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Review: Jurassic World (2) Fallen Kingdom

*** WARNING! SPOILERS! ***

Written by Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow and directed by J.A. Bayona, “Jurassic World; Fallen Kingdom” is the sequel to the 2015 smash hit reboot of the “Jurassic Park” franchise that Steven Spielberg began back in 1993. I saw this film over it’s opening weekend but I’ve been letting the movie brew in my headspace for the last week because it was such a mixed bag. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a more Frankenstein-like film before to be honest. The direction, visuals, special effects, and suspense of the film were all impressive- but the writing, character choices, and plot of the film were completely off the rails! It felt as if there were two or three very separated and distinct flavors of attitude controlling this bucking beast of a sequel and no one knew how to handle it- with no cooperation across the disparate groups whatsoever. The film didn’t know what kind of story it wanted to tell.

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First of all, I feel that you should be warned going into this film- there is nowhere near as much Jeff Goldblum as this movie needs, or to the extent that the marketing implied there might be. If you’ve seen the trailers, that’s essentially his whole performance. However, as welcoming as a Goldblum addition is to any film- this use of the character of Ian Malcolm directly collides with the ideology (and thus the main driving force of the plot) of the main characters Owen (Chris Pratt) and Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard). It’s this exact fulcrum that the film has issues with. Are the dinosaurs of Isla Nublar myth made reality, conjured from wonder and awe? Or are they vicious monsters that mindlessly consume and terrorize? Should the humans save the ill-fated creatures from Isla Nublar’s awakened volcano? Or should we let Nature take it’s course and re-extinct these de-extinct animals? Goldblum’s Malcolm restates his thesis from the first film and of it’s sequel “The Lost World” in which he argues against saving the dinosaurs. After which we cut directly to Claire’s new job running an indie-sized organization to “save the dinosaurs!” A drastic evolution from the first film where the character viewed the lab grown creatures as assets, something from which to gain profit. Here she’s a fully fledged animal rights activist. Quite the leap. We’re then informed of John Hammond’s original financial partner (Who we’ve never heard of until now, the fifth movie) for the first park in Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), who’s in need of a well informed crew to make a last ditch effort to salvage his old friend’s creations.

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Beyond the philosophical and moral whiplash, the characters make stupid, convenient, and foolish choices throughout the film. Granted, the franchise has been built on the ill-fated decisions of humanity before- but they were never this outlandishly dumb about it. From the military minded Wheatley (Ted Levine AKA Buffalo Bill from “Silence of the lambs”) unclasping the Indo-Raptor cage purely to add another dino tooth to his collection, to the enormously lazy writing choice that the young Maisie (Isabella Sermon) commits to in the final scene- the writing is clunky and unfocused. The script tries to obtain specific outcomes for further franchise building- but in doing so it wastes the opportunities that the current story could have created. There are ways to get the outcome that the ending of “Fallen Kingdom” sets up- but the way they got there was painfully stupid. I won’t spoil the exact ending, but trust me, it’s bad. It’s also a weak excuse to pin the fallout of this film on a young girl when there are so many other ways they could have played it. An immediate easy fix would be to let Mills (Rafe Spall), Lockwood’s assistant with ulterior motives, make that major dooming choice as he’s dying to spite the main characters instead of just using his death as a visual callback to a death in “The Lost World”.

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That’s not to say that the film doesn’t have some value to it. The imagery and direction, along with the mood, sense of suspense, and entertaining set-pieces all combine to smooth out the film and lessen the extent of mistakes that engulfed the rest of the story. The way Bayona uses scale, lighting, and framing all collectively raise the content above the level of quality expected with these movies by now (excluding the original- obviously). In fact the second half of the film taking place inside a giant mansion was a fun diversion and there were some good ideas that they could have expanded on. An illegal dinosaur auction has its merits in theory, but the film took a cartoonish mind of villainy at this point. One shot even has Mills face being lit up by a computer screen as counters and bars load while numbers skyrocket- a necessary shot to remember that the villains are greedy and evil. There was a few good half baked ideas in this script, and it might have turned out great eventually, but there just wasn’t enough to get a score better than “Passable” from me honestly. I was entertained with this film, but the more I think about it, the less I appreciate it retroactively.

Final Score: 11 Jurassic species and a few half-baked ideas

 

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Review: The Witch

Written and directed by Robert Eggers, “The Witch” is A New England Folktale set roughly in the 1630’s that follows the story of a family cast out from society in the new American colonies for being accused of “prideful conceit”. While we never get the exact details about what William (Ralph Ineson) and his family engaged in to receive a sentence as damning as banishment, that isn’t what the story is truly about anyways. We can surmise that William probably took his own interpretation of the bible to be more accurate than those of the colony. As he claims in the opening scene that he practiced only “the pure and faithful dispensation of the Gospels”. Thus the film begins as the family of seven treks out into the wilderness, firm in their decisions, unknowing of their doom to come.

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The family consists of Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) the eldest son- though he’s only about twelve, Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) the young twins that earn the title of creepiest kids in the film, and Thomasin the eldest daughter, a few years older than Caleb and easily the standout performance of the film- though all are great. Katherine (Kate Dickie) the Mother, who unravels psychologically and spiritually as the film progresses, is at a complete loss once the youngest child, Samuel the baby, is mysteriously abducted near the beginning of the film. It’s always a gamble with child actors, but this may be the best use of little performers since “Jurassic Park” (I’m not dying on that hill- I just rewatched the classic recently and it’s been rambling about in my headspace since). They’re all poise perfect in their period-accurate performances. Thomasin in particular is a fascinating role, as the family crumbles from within Witch accusations are aimed at her, and there is a bit of sly wit hidden subtly in her performance that makes you ask, Wait… is she actually the Witch? The paranoia of the family is infectious to say the least. Though Caleb makes an argument for the best, and most chilling, scene in the whole film- it certainly got to me in the moment.

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See, the beautiful trick of the film is that while the title may indicate that the film is about “The Witch”, and there is indeed some supernatural underpinnings trifling about, it’s more about the effect that the Witch has on this family. They are torn apart as much by their superstitions and fears of damnation as they are of the titular creature’s actions. In fact it is this weaving of the supernatural with the sense of hard realism that makes the film stand out from it’s genre limitations to become something more than the sum of its parts. On a technical level, the film pays homage in cinematography and framing to old religious renaissance paintings, particularly of Goya’s work on the subject of Witches (Even though he lived a century later in Spain). The score is also worth mentioning as it fuels the sense of a tense and bellowing doom. Booming orchestral vocals against a moonlit forest paint the mood for the film, danger lies at the edge of the woods, damnation is afoot, and trust is cast aside.

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Old religious imagery sprinkled in throughout the film with the age appropriate attitudes of the family combine to heighten the dread that would be nearly impossible within a modern setting. We don’t take everything in life as a seriously as those before us had. After giving this film a watch I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it, so I read up on what countless others had to say on the matter. There was something particularly unnerving about the film that I just couldn’t articulate efficiently, Was it the acting? The setting? Or simply the unabashed originality behind it? Then I gave the New Yorker’s review of the film a read and Anthony Lane perfectly exemplified what I was missing, “This is, to put it mildly, an uncommon state of affairs for anyone who frequents the cinema, the theatre, or the opera house. How many people, these days, heading out of ‘Don Giovanni,’ are honestly shaken by the mortal terror of the hero, in his final conflagration? Which of us treats ‘The Crucible,’ set sixty years or so after the events of ‘The Witch,’ as anything but a reflection on the political hysteria of the time in which it was written? The problem is simple: we can’t be damned. One gradual effect of the Enlightenment was to tamp down the fires of Hell and sweep away the ashes, allowing us to bask in the rational coolness that ensued. But the loss—to the dramatic imagination, at any rate—has been immense. If your characters are convinced that a single action, a word out of place, or even a stray thought brings not bodily risk but an eternity of pain, your story will be charged with illimitable dread. No thriller, however tense, can promise half as much.” The historical context and how accurately the characters were represented in their actions and fears gave the film an unshakable authenticity- we believe that the characters believe with a steadfast resoluteness. There are no jokes or irony in their performance, no release once the film has you in it’s grasp.

“The Witch” is a fascinating and unconventional horror film that preys upon our past to craft a finely tuned and chilling film. I definitely recommend it if you’re into unique offerings in this genre- though it is slow at times and will definitely not be for everyone (It wholeheartedly earns its ‘R’ rating). I wouldn’t recommend it to new parents- unless they enjoy fresh nightmare scenarios they hadn’t yet considered to keep them awake at night. It’s out on streaming services and physical media at this point, give it a watch if you can- it’s definitely a standout of the genre in my opinion.

Final Score: 1 Black Phillip & 1 damned family

 

Sources:

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/02/29/the-witch-review

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Review: Hereditary

Written and Directed by Ari Aster, “Hereditary” is the latest horror movie from studio A24. This most recent offering continues A24’s tradition of releasing films that refuse to be average, which results in a storytelling boon for their audiences. “Hereditary” follows the lives of the Graham family as they navigate the loss of their Matriarch, Ellen. The film opens with her funeral as her daughter Annie (Toni Colette) gives a muted eulogy which perfectly preps us (but does not prepare us) with a foundation of paranoia. Ellen, it seems, was a very private person with private friends. So much so that her closest relatives know almost nothing about her life and its many secrets. The family dysfunction that stems outward from Ellen has produced a multitude of psychological and emotional issues in her offspring. Most notably affected by this is Annie, a miniature model creator, wife, and mother, who seems to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown- or at least close to one- right from the beginning of the film. Her husband Steve Graham (Gabriel Byrne) just tries to keep everything and everyone around him afloat amidst the cavalcade of creeps that’s about to descend into his family’s life. They have two children Peter (Alex Wolff), the older teenager, and Charlie (Milly Shapiro), the very unsettling young girl who makes those creepy clicking sounds that you’ve heard in the advertising of the film.

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I will do my best to avoid spoilers in this review, or at least keep them to a minimum. There are essentially two sides to this film. There’s the story you think you’re watching for the first half of the film, and then there’s the second story that you won’t likely fully grasp the details of until the film very deliberately tells you what’s happening in the final shot of the film. In retrospect, there’s a very well thought out string of breadcrumbs sprinkled throughout the film that do hint at the supernatural underpinnings that are taking place just out of frame. There’s a lot going on in the film, there’s throwbacks to classic horror cinema from the mood and tension building of “The Shining” to the wild shock and awe of certain scenes from “The Exorcist”. Granted, I wouldn’t recommend going into any movie with your expectations rampant and out of control- the film simply cleverly pulls from those icons while greatly remaining as its own unique experimentation.

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The greatest thing the film accomplishes is its’ execution of tension and unsettling mystery. There’s one, maybe two, jump-scares in the entire film and that is a huge benefit. There is no release here, once the film has entrapped you, it has your undivided attention. There are words scrawled on the walls of the Grahams’ house, only ever seen by Annie who seems to become more and more untrustworthy and unraveled as the film progresses- which makes us question if she’s actually even seeing them. Not to mention Charlie, who is unquestionably disturbing in nearly every scene she’s in- and even in a few she’s not. Charlie has visions of her dead grandmother, cuts off a dead bird’s head for unknown reasons (a prelude to all the beheadings later in the film- there’s more than you would expect from this film’s pretenses), and she exponentially keeps making that freaky clicking sound that I keep thinking I hear when it’s too quiet around the house. Curiously Peter isn’t all that focused on in the first half of the story, until about the mid point when THAT SCENE happens and it affects Peter so much that he begins to slowly lose his mind. Then there’s these visual clues, symbols, and red herrings all over the film- everything that happens or is shown seems to have a reason and action behind it, but it does help to keep the audience out of the conversation and thereby cleverly distracting us to keep the intrigue high. It keeps building this ever creepy crescendo of madness until it reaches the boiling point.

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Everything about “Hereditary” was crafted with horror loving hands. The score is effectively distressing and alarming when it needs to be, the way the film is edited is pure unease, and the progression of the characters is downright unnerving. There’s so much more I could discuss, but by doing so I would ruin the fun of the mystery. I highly suggest seeing this film if you enjoy good horror films. I don’t even really care all that much for the genre, but this film got to me. It still wanders into my mind days later and turns lovely afternoons into insidious hours of peeking around corners and occasionally getting scared by the cat.

Final Score: a Dozen creepy cult members

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Review: Solo, a Star Wars Story

*Spoiler Warning*

Written by Lawrence Kasdan and Jon Kasdan and directed by Ron Howard, “Solo: a Star Wars Story” is the prequel origin story of a young Han Solo that wants you to know everything there is to know about the character, and I do mean ..Everything. I’ve been engaging in an internal debate as to whether or not I should even concern myself with writing this review. I felt as if it were, ironically, as unnecessary as the film in question… but here I am, pondering the film, so I might as well put ink to paper (you know what I mean). So much of “Solo” simply felt “fine“, but nothing about it felt as grand or had events as sweeping as the Star Wars films we’ve come to love (and despise). Granted, I know that wasn’t the intent of this film. It was pitched as a smaller story designed to reveal more of the grimy crime riddled underbelly of the Star Wars universe. However, the true nature of this film could be felt throughout the runtime, and it was to make money. That’s what I felt coming out of the theater more than anything else. This spinoff didn’t feel like I was getting tasty new morsels of story from the wider galaxy as a whole, it just felt like a filler episode, a distraction from the larger events at hand. It wasn’t particularly offensive or incredibly awful by most measures- we just didn’t need it. Sometimes the mystery of imagination is better than explaining the backstory of every item, catch-phrase, offhand comment, or star-ship. For example, when Han mentioned the Kessel run in “Star Wars” and in “The Force Awakens”, the way he talks about the event- it seemed like a race, not a race against time as depicted in Solo (with time-sensitive explosives being the driving factor of tension instead).

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To be fair, all the noise surrounding the dismissal of the original directors of “Solo”, and the horde of production troubles that plagued the film, didn’t result in a disjointed final product. It was a more cohesive film than “Justice League”, the most recent similarly troubled tent-pole studio production. I guess what disappointed me most about this film is the feeling that came after leaving the theater, that “Star Wars” was now a product being spoon-fed to me by teams of writers rooms designed to give me what the masses claimed to have wanted most. Which I have to point out that a couple friends have said as much to me about the previous Star Wars films made by Disney, though the veil hadn’t yet been pierced for me. I still enjoy “The Force Awakens” and “The Last Jedi” to varying degrees, more good than bad I would say. “Rogue One” still feels like the standout of the bunch at this point, the one that most channels the magic of the original trilogy, at least for me.

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I almost feel bad for this movie, it wasn’t outright terrible, as I’ve already mentioned. The Han and Chewie (Joonas Suotamo) interplay was entertaining and actually was the most authentic thing about the film in my mind. So at least that came across well enough- if that didn’t work then the whole thing could have been written off from the beginning. Alden Ehrenreich did a decent enough job translating as a younger and not as grumpy version of Han Solo, but there was admittedly something about the performance that was missing. Maybe that was just something that only Harrison Ford could bring to the portrayal, but I can’t say that the woes of this film lay at Ehrenreich’s feet, he did probably as good a job as was possible without Ford headlining. Donald Glover was the other standout of the film. His version of a younger Lando Calrissian was pitch perfect. Capes, attitude, and swagger- all included and exuded without flaw.

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The major issues I have with the film are A) the overall production of the film as it appears in it’s current final cut, B) how overly produced and manufactured it feels as a whole, and C) how predictable it was with one notable exception. A) Production. The lighting of the film was so dim and murky that even in the theater it felt like you could hardly see what was taking place as most scenes were drenched in earthy browns and blacks or ocean depths’ blue, I wouldn’t point out lighting unless it was noticeably poor or lacking. (Not saying I could do a better job lighting though, that’s a confounding aspect of production for me). None of the locations felt particularly alien either, which maybe that’s just me, or maybe it’s that none of the locations were particularly memorable. Everyone can recall planets or locations from every other Star Wars film to date, but I’d be hard pressed to name any of the planets seen here. The cinematography was also very bland. It felt workman-like and practical in nature only. I can’t pinpoint it exactly, but it felt like it lacked artistry.

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B) References. There are several points of contention here. How Han “got his name”, his blaster, the dice, and the cameo near the end of the film. Han getting his name from an Imperial drone when signing up for the Empire as a pilot was the most hamfisted and unneeded scene in the whole film. Why can’t Han have just had that name? Are we going to learn how the Skywalker name came to be in another spinoff in some other bland and useless way of storytelling too? It was just unneeded and way too obvious, robbing Han of the sprinkling of mystery surrounding him in the original trilogy. When Han was tossed a blaster from Woody Harrelson’s Beckett, the scene in itself wasn’t poorly constructed it just felt like an intentional wink and nod from Disney- stop it please, we don’t need to have an intimate knowledge of every item a classic character was known for using over thirty years ago. Speaking of which, the dice in this new era seem to have taken on far more meaning than they ever had in the original trilogy, at least in “The Last Jedi” it was used as a stand-in for Han’s memory when Luke returned to Leia for the first time in the new era of films. Here it feels like another intentional pulling of emotional strings, but it didn’t land here for me. It felt forced. The most forced scene in the entire film was that of Darth Maul’s cameo though. It’s nice to know that a fun character from the prequels actually isn’t dead, but it was how he was used that felt contrived. He doesn’t do anything in his moment onscreen, he is used for a reveal of “That character you know from the other movies”, and that is it. He even turns on his lightsaber threateningly in a Hologram, for no reason at all.

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C) Predictability. This is the linchpin of the problem of this film. If you’re at all familiar with the first Star Wars movie then you’ll likely be able to predict a lot of the plot points of this film, the rest of the film’s predictability lies in age old movie tropes any well viewed audience member should be able to spot a mile away. Though admittedly reprocessing tropes from classic era Hollywood is an old Star Wars trait at this point. However, when approached with with a paint-by-numbers strategy Star Wars feels overly formulaic to the point of absurdism. Corellia (Han’s homeworld), The Kessel run, Han shooting first, Chewie ripping off an unlucky henchmen’s arms- every possible connective tissue from “A New Hope” is mined here with excruciating familiarity. What I loved about “Rogue One” was that the film very much lived in the world of the original trilogy and while it too had familiar aspects and characters littering it’s pages there was also a new exploratory sensation about it. The film added more mystery than it explained away. What happened to Jedha ages ago? There are only decayed Jedi monoliths carved into massive rock formations to hint at its past. Was Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) force sensitive? Or just an extremely skilled fighter that believed deeply in the old Jedi religion? What was his connection to Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) and how did they end up together on Jedha? I’m okay with not knowing the answers to those questions- in fact I’d prefer to not know those answers. The only part of “Solo” that was a legitimate surprise was that the earlier threats of the film, “Enfys nest” the marauders of the train heist from the second act, were actually a band of rebel children. This reveal only served to deliver another cringy wink and nod to the audience as Han decides to help them out in the end. They offer a place among their ranks in thanks but he declines, to which the tiny space pirate suggests “Maybe someday you’ll join a… rebellion” Okay it wasn’t exactly that, but the line was essentially that.

“Solo: a Star Wars Story” is the first major bump in the road of the new Disney era of Star Wars films. It has a few redeemable factors for sure, and the crew involved seems to have given it their all, but this film is more of a product than a story that needed to be told in a galaxy far far away…

Final Score: 2 smugglers, 1 falcon, and dozens of references…

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Famous Filmmakers’ Firsts: Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Ivan’s Childhood” (1962)

*This film came out in 1962, so obviously, spoilers will be involved in this review*

Written by Mikhail Papava and directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, “Ivan’s Childhood” is an adaption of Vladimir Bogomolov’s 1957 short story “Ivan” which follows an orphaned twelve year old Russian boy that scouts for the Russian Army on the front lines of the German invasion. This is the most straightforward narrative I’ve seen from Tarkovsky as I haphazardly serpentine through his filmography, it’s also one of his shorter films coming in at a brisk hour and thirty-four minutes. From the beginning dream sequence Tarkovsky is already playing with the surreal nature of dreams that would later become a pillar of his stylistic choices in his grander and more iconic films like “Stalker” and “The Mirror”. In it Ivan, ‘the carefree child’ (Nikolai Burlyaev), observes a spiderweb on a tree branch and a butterfly taking flight, after which he too soars through the air laughing, full of wonder. It doesn’t last long however and we’re soon introduced to Ivan ‘the soldier’ in a violent awakening. He’d been camped out in a dark and decaying windmill and soon wades through a murky swamp shrouded by trees and flares in the distance. The title credits begin to roll and the brooding bleak mood of the film sets in.

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Tarkovsky’s first film steeps us in the director’s philosophy of nature being a respite from the burdens of reality, and his utter despise of war- which is why he pursued the idea of having a war film seen through the eyes of a child, as it was the furthest juxtaposition from war. Ivan makes his way into the Russian military encampment and demands to make contact with high ranking officials. The Lieutenant there, Galtsev (Evgeny Zharikov)- himself a young man no older than twenty-five, makes the call despite his suspicions. Lt. Col. Gryaznov (Nikolai Grinko) answers and corroborates Ivan’s story. The boy had been a scout for their military on an earlier mission across the river and behind enemy lines. From there the film follows Ivan’s determined quest for revenge, refusing to be shipped off to military school or a children’s home, making extra work for the officers taking care of him- though they do genuinely seem to admire the boy.

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The story also follows a romantic side plot involving a love-triangle of sorts. Galtsev seems to have an unspoken admiration for one of the female military nurses, Masha (Valentina Malyavina). Captain Kholin (Valentin Zubkov) also takes a liking to the quietly defiant field nurse and aggressively pursues her in the birch-wood forest. I was wary of this scene as it was happening, fearing a rape scenario, but luckily it never goes that far. We get the infamous image of Capt. Kholin holding Masha over a trench and kissing her as she reluctantly goes along, but I believe this is simply a case where the scene at hand just hasn’t aged very well, though it doesn’t appear to have malevolent intent as initially assumed. It is, simply put, a product of it’s time.

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The most fascinating aspects of the film for me though are Ivan’s dream sequences. There are four in the film, the opening scene with the butterfly being the first. The next dream sequence comes after Ivan has met Galtsev, been washed and fed, and finally when he can no longer stay conscious enough to keep up his tough guy bravado he falls into a slumber in which we get a brief look into his core philosophy of being. In it the camera flows freely, which is already a visual indicator that we’re in dream territory as the camera is always poised and precise when Ivan is awake. It floats along to a fire of white birch wood before panning back to a bucket near Ivan’s hand laying off the bed as water drips on it. This provokes the camera to tilt upward as if he were at the bottom of a well. Ivan then reappears with his mother, peering over the edge from above and Ivan’s mother tells him something along the lines of “The brightest stars shine best in the blackest of nights.” Ivan tries to reach into the water’s reflection to grab the star and then, after a cut, lies at the bottom of the well again. We quickly see a bucket fall down towards Ivan as he screams for his mother but before we see the bucket fall into the water we cut again to see his mother’s dead body next to the well being splashed with the water from the bottom of the well. This scene is the epitome of why I am fascinated with Tarkovsky’s films. How he uses space and dream logic is endlessly fascinating to me. Reality becomes distorted and spatial relationships are in a state of confusion. Yet all while we’re getting pertinent character information about Ivan and why he is so motivated get revenge.

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The third scene, which is possibly the most strange, depicts Ivan and his sister riding upon a cart filled with apples in a pouring thunderstorm. Here Ivan smiles, he only does this in his dreams, while being surrounded by an abundance of food and family. We see what feels like a camera pan past his sister’s face three times, but only she is moving from right to left within the frame, and she’s completely dry (even in the rain) the third time she passes by. The dream ends as the cart continues to ride off the path and onto a beach leaving a trail of apples. The camera slows and lets the cart fade away as we focus on wild horses feasting on the spilled fruit in the foreground. The final dream sequence connects all to the three previous ones all while poetically reinforcing the idea that Ivan never had a real childhood during his life, it only existed in his dreams. After the audience learns that Ivan’s final mission scouting across the river with Galtsev and Kohlin ended with his death, the dream sequence gives us an abstract and symbolic send off. I believe this scene begins from Galtsev’s perspective during his frantic retrieval of Ivan’s death documents when raiding a German stronghold in Berlin after the fall of the third Reich months later. After he discovers that Ivan had been captured and hung Galtsev runs to another room where he sees wire nooses hung from railings and the camera begins to spin out of control and we see Ivan’s, presumed, dead body rolling along the floor before a hard cut. From a low angle we see Ivan’s mother smiling down at him and he smiles back, now on the beach from the third dream. He rises, shirtless and drinking from the bucket in the second dream, as his mother picks up the bucket and walking back into the water as she waves goodbye to him. Ivan then goes and plays with other children on the beach, it looks like a game of hide-and-go-seek, and he goes to a lone burnt, dead, tree standing in the sand and counts as the other children leave the frame. Even the tree bookends the film visually from the opening dream sequence. When Ivan returns he only finds his sister, and the remainder of the scene is the two of them running wildly into the shallow waters of the ocean laughing heartily- before a hard cut to black ending the film.

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This film was the beginning of Tarkovsky’s film career, and in it you can see the rumblings of a unique cinematic voice forming. While the plot and action of the film are thinner and slower than most, this movie is a good indicator for whether or not you will enjoy the infamous Russian filmmaker’s style. If the abstract sequences turned you off from the story the film was telling, then I must say, you probably won’t enjoy his later works. I approach Tarkovsky’s films with the same mentality that I bring into museums. His films seem to be more akin to seeing visually arresting artwork that plays with the fabric of reality and bends it to whichever way the story feels it should take. It is more about the mood that the images evoke from you than the initial meaning of each scene or the momentum of the story beats.

Final Score: 4 dreams and 1 war

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Old School Review: The Battleship Potemkin (1925)

Written by Nina Agadzhanova and directed by Sergei M. Eisenstein “The Battleship Potemkin” is about a mutiny aboard the Russian battleship during the height of the Russian Revolution of 1905. It is also the first silent film I have reviewed on the blog thus far. This film is so infamous by this point that there is little I can add to the conversation other than regurgitating the film’s numerous technical achievements that so many others have touched upon. If you haven’t given the film a watch before and you’re invested in learning about the history of cinema then I encourage a viewing- especially since it’s only a brisk hour and fourteen minutes long. Otherwise most modern audiences will bore with the lack of dialogue and color, which can edge out one’s attention span, even I had to stay focused during my own viewing.

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The film begins with the Russian ship returning home through the Black Sea from the recent war with Japan. The crew inspect the meat to be used that day and stir the captains and officers to complain of its quality. The ship’s doctor is sought to inspect it and when the camera gets a closer inspection to show the meat squirming with maggots he labels the meat satisfactory. Mutinous boiling rage fills the crew and they refuse to eat. This act of defiance comes to a head as the captain and officers round up the crew asking who is dissatisfied with the food, when a portion stand their ground they are ordered to be shot dead. Vakulinchuk, the voice of the ship’s imminent revolution, shouts above the clamor as the officers raise their guns “Brothers! Who are you shooting at?” and thus the raucous mutiny begins. After the crew is victorious the battleship heads to the port of Odessa where the locals have heard of the uprising and feel connected to the hardships of the sailors as the lower classes of society were engaged in revolutionary war. This prompts a swift damnation by the Czar’s elite guard as they march down the steps of Odessa shooting into the crowd creating one of early film’s most infamous scenes.

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After this the crew aboard the Potemkin engage in debate over what to do with the supportive citizenry. Eventually they decide to help and target several locations of importance to the Czar’s government and fire away. This calls the attention of a nearby fleet of unknown allegiance and the remainder of the film is brilliantly played for anxiety with the score and inter-cutting of scenes of preparation for battle on the Potemkin as they go to meet the fleet. In the end the Potemkin glides through the approaching ships’ guard unscathed as they realize that they too are revolutionaries in arms. In doing some light research on the film’s history and how it helped to shape cinema nearly a century ago I read Roger Ebert’s 1998 review and he was right. I had already seen the parody of the massacre on the Odessa Steps years before (ie The Untouchables) seeing the source material. In fact, I will post a link below to his review of the film, which is far more in depth and personal of a review than what I have experienced with Potemkin.

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What is most impressive about the film in my opinion is the use of space in the film. Granted this may have simply been a side effect from having masses of people represent groups and ideals over individualized ‘characters’, but its still years ahead of its time and is even today a bit of a wonder as to how they accomplished this in 1925. This paired with the sheer choreography of hundreds of extras milling about the Odessa Steps and aboard the Potemkin makes for good eye-catching movement. Especially aboard the Potemkin, where the sailors can mill above and below where the main action is focalized- the staging makes for layered movement and gives the impression that the warship is gigantic in scope requiring a village of people for upkeep. The score was also incredibly important here, as the only sound in the film it helps to engage the viewer in the intended feelings of the characters onscreen. The brash and overbearing clash of orchestral audio waves crash as the Czar’s men advance with their rifles drawn, the inherent sadness and grief at the useless killing is portrayed in weeping stringed symphonies, and the finale assuages the audience’s anxieties with triumphant and victorious horns. Altogether “The Battleship Potemkin” is an important piece of cinema’s history while the film’s history itself is also quite fascinating given how many governments across the globe banned it fearing Potemkin‘s call to arms aimed at the masses. If you’re at all invested in cinema’s history, this is one you should see.

 

Final Score: a Mutiny and a Slaughter

Roger Ebert’s 1998 review of “The Battleship Potemkin”:

https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-the-battleship-potemkin-1925

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Review: Avengers 3 Infinity War

*WARNING* This review will be full of spoilers, you have been warned!

Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, “Avengers: Infinity War” is the third superhero event film under the Marvel banner and the culmination of ten years of interconnected storytelling across all eighteen previous films. If you’ve been following these Marvel movies and are up to date then you will gleam the most out of the two and a half hour epic that is Infinity War. However if, by some chance, you’re just now considering a Marvel movie marathon and are curious as to which movies are most necessary for this latest Avengers movie, I believe about half of them are required viewing (Iron Man, Captain America: The First Avenger, Captain America: Civil War, The Avengers, Avengers 2: Age of Ultron, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 1, Dr. Strange, Thor: Ragnarok, and Black Panther). The rest help to build upon the structure, and character development, of the cinematic universe, but that list will get you mostly acquainted with what’s going on.

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So, we’re finally here. After hearing about and seeing several of the infinity stones throughout these films, and with a couple cameos from the mad titan himself, does the film live up to the monumental expectations that Marvel Studios has built? Yes. I can answer that wholeheartedly with a resounding yes. Infinity War is a monumental feat of crossover film-making and it makes the once grandiose events of the first Avengers seem minuscule in comparison. The film follows the wake of destruction left by Thanos and his black order as they seek out the six infinity stones and crisscross the cosmos to implement the will of the mad titan. The opening scene perfectly showcases who Thanos is and why we should be afraid for the fate of our superheroes. After laying waste to Thor and the Asgardian refugees’ ship Thanos quickly bests the Hulk in a fistfight, takes the Tesseract from Loki before killing him, and completely destroys their ship leaving Thor to drift unconsciously through space. Heimdall was able to send the Hulk off to Earth before being murdered by the Black Order and as the incredible hero smashes through Dr. Strange’s staircase in New York City, Bruce Banner comes with a dire warning, “Thanos is coming..”

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Dr. Strange quickly grasps the magnitude of the problem at hand as he grabs Tony Stark from a morning run with Pepper Potts, but it isn’t long before Thanos Black Order arrive to make a power grab for the Time stone in the doctor’s possesion. Spider-Man also gets in the mix and we’re off to the races! The movie moves at break neck speeds jumping across space and back to service all of the various storylines in play but the Russo brothers have outdone themselves with this installment as everything flows naturally with the needs of the story. Now I won’t go beat by beat and describe the whole movie, but instead give a general sense of the scale and the threat that comes with Thanos seeking to wield his infinity gauntlet. Not to mention how the movie cleverly utilized it’s massive cast by breaking the characters off into various factions in different locations to best suit the needs of the story. For example, the Guardians of the Galaxy bump into Thor when responding to their distress signal and then separate into two teams, one consisting of Thor, Rocket, and Groot in order to seek out a “Thanos killing weapon” while the rest head to ‘Knowhere’ from their first movie as it’s the last known location of the reality stone. Iron Man and Spider-Man hitch a ride on the ship that the Black Order arrived in to save Dr. Strange from Ebony Maw on his way to Titan, while Captain America, Falcon, and Black Widow stave off an attack on Vision and the Scarlet Witch thanks to a heads up by Banner and eventually head to Wakanda as a last stand to keep Vision’s Mind stone in his head and not on the gauntlet of Thanos.

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The central theme of the movie is that, when pressed by Thanos and his cosmic conquering, will you trade one life for another? Several characters have this grueling predicament pushed on them, some make choices out of love, others for the fate of the universe, but ultimately they fail when crossing that line. The moral center of the MCU, Steve Rogers (aka Captain America), never falters in his moral code. Several times throughout the movie he reiterates to others that, “We don’t trade lives”. He discards the math of the scenario in giving a life to save millions, nay billions. He saves lives, he doesn’t play that game. That right there, might be the absolute best aspect of this film. All of the characters are true to their nature as established in the previous films. There is a palpable consistency to their actions and reasoning. The Guardians all feel like themselves, still making jokes and acting on impulse. Black Panther and Captain America leap into battle first and have unwavering foundations. Thor feels the most evolved since the ramifications of ‘Ragnarok’ changed the game for his films and overall nature, a kingly warrior burdened with grief, yet still able to convey humor as a fish-out-of-water situation with the Guardians. Consistency paired with well thought out plot-points and a very clever villain, possibly the best the MCU has seen yet, add up to one hell of a Marvel movie.

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With an ending as shocking as it is, I- and many other millions, cannot wait to see how these characters rebound and ultimately save the day. This is most definitely a part one, and with only two other films between now and (the still untitled) Avengers 4 that take place before the events of this movie, we’ll have to wait a year and see how this all unfolds. I cannot praise this movie enough, it was far more emotionally mature and full of dread than I expected. There were significant deaths, high stakes and excellent action, and on top of that the film still managed to be really funny at times. They did it. They really did it. The next challenge is to outdo themselves next year, which I have to say, is a tall order. I have faith in the Russo brothers though, their movies in the MCU have been some of the best entries in the superhero genre as a whole. Now all we have to do… is wait.

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Final Score: Infinite Avengers

THE CAST:
Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man

Chris Hemsworth as Thor

Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/Hulk

Chris Evans as Steve Rogers/Captain America

Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow

Don Cheadle as James Rhodes/War Machine

Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange

Tom Holland (II) as Peter Parker/Spider-Man

Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa/Black Panther

Zoe Saldana as Gamora

Karen Gillan as Nebula

Tom Hiddleston as Loki

Paul Bettany as Vision

Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch

Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson/Falcon

Sebastian Stan as Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier

Idris Elba as Heimdall

Danai Gurira as Okoye

Benedict Wong as Wong

Pom Klementieff as Mantis

Dave Bautista as Drax

Vin Diesel as Groot

Bradley Cooper as Rocket

Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts

Benicio Del Toro as The Collector

Josh Brolin as Thanos

Chris Pratt as Peter Quill/Star-Lord

William Hurt as Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross

Letitia Wright as Shuri

Peter Dinklage as Eitri

Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury

Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill

and Ross Marquand as Red Skull