I’ve said it before, and it bears repeating here, I don’t think BvS is as bad as some people say, it’s very flawed, and I’ll be getting to those flaws soon, but overall it’s an enjoyable enough watch, more so if you’re watching the Ultimate Edition, with some moments that really would make it stand-out, had it been put together better.

Ultimately, I think there are several different ‘camps’ of thinking when it comes to BvS: The first are the hardcore DC fans who loved it, and Snyder’s input overall, who can at times be blind to the number of issues Snyder has as a filmmaker, then there’s the casual fans of DC who liked The Dark Knight films and were disappointed in this because it wasn’t like the films they liked, the casual movie fan who enjoys the film for what it was, and finally is the hardcore comic book crowd who didn’t like it because it wasn’t Marvel, or they expected something more reminiscent of the MCU, and have spent the last half-decade using the DCEU as a punchline. There are other schools of thought, but these are the main four you come across.

As for me, I skirt around the edges of several of the above categories, I haven’t been above making a dig at the DCEU’s expense, but I’ve also been quick to praise its positives. I don’t think there’s been a ‘bad’ DC film since Justice League, there are some I’ve liked more than others, but none have actively annoyed me like Justice League did.

So, then, about those flaws I mentioned. Well, it won’t surprise you to know that I filled several pages of my little notebook with the films shortcomings, some are, admittedly, more nit-picks than genuine criticisms, so I’ll focus on my main complaints, and list the lesser ones as bullet points at the end.

Right, where to start… well, I might as well start with our primary antagonist, Lex Luthor, played here by Jesse Eisenberg, and I would very much like to know who told Jesse that he was playing The Riddler instead of Luthor, or whether he knew which character he was playing at all, because his performance is enough to make my teeth itch.

Eisenberg in the right part is a great actor, this is not the right part for Jesse Eisenberg. This character is all of his past character traits concentrated into one very annoying person and pumped up to 11. Luthor is cunning, tactical, and a world-class intellect, this movie thinks that the best way of portraying that is by having him say some vague-sounding poetic dialogue, and passing that off as complexity, that’s when he isn’t flapping around overacting like a pantomime villain.

All of this trickles down into Lex’s plan, which is so much of a stretch that Heath Ledger’s Joker would tell him to tone it down a notch. First, we’re just supposed to accept that Luthor knows Superman’s identity, we’re not shown how, he just does, then we’re supposed to just accept that he knows about Kryptonite, and how Kryptonian technology works, it’s all very convenient this isn’t it.

Lex’s plan, in a nutshell, is to force Superman to fight Batman, to do this he has Supes mother, Martha (remember that name) kidnapped (side-note: Superman’s instincts have this incredibly contrived, and convenient for the screenwriters, blind-spot, that means he can tell when Lois is in danger from two continents away, but never tell him anything about his mother being kidnapped) instead of arriving and explaining this to Batman, he engages him in an epic fight, where he is compromised by Kryptonite.

Ah, Kryptonite, that plot-convenient cop-out that screenwriters use when Superman seems too all-powerful, or when they need us to believe that a fight between a mortal man and an actual God is anywhere near feasible.

So far, so far-fetched, but it’s movie logic, so we’re going along with it, the point where the train comes off the rails, speeds through an orphanage and erupts into a giant fireball is at the pivotal moment where Batman decides to become BFFs with Superman, and it’s all because of one word: Martha.

Throughout the film, we see that Bruce is haunted by the memory of his dead parents (hey! Did you know Bruce’s parents were killed? What’s that? You’ve seen it, like, three times before? Oh, well, better show you it once more in slow motion) his mothers’ name is Martha, Superman’s name is Martha. Oh, why didn’t you say so? Let’s become best friends and have a slumber party.

It’s this one scene that drives the stake through the narrative so thoroughly for me, and you can tell me until you’re blue in the face about its symbolic meaning, or whatever, but I really don’t care how deep you, or Snyder thinks it is, because on screen, it just comes across as really dumb. It’s the biggest thing that ultimately kills this movie for me, and at this point, there’s still nearly an hour to go!

You see, pitting Batman and Superman against each other wasn’t the only string to Lex’s bow, oh dear me, no. He’d also figured out that by mixing his blood with the body of a dead Kryptonian general, he could create an unstoppable monster, theoretically capable of killing Superman. How does he know this, you ask? The screenwriters don’t care, and neither should you.

I’d be willing to stomach this development if Doomsday (the monster I alluded to) didn’t look so God-awful or feel like he was arbitrarily stapled onto the plot, just so the new Super Best Friends had something to kill. Truth be told, we see snapshots of Doomsday coming to be throughout the film, but it’s never explained how Lex knew he could make such h a monster, or how he came to know how to use the alien technology.

It could be argued that he is being controlled by Darkseid/Steppenwolf, but seeing as this extremely plot-important scene was cut from the theatrical release, we have to conclude that he isn’t, and that he was acting with his own knowledge, which is absurd.

Then, just to put the cherry on top of this wonderful final act, we have the conclusion, this is the point where those who haven’t seen BvS should close the page, or go to sleep, Superman sacrifices himself to kill Doomsday.

Now this might seem pretty significant, but it’s ultimately a hollow act, and it is a hollow act for two reasons:

A: There was no need for Superman to fly with the Kryptonite spear, he could have thrown it, or swapped places with Wonder Woman.

B: Everyone knew that he was going to be revived for Justice League, therefore making his sacrifice meaningless, and drop-kicking any sense of stakes out the door of a plane.

It is these three key aspects of BvS that damage it more than any other in my opinion. Even the cartoonish portrayal of Lex could have been at least bearable if his plan had made any sense at all, but in these three acts it completely deconstructs any goodwill I had towards it.

Here is a further list of more minor issues I had with the film:

  • Metropolis and Gotham City are about a mile apart, not sure why this annoys me, but it does.
  • Clumsy dialogue trying to use long words to sound complex.
  • Overuse of slow-motion.
  • While I’m at it, overuse of dream sequences.
  • Bruce seeing the climax of Man of Steel. It’s interesting, but certain parts push credibility.
  • Too much Dawn of Justice, not enough Batman v Superman.
  • There are too many variable that make the final act push credibility. (see my side-note earlier about Superman’s instincts not saving his Mum).
  • The overall messiness of the narrative. (Granted, this is worse in the theatrical cut)
  • When the cinematography isn’t being great, it’s looking like it’s shot through a used coffee filter. AKA dark lighting and framing does not equal complexity.

With all of that energy expended on this film, which I have spoken at length about elsewhere, I think I’ve put to bed all my thought on it pretty definitively. No, I don’t think it’s the worst superhero film ever, neither do I think it’s particularly good. If I were to switch my brain off and not try and over-think it, I’m sure it would pass the time sufficiently, but part of my conditioning after nearly four years of writing criticism is to think about films, why choices were made and how they’re constructed, it can enhance my enjoyment of a great film, and destroy my view of a bad film, and the more I look at BvS, the more cracks I notice.

Having said all that, I do have a lot of sympathy for some of the people involved. Ben Affleck was pretty much a broken man by the time Justice League came about, and it can’t be easy for a creative spirit like Zack Snyder’s to see his vision get put through the wringer so thoroughly and so often.

I remain, as ever, open-minded to The Snyder Cut, or whatever they’re calling it now. But I do advise caution when looking towards the future, we must remember the faults of the past.