AN EMPIRE OF WORDS


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Wonder Woman (2017)

As DC tries to combat the ever-expanding Marvel Universe, they have begun by building towards the Justice League film. In the meantime, we are treated to their standalone backstories. Wonder Woman is the latest film to get the treatment with Gal Gadot returning as the legendary Amazonian.

What I have recently disliked about the comic book movies is that they all seem to be using the same framework. (mainly the Marvel Cinematic Universe) But what is more enjoyable about the DC Cinematic Universe is the darker and grittier undertones they have taken, which was present in Man of Steel and Batman v Superman even though the latter wasn’t as enjoyable.

Wonder Woman is continuing this trend, but referencing the picture that was seen in Batman vs Superman with Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) herself stood with four men during World War One. Before Wonder Woman leaps into how Diana found herself there, they divulge in the backstory and the mysterious land of Themyscira, home of the Amazons.

What was great about Patty Jenkins’ interpretation of this story was that there was enough in the narrative to allow for the audience to interpret things themselves, something that has been missing in my recent cinema outings. And there was some gorgeous graphics in the opening sequence as Queen Hippolyta (Connie Neilsen) reveals the origin of the Amazon race and of the battle between Zeus and Ares.

Zeus cast out Ares, and hid the Amazons from the world until Ares rises again. The rest of the Amazons and Diana train on the beautifully landscaped island of Themyscira away from the worlds view. That is all until Steve Travers (Chris Pine) crash lands on their private island.

And this is where the film really picks up the pace as Gal Gadot and Chris Pine come into their own as characters. Gal Gadot becomes the focal point of her scenes as Diana believes that the atrocities of war are at the hand of Ares, the God of war. Although he has found a new form in the body of General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) as his sidekick Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya) concocts a poisonous gas capable of killing everyone. Diana forces Travers hand in taking her to front line to help the war effort and she just looks fantastic whilst doing it.

It has to be said though that she isn’t objectified in anyway, she rather manifests Wonder Woman as a character in such a way that she is incredibly strong and rather independent, especially as she continually defies her mother and Steve. With Batman v Superman the film felt long, Wonder Woman on the other hand doesn’t. This could down to the enjoyment of the characters and the narrative actually being enjoyable instead of the usual cut and paste method Marvel and DC films are currently using.

As I mentioned, the DC Universe films like to be grittier and Wonder Woman has majority of the film centred around World War One. Patty Jenkins effectively manages to instil the atrocities of war and it really works from the dirt of the Belgian trenches to the empty celebrations of a victory for one evening.

My only grief is the overbearing music that is used. The musical cues aren’t established very well, as it clearly tries to evoke emotions at the correct times and at times this took me out of the picture and made the enjoyment considerably less-so.

Gal Gadot is truly a wonder as the titular character as the film progresses into it’s climax. The final third of the film looks as though it is going to enter the realms of similarity as with previous comic book films, it still tiptoes on those, but doesn’t dive head first into it. The chemistry between Chris Pine and Gal Gadot is electric, especially as Jenkins’ captures Steve Travers occasionally glancing at Diana with astonishment at her beauty, but not in that objectifying way that I mentioned earlier.

Just as I thought I was losing patience with comic book adaptations, Wonder Woman comes along and manages to give some life into a merciless machine. I realised after coming out of the cinema that Wonder Woman tried something new, it left the comedy (that has become a staple point for comic book films now) to a minimum and perfectly integrated it into the film. This worked and garnered appropriate laughs when needed, but on a whole, Wonder Woman was an enjoyable and terrific watch and this has to be down to the enjoyable narrative and brilliant characters that can be connected with.


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Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge

Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge drew no attention from me, and offered very little to try and ‘woo’ me into watching it. Majority of my interest of this franchise was soon lost after the second instalment of Dead Man’s Chest. I find the Pirate of the Caribbean franchise entering realms of similarity with Fast and the Furious with the rinse and repeat formula.

Salazar’s Revenge is taking this rinse and repeat formula and caking it on by the pounds. I’ve become disenchanted with the figure of Captain Jack Sparrow, as Johnny Depp seems to be offering new to the character, but rather a further drunken stupor.

In the presence of rinse and repeat formula, Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg have decided to take the Elizabeth Swann and Will Turner roles and replace them with Kaya Scodelario and Brenton Thwaites. However, Ronning and Sandberg had a role reversal, with Scodelario’s Carina Smyth as a smart young woman, who shows a deft hand at keeping out of trouble. Whereas Brenton Thwaites’ Henry Turner just offers the run-of-the-mill love story, replicated from the first instalment.

Majority of the performances throughout the 130(ish) runtime, are very mundane and uninteresting. Aside from Scodelario’s performance as Carina, I found myself bored with the characters as they fall into very two-dimensional characters and offer nothing new.

I imagine this is potentially down to the world building not being that immersive either. If anything Salazar’s Revenge offered a truly ridiculous world where pirates once ruled the seas. The film had lost me at the point where Salazar (Javier Bardem) releases undead sharks. I mean, come on.

Seriously.

Salazar in his own right was an intriguing character, but there was nothing built around him as Ronning and Sandberg layered the film with exposition and the cast pointing out the plot to one another over and over and over. His revenge of Captain Jack Sparrow could have been played out brilliantly, rather than becoming the lacklustre affair it is.

As for Salazar’s curse, there wasn’t that much to be invested in as majority of the screen time is faced with Jack Sparrow and his quest for the Trident of Poseidon to break his run of bad luck. And it seems as though the curse isn’t that original either with the undead wreaking havoc once more.

I think therein lies my issue with Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge as it becomes very lacklustre. I often found myself bored throughout the plus 2-hour runtime and very bored with the over-egged performance of Jack Sparrow. The plot doesn’t do a great deal of justice to the massive runtime, and doesn’t offer anything that hasn’t already been witnessed in the previous instalments.

I tried to go into Salazar’s Revenge with an open mind, but left still disappointed as I mentioned it did little to peak my interest in the first place. Aside from Scodelario’s performance, there was little else to enjoy about this film. I find the investment in this film just was not there for me. Everything that could’ve potentially immersed me, did not, from the characters to the CGI. It’s fair to say Salazar’s Revenge just did not do it for me.


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King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017)

As soon as Guy Ritchie’s name pops up for King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, it immediately becomes clear what we’re in for. But that isn’t a bad thing. But who better to make a legendary English tale, and turn it into a cockney-themed battle of wits?

I knew little about the story of Arthur, other than him pulling a Excalibur from the stone and becoming king of England. So I was quite excited to see what other elements Ritchie was going to include and do with this film. And what better way to open the film with an incredibly fun action sequence.

Arthur’s father home of Camelot is laid to waste by the fearful mage Mordred, as the balance between the humans and the mages is demolished. In the aforementioned glorious action sequence, Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana) beheads Modred to save his kingdom. In the aftermath of the battle, Uther is betrayed his power-hungry brother Vortigern (Jude Law) as he sacrifices his wife to feed his need for power.

It becomes quite interesting, because as Uther is celebrated, you see Vortigern looking onward with jealously and it immediately becomes clear on the direction this film is going in. Especially as Vortigern, his right hand men and their army of Blacklegs reek havoc on the Kingdom of England as he is pronounced king of England.

After the whirlwind opening, Uther’s son wakes up on the banks of Londinium. And you immediately know where Guy Ritchie is going to be taking this film. We see the young child grow up, now named Arthur (Charlie Hunnam), into a quite arrogant and street-smart man running the brothel he was raised in. A reputation blossoms for him around Londinium, which gets him in trouble with the Blacklegs, but he also is a bit rough around the edges to go along with his street smarts.

With this street-smart Arthur, comes a sense of arrogance and attitude to anyone that aren’t his lackies. His performance becomes animated and with the help of Ritchie’s distinct filming style and it kind of begins to work well over the two hours runtime. With how the film opens, its quite unsurprising with the direction that the story takes.

What I was surprised at was that there were some incredibly dark scenes held within King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. Although the film shied from showing these dark scenes, they were still there. Most of them were centralised through Jude Law’s Vortigern and his ruthless ambition to stop at nothing to keep the crown.

I wasn’t quite sure which angle Ritchie was choosing with the music, because there was often the twang of music that perfectly resonated with that time period, but then was juxtaposed with heavy renditions of soulful music like Sam Lee’s The Wild Wild Berry. Don’t get me wrong, it worked, but seemed very odd, but then again, so is King Arthur sporting an air of arrogance and cockney accent.

So there are a few problems with the film. The narrative isn’t overly imaginative and the end point is clearly visible from the get-go. And the build-up to the climax is fairly ridiculous. During the 120 minutes there is an abundance of exposition upon exposition, and shots of Arthur training or learning to wield Excalibur. It doesn’t feel 120 minutes, it feels more like it’s 240 minutes long. The climax begins to feel as though you’re almost in a video game with the amount of CGI-heavy action and slow-mo sequences held within. That being said, I didn’t find myself bored with the film in anyway.

As I mentioned Hunnam’s performance becomes quite enjoyable, especially as it’s a different take on the King Arthur story, but it’s not an electric performance that had me vying for more. His lackie’s filled in a similar sort of role and provided apt laughs along the way with their advantages in street-smarts. Merlin’s mage friend seemed to be a pivotal character, but hardly offered anything other than a push to help out Arthur and some spells.

Is King Arthur: Legend of the Sword an immediate classic? No. But it is a fun way to spend a couple of hours. There are some incredibly fun scenes throughout, especially Arthur’s conversation with Jack’s Eye (Michael McElhatton) in true Guy Ritchie style. As I mentioned, the narrative and the characters aren’t exactly the most electric, but it’s a fun take on the legendary King Arthur story.


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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

One of the biggest surprises of cinema happened in 2014 with Guardians of the Galaxy. No one anticipated the buzz that happened and it was the marvel film on everybody’s list. Fast forward three years and we have the sequel to the very popular first instalment, with the promise of being bigger and better.

Chris Pratt and the gang ignited the screen with the hapless group saving the galaxy from the ferocious Ronan in the first instalment. This time they are back, some months down the line acting as mercenaries. One of the biggest enjoyments of the first instalment was the soundtrack of 80s forgotten tracks, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is no different opening the screen with Mr. Blue Sky and Baby Groot (Still voiced by Vin Diesel) dancing round whilst chaos is happening behind him.

It’s unsurprising that after the success and enjoyment of the first instalment that the director and writer James Gunn returned to direct the sequel. And it quickly falls into the similar sort of framework that has become synonymous with Marvel films.

It is also unsurprising that the film goes full swing with the comedy, with Baby Groot, Drax’s (Dave Bautista) forwardness and the awkwardness of Peter’s (Chris Pratt) mannerisms to Gamora. (Zoe Saldana) The trouble here is that because Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is trying ridiculously hard to replicate the success that the first one had, the jokes begin missing rather than landing.

And unfortunately the problems continued. It did not seem to know which direction it wanted to head for the narrative and was pulled in four or five different directions. Between the mashing of the multitude of stories in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 there was the clear theme of family, but I felt as though this was lost between the constant chopping and changing between the narrative.

Not to mention that some of the stories are more intriguing than the others, including the relationship that blossoms between Yondue and Peter throughout the + two hour runtime but also former antagonists joining the ranks of the Guardians made for an intriguing change of pace, but something that was quickly cast aside.

One of the biggest things that was going to be anticipated in this film was the soundtrack. After the roaring success of the previous one, this one had to live up to the expectation. And it did to a large degree, as it included some forgotten hits, including Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain, which was brilliant, but wasn’t as toe-tappingly infectious as the first soundtrack. Alas, this could be down to the huge expectation on its shoulders.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 quickly fell into that feel the first one had, as the actors are reprising their roles but as the emphasis seemed to be on the gags rather than the story. It was missing that chemistry I felt was present in the first instalment. I did welcome Kurt Russell’s Ego, though as he was the most charismatic of all during his screen time.

Although there was the ‘main’ overarching story that guided the film to it’s natural climax, I felt myself waiting for it to end. Alas, I felt largely underwhelmed when it came to the credits and post-credits stings laced throughout the names. I knew it would be difficult to live up to the expectation, as the first instalment was such a surprise, whereas this one had the buzz leading up to it’s release. If the film had garnered a relatively straightforward story without the intermittent blasts of other stories, it could’ve been a whole lot shorter, and probably a whole lot more enjoyable.

For me, it seemed as though Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 was trying to live up to the expectations that had been set by it’s cooler and better older brother. It worked largely as a film, but I could not help the underwhelming feeling I had. The action sequences were great and exciting, but laced with needless comedy. James Gunn seemed to have overindulged us with the comedy, which is just carrying on the now-unsurprising framework that has been set by the previous Marvel films.


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Free Fire (2017)

Hot Fuzz tonally set the benchmark for me for Action Comedies, as every other action comedy film just does not seem to get the correct blend. For whatever reason, Hot Fuzz had this blend perfected and it’s never aged since its 2007 release.

Enter Free Fire, the trailers seemed have this balance tuned to perfection, which also gave me that sense of apprehension when going in and whether this carried over into the film. But regardless, it has to be said that Ben Wheatley has been on an incredible rise since Kill List, and he seems to be showing a diverse range of talents behind the camera.

One thing he has nailed for Free Fire is the perfect running time of 90 minutes, but I could have easily sat in and watched another hour of this film as the narrative unfolds. It’s not often that nowadays an action film takes place in just one setting, with the big blockbusters jetting to various locations before reducing them to rubble. And that’s become a bit boring and well, farcical.

Ben Wheatley has managed to bring some normality back to the action genre with Free Fire, but it’s the character’s nuanced movements that signify this. Justine’s (Brie Larson) trip as the enter the abandoned warehouse, or Gordon (Noah Taylor) getting a splinter during an incredibly tense moment during the gun deal, really give Free Fire that sense of reality. These directions are what is brilliant about this movie, as you wince with them at the glass being stuck in the hand, or getting a needle embedded in a palm.

And to carry on with this grounded approach take on the action genre, the gunshots are excruciatingly loud as they echo and ping around the empty warehouse. Wheatley has managed to inject some life into the action genre that goes against the humdrum affair of tearing cities to the ground in the name to protect civilians.

Peculiarly though, Free Fire doesn’t have a straightforward villain. You have some assholes in an empty warehouse, but no one is the standalone antagonist of this film. I believe this is done intentionally to give the characters more of a chance to express themselves in their own way, from the chipper Ord (Armie Hammer) to the apprentice-like Harry (Jack Reynor). But the screen-time that is allowed with each of the characters, as they try to outgun and outsmart the others in the room is excellent. But amidst all the anarchy that does ensue between the two sides, a confusion arises especially as Bernie (Enzo Cilenti) screams “I forgot whose side I’m on”.

It has to be said Free Fire becomes an incredibly funny film, with the characters interactions with each other. Much of the comedy is driven through Sharlto Copley’s Vern and his ego is just impressive. His comedic gestures and one-liners are just brilliant, including “Just watch and Vern”. But there doesn’t seem to be that reliance on the comedy within this film, as it just flows as the narrative naturally progresses.

It seems as though Wheatley has hit the sweet spot when it comes to the blend of action and comedy in Free Fire as all it all seems to flow together and enclosed within this warehouse space, which is just fantastic. It’s almost as though you can feel the dirt underneath the fingernails and feel the agonising shots that are placed in the characters calves and shoulders. But this displacement and not-very-accurate shooting is effective, because as I mentioned previously, it carries on that sense of reality, but still has that twinge when the shots do find their target.

Free Fire is worlds apart from High Rise, which really shows a depth in the talent that Wheatley possesses. The narrative of a gun deal gone wrong really works, especially as the characters spill off into different areas of warehouse. There isn’t one true shining star of the film, but rather a collaborative effort from all involved as they actually interact with the story and surroundings. I could’ve happily sat and watched another hour of this film as the chemistry that is on-screen is just enigmatic and brilliant to watch. I think Free Fire will not age, much like the aforementioned Hot Fuzz.


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Warcraft: The Beginning (2016)

Source Code and Moon were incredible films, but also relatively small-scale from Duncan Jones. Warcraft: The Beginning marks a huge step up on the silver screen for Jones. But it was always going to target a fairly streamlined audience with it being adapted from the popular computer games.

Previously, video game adaptations have always fallen short of the mark with the less-than-forgettable Resident Evil franchise and the Angelina Jolie-led Tomb Raider duo. Recently it seems as though the studios have stepped up the mark by producing a Michael Fassbender-led Assassin’s Creed on a much larger scale.

There was always going to be some apprehension going into this film as I have played some of the Warcraft games and thoroughly enjoyed them becoming engrossed in the world of Azeroth. With a film of this size, it was always going to be heavily reliant on CGI-animation, but it was incredible how quickly that is forgotten with how Jones manages to immerse you into the world of Azeroth.

As this was a franchise essentially dipping it’s toes in the pond, the story wasn’t going to be too outlandish, but put an interesting twist on the good vs evil tale when it comes to the fantasy genre. This time Warcraft manifests the good and evil in the Human race and the Orcish race, respectively.

Jones chose to lead Warcraft: The Beginning with the Orcs on the edge of a dying world and passing through a portal into the land of Azeroth to escape their dying homeland. The now-banded together Horde pass through this ominous green portal being powered by the shaman Gul’Dan (Daniel Wu) who glows ominously with the same green glow.

Durotan (Toby Kebbell) is amongst the selected few of the Horde that are to pass through the gate and tasked with pillaging the Human villages to strengthen a portal to bring forth the rest of the Horde. Immediately Jones has managed to beautiful create two lands that could not be more opposite, from the dusty settlement of Draenor to the beautifully wooded greens of Azeroth.

The Orcish Horde are met with opposition from the charismatic Andiun Lothar (Travis Fimmel), the right hand man to the King. And what develops of the next two hours is a battle amongst to the two races, one trying to survive and the other trying to protect their homeland, but Jones manages to have the story go from strength to strength instead of plodding along. Although it isn’t groundbreaking, the story is told incredibly well. (Something Duncan Jones is pretty darn good at doing)

Warcraft would be nothing without some magic involved, but this incorporation could have gone one of two ways, but Jones had the Shaman’s and Mage’s plotted perfectly throughout the story from Medivh’s (Ben Foster) fel-killing spell, to Gul’Dan’s mercilessly sucking souls from helpless victims.

What I found when I was watching Warcraft was that I was becoming more and more engrossed in the story and the characters. This could be down to my prior enjoyment of this world, but Duncan Jones has done an incredible job of finding the right mix of characters, story and action throughout the 120-minute runtime. The leads of Durotan and Anduin were what was expected, but it was the support from Garona (Paula Patton), Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer) and Medivh all pulling in great performances, especially as the story evolves around these three and their parts to play in the climatic (also, foreseeable) battle.

What I was not anticipated was a couple of twists that are incorporated into the story. Now, it’s not to the level of Moon and Source Code but there was little nuances that worked with the story to make Warcraft: The Beginning that little bit more enjoyable.

I thought that my bias could tip Warcraft in it’s favour, but my bias was insignificant for the amount of enjoyment I got from watching this. The characters were brilliant from start to finish and made the story even better when it was being unravelled. Jones managed to completely immerse me within this familiar world that I hadn’t visited for some years, but it all came flooding back, from that ominous green glow to the majestic capital of Stormwind.

I honestly thought that the CGI-heavy characters would cause an issue for me in this film, but when you are that immersed in the story and the characters it really does take a backseat as the time just melts away when watching. Jones perfectly selected the music for each scene and really became effective and did not seem disjointed in anyway at all.

If you hadn’t of gather. I really, really, really, enjoyed this film. I would be happy for more instalments of this universe. Duncan Jones keeps seemingly going strength to strength with his films, but Warcraft proves he has the grit to hang with the big blockbusters.


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Kong: Skull Island (2017)

Much of the promotional footage in the lead up to Kong: Skull Island really focused on the sheer size of the king of the apes, as he towers above people silhouetted by a crimson setting sun. Many of the previous incarnations of King Kong have him seem much smaller. (aside from when he fought the gigantic lizard Godzilla)

What differed coming into Jordan Vogt-Roberts second directorial feature was the backdrop Kong: Skull Island was set. There is a quick introduction of the main cast, where Vogt-Roberts washes the screen in vivid reds and blue, reminiscent of Nicholas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives. John Goodman’s snatches the opening lines with “We’ll never see a more messed up time in Washington”, but he enlists the help of a former SAS solider James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and anti-war photojournalist Mason Weever, (Brie Larson) both of whom are based in the Far East.

I had a slight trepidation with Brie Larson’s character and whether she was going to become the all-too familiar damsel in distress that has been seen many times in previous King Kong films. But instead Mason Weever manages to provide a stance on the social aspects in 1973 and the ending of Vietnamese War. She disagrees with Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) about whether they lost, or abandoned the war effort, in a quite tense word exchange.

I genuinely thought there was going to be some sort of semblance of a character for Samuel L. Jackson, as he solemnly reflects on his medals, but instead he opts for the vengeful and righteous man that is all too familiar with Sam Jackson. And it has to be said that I wasn’t blown away by any of the performances in Kong: Skull Island as they all seem to just offer occasional glances into the distance at the mythical creature Kong.

As the crew land on the uncharted and undiscovered Skull Island, Vogt-Roberts really indulges the visual aspect of this film and creates some beautiful and awe-inspiring shots of this exotic landscape. But I thought what was really impressive in Kong: Skull Island was Larry Fong’s ability to give the film a strong feeling of a Vietnam War film. If you had taken out the battle with a mythical gigantic creature and placed an opposing army, Kong: Skull Island would be the ideal Vietnamese War film.

Fong’s representation of this is largely helped by the soundtrack choice as they all seem to belong to that period of the late 60s and early 70s as the music has almost become iconic for that time period. This includes the incorporation of characters beginning to question the abandoning of the war effort, whilst the older-grizzled veterans try to look for new enemies to conquer.

The film stands just shy of a two-hour runtime, but unfortunately for me, it seemed to be longer and I think this is down to there being a huge amount of walking through this exotic landscape discussing the next steps and what’s going to happen, which is just not needed. Understandably, some of this is needed, but not for each individual lost in the Skull Island forest.

What was enjoyable about the story is that it was not going to be a third retelling of the 1933 story that started this infatuation of monsters on the big screen. This reimagining of the King Kong story worked, especially as we see him swinging around Skull Island, essentially protecting his territory. But Vogt-Roberts did not forget the roots of this mythical beast, as he has Kong snagged in chains during a fierce battle, referencing the previous incarnations hosting Kong to crowds whilst locked in chains, but also the cinematic battles that featured heavily in Peter Jackson’s forgettable retelling of King Kong.

I have always been a fan of monster films, with Cloverfield and Godzilla being some of my favourites, and what Kong: Skull Island is no different as the battle sequences are just simply mesmerising. Throw in some beautiful exotic landscapes and you got some incredible footage, but was that enough to make a decent film?

No. It was not.

What did not work for me was the wooden characters. The best characters were those of the under Packard’s command and their camaraderie really lifted of the screen, really shadowing that of the main cast. What was effective was the ‘Dear Billy’ included throughout the story as they put detail their own thoughts about Skull Island. Overall Kong: Skull Island works on an action level, but when you begin to scratch beneath the surface, you’re going to come up empty. Just sit back and enjoy the mesmerising battles and beautifully shot landscapes.