With four screen outings before this new installment of the franchise, Jack Ryan and his extensive, hi-octane history in Tom Clancy’s books (he even became the President of the United States at one point) and their past popularity, would make it seem like this was a well that was definitely needed to be used more often. However, after the admittedly forgettable The Sum of All Fears (where Ben Affleck donned the Jack Ryan persona, and casting Neo-Neo Nazis in the bad guy role), it has taken over ten years for the next iteration, a variety of different writers and well as a departed director. It is not fair to look at a film from the status of a troubled production (see World War Z as proof that troubled production does not mean troubled film), especially when Chris Pine has been firmly attached since the late 2000s. However, this film is not based on Red Rabbit, but finding a new post-9/11 twist in an original screen story.
The film started off in the past, scene setting Jack Ryan as PhD and as a Marine as weird footnotes, before quickly jumping back to the future, he is now working in the financial world while undercover for the CIA. He finds financial details are being hidden by a corporation owned by Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh, who also directs) with Microsoft Excel, and turns out that his company is hiding more than meets the eye, so he gets his company to send him to Moscow so he can do a bit for the CIA on the side. However, Ryan has more than just problems with the Russians, who are always suspicious and order attacks without forethought, where he, an analyst, is forced to become a field agent, but his girlfriend/fiancee(?) Cathy (Keira Knightley) seriously does not know if he can trust him, as he spends his times going to see old black and white films without her (in spite of the fact that they have been going out for years). And sadly for the audience, this is less of an old-fashioned spy tale, than boilerplate mediocre mess of social comedy and patriotic ass-kicking.
From the get-go, the film’s awful, and it is difficult to really begin talking about it without sounding heavily negative. One of the key issues the film has is that Chris Pine has been miscast in a role that does not really suit his abilities. He feels hampered in a role that required more fish-out-of-water elements, while Pine struggles to hide his too overly confident Captain Kirk persona, that his character would rather be in a Mission: Impossible reboot than his own film. Not that he is helped with a hackneyed story-line, that is not only feels like a misplaced Cold War thriller that even the 1980s would have thought was too American (when I said it was a post-9/11 Ryan, I literally meant that in the bluntest way possible, like, the news is playing it on a television), but it lacks any intrigue or suspense as barely anything happens in the film.
Going back the concept of miscasting, Chris Pine makes a solid attempt if futile, but his counterparts are not only miscast, but retrograde distractions that slip into parody. Keira Knightley, who’s inexplicable American accent and performance are so over-the-top (aided by corny dialogue), that I was surprised walking out of the cinema that she wasn’t a double agent, but even more surprised how one-sided her character was that when she is put into peril, we want her to be eliminated by the villain so we could feel some catharsis. Aside from a few moments, her character would be perfectly at home on the deleted scenes section of the DVD. Kenneth Branagh also does not come out of the film well, as his Russian antagonist is comically patriotic, full of ticks and quirks in his behavior, but with no real menace makes me struggle to associate anything to him aside from wearing a lot of black, silly glasses and not sure what to do with his hands.
The real saving grace out of this endeavour is Kevin Costner’s CIA Handler and mentor figure, who, while not exactly given an arc, seems to be realistic and above all, human in his role, adding to the action as well as being a comfortable presence, taking his few lines of dialogue, giving life to them, and has real chemistry with everyone he meets on screen. Whenever he is not on screen, we truly lose something, as the film rarely touches the sublime from the onslaught of ridiculousness. The editing is horribly choppy, completely pointless/detrimental when projected via IMAX as we focus on the wrong things, and the messy sound design that is either too quiet or overly loud. The entire film feels slapped together, as if the cast and crew wanted to get away from this blundering bore of a film that fails to keep to a discernible reality, particularly it’s tacked on plot twist in the third act.
In the pantheon of Jack Ryan films, it faced tough odds to be the best that this franchise can offer. In the pantheon of action cinema, it’s principle failing, aside from atrocious and miscast acting, it is just actively boring. In one sequence, Jack Ryan truly realises what it is to be alone in a foreign city, afraid for his life, Pine sells this moment well all over his face… and then it is destroyed when he gets a phone call from Cathy. It had the elements that could have worked, but every blunder makes it harder and harder to engage with the film, making you actively disconnect. Jack Ryan is said to be smart person, but we want to see what makes him smart. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is an action thriller, but we want to see some better action and actually have some thrills.
*It’s my ultimate, until I see everything that 2013 had to offer and then apologise like say, not seeing The Selfish Giant, All is Lost or Short Term 12 etc.
Now onto Part 2 of this magnum opus of film lists that are on a website called Film These Days, revealing my top ten films of the year! I have not seen a lot, and I certainly do not believe this year had a bumper crop of choice, but I was able to make a top ten. If you want to see the wheat and tares I could have chosen from, my viewing diary and my ratings are freely available on Letterboxd.
Runner-Ups: Iron Man 3, Much Ado About Nothing, A Hijacking, Lincoln, Les Miserables. All are available on DVD, Blu-Ray and Download now.
10. The Broken Circle Breakdown
Something involving the bizarre combination of bluegrass music and Flemish people would obviously draw my attention, but the chemistry between the two protagonists and the heartbreaking intensity plays out like the best country song you would ever hear. While the killer soundtrack is certainly worth downloading, this more traditional tale of a relationship between two renegade outsiders, was like seeing a very massive storm in a teacup, which could burst out at any point. While the film is jammed with themes and melodramatic theatrics that almost destroy the film, Felix van Groeninge seems to have captured a world where there is only two people that exist, which their torments and love threatens to fall apart and fragment the entire universe.
Available on DVD, iTunes download and streaming on LoveFilm Instant.
9. Ernest and Celestine
Sweet tale from the makers of A Town Called Panic, Ernest and Celestine go into the gritty real world dilemmas of how bears and mice relate to each other. All kidding aside, it is a tale about destiny, integrity and finding creative kinship in a regimented world, as while CGI animation is getting slicker, this film is just fine with its imperfections in its drawing, its watercolour tableaus, and not afraid to be serious when it is at its goofiest. A heartfelt adaptation of a children’s storybook, it’s elegant in its simplicity.
Available on DVD, iTunes download and streaming on LoveFilm Instant.
8. Stories We Tell
A highly involving documentary, this film explores the nature of storytelling but also the illusionary nature of identity and what makes a person human: our own self concept or other people’s points of view? A paired down production, where even reality and fiction blurs as old family footage is mixed with dramatic reenactments of key emotional connections (not events), that gives us a spirited spectroscope of one filmmaker’s adventure into her own family life. It’s compassionate but also pragmatic, the film becomes a picture of the filmmaker, the only member of the family who is not a talking head interviewee.
Available on DVD, Blu-Ray and Download.
A charming B-Movie made with the appeal and effects of an A-List film, it might not reinvent the wheel narratively, it is an effective executed event cinema. It’s minimalism of concept allows the scope of the picture to be bombastic, and paradoxically personal much of the time. We experience crisis on all fronts as the film explores not just the technical marvels and danger of space, we also experience what a person does in the face of unbearable odds, with Sandra Bullock bringing in one of her greatest performances, both physically and emotionally (in spite of lazy metaphors). Alfonso Cuaron is a technical wizard.
Currently still in cinemas. Available on DVD, Blu-Ray and Download from 3rd March, 2014.
Playing out like a spicier, more mythological version of The Artist, Blancanieves is a more fitting tribute not only to silent cinema, but also to things like Blood and Sand and the very nature of folklore. Resetting Snow White in pre-Franco Spain, there is an inherent emotional connection made between the film and audiences, as it beguiles with inspired, gothic imagery, and using the language of silent cinema to craft an affecting tale of father/daughter relationships, and classical concepts of love and loss. It is not a silent film to make a reference to silent cinema, it just has to be told with silence so that the emotions are firmer rooted.
Available on DVD, iTunes download and streaming on LoveFilm Instant.
While Matthew McConaughey has been receiving for my still unseen Dallas Buyer’s Club, his playful performance that mixes both the daring rascal, the undying romantic, the melancholic despondent and hidden villain, his centrality brings a coming-of-age story its definitive edge. It does not pull punches and neither is it totally politically correct, it is a refreshing and honest adventure into the riverbeds and forests of Arkansas, as boys learn what makes a man is not his behavior, but that of time and hindsight, with a bit of terse dialogue thrown in.
Available on DVD, Blu-Ray and Download.
4. The Act of Killing
A sensation since it hit the scene, all the hype is exactly on the mark for this captivating expose into the banality of evil, with the fantastically cinematic interludes clashing with descriptions of execution methods and the behind-the-scenes methods. This documentary following Anwar Congo and his realisation of his own actions, and using the ruse of reenactment, Joshua Oppenheimer creates the conditions to bring to light the true trauma through the medium of cinema, though similar the affect that a film would have on a normal audience member, the film becomes a confessional to a society that hasn’t dealt with it. Hyper-real, and shocking.
Available on DVD, Blu-Ray and Download.
Leviathan is a mind-bending, vegetarian-unfriendly documentary that turns its concept over its head and it is simply captured in one sequence: a fisherman starting to fall asleep to an episode of The Deadliest Catch. (This isn’t a spoiler, because it has to be experience) There is no fake emotionalism or editing, there is no stakes, it is a film which explores the very nature of fishing like you would have never seen it before, aided by copious amounts of GoPros and consumer grade DSLRs. It turns fishing into an effervescent nightmare, full of carnage, as we feel we are literally plunged into the water, into fish guts and into beards. The film even makes the smallest aspect and moments become the most important things ever, which we would have never considered before when tackling this subject, like will that fishhead fall out of that boat or not? Will those birds chase that boat forever?
Available on DVD, Blu-Ray and Download.
-1. Upstream Colour
As I was talking about Amy Seimetz’s stand-out performance, what can be said about her performance could also be said about the film itself. It’s a film in which can be read as an allegory for so many different things, such as substance abuse to other controversial topics, the film is almost as purely emotional, that it defies categorisation, as Primer‘s logic defied its categorisation. its central conceit is really about two damaged people trying to rebuild from broken pieces, hunting for connection, for wanting, about the act of love and what it means when it is built as well as destroyed. To go back to my reference in my review of Seimetz’s performance, William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience are as much influences as the often referenced Walden by Thoreau. It is an one of a kind experience.
Available on DVD, Blu-Ray and Download.
Understated and unobtrusive, it being a joint number one was a surprise to me as anyone else. As much as it is treated as a performance showcase for the great Bruce Dern like many of Daniel Day-Lewis’s films, the film is a simply marvelous look into deterioration and failed dreams, that while does seem depressing (the barren landscape, the emptyish streets, the harsh black and white contrasts), there’s a human laugh that prevails over the bickering and aging towns that populate Nebraska. Bittersweet look into legacy and regret, about aging and learning the importance of things outside of societal noise, it hits the perfect note between comedy and drama into a truly moving film.
Tentatively planned to be released on DVD on April 14th, 2014.
Thank you for reading. Tune in next year… for one of these things!
*If you don’t mind hyperbole, but if you do it is according to Milan Matejka.
While I could go into very silly amount of detail as to the highs and lows of the year, I rather stick to what I know best: being late to the party, destroying 2014’s decor and bring up the past like if I were in a drunken stupor. To kick it off so late in the game (‘If the Oscars can do it, so can I!’ shouted Milan, pretending the bouncer was an Oscar), as I have not seen as many films this year and feel woefully prepared, here’s some observations from my very limited scope on 2013 in film.
Underrated: The Lone Ranger (d. Verbinski, 2013)
Do not misunderstand me, this is not a perfect film, and certainly does not touch my top ten. A discombobulated mixture of adventure, revenge, horror, political commentary, history lesson, slapkick and Johnny Depp, the film lacks in a simpler clarity and narrative focus, it makes up with frenetic verve and brimfuls of ideas. Great set-pieces, spirited performances from the main duo, it is unwieldy romp with two of the best action sequences of the year as book-ends, it is a sad case in which people misinterpret what it means if a film flops in reflection to their quality.
The true recommendation, for those still very cautious about this film, is it’s final ten-twenty minutes of the film. It simply outshines the rest of the film as it is one of the best sequences this year has brought, and even validates the rest of this messy film. Racked to a masterful reorchestration of The William Tell Suite by Hans Zimmer, the sequence makes up for the lull and depressing antics that happened a few sequences before, and would have been a film event of the year if people had bothered to see it. The music is the key aspect, as its constant swelling and building, descending and rising is truly magical, bringing true weight to the entire proceedings and amps up the entertainment value. The music follows dueling trains zip and zag across Texan landscapes, multiple villains fight the duo across distances and close quarters, the stereotypical damsel in distress, cars full of people and bullets flying everywhere. This is the ultimate Western shootout taken to such silly heights, that is truly unleashes the inner child that Pacific Rim tried to attempt. This sequence is a film in itself that aside from some plot confusion, could easily be exorcised and presented as a film in itself a la D. W. Griffith on steroids.
Runner-up – The Great Gatsby. It is glittery, it is bombastic, it is emotional, it is hollow, it is a great adaptation as many of its criticisms are actually its strengths. I liked it okay, it’s shiny melodrama that while it celebrates excess, it brings out a strong eye into the contradictions and the underlying sadness in every character. Runner-up best sequence? The bar fight in The World’s End, as while the film does not match its predecessors comedy and heart, it does have the ingenuity and entertainment factor, which comes through in an incredibly well-edited brawl.
Documentaries do not need to reinvent the wheel, but while this film is emotively engrossing, it certainly felt over-extended with its subject matter, never going deep enough to present an argument that was intellectual rather than just strongly emotive. It flounders from the start as the court case that makes the story’s spine doesn’t drive the film nor the debates it presents, but instead relies on just a few moments and sequences, that while rightly should be praised, but at times highly manipulative and episodic. It presents SeaWorld as the ultimate evil that needs to be defeated at the end of the video game, rather than question the nature of man’s relationships with these creatures, never mind other historical cases of the same abuse. This is activist film-making at its purest, which is not a problem, but its scope is too small. This film is a perfect case of interesting and noble topic, but just not that well constructed… but not badly constructed enough to not make an impact however a la The Cove, I’m not heartless.
Runner-up – Room 237. How am I supposed to focus on any theory if it is mixed around together with similar monotone voices narrating over the same parts of footage? It is an interesting concept of a film, but almost feels like we are supposed to be in a delirium listening to these theories, as the theories are not treated normally and we never really engage with their points fully (or even the filmmaker’s point of view on anything). And why it is documentaries that I am most disappointed with this year? I’ll have to ponder as everyone talks about the plotholes in Star Trek IntoDarkness,or the nihilism of Man of Steel, and how I’ve gone to my zen like place where these are now immaterial because I wrote an essay on it and cannot talk about it any longer! (‘Til later this year when the newest shiny things come out)
The Worst Film of the Year! A Good Day to Die Hard
I’m tempted… okay, I’ll do it. I am going to write my summary of this film with the same amount of effort that they put into the film:
The CGI is horrible.
Bruce Willis needs to find better action directors, with better scripts. He was on a roll with Looper and Moonrise Kingdom (Note: not an action film) last year.
I do not mind colour correction, but it seems to have gone through a lab accident.
It’s boring. You had a problem with Die Hard 4.0 (Live Free or Die Hard)? I didn’t. I enjoyed it in spite of its cheesy flaws.
You call that a father and son relationship? I’m surprised they’re even related.
‘I’m on vacation’ *The audience stands up, ‘WE KNOW’, and sits back down, ever hoping that cinematic Bruce Willis would be listening to them* ‘I’m on vacation!’ *GROAN*
It’s boring. Die Hard 4.0 had TIMOTHY OLYPHANT.
Die Hard need to go to space and then the circle is complete.
Runner-Up – After Earth – Will Smith should know that there is a different between wooden self-seriousness and charismatic, as the film is infected with it, as Jaden Smith is taught that to make a film truly awful, you have to learn that conquering fear will leave you as emotive as an IKEA warehouse. *Honestly, I wish more people would have seen this so that I could have an in-joke with them, as a way to say I survived it as well, all involving the delivery of the line ‘TAKE A KNEE’*
Best Performance: Amy Seimetz – Upstream Colour
The most quintessentially important part of Shane Carruth’s return to cinema is completely reliant on having a great anchor that ties each of its arty pieces, or it would have crumbled under the weight of precocious pretentiousness. Amy Seimetz’s Kris, the main character, brings a raw visceral edge, as while her journey can be read multiple ways (more on that later), what she exhibits is almost any entire human’s soul, that while affected by the events in the film, configures and reconfigures into the familiar and into the unknown, all the while reflecting a raw intensity that seems to reflect life itself. Love, loss, anger, sadness, joy, her performance tells tales of experience and innocence in relation to memory, identity and in an odd way, the circle of existence.
Runner-Up – Will Forte – Nebraska – His role could be described as underrated, as while he is called supporting, he is truly a co-lead. While Bruce Dern’s performance is justifiably brought oscar attention (and my choice, by the way), Forte’s subtly allows for the emotions to run through the bland, black and white landscape that acts as the perfect contrast to Dern’s father figure. As he grows in his own arc, he becomes the traveler in what he could call his ‘native’ land, an outsider to his own family’s plot in life, as while he investigates his father’s life, and in so doing, learning to respect and love his father unsentimentally.
Worst Performance**: Mila Kunis – Oz: The Great and Powerful
While the film isn’t as bad as everyone would like it to be, Mila Kunis was stuck with an unfortunate role that did not give her any favours. It is simplistic in the most extreme sense, while aiming at bombastic at times, and wonderment in others, it comes off as hollow in the worst pantomime fashion, that even threatening disbelief to go into howls of ‘oh, please’ as bad make-up and costuming do not allow it to escape cliche.
Runner-Up – Anthony Hopkins – Thor: The Dark World – Phoning it in, maybe the deleted scenes may tell us what exactly happens, but this is just sad case of paycheck please. This is not really a slating, but really, I know he can do great things, and just to see not only his character played down, he seems to be upset even being there.
** Of course, excluding the aforementioned Worst Films. They’d win, hands down. WAY DOWN.
Note: there will be spoilers throughout this article. Please use your own discretion and rely on your own wits. Spoilers for Thor: The Dark World, Man of Steel, The Wolverine, and Iron Man 3 throughout. Kick-Ass 2 will not be covered as I have not seen it, but more to the point, this is covering more general comic book films that, shall we say, are a part of the mainstream genre.
While they are generally called ‘Comic Book Films’ by mass media, this would not be fully accurate terminology. When we read lists of top comic book based adaptations, we hear more about Spider-Man’s identity/love crisis in Spider-Man 2 or the allegorical nature of X2: X-Men United, than that of the crumbling facade of ordinary small town life in A History of Violence, nor the trials and tribulations of a young Iranian woman in Persepolis. More to the point, one of the key criticisms of the superhero genre has mainly been its basic conceit: costumed heroes rise from obscurity to defeat a deadly adversary, and then continue the adventures in another CGI extravaganza with another villain in the way. This ‘trope’, for some, ultimately unhinges many critics and audiences to condemn the genre as infantile nonsense, and gradually turns off others for lack of variety. In more articulate terms, it can be believed that the spectacle serves to undercut thematic and character development, to the point that it becomes just interconnected set-pieces, and that this ‘backing’ is there to merely justify sequences of awe. What needs to be accomplished within the genre is not a spaghetti western-like revisionism, but rather like comic books, explore their characters defiantly without fear of reprisal or just fulfilling signature action beats, so they can gain respectability through unpredictability, plot anchored to characters instead of the other way round, and in rare moments that might not exist just yet, subtlety (see Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye, and Mark Waid’s Daredevil Vol 3 for an example).
What does the genre have to do to gain a sense of respectability? Man of Steel, the new Superman (Henry Cavill) reboot, believes that this is related to the general stylistic tone, that while it is not rooted too much in realism (and therefore,’dark’), its decides to take much of Superman’s origin story so seriously, it tended to take root in sci-fi melodrama not like Thor but really more proto-Dune. As superhero genre is just a subgenre branching out of scifi, it is not surprising to go into the deeper elements of its genre forbearers, and as such, decides to thematically go into the character for improvement over the lambasted Superman Returns. Man of Steel deals with manifest destiny and the implications of such a power, as the film underlines Superman’s alien origins. Using contrasting father figures, Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner), the film tries to present two conflicting ideological concepts:
Jor-El wants Kal-El to prove that he can lead Earth and bring hope for mankind for a better future.
Jonathan Kent believes that if Clark Kent (Kal-El, in other words) was to reveal his origins, he would be at worst a lab-rat and at best an enemy.
What many people did not like about Man of Steel, is that the themes that are used in the film, are just not firmly anchored to even the main character, nor does it even try relate to the emotions of the character aside from juvenile reactions. While we might see that the two father figures can either lead Clark/Kal, in the case of Jonathan Kent, to constant loneliness and abandonment, or in the case of Jor-El, genocidal fascism as represented by Zod. Both arguments are short-changed however, as both figures are eliminated from Clark’s life in such a meaningless/offensive way, it means little to audiences or create a reaction. What happens in Man of Steel is technically proficient world-building, that it brings interesting visual dynamism to the screen, but the characterisation is as much muddled as the framing devices used to go through Clark Kent’s backstory, coupled with a final third act that inconsequentially nihilistic that is so overwhelming, it is the only thing people remember of the film.
In sharp contrast, we have Thor: The Dark World. This film is distinctive in regards to Man of Steel, there is something very promising in this film. Sure, it undermines the plot much of the time as it drops characters and love triangles as fast as they are introduced, tries to continue characters that have outserved their original purpose (Darcy, played by Kat Dennings, is even given her own sidekick to make this aspect even clearer), severely undercuts Odin’s character to mere Hopkinisms and leaves Christopher Eccleston’s Malekith, chief antagonist and Dark Elf, high and dry motivation wise except putting the universe into utter darkness. Repeat, he wants to put the universe into utter darkness… because it used to be in utter… darkness? As much as this is the only superhero film this year released that is under two hours, it might have benefited to have a few more minutes to develop Odin, Malekith and Jane’s relationship to Thor. Instead, while the characters are not scripted to say, the level of a Oscar nominee (nor are they intended to), there is a heavy investment within the characters of Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) to bring life to the enterprise that the plot couldn’t.
The film has been relatively praised due to its fidelity to the themes of brotherhood, trust and the nature of leadership and power (Okay, I guess Malekith’s obsession with darkness can be related to this and the cliches of absolute power absolutely corrupts). While it is a recycling its themes from the first one, it is also due to their performances and rejuvenated locale that allow them to breath and have a sense of dynamism, in the face of aesthetically-challenged action sequences. These moments of family drama bring life and vitality that is rarely expressed within the genre, that these ties are there and cannot be resolved using the traditional SMASH, where the true strength of serialization lies. There is still a sense, from both of Man of Steel and Thor: The Dark World, that they are both missing a sense of the ‘full package’. Both believe that they are challenging their characters, and bringing a new sense of perspective, but they’re following similar plot patterns that make audiences prone to disregarding most of the hard work that many crew members have invested into the project.
The Wolverine (the titular hero, also known as Logan, played by Hugh Jackman) is a film that seems to try and somewhat succeeds this challenge, by removing the superhero’s core power (invincibility) in the face of a world that he does not know nor many allies on the ground. This does seem to be a novel concept for a superhero film, and one in which seems to be actually identifying itself with a storyline within the comic books (and gladly does not treat it like a bible), and at least for parts of the films, it truly works as a meditation of the meaning of life and death, with a side-dish of legacy. It concentrates, after the operatic saga that was made the first X-Men trilogy, on Logan sans Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) and trying to definitively contextualise him in light of ‘The Immortal’ by Jorge Luis Borges, a story in which an immortal, after experiencing centuries of civilization, in a state of ennui he searches for a river that can reverse his condition, as a river made him this way originally. Let me just state that this film never goes into the philosophical ramifications that Borges addresses, as the animistic nature of Wolverine makes it apparent that he sees senselessness of life rather than feeling the effects of the infinite, or troubles himself to find beauty in morality. Rather, Logan feels the weight of his own actions and sins, as the film rarely treats his plight as flippant, but a fundamental part of his character.
However, the themes are hammered and signposted as soon as they are introduced: labelling of Wolverine as a Ronin, ‘a samurai without a master’; the battle between Wolverine’s two natures, the man vs the beast; sadness about the legacy and wanting to die, practically tattooed on the foreheads of the audiences that saw it in a cinema. The film’s action was effective, particularly with a playful use of a bullet train, and moments of pregnant silence to focus on Jackman’s underrated emotionalism, but it did not allow the film to breathe nor the audience to make their own connections (not to say they cannot mention them, but it is the same as planting a seed and putting in more to make that one seed grow), fearing its audience in case they were less attentive. We could say that it is this attitude that stops superhero films from advancing from the point that they are, into truly serious consideration since The Dark Knight, but this problem has a symptom that affects each of these films in this line-up: third act fatigue.
To use the terms from video games, is the ‘big boss fight’ symptomatic to the problems of the genre or just a trope that needs to be followed? A big fight as the weakened hero suddenly regains their strength, but still has a mental block could just be a dressing for a traditional Western shoot out. Revolvers are replaced with powers, the railroad succumbs to ideas of world domination, and violence is just as it ever was. Unlike the Western, ‘classics’ are hard to come by as the field has been far narrower nor as utilized as much, as westerns and crime films share the same pulpy backbone, but there has not truly enough superhero films invested, still to be planted and reaped, to play with the narrative just a bit for shock and surprise. Their third acts sound similar:
Thor: The Dark World has a battle for the face of existence in Greenwich, London using faux-Portal guns. It is comic, but very serious on the whole that is rarely inventive aside from the under-used portals.
Man of Steel destroys large parts of Metropolis and potentially terraform the world off the face of existence. I already stated it is nihilistic and uncaring carnage, with countless citizens killed without a scream or blood.
Iron Man 3 has an army of super soldiers face an army of super, sentient armour to save the life of the President and to not have the White House taken over by a multinational corporation paying off the president. It’s gleefully cliche, but revels in it in a typically ’80s Shane West style, but can be overlong and questionable if you consider the plot holes if you consider the build quality (not that it matters, I have to mention it however).
While The Wolverine in this regard is refreshingly low-key, as the world isn’t under threat, it is something else when he has to have a fight with the Silver Samurai… which in a man in a silver samurai suit, who fights Wolverine to gain his submission and take over his immortality. No half measures and all that.
These third acts are apparent in many different genres and plots, but because of their bombastic nature, they are rarely seen as anything outside of perfunctory heroics. However, as you might have guessed, that while I do include Iron Man 3 in this, coupled with the rest of the film, it proved to be effective when it is tied to Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey Jr) central identity, as well as its themes.
If we look at the most contentious Superhero film that doesn’t have the hero kill Zod (which would haven’t been a hollow creative victory if the main foundations were actually there), Iron Man 3 surprised audiences and fans by recreating Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey Jr) as not only a man without a suit, but a man in the mist of a nervous breakdown. This established world doesn’t even follow the previous films’ rule-book: Mandarin, the chief villain of Iron Man law, the Joker to Iron Man’s Batman, is a shambolic junkie actor from Croydon (Sir Ben Kingsley), a cover for the true villain, Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce). Playing a meta-joke on the audience and Stark himself, it connects to the overall theme of corporate domination and truly connecting the most capitalistic of heroes to the personification. Stark fighting the worst side of his traits come alive in Killian, as while he hid in a suit, Killian hides in the Mandarin.
What is also happening is that Stark’s past and his personal demons are just as in much focus as The Wolverine, but it uses mostly action and acting rather than dialogue (mostly, the PTSD is fully referenced) and instead of literalising the battle, it plays in the subtext first and the text second. A lot of people complained that Gwyneth Paltrow saving the day was unrealistic, possibly exploitative, but in a subtext, is that Tony could not save himself. With Paltrow, we have a kid Harley (Ty Simpkins) helping along, as well as Rhodes (Don Cheadle), who brings in the comedic 1980s action duo aspect, it is completely in line with the resolving of trauma with respect and love compared to Killian’s dark, shallow vengeance. The third act uses the President as the ultimate MacGuffin, which threatens to hinder the film, but in the overanalysis of plot, we forget that this thematic through-line makes the difference and allows this lapse of judgement. From the anti-climatic battle in Thor: The Dark World that doesn’t change anything, the leadened literalism of The Wolverine, and Man of Steel‘s brute tactics, in comparison, that in spite of its goofier leanings, it is justified and… well… fun. With its goals established and resolved, Tony is now allowed to truly change, that, until The Avengers: Age of Ultron, the film feels definitive. When forgoes the arc reactor in his body, so what started in the first film is now finished in this entry, his arc is complete, and we as an audience can gain catharsis through the meshing of plot, character and theme.
Many fans of the franchise complained about the lack of the suit’s appearance (who knew they’d not be happy seeing Stark sneaking around and using his wits, instead of blowing up things from his fist), that the Mandarin’s potential was not utilized (if you want to explain to me, go ahead, but in a world in which Red Dawn‘s antagonists are changed from Chinese to North Korean, is it possible to remain true to the character that is admittedly suspicious?), and that for him to take the arc reactor out made the series pointless because ‘he could have done that in the first one’. These complains, could they have clue into the limitations of the genre? Is it the genre’s fanbase who crave the battle, the punchy victory, the comic book references? Probably not, as we cannot really point to where the plot’s problems begin or end, it is truly a Hollywood problem that stops these characters from developing differently, with too much money invested in these franchises. Unlike westerns, or crime etc it is difficult to make indie films with superheroes. The independent world could never afford the budget that would be needed for even an original hero, unlike going into a desert with some reenactors, or giving an actor a gun and a dame, and if they do commit, it is hard to not be post-modern, playing around with the flimsiest of concepts.
Superhero films of 2013 is at a crossroads of development, from the heights of the sublime theatrics of The Avengers to the weighty moral paradigms (not too weighty though) of The Dark Knight Trilogy, the genre seems to have hit a point of the audience’s familiarity of concepts, and that it looks like it is not going to stop. Some question if they should be continued being made, some question that there will be a crash and hoping it will lead to a New New Hollywood being made (Biblical Epics are coming back, a possibly significant indication of the state of Hollywood at the moment,) but then some do not ask if we are to explore superheroes, should we be afraid of offending the legacies of their predecessors? Not just predecessors of films or comics, but that of blockbusters. Superhero films at this present point of time are just simple tales built from a solid back-stories, but to not just be just a fad, they need play around with the format. While they’re all different heroes, we do not need another pinball arcade game, in which heroes hit their rogue’s gallery with the same metal ball, only with a logo change. Superheroes need real fear, real danger, but also look at how humans interact and bring them back down to earth.
Iron Man 3 was the number one film of the year at the box office, and while a lot had to do with brand recognition, it wasn’t afraid to surprise, and it wasn’t afraid of making their audience angry. (It was my number one superhero film of the year as well, but the opinions of critics are rarely relevant in these cases). From the rumblings of Marvel, they think they are doing sub-genres to their films, but why not rob the cradle of tropes, and use the heroes to highlight/twist it into something new? Next year looks like another placeholder year, but with time-travel, space-travel, conspiracies, and pizza lovin’ Turtles, there might not be a lot of change, but there certainly be a plot twist or too.
What did you think of this year of Superheroes? And is Bruce Dern’s Woody Grant one as well?
Woody Allen was recently interviewed in The Guardian in relation to many critics making comparisons between Blue Jasmine and A Streetcar Called Desire and the real life connection this film may have to Ruth Madoff, the wife of the shamed financier in one of the biggest Ponzi schemes in history. Combining Blanche, a figure of crippled delusions and manners, with the theoretical emotional trauma that Ruth Madoff may have gone through, to consider that this maybe an accident must be a very fortunate one, as this film is one of the best Woody Allen film in recent memory, if still flawed.
If we are to understand correctly about Woody Allen’s ‘accidental’ thought processes, we should not be surprised that it comes from a very familiar Woody Allen Upper East Side protagonist thrown into a West Coast locale, not unlike the final twenty minute excursion to LA in Annie Hall. This time, Woody makes the move permanent, as Jasmine seeks refuge, finding it in her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), a bagger in a supermarket. We follow Jasmine seeking stability and care as she tries to pick up the fragments of her life, though she seems to cause trouble for everyone from herself, to her sister, criticising her own sister’s life choices, from her apartment to her choice of partner. Much of the film does seem at first rely on simplistic social contrasts to its detriment, as much of her sister and her immediate associates seem to be made from the same working-class American clothe to highlight Jasmine’s superiority complex, almost hindering the film from the beginning, as Jasmine’s ‘slumming’ is not very realistic or as vast a cultural shock.
Though with Allen’s eye for casting, it brings a light feel, though more hollow than his other ensembles in the past. It is not to say that the performances were lacking: Bobby Cannavale creates a lovable grease-monkey, who hopes to elope with Ginger (Sally Hawkins), Jasmine’s downtrodden sister, who still struggles with her second-child issues. However, it seems tangential, even cutesy as their stories becomes something to colour the environment rather than fully fleshed out, paling the mist of the carnage Jasmine brings. It almost makes us question if Allen can accept that, while they’re somewhat happier than Jasmine, that they have problems that are as important. However, as this is a case study on one particular woman, it is mostly forgiveable as Allen creates one of his greatest characters, one who’s influence on the story has the power not to just dictate the narrative, but the genre of the film.
Cate Blanchett is this film’s greatest strength and anchor, as without this powerhouse performance the film would be its sum of its parts. She brings life and personality in a bitter, twisted parody/tragedy of Jasmine, as the rug has not just been pulled, but revealed the dark urges that paired her with Hal (Alec Baldwin, competent) and her battle of her various addictions. Her character is spread over a dual-narratives, Allen uses it to great effect, as if she is drifting into history and out of it in a constant battle to contextualise reality, as she struggles to redress the lack of control in her own life and what little she had in the first place. In the face of possible schizophrenia and bad combinations of alcohol and prescription drugs, Jasmine teeters on the edge, struggling, breaking and remoulding herself repeatedly. Blanchett brings a powerful empathy to this character, allowing us to unjustifiably want her to find a resolution that she may never get, in the face of destruction of everything she held dear.
One of the central phrases in the film involves Jasmine reciting a songs’ appearance when she first met Hal, ‘Blue Moon’, and becomes the signature of the film. While ‘Blue Moon’ is about a melancholic person looking for love and finding it (in spite of being a ‘blue moon’), the title Blue Jasmine makes Jasmine into a statement about loss, that she has not encountered her blue moon but rather battling façades instead. In her most dire of moments, covered in sweat and tears, staring out into the distance, she tells the same story where she talks to herself, repeatedly her story to re-contextualise herself away from the pain in heartbreaking tragedy.
While Allen has not let go of some past ideological stereotypes, with some plotting that succeeds in spite of its hollower characters, what he does is anchor the film in a great central performance by Blanchett that is so captivating that one might demand a sequel. One of Woody Allen’s greatest characters, she is the drive the film’s unwieldy narrative, into a truly powerful psychological study.
This independent South African/American pits Paul Walker against some bad dialogue, idiotic plot-turns and lack of man-to-car chemistry. What strongly hampers the film, far more than making everyone around Walker into exposition magnets, is that its central filming conceit that this film entirely takes place and filmed in a car. Approximately seven cameras mounted around the car to simulate his point of view, we never see the car from the outside and we never leave the car, it not only wastes the story’s rich Johannesburg locale but rather cuts the limbs off of any leverage to add any excitement. What could have made this an effective B-Movie has turned it into a dull look into how you can turn what could have been a very long car chase film, into the most boring thing possible, just with bad camera placements, lackadaisical cutting, and a lack of ground perspective.
The central premise, a parolee breaks his terms of parole to visit his ex-wife(?) in South Africa, but gets roped into an assassination plot, plays out in glacial speeds, with the plot never kicking into a higher gear than stolid. The way that the film exists means that it has to rely too much on Paul Walker, making him to appear that he was compensating for the film by over-reacting to almost anything that happens, though sadly let down by the material that was given to him. Other characters are just fleeting pretences and never truly challenge Walker’s character, Walker himself or even the audience.
On the whole, the film lacks a drive for us to care or engage with, moral or personal, that attracted people to genre movie fodder like Taken, or the tricky questions Buried brought up from its logical one-man concept. Coupled with a visual palate that makes it look like a cheap City of God rip-off, trying play up the fact that South Africa looks or acts ‘foreign’ (something a similarly designed Safe House suffered from), the film crashes to a halt as soon as you realise that he doesn’t meet people, he encounters wearisome sound-bites.
A film like this does not aim for subtlety, especially when you begin the film explaining the two main terms of the film: the robot machines, colossal giants of metal with the shared brain of two pilots, are called Jaegers, which means ‘hunter’ in German, while the giant monsters that come out of a portal in between the two tectonic plates in the Pacific are called Kaiju, which means ‘giant monster’. And then we see the Golden Gate Bridge being destroyed as an appetiser to the mayhem that will be unleashed. What we are given is a fully formed world to indulge in pure, escapist childhood fantasy, but without the emotional depth that Guillermo Del Toro is known for.
What we are given is a hokey, if modest, hero’s journey storyline, compared to Star Trek Into Darkness‘ twisty political turns or Iron Man 3‘s post-trauma comic antics. The narrative, in which a retired Jaeger pilot Raleigh Becket (played by Charlie Hunnam, waveringly keeping any interest) who quit five years before after the death of his brother is called back for one last battle to the end, does not set out to reinvent the wheel. While it works on the most part, rather than giving the thrills of a race car, it is a functional sedan, only hitting a few interesting bumps along the way. One element that is added that does give interest angle is the idea of drifting, the linking together of brains of the co-pilots as to not overwhelm the brain, and it is played very well at the beginning to try and generate depth particularly for Becket and Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), who still feels the effects of her family demise due to a Kaiju attacking Tokyo. Sadly, as much as this was used to simulate depth, it never effectively used throughout, and even these lapses to the past do not really effect the outcome of most of the battles that take place. Predictably, as the stakes get higher and they start to work as a team, the emotional pay-load is never detonated, and the unresolved emotional baggage was never effectively translated in image, or in much of its basic dialogue, with exception to Idris Elba spirited Stacker Pentecost.
The action and design pay-load is fully put on display however, as the film is uniquely pan-continental and appears to be lovingly crafted. The post-modern style, an echo a more neon Blade Runner with the gigantic scope of original kaiju properties like Godzilla, makes this rust-bucket cityscapes come to life, looking beautifully layered before mercilessly destroyed by titans. It does not particularly matter that Del Toro does not bring allegory or deeper thought into what this film means, for its visuals soar over these petty concerns. The Jaeger inner-workings were a particular delight, instead of a mixture of hollow metal boxes, we encounter variable designs in their fabric, the same as how we can feel the texture of the beasts that they come across. While the fights seems to not be as visual inventive as they could be (imagine the different weaponry that could be stored or even more variable creature design), it is effective as over-the-top spectacle that had real weight and logic in their movements. Coming back to drifting, the basis of the neural link means that the effects on the machine also effect the pilot, while mostly unexplored territory (granted, by that extension The Matrix covered this) is still effective enough to generate suspense and danger.
Pacific Rim is a world of suggestion, suggesting depth and invention when it is mostly ho-hum. It also suggests a wider world, a lived-in world that most of the time was not fully explored but it exists (Ron Pearlman’s black market world in particular was a treat), and with that meant that the main action set-pieces felt realistic enough for us to give ourselves to childish fun. As with most blockbusters of recent, it does not need brains, it packs a punch, but this suit lacks a bit of heart.