‘Blade Runner 2049’ not only meets the quality of its predecessor, it surpasses it (SPOILERS)

Better late than never, right?

Last month, I dedicated a lot of words to It.

Some say too many words and I would not disagree with them.

There was just a lot personal context I felt needed to be expressed before getting into the nitty gritty of the movie because…well, because frankly I thought said context was important and possibly shaped how I view the final film.

You can bemoan that and I would not fault you. Typically, a film review should not consist of the reviewer inserting themselves into the movie they are writing about. Too frequently do I do that and just as frequently do I attempt to combat that.

Unfortunately, I kind of have to do the same thing with Blade Runner 2049. 

-BABBLING ABOUT THE ORIGINAL BEGINS HERE-

There’s been a lot said about Blade Runner. Like a whole lot. Like almost to the degree that the conversation around the film is almost more interesting than the film itself.

For those interested, there is a plethora of reading/documentaries on all the work that went into making the movie as well as multiple versions of the film itself, allowing for a unique compare and contrast opportunities. I highly recommend it as this movie has gone through quite a lot.

And if you haven’t seen the movie, I would most recommend the 2007 Final Cut (when I talk about the original, this will be the version I’m referring to) as it best cements everything director Ridley Scott intended, for better or worse.

To be blunt, I love just about every single technical aspect of Ridley Scott’s 1982 adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? It’s only when we will look a little bit closer at the story do I really draw issues, particularly in the focus of Rick Deckard and the (added later) aspect that he may or may not be a replicant. I hate this addition because A) it really makes no sense, B) it has no real direct effect on the narrative and C) it’s a certainty now, according to Scott.

Far be it from me to tell Ridley fucking Scott how to direct a movie. I can only attest to my preferences. The overall appeal of Blade Runner to me, in relation to its story, is its ambiguity, favoring no one single interpretation. By retroactively adding a twist (that really amounts to nothing), Scott is in a sense straddling us with an unneeded practice in mental gymnastics.

That isn’t to say I think the story is bad. Not at all. It’s perfectly fine largely and even phenomenal in some areas, but in the years since I was first introduced to it I’ve noticed cracks in the armor of what equates to a technically perfect movie. If anything, I go back and forth on it on what feels like a regular basis.

On one hand, I love how (to a degree) how ambiguous and open to interpretation the whole movie is. Unlike Scott’s later works (coughPROETHEUScough), Blade Runner asks questions but they aren’t maddening questions that take pothole sized chunks out of the story; they’re maddening questions in that they linger in your head and leave room for healthy debate and interpretation. As one Leon says, “Nothing is worse than having an itch you can never scratch.”

It’s also a poignant story about loneliness, focusing on characters in search of meaning and identity in a  modern world.  The real fun is how it uploads old gumshoe troupes into a wholly new, futuristic setting, something that really hadn’t been put on display in a film beforehand.

Some detriments include the “love story,” if you can call it that. Harrison Ford and Sean Young share no chemistry, largely due to the fact the two hated each other behind the scenes. Ford and Scott also feuded so I’m sure that also didn’t lend a hand in making this movie any easier to make.

Once again, not to be harsh or anything. Both are…fine. I think Young may fare better given she’s suppose to act somewhat artificial. Ford has his moments in the film although sometimes his frustration is tangible.

The real stars of the show of the first film are the replicants however, particularly Roy Batty as played by Rutger Hauer.

It’s in these scenes the film flourishes. It’s here, in these moment, we get question of meaning. It is in Batty we see a being resign to his identity happily. His life having closed on a act of compassion and pity, Batty has seen the worth of not only his life, but all life: human and replicant.

So yeah, there are moments where the story gets pretty good and others where it isn’t. It’s only in the visuals, music and all technical aspects does the movie never falter. I’d go so far as to say these are the best effects of the pre-CGI era or at the very least the most influential and definitive. There had been future cityscapes before Blade Runner (in any number of things you are welcome to look up if you want to stick it to me), but I place my money on Blade Runner being the one that defined the look for just about every bit of media to utilize future cities that came afterwards.

TL;DR version: I’m much more in love with all of the technical aspects of Blade Runner than the actual story.

And I can’t be the only one that feels that way, can I? Surely not.

You hear this movie brought up a lot by movie nerds to the degree that I think it may be detrimental to those that come to it completely blind.

-BABBLING (LARGELY) OVER-

In almost every way, for me, this film surpasses the original. I was aghast and torn as the credits popped up. It was the exact same feeling I had at the end of Mad Max: Fury Road. Here we have a sequel to something commonly accepted as iconic. The even notion that a sequel could meet it (or even) surpass the original 30 or so years later is absolute lunacy on paper.

Equally surprising that it is a sequel I assumed would never happen/didn’t really want.

The original Blade Runner is such a seminal work, with influences felt to this day in science fiction and film. However it’s not a movie that initially made a lot of waves and watching the original theatrical version it’s easy to see why. The technical aspects are still masterful, but it’s largely hindered by an intentionally terrible V/O by a “couldn’t be bother” Harrison Ford really hinders it. It’s only after the tinkering I just spent a lot of time harping on did it become something truly special.

Therefore I kind of feared the same happenstance with this film. I fear we’d get something akin to a big budget fan film in the same vein as where it seems like Disney is taking Star Wars (something I’m going to be bringing up quite a bit below). I’m fine with a director and crew being head over heels for their source. If anything, that’s a huge positive. But there’s a line in which some directors/writers/studios can cross in which their fandom serves as a barrier, blocking them from doing anything truly interesting with a property.

There are going to be spoilers all throughout this review. I can’t really get into the nitty gritty of what I wanted to discuss without looking at some of the finer details of the plot. The reason I’m prefacing it here is A) common courtesy and B) I fully respect Blade Runner is a singular, definitive movie for a lot of people, myself included. Also I’m going to sound high/aloof at more than one point I’m sure given just how tired I am while I write this up. I wish I was in a better headspace given this review is going to be the last one for the year (if not ever on this site).

So as always…

I apologize for being kind of bad at this.

The plot:

“Thirty years after the events of the first film, a new blade runner, LAPD Officer K (Ryan Gosling), unearths a long-buried secret that has the potential to plunge what’s left of society into chaos. K’s discovery leads him on a quest to find Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a former LAPD blade runner who has been missing for 30 years.” – Warner Bros. Pictures

The review: 

As with the original film, there is a lot to unpack here.

The two or three of you that actually read this may be wondering why I feel this movie is, in almost every way, superior to its predecessor. Well, let’s break that one down first, shall we?

Denis Villeneuve.

I’m starting to think the man is a replicant himself given just how consistently good the man’s output has been in a relatively short time frame. He’s directed 5 films (including this one) since 2013, all of which have been either perfect or as near to perfect as a film can be. His next project is an adaptation of another seminal science fiction classic, Dune. I can’t think of a director today whose hands I want on that particularly property more than Villeneuve’s.

There was a moment pretty early on whether this movie was in great hands. Apparently this was common knowledge that I was not privy too, but 2049‘s opening is a homage or reference to the original opening to Blade Runner. There’s a shot Scott talked about in a making-of documentary that would have had a replicant (something we don’t know yet) returning home to a farm in the middle of nowhere. As he enters his kitchen, Deckard is already there waiting. It’s a sequence that’s mirrored beat-for-beat here with Ryan Gosling’s K and Dave  Bautista’s Sapper Morton.

Now it shouldn’t be a surprise given Scott’s producer credit, but this subtle nod (to a concept scene that wasn’t even filmed) told me this was going to be a treat in more ways than one. I’d like to think this can be credited to returning screenwriter Hampton Fancher (who was a credited screenwriter on the first film although he too had issues with a Scott). He, along with Michael Green, recapture a lot of the same malaise that defined the story Fancher helped bring to life all those years ago.

Much like the earlier movie, 2049 is a visual masterpiece. No ifs, ands or buts about it. As far as I’m concerned, it should be a clean sweep for every technical award next year. It builds upon the foundations of the future L.A. we were treated to in the earlier film without exceeding plausibility. Every visual feels like the natural next step to something we saw in Scott’s movie.

I’m not exactly sure if it’s fair to say the effects are better this time around given the astronomical leap movie effects have made since 1982. I will say the effects carry the baton rather nicely however, keeping to pace with the innovation of the earlier model. Some of the effects heavy sequences are just utterly jaw-dropping. The synchronization sequence by itself may just be the most beautiful effects sequence of the year, allowing for a since of play I don’t think I’ve seen in a effects-driven scene for a little while. It’s up to par with what we got last year in Doctor Strange.

There’s also nice little world-building treats sprinkled throughout. We get to see where replicants’ memories are made and who makes them for example, similar to how we visited where they get their eyes in the previous movie. We don’t go to the off-planet colonies (a visual that I’m personally glad our filmmakers decided to avoid), but we do travel beyond L.A. to get a better scope of this crestfallen world. As A.A. Dowd writes, “If Blade Runner gave us the world, Blade Runner 2049 has come to fill in the universe.”

And it doesn’t stop at what they did in the film either. Three shorts were released online prior to the film’s release with each serving as a piece in the puzzle in terms of linking the 1982 film to 2017’s. The best of these (directed by Cowboy Bebop director Shinichirō Watanabe) gives us some insight into the much discussed earlier black out in the film.

It’s not necessary per se but it allows for more stories in a world I’m very interested in seeing more of. The world of Blade Runner (as established in the 1982 film) is one of untapped potential. And I don’t mean exclusively cinematically either. Quite the opposite actually. Given just how wide this (now) series’ influence is entrenched in science fiction, you’d think it’d provide so many creators a massive sandbox in which to define and expand. For what it’s worth, these shorts (particularly the one above) are great and I wish more studios would implement similar marketing tools.

It’s all stuff like this that make this such a good sequel and sets itself apart from other nostalgia-mining outputs (Rouge One: A Star Wars Story, Jurassic World) as those movies prefer to play it say, feeding audiences what they know will get a cheap applause. Villeneuve opts to explore uncharted territory however all while recognizing the original has fans for a reason. Harrison Ford, Edward James Olmos and Sean Young (via some visual trickery) all return in some way, shape or form but their appearances aren’t to illicit applause. Reactions for sure, but not for the simple sake of a reaction. Unlike this bullshit…

And it goes beyond just involving older elements, like Ford. It’s about utilizing them to an effect that is at once meaningful without shamelessly pandering.

I fully anticipated/fear this movie was going to flat out give us an answer regarding the whole Deckard being a replicant situation in the same way Scott thinks we, as an audience, want.

Villeneuve however decides to do something infinitely more interesting (and my opinion better) and posits the question, adds new layers to it and rests it in our laps to decipher for ourselves.

Story wise, we also get much more of a detective story than the first film. Whereas our time is split between the fugitive replicants and Deckard in the first film, we largely remain with K in 2049 leaving an air of mystery the first film kind of lacked. We know the replicants plot in Blade Runner and we basically just watched Deckard try to play catch up. We’re largely on the mission with K here and it adds more suspense to the overall narrative.

Other technical aspects worth raving about:

Roger Deakins. Basically the star (for me) in any movie he has a hand in. As a cinematographer, I believe Deakins remains unparrelled. What the man does with light and shadow is nothing short of miraculous.

I may have been hesitant going into this one, but I was absolutely foaming at the mouth to see what Deakins was going to present this world and he did not disappoint one iota. It’s almost tempting to just fill this post with screen shots from the film accompanied with text reading “OOOOOOOOO” and “AAAAAHHHHH.’

The bigger task was meeting the music of the original. Vengelis’ score is, without a doubt, my favorite film score of all time to this point. It transcends beyond a perfect film score and relays into the realm of just great music. It’s the music of a dream made tangible, while also perfectly underscoring this exact futuristic world that is at once foreign yet recognizable, grim and ugly yet hopeful and beautiful.

It should then be considered no coincidence the music in Blade Runner has apparently been sampled in music more than any other film of the 20th century.

(NOTE: this video refers to original 2049 composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, who is Villeneuve’s go-to-guy for a trio of his films. Since this video was released however, the two split as Villeneuve felt the”movie needed something different, and I needed to go back to something closer to Vangelis.”)

Whoever was going to take up that task had mighty big shoes to fill. Luckily, Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch take the reigns almost effortlessly. There are echoes of that iconic score peppered throughout (and whenever it hit, I felt near tears every time) but they do such a spectacular job at making this score their own without betraying the masterwork Vengelis gave us all those years ago. There are times when Zimmer’s bombastic assault on the speakers threaten to cannibalize the more subtle ebbs and flows of the synth, but luckily those moments are few and far between.

As this is a sequel, we also get a plethora of new characters. Many are great while others kind of register more of exposition machines (heh, heh). But there is one major standout and thankful that is our lead. I think K may just be one of the best additions (character-wise) to science fiction we’ve gotten this year.

Man, I love the character of K (Gosling). His arc throughout the movie is so tragic yet uplifting. Right off the bat, we are told he is in fact a replicant. There’s no dancing around the issue here.

He also stands apart from Deckard. I was largely worried we’d be tasked with a relatively similar character and they certainly do mirror each other in a couple of ways, but K largely stands on his own and I’d say he’s even a more tragic character.

His relationship with hologram girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas) is manufactured. He is tasked with hunting down his own kind for the sake of a populace that largely hates him. A highlight for him is getting an upgrade so said hologram can follow him around and unlike Her where the question of a program is called into question, 2049 all but confirms that Joi is in fact not much more than 1’s and 0’s in quietly devastating scene later in the movie.

Need more depression?

K’s arc is a complete subversion of the “chosen one” arc (character is plucked from obscurity to be the leader for a great wave of change), but in subverting it the movie elevates itself to something truly spectacular.

K is ultimately just another replicant, sharing some of the same memories as so many other replicants. In fact, he’s simply a decoy for the real hero this universe purportedly needs. That hero being the first child born to a replicant.

However…

In K’s role as a blade runner, he was the first replicant to end up in a respective memory i.e. the chance to actually test if their memory was legitimate. (This “test” being the sequence where he “returns” to the orphanage and finds the wooden horse.)

Much like Deckard, K is on a goal to find something that is not tangible. In Deckard’s case, we had a man (I’m retracting my earlier statements. I don’t give a fuck what you say, Ridley Scott. EVERYONE else in the production says he was not a replicant. HE’S NOT A REPLICANT.) looking to reclaim some semblance of his soul. With K, we have a replicant looking to see if he has a soul at all.

Once K witnesses the miracle he was told he had not witnessed earlier, he begins to rebel. While it may have been the wrong conclusion, a miracle does take place through his actions. We, as an audience, are with K. I don’t wish to speak for you, but if you’re like me you too bought into his supposed importance by this point. We sympathize with him, now believing him to be human.

In the end, it doesn’t matter whether K was just a decoy or the chosen one: the only thing separating K from having a soul, so to speak, was his and the audience’s shared belief that he was in fact naturally born. He broke the “wall” that was spoken about by Robin Wright’s character at the beginning, without even knowing it.

Questions of what it means to be a live, questions of what it means to be “important.” It’s all material that define all truly great pieces of science fiction. There’s so many fucking great little touches sprinkled throughout that nearly demands a second viewing right after the first.

The scene near the end of K watching snowflakes softly hit his hand, realizing what it’s like to be human only to smash cut to the Ana with fake snow at the end, a real being unable to feel those same things. Or how about the fact that sinister yet malevolent CEO Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) has whited out eyes, fueling speculation he may in fact also be a replicant that has burnt out his eyes to remain undetected. It’s all makes for good after movie discussion and it’s the exact reason I still hold the original to such high regard even in the wake of script issues.

The main detriment for 2049 is, as you may have guessed, is its length. The movie runs at about 2 hours and 40 minutes. That’s quite a hefty runtime. It’s a movie so long you almost have to plan your day around it. It’s hard to argue given the depth of beauty we’re treated to, but I’d be lying if I said some scenes didn’t linger just a tad too long.

We have an extended sequence of K wandering around Las Vegas, now decimated by radiation. It’s jaw dropping but, man, it goes on for a bit without any sort of narrative action taking place.

There are moments where a huge revelation would occur and instead of proceeding the movie would loopback around to basically spoon feed us why the revelation was important. This is something that could make more sense if it were flashing back to an earlier movie but flashing back to events that occurred IN THE SAME MOVIE seems a bit gratuitous to me.

I’m not sure if I am in the minority in regards to thinking this movie is superior. Among my friends, I know I’m not. I don’t really get a common consensus for the world at-large however.

I’ve read a lot of trite regarding why this movie “failed” at the box office. Ranging from stupid and meaningless click-bait (Not enough women went to go see it apparently.) to pretty accurate (the marketing really did not have a handle on how to sell this one).

I really, really liked Blade Runner. Like I said, it’s everything I liked about the first movie amplified marginally and largely corrects many of the elements I didn’t.

So to me, it’s not a stretch to call this a great sequel. I think it’s a little hasty to be calling it one of the best of all-time however. I always am hesitant to say anything is the best of anything this close to release however. You kind of a need a year or two (in my opinion) to properly access something’s place in the canon.

2049 is a movie of the moment however, both personally and at-large. I see a future like this being all but plausible, (not so much in the flying cars) where things worsen before they get better. Where we drift further and further away from one another. Where meaning is reduced to lines of data in a computer. Where individuality is largely thought of as an illusion, progress defined by the backs of foundations to get us there.

Loneliness is already a known symptom of modernity. You see it in just about every daily aspect if you’re looking for it. At least I do and becomes more and more apparent everyday. It’s hard not to place yourself in K’s position, hoping you, as an individual, mean something more. To be special.

By what is special any more these days? How can one actually be considered special in such a crowded market place. I certainly don’t feel important or special all the time and it may be a mistake to think this but it’s true to a degree. I don’t matter and I’m not special. The list of people that’ll remember me when I’m gone will be short and effects of my web short-lived.

Think of it this way, in what way does this blog stand out? It’s written by me? But who am I? Why does my opinion matter in a sea of others that seem to have some value, whether intrinsic or carved out.

I guess all that matters is not whether we have meaning or not but whether we ourselves are meaningful. That’s really the best any of us can do, right? Do we let ourselves define who and what we mean or do we so ourselves? I don’t think there’s a right answer there. K finds himself at this crossroads and it’s this aspect I think I connected with most. Not many of us are very special and those that are face a similar gap in the sense what is that going to mean in millions of years?

It’s nihilistic yet also poignant, conflicting ideas that have all but defined what makes up the world of Blade Runner and now 2049.

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“It” successfully floats above countless failed Stephen King adaptations by way of its core cast and behind-the-scenes vision

I’m 12 years old, it’s summer and I’m reading Stephen King’s 1986 novel, It.

It’s night time so I have to use my book light, a solitary beacon in an otherwise pitch black bedroom. As I lay the book aside to go to bed, one thing becomes immediately apparent: my closet door is open. Now as I’m sure more than a few of you are aware, you can’t really see into a closet at night.

As the titular monster can shape-shift, there’s a literally cornucopia of places it could be. You know if it was real…which it definitely isn’t…right?

By having me second guess myself before getting up to close the door, King won.

When was 12, It was probably the scariest thing I willingly put myself through. There’s just something much more cerebral about a really scary book than there is a really scary movie. A movie spoon feeds you scary imagery and nightmare; a book makes your brain work against itself in conjuring up moments that will have you second guess getting out of bed to go to the bathroom at night.

“So what makes It so scary,” an individual who may not have read the book before may ponder.

I haven’t read most of King’s work but out of the small portion I have indulged in, It was was the most consistently terrifying. In it, King gives us a pervasive and nightmarish vision of an archetypical small town that’s sold its soul to a monster that puts on masks and eats children. Those masks provide It (technically It is a “she”, but that is a discussion for another day) and Stephen King with a chance to dig into just about every archetypal boogeyman imaginable, ranging from werewolves and mummies and even a giant bird.

And don’t forget Pennywise The Dancing Clown.

While many of King’s antagonists are scary, there’s something that sets Pennywise apart. There’s an imaginative brutality to his kills, the way gore and nightmare fuel combine with mean-spirited humor to create an impression of some sadistic, cosmic, shape-shifting bully; something that takes as much, if not more, pleasure in mocking you and your suffering as it does in ripping you to shreds. There’s also the matter of who he preys on specifically.

Several adults die within the book’s pages, but a majority of It’s victims are kids as they have a special vitality that the monster craves; a vitality that serves as one of the book’s major themes. Basically, it craves your fear over your flesh.

And it wasn’t just about the scares either. Sure, that played a big part but what made It such a powerful experience where who those scary things were happening to.

I wasn’t alive in 1958 yet King captures a certain feeling so accurately and enthusiastically that it doesn’t matter if the specifics weren’t something I could relate to. Reading about outcasts my own age, isolated from the larger portions of their peers in a way I understood, playing games in the woods away from things like football or band felt more real than my actual life in a way that’s hard to put into words. As broken as the members of the Loser’s Club are, they were friends, and that friendship, and the unwavering faith in that friendship, mattered a great deal to me.

To me, the book is and always will be this section:

“Maybe there aren’t any such things as good friends or bad friends – maybe there are just friends, people who stand by you when you’re hurt and who help you feel not so lonely. Maybe they’re always worth being scared for, and hoping for, and living for. Maybe worth dying for too, if that’s what has to be. No good friends. No bad friends. Only people you want, need to be with; people who build their houses in your heart.”

I think it’d be fair to say I didn’t really read the book as much as I experienced it (although I never had to personally deal with an intergalactic, fear-consuming clown but that’s neither here nor there), something I think every one goes through with more than one piece of popular media or literature in their respective lifetimes.

It tapped into a direct mainline of my subconscious and drilled down so fucking deep that I’ve never been entirely rid of it. Randomly, aspects of the book will pop into my mind and at times I’ll recognize it and others I won’t.

And this is all (mostly) in regards to the portion of the novel dedicated to the Losers as kids. The other portion sees them return to Derry to finish the job they started back over 20 years beforehand. When I was a kid reading that section seemed, not bad, but less important. Adulthood seemed so far away back then. It wasn’t something tangible. In the 1958 portion, most of the adults are largely neglectful, if not outright abusive. In this world, the kids are largely on their own.

As King writes, “Eddie discovered one of his childhood’s great truths. Grownups are the real monsters, he thought.”

Flash forward more than 10 years later.

I still hesitate to call myself an adult, but I’m certainly not a kid anymore.

Last summer, I found myself thinking a lot about It. I knew there was a new movie coming out and I had really fond memories of reading it as a kid but couldn’t remember every aspect of it as I once could. I wanted to go back, although I was initially intimidated by the length, and see if the book stood the test of time.  Because that’s what books do: they’re always the same when you reread them, but you’re always different. Even when you don’t want to be.

Now a “grown-up” myself, I’ve come to realize that the loss of vitality between the kid chapters and the adult ones is not an incidental effect; it is, in fact, a core feature of the premise of the entire book. Without those adult chapters, It would still be scary but it wouldn’t be special. 

As one Loser observes, growing up means the “magic of childhood belief” goes away. It’s never really clear when and where it happens, but it inevitably does. Everything that was big, bold and capitalized turns out not to be a really big deal after all. An adult Bill Denbrough (the Losers’ de facto leader) takes a taxi through Derry, the book’s setting, and reflects on a town he hasn’t seen since his adolescence. He’s shocked at how strained the place looks to him: how things have changed, and how even the things that stayed the same seem blander somehow. Almost like a knock-off of something that used to matter. Every time I go back to my home town, I almost always have a similar feeling.

It’s also about regret. There’s a reason why “Youth is wasted on the young” is an an age-old sentiment. We sometimes fall prey to looking at our childhoods with proverbial rose-tinted glasses, maybe bypassing the unpleasantness.

I finally watched T2: Trainspotting, a movie that I assume the second half to this latest It adaptation may mirror at least thematically in is that it doesn’t cherry coat that the notion that our youth can be just as grimy as our present. It’s really only by recognizing these do we become somewhat adept at dealing with them. And even then, some trauma can never really be healed.

That isn’t to say It a perfect book by any means. King could have definitely used some toning back. It’s a story that really has no need to be as long as it is and there are more than a few sequences that could have been cut as they are either A) unnecessary or B) largely uncomfortable to the service of nothing. (The sewer gang bang fits under both categories.)

Re-reading It was a lot more fun than I was expecting but I found myself appreciating the book’s sense of melancholy for things lost and hope for those gained more than the scares this time around. King doesn’t pull a single punch when it comes to the realities of getting older, but suggests there may be just a little magic left for those willing to fight for it.

Suffice to say, It is a pretty important book to me and any form of adaptation was going to be met with strict scrutiny. Not in the sense that I am a stickler for a film that was 100% faithful to the book. It is a beast of a novel, coming in at well over 1,000 pages. There’s a lot there that can be cut or modified (some material I fully advocate for the removal of, but more on that in a bit) and the story would remain largely the same.

No, I’m speaking more to the “feel” of the book. There’s a misconception that the book is a pretty simple read as well which it is really anything but.

Even though it’s in no way a book for children, there’s a ton of adolescent touchstones included in It, both apparent and hidden between the lines. First love, “lazy” summers, goofing off with your friends, adulthood on the horizon, the final days between “kid problems” and “adult problems,” etc.

Director Andrés Muschietti was not a name I was familiar with before this movie. I skipped Mama if only because it seemed like it fit into every category of something I don’t really want in a horror movie…

Still, I was willing to give the man the benefit of the doubt. First off, splitting book into two parts (the first half dedicated to the kid, the other to them as adults) was a pretty smart movie. The book cross-sections these two portions rather than divide them which works in that medium but would have ultimately been to the disservice to both had they been smushed together. Unfortunately, this could also lead to a movie that doesn’t feel whole as a result as it has been intentionally halved, a move that rarely ever works with films.

So I’ve rambled enough.

Did this experiment work? Did I leave this movie even remotely satisfied? Do you care?

Answers to all (maybe) below…

The plot:

“In the Town of Derry, the local kids are disappearing one by one, leaving behind bloody remains. In a place known as ‘The Barrens’, a group of seven kids are united by their horrifying and strange encounters with an evil clown and their determination to kill It.” – IMDb.com

The review: 

-Cracks knuckles-

Get comfortable, folks. We may be here for a little bit.

Right off the bat, I should say I really, really enjoyed this one. It’s way too early to fully declare but this was probably the warmest reaction I’ve had to a King film adaptation in a good long while.

That said, I think it’ll be hard to fully gauge this one as it is very much a Part 1 of a 2 part story. I can only assume that Warner Bros/New Line were hesitant to fully commit to immediately funding two movies back-to-back. These aren’t guaranteed hits like a Star Wars or Marvel film after all.

So while I stand by it being a smart that this was a movie split in half in the interest of telling the story more effectively, it comes at the cost of a first half feeling a little hallow and without a proper climax. Much like Kill BillIt very much feels like a flashier half of a longer story; the second, I expect, will slow things down considerably. It’s by no accident that the film’s conclusion doesn’t particularly feel like a victory. There’s a lot more ground to cover.

With the recent announcement there will apparently “for sure” be a Part 2, I’m a little bit more relieved but I’m not a fan of having to wait around and see if I’ll actually get the end to a story I want to see. It’s not a great model outside of television.

So I’m going to talk a bit about the differences between the book and movie in this upcoming section. If that annoys you/don’t want spoilers for the book (as a whole), I’ve sectioned it off for your convenience.

-ANNOYING BOOK CHATTER-

There are quite a few changes and omissions Muschietti implements in his version, many of which (surprisingly enough) work and even, in some instances, could be considered improvements. I won’t touch base on every, single one but I would like to highlight a couple (both positive and negative).

The update from the 1950s to 1980s was a little suspect to me, just given the recent popularity of Stranger Things (a series that owes more than a little to King and It in particular).

Largely, the movie (thankfully) doesn’t shove the 80’s down our throats as I was fearing more nostalgia overload. Outside of a few song choices, the basic story remains as timeless as ever.

We lose some of the bigger concepts of the book, i.e. It’s origins and The Turtle. I’m largely fine with this material beginning omitted in the interest of digestibility for a standard audience but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t hoping that they’d at least touch on it a little bit in the sequel. For now though, it doesn’t really matter where It came from or what It wants. As is the case with many movie monsters, there is enough horror to be mined from the mere existence of a shape-shifting monster that kills and eats kids.

I’ve read that original director (and still credited co-screenwriter) Cary Fukunaga wanted to emphasize some of the darker sexual aspects of the book in his version of the film which I fully understand the studio hoping to, not avoid, but not exacerbate. Thank The Turtle the aforementioned sewer gang bang was mercifully left on the cutting room floor.

It’s important to remember this is meant to be a mass consumption version of the book. That isn’t to say a lot of that uncomfortableness doesn’t sprout up in different ways. A sexual-abuse subplot that largely remained subtext in the book is made much more apparent in the film, and a love triangle between three of the Losers is given outsized importance here.

I often find that page-to-screen adaptations either lose the subtly of their source material or the exact opposite and go for the obvious. Muschietti often goes for the latter, to mixed effect.

There are a couple of sequences and/or aspects I would have liked to see but am not all that disappointed by their exclusion such as Bev’s slingshot for example or Richie’s encounter with a teenage werewolf or more of Mike’s look into the town’s bloody past.

There’s been a lot said about the 1990 miniseries, an adaptation that I don’t think holds up very well with the exception of Tim Curry’s role as Pennywise. It does an okay job of telling a story about kids fighting a monster only to have to return as adults to finish the job. As an allegory for confronting childhood trauma, that’s fine but to me, the book was a lot more than just that.

For what it’s worth, I think this film does a much better job at compartmentalizing one half of the book while also delivering the tone/feel of its source material. It’s kind of disappointing to have what is not a conventional book crammed into a conventional three-act structure, the effort largely works here. Muschietti and the screenwriters made a clear effort at maintaining this tone, and show a clear affection that too often gets lost in translation. It is in this effort/affection, that I really appreciate what they’ve gone for. The only thing that worries me is that they’ll get lost in the shuffle when the studio gears up for the second round.

-ANNOYING BOOK CHATTER OVER (MOSTLY)-

Now let’s get on to the movie itself. Y’know, the reason why I assume most of you are here.

I don’t really want to deep dive into what I consider scary…I’ve done that waaaaaaaaay too much in the past. Suffice to say, I didn’t find this movie all that scary but there were some pretty effective scares in it. Muschietti has a pretty good eye for what dictates a good horror set piece. Rather than go for a slow build, he goes the alt route of big, bombast, making use some very effective nightmare imagery and creature effects. If anything, I’d say It is more intense than it is scary which I generally lean towards anyway.

Visually, the movie is straight dynamite. Cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung delivers a movie that looks better than a grand majority of what else is out in cinemas right now, let alone just horror movies. This is combined with top notch sound and production design that makes for a movie for award consideration, but will sadly most likely be ignored due largely to the unfair stigma attached to the horror genre.

We open with the murder of six-year-old Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott), arguable the novel’s most iconic scene, adapted largely beat-for-beat. The notable difference between this and the previous adaptation however is there aren’t prime time standards to adhere to. Kids are murdered en masses by It and Muschietti pulls no punches.

Speaking of horror, let’s take some time to talk about Pennywise, played here by Bill Skarsgård. Skarsgård’s performance isn’t as immediately iconic as Tim Curry’s and almost leans too heavily into the “creepy clown” troupe but more often than not he is effectively used. Delivering dialogue in a Bugs Bunny meet Bane lisp, his physical performance hints at an entity too big to fit fully into its shell; his eyes almost perpetually off-center.

All this horror, gloom and doom would be irrelevant if we didn’t have a quality set of characters trapped therein for us to root and cheer for, and luckily this movie carries more than its fair share of likable characters.

It may be somewhat pertinent that casting director Rich Delia be given his due as, with the exception of two, each of these kids were complete unknowns to me and each of them fits their respective Loser P-E-R-F-E-C-T-L-Y. I’ll concede that pacing and writing does some of them a disservice but none of our young actors falters and does a pretty spectacular job at bringing characters ingrained in my mind since youth to life. These kids have almost an inherent chemistry with one another and interact in a way that is believable and comes off as almost improvised.

As with the book, Richie (Finn Wolfhard) and Bev (Sophia Lillis) are personal standouts. I’d go so far as to say Wolfhard walks away with the movie given just how much comedic heavy lifting placed upon his shoulders. Lillis similarly has a lot of heavy lifting on the dramatic front, and seems to effortlessly elevate her role beyond “token girl” although, like the book, is the center of a love triangle, much more obviously here.

While I’m never really into those story angles, I think what was brought to the table here was as good as it could be. Both Bill (Jaeden Lieberher)and Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) are quick to fall in love with Bev, and the film is as sensitive to the sometimes tender, all-too-real awkwardness that occurs when puberty opts to rear its ugly head into the tight-rope of male-female friendships.

The group is rounded out by Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), a sheltered hypochondriac, Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), the skeptic and Mike (Chosen Jacobs), a home schooled kid from the other side of town. Like in the book, Mike tends to disappear in the group scenes. Hell, they give away his major task as “town historian” to another Loser so he’s often just there in many scenes. Some confusing edits suggest a longer version of the story in which more characters were allowed to develop.

There’s also some bullies led by Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) that play a role as secondary antagonists but kind of lose their edge as the movie bypasses a lot of their racism, misogyny and outright nastiness on full display in the book. They are, after all, Stephen King bullies. Given this movie only hints at the effect It has on Derry, all of the other antagonists feel…unnecessary.

A major complaint of mine is that there is a really odd rhythm to the pacing here. Like, it almost feels unnatural in the way it’s stacked together rather than organically building dread or building to its climax. I guess that can be chalked up to the transition. Where the book Losers get a whole summer to build their plan to fight back against Pennywise, their film counterparts get two hours.

And I think that largely sums up my thoughts on this end result and it’s sort of the cliche every review of an adaptation shares: it’s not the book, and that’s okay because it largely shares the heart of what made me like the original so much. The book will always be there as well my memories from reading the book.

The point is, it remains faithful without having to be 100% beholden to the book and that’s basically exactly what I wanted. There’s an ambition here that mainstream horror lacks these days and it’s exciting to see something like this with a little bit of cash behind it as well. If movie’s like this within the horror genre were the norm rather than the exception I feel like the stigma constantly holding it back would be lifted and richer cinematic landscape could prosper.

Now give me Chapter 2!

‘It Comes At Night’ revels in the enveloping fear of nothingness

I’ve gone through seemingly time-and-time again what I favor in a horror film. Time after time after time. Needless to say I’m going to try to hard on it again here too extensively. Suffice to say: I prefer a less is more approach.

It Comes At Night, much like 2016’s The Witch, is movie almost tailor-made to my horror sensibilities.

The plot:

“Secure within a desolate home as an unnatural threat terrorizes the world, the tenuous domestic order he has established with his wife and son is put to the ultimate test with the arrival of a desperate young family seeking refuge. Despite the best intentions of both families, paranoia and mistrust boil over as the horrors outside creep ever-closer, awakening something hidden and monstrous within him as he learns that the protection of his family comes at the cost of his soul.” – A24

The review:

As I’ve written in the past, any horror movie worth its weight in salt doesn’t simply taser your nerves with jump-scare after jump-scare. That’s completely within the realm of playing peek-a-boo with an infant. Look to any of the most iconic horror films, such as Alien or The Exorcist. There aren’t really roundtable scenes where the “rules” are discussed.

The more you know or understand about something, the less scary it becomes. It’s why the movement in the late 2000s to add backstory to some of cinema’s most iconic monsters (Leatherface, Michael Myers, etc) came off as simple sacrilege. It’s why I see little point in Ridley Scott diving into the origins of the xenomorph with his latest crop of Alien films. There’s definitely an argument to be made for some explanation (it all relates back to the movie itself and this is by no means a universal rule) but on the whole fear stems from a lack of understanding.

Generally fear comes from something you know very little about, and that’s the wheelhouse in which Trey Edward Shults opted to operate when crafting his second feature. There’s no scene of a news report providing exposition nor is there a scientist character to clue us in on what exactly our characters are dealing with.

As with his first film, Krisha, Shults translates the rawness of emotion from a personal tragedy (in this case the death of his father) to raw intensity, feeding into the universal fear of losing those closest to you. Like his earlier film, Shults explores the impulse and fruitlessness in seeking normalcy in extreme and strenuous circumstances, ultimately questioning whether such a normalcy is not only obtainable but if it even existed in the first place.

Those who come into It Comes At Night for an answer to what exactly “it” is, may leave this movie severally disappointed. There’s not a monster stalking the two families at its center. There isn’t even a clear villain or even a message. The horror at the movie’s core is a lot harder to define than something as tangible as a monster. Besides what could possibly more frightening outside than the thought of the danger being inside with you, under your skin.

The virus in the movie refreshingly doesn’t turn its victims into zombies or any form thereof. In fact, the film spends very little time on what exactly the disease is or how exactly it works beyond being both highly contagious and incredibly fatal. We don’t know where it originated or just how widespread it is.

At the center of it all is Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), who serves as our de facto avatar. He is in the company of his teacher cum survivalist father Paul (a career best performance from Joel Edgerton) and stressed out mother Sarah (the ever-dependable Carmen Ejogo). The family lives already lives on the thin edge of a razor in their respective isolation when a stranger named Will (Christopher Abbott) appears at their front door.

Will has his own clan consisting of wife Kim (Riley Keough) and young son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner). The two families soon merge and things are good…at first. But as movies demand, conflict arises as paranoia sets in. Travis’ nightmares, pouring with thoughts of hopelessness and desperation, become more and more frequent, eventually bleeding into reality. There’s all matter of combustions laid before the audience (sexual tension, conflated masculinity, “looking out for one’s own); all it takes is one match to set everything off.

What ultimately happens is at once shocking and inevitable, brutally so. This movie is scary enough on its own but its true horror only sinks in after its over and you attempt to wrap your head around what it all meant.

There’s an emptiness at the heart of It Comes At Night and in that emptiness viewers will either embrace the abject terror or find frustration at the lack of clear answers. Instead, we find blind animalistic panic, lashing out at an all-consuming darkness that will one day envelop us all.There are multiple sequences draped in shadow, darkness threatening to envelop the entire frame at points. It’s at these moments where the film really, really excels.

There’s no way to fully understand human nature; why we act the way we do when we’re scared. As the film’s tagline explicitly states, “Fear turns men into monsters.”

Allow me to play Carnac the Magnificent and glimpse into the future for a moment. This is a movie that will be completely bypassed come award season. I know it. You know it. Your mom knows it. And truth be told, there are much, much, MUCH worse things to be concerned about in this ever-troubling world of ours but it is a shame to be sure.

Drew Daniels paints a jaw-dropping canvas with his cinematography, by far the best I’ve seen this year. The shots within the house are tight and claustrophobic while the few times we leave for the outside feel expansive yet uncertain, leaving us never really at ease in the same way our characters are. It’s a commendable attribute for a cinematographer to pull something off like that in way that isn’t hand-holdy or obvious. The same could be said of Brian McOmber’s score which never dips into hysteria, instead serving its tight-wound atmosphere.

A common complaint I’ve been hearing relates back to the film’s marketing. Now, as of now, I’d say the film’s teaser (posted above) is one of the best I’ve seen in a good long while. Hands down the best for a movie to come out for movie this year thus far. It works as a template of exactly what a trailer should be. It’s only when you look at the full trailer (posted below) do things get kind of murky.

I’d argue this cut is still streets ahead of your run-of-the-mill trailer house output, as is the case with a lot of A24’s stuff. However it does more explicitly market this as a more traditional horror film, which is most certainly is not. It’s only during the nightmare sequences does the film dip into more familiar ground with the occasional jump scare and shocking image. On CinemaScore, audiences gave the film an average grade of “D” on an A+ to F scale which is shockingly low but still not really all that surprising.

This isn’t a movie for a “fun” movie night with your friends. Well unless those friends are like weird and “pretentious” like me, sadists or both. It Comes At Night is not a fun movie. It’s a movie that’s actually a lot more simple than it lets on, all while never going over the top (something its B-movie title may suggest) in a way that would feel false to the world Shults creates. Some may find this boring while I argue it’s refreshing.

Throughout the film, we are reminded of the red door which serves as the only entrance and exit for the home. Said door is never supposed to be opened after nightfall. As is the case with movies however, the door does open. However, we never get a glimpse of some horror such as a monster or zombie horde. Instead we only see empty blackness. A majority of horror films presume the former is scarier. Shults favors the latter however, allowing audiences to squirm in the expanse of the unknown and contemplate the familiarity we may find within our own souls.

Like (36 Chambers) or Fresh Cream, ‘Free Fire’ is a testament to the ensemble

The “fun” thing about transitioning to a “Do almost every movie I see” model of reviewing to a “Do it when I feel like it” model is it let’s me wax poetic about movies I actually have something to say about. Now that doesn’t mean I’m going to write anything transcendent or meaningful.

I’m just free to come and go as I please. Can’t promise that’ll translate to “better” posts all in all, but you may notice I am a bit more upbeat when I put them out.

Or not.

Who really cares?

Free Fire is a movie that’s been on my radar for almost a year now. I caught the trailer at a screening of Swiss Army Man (another A24 release) but there was no release date attached at that point. I guess it would be fair to say I keep my eye out for the A24 logo on just about anything really to be honest. A lot of that goes hand-in-hand with their remarkable track record, particularly in the low key genre films the studio distributes.

It must be said that I don’t think there is a company out there continually distributing mini-genre masterpieces at the same frequency as A24. I mean let’s look at some of their picks: Under the Skin, The Rover, Ex Machina, Slow WestMississippi Grind, The Witch, Green Room, The Monster and The Blackcoat’s Daughter to name just a few. And those are just what I’d consider their genre films. Least we forget they’re also behind bringing Room and Moonlight to the masses.

So it could almost go without saying that I was hoping for another home run with Free Fire, given not only A24’s interest in it and it’s brilliantly simple “I can’t believe this hasn’t been made before” premise but also the involvement of writer/director Ben Wheatley and just about every name listed in the cast. Having Martin Scorsese on as a producer only sweetened the pot as it were.

It may even be fair to say this paralleled my excitement levels for The Last Jedi, if not even surpassing it.

So was the hype met? Does A24 have another genre classic on their hands?

Unfortunately it falls a pretty sizable distance from of something I’d consider iconic. HOWEVER it is a ton of fun and a movie I could definitely foresee becoming a cult classic within a few years, played at 1 a.m. in dorm rooms around the country, the smell of herbal substances and Cheetos hanging in the air. And this is by no means a shot at the film. In a way I think that’s what it was going for. The plot never gets all that complicated and our characters aren’t exactly the most complex. What you see is what you get, and for what it is, it works.

The plot:

“Set in Boston in 1978, a meeting in a deserted warehouse between two gangs turns into a shootout and a game of survival.” – IMDb.com

The review: 

You look at bands like Cream or the Wu-Tang Clan; groups that made of considerable talent, with each individual member being a star in their own right.

Much can be said about the cast of Free Fire. 

We have Brie Larson for starters, who at 27 already has a much-deserved Academy Award. Props to Larson for not just cashing in, but continuing to strengthen her resume with massive blockbusters while still allowing herself to get her hands dirty with smaller films like this. She’s an actress I hope stays interesting as her career continues and even though she already has an Oscar, I hope we are far away from seeing her peak.

Then you fill in the gaps with the likes of Shartlo Copley, Cillian Murphy and Armie Hammer. All three of those guys are movie stars, turning in consistently solid work regardless of the quality of the project they’re in. Copley in particular is an actor who feels as if he should be on the A-list but opts to go for weirder, more memorable genre roles.

There’s handful of up-and-comers mixed with long-standing favorite character actors too. Standing alongside our marque talent we’ve got the MVP of last year’s Sing Street, Jack Reynor as well as Babou Ceesay, Enzo Cilenti, Sam Riley and Noah Taylor.

And who could forget Michael Smiley, or as he’s known in this household…

Possibly my absolute favorite thing about Free Fire outside of the bullet-ridden lunacy is that Wheatley doesn’t subject our lower-tier names to the sidelines. They’re placed forefront and center right alongside everyone else.

I am in no way accusing any one on this film of having an ego; this isn’t a Fast & the Furious movie. That’s a movie with stars, each with a contract I assume requires a certain allotted amount of screen-time, citing who gets to punch who and which person wins which fight.

I keep emphasizing this group effort because too often we see movies with large casts but they typically serve mainly to elevate one or two within the pool. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this mind you. I just truly appreciated how this movie didn’t have a star (singular); it has stars (plural). All our guys (and girl) feel equally integral to the story and they all elevate scenes rather than steal them.

In a movie like this, there isn’t a need for lengthy character development. Our cast of miscreants aren’t exactly the most lovable crayons in the box, if you catch my meaning. Setting the film in the 1970’s was another nice touch as it makes them think outside the box in terms of getting out of the shootout, providing at least the bare minimum of tension given they don’t have cell phone access. 

It’s a very silly movie with each of our characters serving as bullet sponges before they finally go down. For what that’s worth, I think that worked fine here for the most part. Sure, that kind of alleviates some the tension, knowing that your characters can’t really die at any moment instead straddling the suspension of disbelief as they take more and more damage without immediately bleeding out. 

This serviced the black, sort of wacky tone for me however, and I don’t think Wheatley and company were seeking any form of higher truth when crafting this movie. I could be wrong, but a movie like this isn’t going to solve many problems outside of entertaining you.And it does help that they DO actually seem to take damage with each hit, something I’ve harped on in the past. 

I guess that leads me to Wheatley himself. It’s been said many times before, but there is absolutely no consistency between this man’s films and I’m not referring to the quality. He may just be the most prolific director we have working right now. On the whole, I generally think most of his output is pretty damn spectacular. No, I’m speaking to the fact that all of his movies are widely different in terms of tone, look, approach, themes, etc. If you go in blind with no information provided as to what the connection is, you may be hard-pressed to determine what exactly the link is if forced to watch his library back-to-back. For example his last film, High Rise, dealt with big, lofty science fiction ideas. Where that film felt like Wheatley striving for Kubrick, Free Fire is his best take on Tarantino. The ending, in and off itself, might as well be a director nod to Reservoir Dogs and warehouse setting. Although this movie is much more violent and much less cruel.

Representing his first straight up foray into action, Wheatley does his best to keep the camera comprehensible before the bullets start zipping every which way. However, and somewhat disappointingly, he lacks the finesse of a John Woo.  Free Fire is more akin to a sloppy game of paintball with live rounds than a carefully orchestrated bullet opera.

Still, I guess some confusion keeps in tune with carelessness of our characters, who can’t even always remember who’s shot whom or which side to which they fall. Credit again to the uniformity of the stellar cast for keeping things light and falling perfectly in line with Wheatley’s black-comedic sensibilities, particularly Copley who may just represent a made in heaven actor-to-director match up Wheatley could draw upon for his future endeavors.

I think if I were to point to any sort substantial criticism to the flick, I’d say it lacks sequences. What I mean by that is I remember a handful of quick moments and lines, but the second half of this film is what equates to an extended action sequence. There’s not really any downtime and that sequence is largely made up of the following: characters shoot at each other for a bit mixed with some quips, the recover, change places and then shoot at each other again. Rinse and repeat about 10 or 20 more times. I’ll stress that the only point this kind of becomes monotonous is during the middle chapter where the threat of a sniper (or snipers?!) brings the momentum to an almost screeching halt as our characters are actually pinned down.

Wheatley’s prolific nature also serves as a double-edged sword as the film kind of lacks a director’s unique voice, something I was kind of hoping for.

I mentioned earlier how Wheatley likes to venture into new territory with each new film, which is all fine and well but that also means he lacks a definitive style. Compare this to other directors at (what I’d consider) Wheatley’s “precipice of mainstream” level like Jeremy Saulnier. Free Fire certainly has personality but its the personality of directors that influenced Wheatley, not Wheatley taking the proverbial baton and putting his own spin on it. At leas that’s how I interpreted it because, as I’ve said, I don’t really  have handle on what Wheately’s voice is exactly.

So Free Fire may not have blown my hair back in the way I wanted it to, but I still had plenty of fun watching it so in that it was successful. It’s something I’d fit in the category of “Hey gang! It’s 2 a.m. and we’re drunk. Let’s put on a movie.” And as far as I’m concerned, the world could always use more movies like that.

The 8th Wonder of the World: The Revolutionary Visual Effects of King Kong, and the 2005 Remake

For disclosure, I wrote this for a college film studies class.

Second full disclosure, I made a B+ on it. 

HOWEVER.

There is a new King Kong film out this weekend…

And sensing an opportunity to capitalize….I mean…discuss…yeah that’s it. Sensing an opportunity to discuss other Kong films, I thought I’d share this above average essay I wrote in college that just so happens to center on the big ape. I wouldn’t say it’s all that good per se. If anything, it’s overly simplistic. But given the fact I don’t really foresee posting stuff all that regularly anymore, this gives me a chance to at least get something else out this month. I have something in mind for the near future, but who knows if I’ll actually get to it….but I digress. 

Anyway, I hope at least one person finds this kind of maybe interesting? Maybe that’s being overly generous. I hope at least someone might glance of over it, see it’s too long and just leave. Is that too much to ask?! 

In his 1986 essay, “The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, Its Spectator, and the Avant-Garde,” Tom Gunning coined the term “the cinema of attractions” in relation to early films. Before 1906, films were largely considered novelty attractions much like a roller coaster, or a haunted house. Their audiences were drawn to the new and exciting technology, with the thrill coming from the movement of the camera. In other words, the main draw was not necessarily the narrative because most films at the time did contain any form of traditional narrative, with notable exceptions including the films of Georges Méliès. However, even his films were heavily aided by the visual effects they utilized. As film technology evolved, so did the ability to tell narratives, and the special effects they could showcase.

 A common belief, both then and now, is that general audiences are not going to big-budget, effects driven films for substance. They come for the spectacle. Look to the recent revival of 3-D, for example. For the most part, the effects are dictating the story, not the other way around. However, when compelling material is combined with a team of talented artists with a vision, visual effects can transcend beyond some gimmick to sell tickets. When these effects are used as tool, instead of as a gimmick, a film can become a portal to another world, or house a beloved character that could not exist otherwise. In textual mediums, creating a character like this could be somewhat simple. The audience is asked to use their imagination to create this character in their heads. In film, however, this process can be trickier. You are asking an audience to accept this fictional character as an actuality. A number of factors have to work perfectly in order for general film goers to suspend their perception of reality just long enough to become invested in a character completely created by the use of visual effects. The performance no longer lies on the shoulders of one actor or actress, but a team of people behind the scenes. 

Over the decades there are numerous instances of a character created by visual effects finding mass acceptance by audiences, but there is one such character that has a unique distinction among his contemporaries. The two major film iterations in which he appears are also distinct for the same reason.  That character is King Kong, and the films are the 1933 original, and the 2005 remake.  These films share a plot, but also highlight the massive leap in visual effects technology between their two respective releases.  In her book, Tracking King Kong, Cynthia Erb calls Kong a “cultural icon,” and it’s hard to argue considering that the character has appeared in almost every facet of popular culture since his creation, becoming not only an icon of American cinema, but of the entire medium. The iconography of Kong’s last stand atop the Empire State Building has been etched into the public consciousness.  He is one of the most recognizable icons in movie history, and he could never have existed without the innovation of two different generations of visual effects , and the hard work of the artists that brought him to life.  This success completely legitimizes the use of visual effects in film.

It should be no secret that the original 1933 King Kong was the initial brainchild of one of its directors, Merian C. Cooper, but as with almost every creative process, it came in stages. It should also go without saying that the director’s vision could not have been possible without the assistance of various special effects pioneers. Ray Morton discusses Cooper’s initial idea for his proposed “ape picture,” as a combination of a longtime desire to make a film about gorillas, as well as a description of the newly found Komodo dragon by explorer W. Douglas Burden. Morton writes, “Cooper was intrigued by Burden’s description of the dragons and began imagining exiting scenes in which his gorillas would fight them. He planned to realize these scenes by filming the gorillas in their natural habitat (most likely in the Congo) and the dragons on Komodo and then intercutting the two, with some sort of artificial stand-ins used in joint shots.” Later, Cooper would go on to add various key elements to the narrative that can be seen in the final version of the film, such as the love story, the journey to a primitive island, and the tragic death of his simian hero in New York City.

The issues Cooper would have deal with while pitching Kong Kong would not only be how he intended to bring Kong to life, but also how he would create the world he inhabited. The director would go on to find a solution in a mixture of several innovative visual and audio techniques, not least of which was the stop-motion animation of special effects pioneer, Willis O’ Brien. Stop motion found its beginnings when early filmmakers attempted to make still two dimensional objects “come to life.” As Morton writes, “The motion picture image is an illusion created by photographing a series of individual still picture of a single moving subject one right after another in rapid succession a single strip of film. Each still picture captures an incremental piece of the subject’s overall movement. When the still pictures are projected onto a screen in rapid succession at the same rate of speed at which they were photographed, the human eye blends all of the images into one to create an impression of continuous action.” It was O’Brien that had the idea to apply this process to three-dimensional figures as well. Fueled by a life-long interest in dinosaurs, O’Brien shot a test film of a dinosaur fighting a caveman. In 1915, this test footage became The Dinosaur and the Missing Link, which was eventually picked up by the Edison Company for distribution. It wasn’t until 1925 that O’Brien and his team would first experience wide-spread acclaim for his work on the film adaptation of Arthur Conon Doyle’s The Lost World. This film was a massive worldwide success, and would eventually lead O’Brien to his masterpiece. 

After the success of The Lost World, its director, Harry O. Hoyt, began to work with O’Brian on a new script, titled Creation, for RKO Studios. Hoyt once again signed on O’Brien and his crew to work on the film’s special effects, and began to build models for several sequences for the film. The film’s script and test eventually crossed paths with none other than M.C. Cooper, who had been hired to do a studio inventory at the time. Cooper, who had little interest in the script, instead saw potential in the stop-motion effects that O’Brien and his team had created. Cooper would later say, “When I saw all the prehistoric animals they had lying around this studio, I decided to make my gorilla picture anyway – and make it right here.”  By using O’Brien’s animation, the studio could produce the film completely in-house, with no need for pricey and lengthy location shooting.  Soon, Creation was scrapped, and O’Brien began to work with Cooper on his new proposed feature film, which at the time, did not have a title.  Cooper was able to sell the film to RKO executives completely based off of a test sequence that used O’Brien’s models. Production soon began in earnest, and the film was granted an initial budget of $500,000, thanks to former RKO president, David O. Selznick, the film eventually found its title: King Kong

Cooper would soon share directing duties with long-time collaborator Ernest Schoedsack, who would direct most of the non-effect sequences of the film. As work began on the effects for the film, the two would complete another film for RKO, an adaptation of Richard Connell’s, “The Most Dangerous Game.” This production proved financially beneficial as Cooper and company were able to reuse the film’s jungle sets. On designing the title character, Cooper related,“O’ Brien built a miniature steel framework of a gorilla that had joints that could be locked into position so that you could get smooth movement when you animated.” After completing the framework, Marcel Delgado would go on to add rubber muscles that would bend and stretch realistically. This “skeleton” was then stuffed with cotton to produce an animal shape, and detail. It was then covered in prune rabbit fur. When it was completed, every feature of the miniature was moveable, weighed a little over ten pounds, and stood 18 inches high. In all, there were six miniature Kongs built, as well as full-sized sections of the ape for close-up shots, including a head, arm, and leg. For Kong’s movement, O’Brien and his animators observed gorillas at the Central Park Zoo in New York City, and according to IMDb.com, also drew inspiration from their directors for key sequences in the film. “Both Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack had been wrestlers, and they acted out the fighting moves for the battle between the T-Rex and Kong in the effects studio, before the animators shot the scene,” the site says. O’Brien, who had also been an amateur boxer in his youth, added several boxing moves into the fight scene. Cooper would also go on to act out Kong’s death sequence set on top of the Empire State Building. Cooper would later relate that the scene had to be redone due to Cooper’s initial overacting. Cooper said, “The first time I did it, I was too broad, too hammy, and they did it just like that. Well, it was the funniest damn thing you ever saw, that ape, pop-eyed, rolling, writhing, and clutching. We all had a good laugh and then I did it again for them, this time toning everything down, and this time they got exactly what I wanted.” Work on the animation was a slow process, and an increasingly frustrating one as the production moved into the summer months, making the non-air-conditioned stage comparable only to an oven. At one point, O’Brien’s hand developed gangrene from working with the various chemicals and moldy hides. While recovering, Cooper was forced to do much of the animation himself. 

Over the course of the film’s production, the issue of combing both the animation and the live action in a practical manner arose. Cooper and O’Brien would eventually devise an ingenious technique that would achieve a realistic blend of all the effects used in the film, that Cooper would later call “miniature projection.” As Cooper later explained it, “I would shoot my live actors going the motions of reacting to the beasts or Kong, or whatever, then these scenes would be projected on small-screens that Obie [O’Brien] had in his miniature sets. We would project a frame at a time, and Obie would animate the miniature action to match the live action.”  The technique of rear-screen projection was also utilized, pioneered by director, Georges Méliès, decades earlier. This process would give the actors something to react to other than their imagination and the director’s instruction while filming a scene. On their tireless collaboration, Cooper would later credit much of the film’s visual success to O’Brien. “O’Brien was a genius…Kong is as much his picture as it is mine. There was never anybody in his class as far as special effects went, there never was and there probably never will be.”

After nearly three years of production, King Kong was released on March 3, 1933, and was immediately both a critical and financial success. It would gross $90,000 its opening weekend, the biggest opening ever at the time, and save RKO from bankruptcy, according to IMDb.com. The film also saw numerous financially successful re-releases in 1938, 1942, 1946, and 1952. There were several iterations of the character in other films due to the characters status as public domain, including two from Japanese movie studio, Toho, and a remake produced by Dino De Laurentiis, known for being eccentric.

While not a critical success, the film found an audience, and would become a box office success. It would go on to win an Academy Award for its achievements in the area, something the 1933 original failed to do. The reason key reason it will not be discussed in great detail here, is that I believe it is an example of a film dictated by its visuals, and not the other way around. Both the original, and the 2005 remake, went through lengthy script construction and character development that allowed for collaborations between their filmmakers and their special effects teams during their respective  productions. While not perfect, the 2005 remake still obtains some of that magic the 1933 perfected. The 1976 remake seems to be a cash in, hoping to hook in audiences with its admittedly impressive visuals, but coming short in terms of story and depth. Laurentiis would go on to produce a sequel to the film, King Kong Lives, which had little success, and the character would remain theatrically dormant for another 20 years. 

In the late 1960s, a nine-year-old boy in New Zealand, named Peter Jackson, saw the original 1933 King Kong on television, and was inspired to create his very own films. He would even attempt to recreate the movie on a Super 8 film camera when he was 12. Many years later, Jackson became a world-renowned director, making films that were clearly inspired by the spectacle he had seen as a child, and would eventually be brought on to direct his own version of the story that had sparked in him a life-long love of movies. Jackson is quoted as saying, “No film has captivated my imagination more than King Kong. I’m making movies today because I saw this film when I was 9 years old. It has been my sustained dream to reinterpret this classic story for a new age.” Jackson was eventually brought on by Universal Studios, a company that had had a long gestating plan to release a remake of King Kong, in 1995 to discuss the possibility of directing a remake of 1954 film, The Creature From the Black Lagoon. Jackson turned the offer down, but knowing the director’s obsession with Kong, offered him a chance to write and direct a remake of his favorite film. Initially hesitant, Jackson eventually agreed to the position after he realized the position would just go to someone else and the film would be terrible. Jackson’s original script, that he cowrote with his wife, Fran Walsh, would differ from the 1933 film on several key story aspects, with the ultimate final product resembling the original film to a closer degree. Production was originally intended to begin at some point in 1997. The New Zealand based effects studios, WETA Digital and WETA Workshop, began a six month pre-production period in 1996. However, in February of 1997, Universal pulled the plug on the project after the market became flooded with other ape-related remakes, and Jackson along with WETA, began work on the The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

After the massive world-wide success of that series of films, Universal once again approached Jackson in early 2003 to try and tackle Kong once more. Jackson soon signed on again,  pre-production soon began, and thanks to the innovation of computer-generated imagery, or CGI for short, and the techniques that came along with it, Kong could be brought to life in a way the world had never seen before. 

If the 1933 Kong was a testament to the ingenuity and the of its effects team, cobbling together the limited resources they had at their disposal as well as creating completely new ones, the 2005 remake can be seen as a testament to Hollywood excess, fueled by the life-long fandom of its director. To a degree, this works in the film’s favor. Sporting a massive $207,000,000 budget, it was the most expensive film ever made at the time, and this further allowed Jackson and the effects team at WETA Digital to propel this movie into something bigger than Cooper or O’Brian could have ever thought of during the making of their film. Cooper’s Kong only faced one Tyrannosaurus, while Jackson’s fights three at the same time. Where Cooper had to cut his infamous spider-pit sequence for its graphic content, Jackson and his team lovingly reimagine the scene, and it really makes the viewer’s skin crawl. According to IMDb.com, the movie had the most number of visual special effect shots at the time of its release, at around 2400, along with over 800 miniature shots. The effects of WETA digital allow for almost a photorealistic effect on the creatures. The detail is so minute that one could count each and every one of the individual hairs on Kong’s body. Jackson was the equivalent of the preverbal kid in a candy store, and the director clearly spared no expense when it came to bringing his vision to life. 

In this iteration, the character of Kong is a complete special effect. However, thanks to the innovation of two techniques: motion capture and performance animation, bringing the character to life was no longer exclusively the job of the visual effects team, but also an actual actor. The animators working on the 1933 film had to hope that the movements they were painstakingly constructing were to the director’s satisfaction. Through motion capture, a performance can literally be translated beat for beat into a computer, and an animator can then translate that into the image that will ultimately appear in the final film in a product called performance animation. The two terms are often mistakenly used to represent the same thing, but are actually two different things. Alberto Meanche writes, “In short, motion capture is the collection of data that represents motion, whereas performance animation is the final product of a character driven by a performer.”

To help bring his Kong to life, Jackson cast actor, Andy Serkis, in the role of the titular ape star. The two had worked together in a similar context previously in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, in which Serkis played the CG character, Gollum. Jackson decided fairly early that he did not want his Kong to act human, so he and the visual effects team at WETA Digital studied hours upon hours of footage of actual gorillas both in captivity and in the wild, much like O’Brian and his team did in the early 1930s. Jackson and his co-writers on the script, once again Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, would even create a quasi-backstory for the character to add a sense of realistic legitimacy and character.

Likewise, Serkis drew much of his performance on studying gorilla behavior firsthand, even going so far as to travel to Rwanda to observe mountain gorillas in the wild, as well as spending hours interacting with captive gorillas at the London Zoo. This animalistic quality was very important to the performance Serkis wanted to provide the animators.  On bringing Kong to life, Serkis would say, “We didn’t want to anthropomorphize him to the point where we were explaining every single little gesture. Gorillas both in captivity and the wild have an enigmatic quality – a sense of disconnect, of otherness.” In other words, the key distinct between O’Brian’s Kong and WETA’s Kong, beyond a technical level, are the performances each gives. Due to the limited knowledge of gorillas in O’Brian’s time, the characteristic gaps are filled with more human qualities, i.e. Kong boxing with the T-rex. By 2005, mass amounts of new information on gorilla behavior had been collected, as well as seemingly infinite sources to gather it all from. The Kong in Jackson’s film is very much the amalgamation of a study of gorilla movements, and expressions on WETA’s part, as well as a study of gorilla behavior on the part of Serkis. After almost ten years on-again, off-again production, the film would eventually be released on December 14, 2005, and would be a finical success, as well as a critical favorite of the year, and would go on to win three Academy Awards in 2006, including Best Visual Effects.

The technological achievements of these two King Kong films are unquestionable, but the question remains: what is so special about them? What sets them apart from the hundreds of effects-driven films that were released after the 1933 original? Is there something beyond sheer spectacle that these films provide? M.C. Cooper maintained that “King Kong was never intended to be anything more than the best damned adventure picture ever made. What it is; and that’s all it is.” Perhaps it is something that simple, that the films are an example of “the right place, at the right time.” Both films certainly work on a purely spectacle level, and their respective directors made sure that their audiences were entertained; however, it is in my opinion that the films’ success all relates back to the character of Kong himself. King Kong is a compelling character. These films demand that their audience relate to a giant ape, and against all odds, both films successful put the viewer firmly on Kong’s side. Most movies monsters exist to frighten their audience, but in Kong, the audience experiences something similar to a kinship. We cheer when Kong triumphantly roars over the slain T-rex at his feet, and we weep when he is gunned down all for the sin of falling in love. When Kong dies, it feels like you’ve lost a friend. I think Dino De Laurentiis, producer of 1976 remake, said it best, albeit crudely, “No one cry when Jaws die, but when the monkey die, people gonna cry.”  This fictional animal became real character to audiences, thanks in large part to a mixture of compelling material, visionary directors, and a teams of incredibly talented visual effects artists working together to make films that stand the test of time. King Kong is an icon because of all of these talented individuals’ work. 

Cinematic Soapbox #3 – Two there must be: The beauty and flexibility of’Lone Wolf and Cub’ as a narrative device and influence

Welcome to “Cinematic Soapbox!” Much like the AV Club’s Scenic Routes, I will discuss a movie, scene, series of movies, series of scenes, genre or some other cinematic element, why I think it works and what it means to me. I am obviously not the level of writer that Mike D’Angelo is so don’t expect the same quality and thoughtfulness he brings to his column.

Last night I caught a screening of Logan, what is expected to be Hugh Jackman’s final turn as the character he helped define for well over a decade. In today’s world of constant reboots and re-castings, that’s a borderline ludicrous notion.

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Wolverine, as a character, is a very Eastern concept presented in a traditional Western fashion. He is often likened to a rōnin, or a samurai without a lord or master would travel the country-side as a sell-sword. This connection only strengthened by the fact that his swords are built into his hands. 

If this is indeed Jackman’s final hurrah so to speak, it’s makes complete and utter sense that this is the sort of story he would want to leave Wolverine behind with as it fits a the type of arc writers have been utilizing the character over the past three or four decades.

Now before I get ahead of myself, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty, that being the reason I’m writing all of this.

While I was watching Logan, it became clear to me that it wore a number of its influences proudly on its sleeve. Shane, Unforgiven, Mark Millar and Steve McNiven’s Old Man Logan arc, etc.

But it was the relationship between Logan and Laura that stood out the most to me, as was the intent of the movie once could surmise. That isn’t to say anything in the movie was specifically targeted at me but…you get what I’m saying.

This got me to thinking: where else have I seen this arc used so well before?

The answer?

Tons of places, particular over the past couple of decades or so.

For whatever reason however this particular format doesn’t seem to get mentioned a lot, or at the very least I don’t feel that many people I know seem all that aware that it’s a recurring story at all. And it isn’t a strictly cinematic story either. It’s origins rest in the page after all, and have transcended well beyond into television shows and video games.

For those unfamiliar with Lone Wolf and Cub, a 28-volume manga from the 1970s that has been adopted into everything from movies to stage plays, the gist is as follows:

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Written by Kazuo Koike and illustrated by artist Goseki Kojima, Lone Wolf and Cub begins when Shogunate executioner, Ogami Itto, is framed as a traitor by the agents of a rival clan. With his wife murdered and with an infant son to protect, Ogami opts for the path of a rōnin, with the pair adopting the moniker, “The Lone Wolf and Cub.” The two wander feudal Japan with Ogami’s sword now for hire, but all roads will lead them to a single destination: vengeance.

Now it may or may not be important that I preface with the fact that I have not seen EVERY SINGLE ITERATION of this story. I’ve read a handful of the manga and seen maybe two or three of the films. I am not a scholar. I am but a humble internet voice with a blog that sports 3, possibly 4, recurring readers.

You’re welcome to chalk it up to personal preference, but let’s walk through some of the most recognizable instances of this formula and just how successful they’ve been.

It’s a model that traditionally sports two arcs for our main characters:

  1. Wolf, or the old master, is typically in search for some form of redemption or peace. Their lives have been defined by blood shed, with their only goal now to not only keep themselves alive but also the lives of their respective wards. They are often emotionally closed off when we meet them, having been through hell. As the story progresses, we peel back the layers as their young ward reminds him or her of the good person at their core. This character is typically male. Maybe as we attend to automatically assign a masculine connotation to qualities such as “gruffness” and “world-weariness.” It’s by no means a rule. It’s just something that happens to recur a lot in these stories.
  2. Cub, or the young accomplice, represents the new generation or a break from all the violence his or her master attempted to flee from. By the end of the story, this character must make a choice: continue down the path of violence or break the chain altogether. There’s often the recurring narrative choice to have this character be female. Once again, it’s not universal. Just a commonality.

These two characters also typically find themselves in a similar predicament: the younger individual is stuck in a hostile and unfamiliar world in which they are (often) highly unprepared to tackle solo and a world the older individual is all too familiar with. This can mean a path ravaged by the effects of some form of apocalypse or one simply laden with real-world dangers.

The appeal of such an arc is that it really allows for close examination to its two main characters. One (typically) carries the emotional baggage of a violent past whereas the other may provide for levity and in doing so open up the former for development.

Now I’m not going to touch on every example I think of that fits this narrative. To do so would lead to an overly long post that would touch on the same things over and over and over and over and over again. Think of this is as the Lone Wolf and Cub breakfast sampler, where I try to hit on how wide-ranging and re-occurring this story as well as how it continues to remain fresh and narratively engaging in spite of how many times creators dust off the cobwebs on it. I mean, just look at all the quality examples I don’t get to on this thing such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

And I don’t do this to point out something to the effect of “No new stories,” or “Originality dead?” I feel as if I come off as some sort of pretentious grouch that repeats those sentiments over and over again so fear not. I’m not

I do it to highlight a tried and true formula that works and works well when viewed through different prisms. Least you forget, this is story that came to us from Japan but has transcended beyond borders. Not only that but it’s a story steeped in centuries worth of Eastern mythology and pop culture.  If anything, it speaks to the power of story-telling which if you know a single thing about me it’s how lame and uncynical I get about just how goddamn essential story-telling is to the human condition.

Also SPOILERS for all discussed, Nick.

Road to Perdition

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Let’s start off with a cheat just to get it out-of-the-way, shall we? Road to Perdition is also based on a comic. You know what that comic is based on? You guessed it. Lone Wolf and Cub. I guess “homage” would be a more appropriate term, but you get the point.

In this instance, the story is transplanted from feudal Japan to 1930s American Midwest. Simply switch out samurai with gangsters and you’re there. Moving on….

All kidding aside, Road to Perdition may sport a similar structure to its predecessor but its themes couldn’t be more different for the most part. Tonally, this movie is much more subdued and goes out of its way to not canonize its violence, with most of the violent and bloody acts occurring off-screen and those that do appear as quickly as they would in the real-world. Whereas Lone Wolf, in adaptations such as Shogun Assassin, is so cartoonishly violent that you can’t help but laugh and cheer.

Perdition is a statement on violence and its consequences; a journey to hell and back again.

 Michael Sullivan, Sr.chose a path of violence in his youth and now considers himself to be irredeemable. He fears the same path for his son, Michael Jr., who seems enamored by his father’s exploits. However, as he attempts to shield his son from his past, the more harm he does. It’s why he  It’s only when the two are forced on the run does a bridge of communication open between them. Their shared tragedy bringing them closer together.

Adventure Time 

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Speaking of shared tragedy it’s not as if this show needed any more adult themes, amiright?

Now there are a lot of episodes of Adventure Show, and multiple that feature these two characters so let’s limit our scope to just two: “I Remember You” and “Simon and Marcie.”

At the core of this arc (which is also on-going) we have Simon Petrikov, or the man who would be Ice King, and Marcy, who will one day become the Marceline we all know and love. Before that though, we had a simple man losing his mind and a little girl with no home or family just trying to make it through a world torn asunder by “The Great Mushroom War.”

As we know, the roles eventually reverse with Marceline becoming Simon’s caretaker. (She’s not all that hands-on, but Ice King really isn’t all that much of a threat is he?) It’s a relationship unique to the others on here as we essentially learn about it in reverse. When we first meet Ice King and Marceline, they are already in the form they’ll carry for a majority of the series. There’ll be room for growth, (something not particularly easy to do with two characters that are for all intents and purposes are immortal), but they stay relatively the same in regards basic traits, strengths and vices.

With her vampirism serving as an oh so subtle allusion to clinical depression and his crown being a flat-out stand-in for a neurotic disease such as Alzheimer’s or dementia,  the two have their fair share of vices between them. So the reveal that the two have a shared past, while somewhat a shock at first, made sense.

The beauty of it all however is how this arc (as modeled on Lone Wolf) adds complexity to pre-established characters, information we didn’t even know we needed.

The tragedy at its core being two-fold: the tool giving Simon more time is slowly but surely driving him crazy, providing a very gut-punchy view of the lunacy that comes to define him later. That, in turn, leads him to all but forget just about all the memory of his former life, including his time with Marceline.

But in that there is hope.

Marceline may miss the way Simon used to be, but she’s still going to love the person that he is. She knows more than his name; she knows his true soul, and she’ll never forget that, even if he does.

And that hope grows brighter with each episode. The two even reunited (briefly) in a later season.

It’s an ongoing story and I’m interested to see where it goes, and hope for a satisfactory conclusion to their shared arc. Speaking of…

The Last of Us

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Here’s another obvious example.

The beauty and uniqueness of this relationship is how quickly Ellie becomes a necessary part of Joel’s journey. Unlike many of her colleagues on this list, she is far from helpless having had her own bought with fighting to survive well before having met Joel. This is the only world she knows after all, having been born before the Cordyceps epidemic that nearly wiped out all of humanity.

And she’s by no means a master at her craft either. That’s what separates her from characters like Hit-Girl for example. She’s sloppy in more ways than one, and she hasn’t been completely indoctrinated into the uncaring world around her due in part to her having nothing else to compare it to. The Apocalypse is her normal.

The same can’t be said for Joel, a man clearly still in mourning over the loss of his daughter twenty years before the game’s plot kicks in. He’s been operating at half-capacity ever since, simply survive as it is all he really has left.

The two become surrogates for one another. For Ellie, Joel represents a family she hasn’t experienced yet or at the very least some form of normalcy. For Joel, Ellie represents a second chance and could quite literally (and cynically) be considered a replacement kid.

It’s also an interesting relationship because, as with the original Lone Wolf and Adventure Time, it’s one we will get to see evolve. A sequel was announced a few months back, and it was initially news that filled me with a mix of both excitement and hesitancy.

I feel as if we left Joel and Ellie at such a narratively fulfilling place; a place so satisfying I wasn’t all that interested in seeing where it went beyond, “The End.” Sure, in retrospect, the door was left wide open for future stories, but lighting only strikes ever so often and rarely does it strike twice.

But I’ll admit, there is an overwhelming interest in seeing how these two advance particularly the Joel fibbing JUST A TAD about the fate of the Fireflies at the end of the first game.

Leon: The Professional

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The detriment in this one is that there is a hinted romance between our two characters, something I can’t really get around in terms of its ickiness. To be fair, those romantic feels come from the younger side and there are not (to my interpretation) reciprocated by the older.

This is also the only example I’ve included that doesn’t take place in an automatically hostile environment. I mean it is fair to say that Matilda didn’t really have a choice in the matter in terms of the shitty family she was saddled with. That’s the thing with families. A lot of time, people just have deal with the cards they’re dealt.

The lesson to be learned here is finding roots, not letting yourself be dictated by the wind…or in this case crazy, violent mobsters. Leon takes charge at the end, seeing the path laid before Matilda should she keep falling further and further into his world and sends her away, providing a chance for a (somewhat) normal adolescence.

Game of Thrones

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Now for a young girl that probably has NO CHANCE for an even somewhat normalized adulthood…

For my money, this is the best character pairing this series has glued together to date, both in the books and on the television show.

Ser Sandor Clegane, aka the Hound, is hardly the first character to get saddled with “baby-sitting” Arya Stark, but he is buy-and-large the character to produce the best story-telling results from her narrative thus far, which is no small statement.

She doesn’t become a better fighter with the Hound. We aren’t treated to any hokey training montage in which

She doesn’t particularly learn how to play the game either.

So what does Arya gain from a season’s worth of travels exactly with such a brute?

By the end, she is armed with something arguably a lot more useful tool than a new technique or insight into warfare and that is the utter unjust and uncaring nature of the universe.

Your oh-so-great sword teacher, the purported “First Sword of Braavos?”

He was (allegedly) killed by a shit fighter who happened to have armor and a better sword.

This kindly farmer who gave us food and shelter, and offered us honest work?

His farm is in the middle of an active war zone, and will probably be killed before the end of the week so might as well steal his money as it’s as good as stolen anyway.

No, I would say this is a particularly GOOD lesson per se but it is a necessary one; particularly for Arya, a girl from a house that put honor above all else. And where did that get them? Two dead parents, two dead siblings and a house in ruin.

Now the Starks are well on their way to a comeback, but in Season 4 (the season this interaction took place) they were all but kicked out of the game, on the run or held hostage.

So who better to give Arya a much-needed reality check on the way things work. She’d definitely seen some shit in the previous three season, no doubt about it, but she still held on to the antiquated “good and honor prevails” mumbo jumbo instilled in her from birth.

It’s also worth noting where these two leave each other, their roles essentially revered. Arya is now cold, looking to escape and leaves the Hound to suffer and die from his wounds in a fight he fought specifically for her. It’d be a stretch to say the Hound is all that different from where he started but he is more hopeful. Having survived, we later learn, he is more open to the kindness of others.

Logan

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I guess it’s kind of important I touch base on the inspiration on this article, huh?

I mentioned before Wolverine, as a character, is very East-meets-West kind of package, and no where has that been more evident than in Logan, an iteration of the character that could have easily been played by Clint Eastwood if the film came out 20 years ago. There are multiple gunslinger references peppered throughout, with Shane actually viewed by the characters and then quoted later. The plot also mirrors Unforgiven  in more ways than one.

He’s the most desperate we’ve ever seen him with his healing ability on its last legs and the adamantium grafted to his skin slowly killing him. He’s also paired with a dementia-ridden Charles Xavier, who tags a long for a good portion of this film. The film is at its most engaging however when it gets down to its central relationship between a man and his clone.

Laura (also known as X-23 in the comics and animated series) is somewhat comparable to Ellie in that she comes with her own baggage, with the difference being that she mirrors Logan’s powers. She even has two extra claws located in her feet. It may be derivative, but she is in essence Logan’s Mini-Me.

The interesting aspect in this instance is that Laura is a clean slate. She has baggage but its like a purse compared to the unending luggage of her clone daddy. She represents Wolverine’s literal second chance. It is in her that the Lone Wolf comparisons become evident.

Near the end of the film, Logan tells Lauren, “Don’t be what they made you.” It’s simple statement, but speaks volumes.

Both are weapons; designed to kill, kill more, sleep and then kill again. Whereas Logan nears the end of his life, Laura is right at the beginning of hers, and in her lie a crossroads. Does she follow the path of the bitter warrior defined by violence, hallow and full of regret, or something closer to a path of peace? Can there truly be “peace” for someone who’s committed such violent deeds.

This is where the R-rating really aided the story-telling, something I don’t want to come off as shallow for endorsing. It’s really, really, REALLY satisfying to see a Wolverine film in which the character is allowed to fulfill every inch of his violent potential. But it’s even more satisfying that it was allowed to happen in a story that actually called for it.

Just like Perdition, that violence wears on the soul; something I don’t think would have been nearly as effecting in a neutered-for-mass-appeal PG-13 cut.

We need to see the path of a VIOLENT man, the consequences made evident in severed limbs and heads, and the potential for what could happen to Laura should she allow it to define her life as well. The world of Wolverine, Xavier and the X-Men is fading away. The choice is up to Laura and her generation to decide what becomes of mutants, and by extension, humanity.

As Whitney Huston once sang…

All that glitters: 5 (RECENT) Egregious Oscar Acting Snubs

egregious

adjective

Definition: outstandingly bad, shocking

Ex: The fact that Nick does not know what this means is egregious.

Sorry about that folks. Context is everything I suppose. Suffice to say, I know my audience. And that is typically an audience of one. He knows who he is.

The….(looks to see what number we’re at)…89th Academy Awards are this weekend and I’m here to capitalize…I mean…shoot….um….coincide. Yeah, I just happened to think of writing this AND the Oscars just happened to fall on the same weekend in which I finally put it out.

So yeah as with any competition there are going to be varied opinions on who should win and why…this post is one of those opinions. It’s by no means more educated or valid. It’s just mine.

So…

That means it’s objectively the best one.

Why only 5, you may ask? Well I’m lazy.

You caught me.

(I almost get TOO much milage out of that clip.)

I’ve limited myself to acting because well that’s seems to be really be the only awards of the night many seem to pay credence to. I mean I’m sure I could bore you with how we often take for granted the less glamorous screenwriting and technical categories, but….shit, I already lost some of you.

Before you leave, I’m also excluding what could have been candidates for this year’s race as I can only be somewhat relevant, you know? I want this to be an exercise in healing, a means of airing long-held bitterness for awards I was never personally up for or had a say in who won what exactly.

So that means Amy Adams’ work in Arrival will not be getting a mention, no matter how deserving it may be. Also important to note, these are not the MOST egregious snubs of the past few years. Just five egregious ones. Also it’s just my opinion and what do I know? I kind of liked Green Lantern.

Performances (off the top of my head) I would have added had I had more time:

Albert Brooks, Drive (2011)

Tom Hardy, Locke (2014)

Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin (2014)

Benicio del Toro, Sicario (2015)

Jake Gyllenhall, Nightcrawler (2014)

Hugh Jackman, Prisoners (2013)

Liam Neeson, The Grey (2011)

Géza Röhrig, Son of Saul (2015)

Andy Serkis, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

James Franco, Pineapple Express (2008)

Essie Davis, The Babadook (2014)

Ralph Fiennes, The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Simon Pegg, The World’s End (2013)

Mads Mikkelsen, The Hunt (2012)

Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina (2015)

Nina Hoss, Phoenix (2014)

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Let’s get some “snobbery” out of the way first, shall we?

Phoenix is a little German movie from a few years back that certainly got recognition in some pretty prestigious circles. However it was basically passed over in every regard by the Academy; perhaps most tragically shunned was the performance of one Miss Nina Hoss.

Nelly is a woman who reflects her surroundings. A Jewish cabaret singer who (barely) survived the horrors of the Holocaust who finds herself in the rumble that was once Berlin, her shattered face mirroring the utter destruction surrounding her. She’s on the search for her husband who may or may not have betrayed her to the Nazis as to save his own skin. Suffice to say, she eventually finds the guy but he does not recognize her as her face is a dented shell of what it once was. However she does look JUST enough like her old self to fit into a scheme he has formulated to get ahold of her inheritance. Noir-ish adventures ensue with twists and turns to be had by all, all culminating in the final scene in which the truth is finally revealed.

Basically the final scene is as perfect as any ending in any movie ever made, (Hyperbole, much?) and at its center is Hoss. She leaves us with almost nothing yet everything that we need. Much like her mother country, Nelly is a little roughed up but she will shoulder on. The subtle yet triumphant rebirth harkens back to the legendary bird from whom the movie receives its title.  This isn’t to say Hoss’ output in the rest of the film isn’t up to par. If it weren’t, this scene would not be one iota of as strong as it is.

Suffice to say, I think Hoss gives one of the best performances of the past few years here and the fact she didn’t even get a nomination (in a year that was kind of lacking looking back) is a shame.

What would have been her Oscar clip (SPOILERS):

Sharlto Copley, District 9 (2009) 

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Another thing I harp on is the gross under-representation of genre films each and every year in the acting categories. I’m not exactly sure where the hesitancy stems from either. Take District 9 for example. It got a Best Picture nod, and a handful of nods for elements such as visual effects. Deservedly so, I might add. However Copley got no Best Actor attention. I don’t even remember him being in the conversation.

It’s a real talent to all at once take an unlikeable character and make us emphasize with him or her as well as sell body horror without coming off as hokey. Copley seems to do it effortlessly with his turn as Wikus van de Merwe.

It’s kind of standard to have the arc of an unlikeable guy, make him see the light and ultimately join the side of the angels. van de Merwe doesn’t exactly fit that mold to a tee however. Copley ensures he remains the still, basically selfish, unwilling participant he was throughout but we get more shades of him along the way. He is capable of empthy for these, as he puts it, “fookin’ creatures.”

I love that. Also his ability to sell the whole “I’m becoming a bug man!” thing flawlessly and empathetically don’t hurt neither.

What would have been his Oscar clip:

Charlize Theron, Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

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Let’s keep this “South African actors/actresses snubbery” train going by doing away with the pretense that anything I’m saying is at all snobby particularly in comparison to the body of voters we’re talking about.

Mad Max: Fury Road was one of those rare instances of a big budget action movie’s quality being so apparent and loud, I can only assume the Academy was begrudgingly forced into including it in the Best Picture race.

There was one category it was woefully overlooked for. You guessed it. Acting. I know that was pretty tough but we got there in the end.

Now both Tom Hardy and Theron would have been strong candidates for their respective roles in the film, but Hardy got his due that year with a nomination for The Revenant.  And to be fully fair, Theron received her’s back in 2003 with Monster. That was a well-deserved win. So it’s certainly not as sad as it would have been otherwise, but Furiosa is the first truly iconic role Theron has ever gotten to sink her teeth into.

What would have been her Oscar clip:

Lee Byung-hun, I Saw the Devil (2010)

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Oh no! More foreign cinema!

One could argue that Choi Min-sik had the flashier role of the two leads in Kim Jee-woon’s 2010 slasher. After all, he is the titular devil and the man is deserving of at least a little Oscar attention for his snub of basically the performance upon which he will be most remembered in Oldboy. Of the two however, in this particular film, I favor Lee.

It should really come as no surprise that this film was overlooked. It’s pretty exploitative at parts and not in like a fun, Grindhouse way. More like a borderline torture-porn way. And for a lot of the runtime, Lee plays Agent Kim as steely as one would expect from a man seeking revenge. It’s the film’s final act however where consequences begin to take shape in a way that I did not expect.

It’s the final, haunting shot I think should have at least brought Lee into the conversation. Gone is the badass we thought we knew, replaced by the weeping shell of a man whose life has been utterly decimated by quest for revenge. It’s appropriately harrowing and I think it’s a performance that all at once grounds and elevates a movie that could have been exploitive trash if handled by less skilled hands. Luckily I Saw the Devil features some of the best talent South Korea has to offer, Lee being one of them. Now if only Hollywood would follow suit and start putting him in more interesting roles!

What would have been his Oscar clip:

Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips (2013)

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File this one under the “No duh” category, if you please.

Much like our previous contender, Hanks’ snub is basically equates to the utter power of the performance he gives in the film’s final scene. Like Lee, Hanks doesn’t give you a hero triumphant. He presents our main character made broken, the trauma of the film’s event’s enveloping him in a tidal wave of grief and emotion as the the film cuts to black. We aren’t provided the comfort of knowing everything is going to be fine.

What would have been his Oscar clip (obviously):

Scarlet Johansson, Her (2013)

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This is one I’ve been on the fence for for quite a while, and have been in at least two or three debates on the topic believe it or not. Hard to believe I was able to fit it between my hectic schedule of staring at nothing and slipping slowly into narcissistic madness.

The funny thing is though, I was initially AGAINST the idea of the inclusion of a voice over performance. That should be it’s entirely separate category. But if her nomination brought more attention to voice over acting as whole? Well, I can get 100% behind that wholesale.

It’s important to note that Johansson was not even the first person cast in the role. Samantha Morton had recorded all her dialogue (and was even on set for all of the scenes between Theo and Samantha) before director Spike Jonze opted to recast her. Jonze said, “It was only in post production, when we started editing, that we realized that what the character/movie needed was different from what Samantha and I had created together. So we recast and since then Scarlett has taken over that role.”

That speaks to both the power of casting (another role that should get some form of Academy recognition) as well as Johansson’s ability to effortlessly slip into the role.

There’s this annoying notion that voice over acting is “easier” than traditional acting as one simply goes to a booth to record. They can wear pajamas to work, you guys.

The thing some don’t seem to acknowledge is how alienating the process can be. I mean typically it’s just you can the voice director and various behind the scenes folks in a booth with a few hour sessions for a week or so. You don’t typically even meet the other actors until after the process is over. (Johansson’s case takes this a step further as she wasn’t brought in until the main production had already finished.) This leads to many actors simply phoning in their roles for an easy paycheck. It’s really easy to spot lazy voice work. (Looking at you, Chris Rock.)

Johansson’s output here is anything but lazy.

What would have been her Oscar clip: