Sunday, 29 March 2020

Attack on Titan

Attack on Titan
Attack on Titan II: end of the world

Andy Mashuietti, 2015, USA
Screenplay: Hajime Muschietti

IMDB says: “Feature adaptation of Hajime Isayama's manga about a monster hunter out for revenge.”

I haven't read the manga or seen the other anime adaptations of this.

The giant Titans are agreeably grisly, happily chomping on human victims amidst a conspiracy plot about incarcerating and oppressing the survivors of the original Titan attack in a walled city, etc. In the second film, we get to the Chosen One trope that typifies such scenarios. The characters are uninteresting, there’s a nominal romantic subplot, some dodgy acting, lots of screaming one another’s names, effects extravaganza aesthetic, fight scenes descending into unintelligibility  … and whenever the Titans storm in it’s a relief from the interminable exposition and characters’ inane emoting.

John Wick: chapter 3 – parabellum ... revisited: I came for the set-pieces

Chad Stahelski, 2019, 

So I watched ‘John Wick 3’ again just to see what I felt about it on a second watch. It’s not the usual thing that leaves a mark on me, and certainly the first two hadn’t, and it’s the kind of film I watch just to keep with trends and the mainstream.

What I first noted was that it seemed to me that the opening credits were the kind of montage and design that front TV action series. It’s a world of sicky green, velvety purple, smouldering orange and vivid red, despite a digression into the bronze of the dessert. It’s beautifully filmed by Dan Lausten, giving a little slick class. It owes a debt to ‘The Villainess’ with its ballet-and-wrestling-school-for-assassins, as well as it’s bike chase. The actors all ham it up shamelessly and I am inclined to treat it as a comedy, so silly and over-the-top and narcissistic are its narrative and character outbursts (and I’m still leaning towards Laurence Fishbourne as bad here). Halle Berry’s plays it straighter than the others, as if she’s come in from a more serious film and gives a little gravitas to proceedings. She proves a good foil for Reeves, who delivers his one-liners with his slacker drawl that undercuts some of the silliness in a way that a more lip-smacking performer wouldn’t.

But none of that drew me back in. It was those first twenty minutes that I couldn’t shake. The library fight, the museum fight and – quoting Reeves here – the horse-fu are three knock-out set-pieces in succession that still retained their effect on me. The fight choreography gave me the same buzz that I got from ‘The Raid’  films: fight scenes are as pleasing as dance-offs with the dubious punctuation of violence. It provides the same rush as good pop or rock music. But it was even more notable this time at how well the editing facilitated the action.

With the library scene: oh, that’s how you use a heavy book to fight? There’s the moment when you realise they have found a way to make books lethal, to give you that oh! gratification.

And then there’s that moment when, having been shooting and brawling, both Wick and his adversary take a second, look around the weapon museum around them, and think “Wait, we have an arsenal here!” and start smashing into the knife displays with desperate abandon. Then are the closing knife-in-the-eye and axe-to-the-head gags that are framed for maximum effect, both for squirm-inducement and humour (because there’s humour in outrageousness).

It's the same humour in outrageousness that gratifies when, pursued into a stable, Wick starts to use the horses as weapons – gloriously over-the-top. And when you think of the logistics of horse and bikes and crashes, all in the same take, the film-making skill is evident.

These are each great set-pieces that would have been peaks in other films. And then it gets bogged down in plot and world-building and the silliness takes over. But upon a second watch I enjoyed the shoot-out-with-attack dogs more than before because this time I could see the skilful editing, timing and framing. And boy, so many headshots. It’s a very violent film.

Sometimes I can take a film for it’s set-pieces: I have a friend that felt the uneven nature of ‘Ad Astra’  showed that James Gray failed at narrative, and that may be so, but again that film’s sci-fi set-pieces won me over despite the unevenness (well, that and Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography wowed me). Tarantino’s films are often a sequence of grandiose set-pieces. Jodorowsky’s odysseys are built on moments and vision rather than coherence. If there’s inventiveness, skill and pleasing aesthetic, that alone can impress. But there are many superficial pleasures to be had and quite often the overall vision can compensate for narrative weaknesses.

So, those opening set-pieces of ‘John Wick 3’ still strike me as worthy and impressive in their talent, inventiveness and execution, and that half hour alone will still gain marks from me, although I may find it easy to b thee indifferent to the rest of it.

Wednesday, 18 March 2020

Ad Astra

James Gray, 2019, China-USA
screenplay: James Gray & Ethan Gross

Half of it is Brad-Pitt-Is-Sad-In-Space-Because-Of-Daddy-Issues and the other half is space-pirates, space-monkeys, space-fights. The latter is most fun and whereas it is obvious the former is meant to be moving, it’s less interesting. ‘Ad Astra’ follows ‘Interstellar’ and ‘Arrival’ in the trend of dazzling sci-fi concepts and effects undercut by parenting issues. It means that universe- and mind-expanding ideas are beholden to human angst and are the less challenging or transcendent for that. These films are reassurance that the universe does indeed revolve around you.

Mark Kermode says: “Brad Pitt sulks in outer space.” But on the reverse side, Ann Hornaday feels that “it’s precisely the film’s earthbound emotional truth that give it heft,  meaning and grandeur.”  “Ad Astra is unambiguously a film of its moment, one about a man’s struggle for personal meaning and a place in the world in a time of fallen fathers,” says Manohla Dargis, but I can’t think of a more well-trod subject. James Gray probably wouldn’t have been the first name that came to mind when guessing who directed such a genre film, but he’s always as lavish and interesting, even if he may err on the side of earnestness. And male existentialism is one of his themes. Always enjoyable and stylish, there is always something in his films left a little wanting, leaving them just short of greatness although obvious contenders.

‘Ad Astra’: “to the stars”. Emotionally stunted spaceman goes in search of his dad in the region of Neptune. Yes: ‘Apocalypse Now’. There’s stately Kubrickian framing, a little conspiracy theory, several memorable set pieces. Hornaday notes “Gray … had said he set out to make the most realistic science fiction ever made.” However, negligible science doesn’t matter (climbing into a rocket that’s blasting off??), but – not to harsh on the mellow of Pitt’s paternal issues being sorted out – he commits acts that causes multiple deaths, et cetera, and surely there would be some repercussions? But we know from ‘Interstellar’ all about the time quandaries, so perhaps by the time he got home they had all forgotten? But that’s a central problem for these sci-fi films that prioritise human introversion over the cosmos: as long as there is some family resolution namechecked, everything else becomes secondary (In ‘Interstellar’ the across-the-dimensions reunion the film has been fighting for is much like a passing thought; in ‘Arrival’ the incredible alien contact is secondary to montages of maternity).

But on the plus side, Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography and the special effects work ensure that the space stuff is gorgeous: buggies doing a ‘Mad Max’ and chasing over the lunar surface is a highlight, as are the blue rings of Neptune. It’s a film that has learnt well from ‘2001: a space odyssey’. The reveal of the space baboons is a good one. There’s too little of Donald Sutherland and Ruth Negga. And we can do without Pitt’s unnecessary narration, but his aging-but-handsome visage gives good profile: there is always the sense that he knows exactly what he is doing. I’ve read comments that it’s a slow film, but I think pensive is more appropriate, and that’s fine: I think it’s pitched just right for what it’s doing. Especially as it just keeps breaking out into agreeable pulp digressions, which certainly stops it from being Terrence Malick In Space and always keeps it intriguing. Whether it fully gels and reconciles what seems to be its internal conflict of whether to go full arty or full pulp depends upon your generosity … or daddy issues.