Marvel By Numbers – Black Panther

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With this movie, the MCU has reached Peak MCU. Let’s hope they don’t trip and fall after this one.

Black Panther (2018)

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Overview: Following his ascension to the throne of Wakanda, T’Challa is challenged by another heir to the throne who thinks Wakanda should rule the world instead of hiding from it.

Writing: 10/10

This film has a crazy complex plot and juggles a lot of elements. Plus, it has to create the culture and feel of Wakanda in a believable way. I was impressed at how well it manages all of this. There’s a LOT to unpack, but everything fits together really well. We get lots of character development (and not just character development of the main character) to the point that it ends up feeling like we’ve spent more time in Wakanda than just one film.

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The plot moves with a breakneck speed and doesn’t ever sacrifice its message or characters for spectacle (even though it has plenty of spectacle).

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Plus we get strong female characters! Who are essential to the story! And have complex personalities and backstories!

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Style: 10/10

This is movie is so freaking pretty. The costume and set design of Wakanda is iconic and gorgeous without ever stooping to orientalism. It’s a respectful homage to the various cultural elements of many African nations, coming together to create a hopeful vision for Africa’s future.

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Plus the cinematography has enough sweeping vistas and landscapes to make The Lord of the Rings jealous. It’s a world you wish you could visit in real life.

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On top of that, the score is stunning and really adds to the texture of Wakanda. Quite often, MCU film scores hit all the right notes, but don’t really jump out and attack you. This one makes itself known, blending technology with traditional rhythms.

The Villain: 10/10

Killmonger sounds, initially, to be a pretty flat villain, but once you get to meet him and learn about who he is as a person, you find yourself wondering if he might be on to something. Sure, he overreaches, and his fixation on revenge rather than positive change is dangerous, but his impetus is admirable.

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I love his final scene where he chooses to die free rather than live in prison. It’s a powerful statement that leaves you asking questions about his intentions rather than just saying, “I’m glad the bad guy was defeated.”

He’s complex, layered, and one of the MCU’s best villains.

Explosions: 10/10

In what other movie can you see armored rhinos blasting through a horde of enemy combatants?

I’m giving this one a perfect score not because the movie is filled with explosions (though there are some cool ones) but because the weapon design of the Wakandans is so freaking cool. I hate to say it, but they beat Asgard in the weapons area.

Favorite explosion: I got crazy giddy every time T’Challa released the stored kinetic energy from his suit and blew everyone up around him.

The Hero’s Journey: 10/10

I love how the hero’s journey in this one isn’t necessarily the standard “how can I be a good hero” plot line we see in many superhero origin stories. Instead he’s already a great hero and already a great king, but then he has all that taken away and he has to fight to reclaim everything, and in the process, comes to understand the noble intentions that lie at the heart of Killmonger’s brutal actions. That way, once he is once again the rightful king, he has a greater respect for that position and seeks out positive change in the world, accepting the responsibility inherent in revealing his nation’s technology to the world and all who might want it.

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We also get the beautiful layers of his relationship with his father. His respect for T’Chaka deepens as he’s able to see his father as a flawed human being rather than the idealized figurehead he always looked up to.

Score and Rank

  1. Black Panther (50/50) I mean, I think it’s safe to say that this film rules entirely. Though poor Ragnarok gets pushed out of its top five position after only one week. Sorry…
  2. Captain America: Civil War (49/50)
  3. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (46/50)
  4. The Avengers (45/50)
  5. Iron Man (43/50)
  6. Thor: Ragnarok (43/50)
  7. Spider-Man: Homecoming (43/50)
  8. Doctor Strange (42/50)
  9. Iron Man 3 (42/50)
  10. Guardians of the Galaxy (41/50)
  11. Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 (41/50)
  12. Captain America: The First Avenger (40/50)
  13. Thor (39/50)
  14. Avengers: Age of Ultron (39/50)
  15. Ant-Man (38/50)
  16. Thor: The Dark World (36/50)
  17. The Incredible Hulk (34/50)
  18. Iron Man 2 (33/50)

Next week we’re getting back to Spielberg By Numbers and looking forward to the next MCU film, Infinity War (which I’ll review as soon as I see it!).

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Marvel By Numbers – Thor: Ragnarok

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And I FINALLY saw this movie, and boy is it a good one!

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

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Overview: Thor and Loki’s older sister, the death goddess Hela, returns to Asgard, but before Thor can deal with her, he finds himself trapped on a planet where he’s forced to compete in death matches…with the Hulk!

Writing: 9/10

The best part about this one is that it takes a page from Guardians of the Galaxy’s book and just lets itself have a TON of fun. The Thor series has, so far, had a hard time finding a solid style (though the first one is pretty great, in my opinion) but this one mixes EVERYTHING that makes Thor great, juxtaposing humor, crazy cool action, and some fun character arcs.

The dialogue is snappy without feeling overdone, and the the plot juggles multiple elements well without getting bogged down.

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Shout out also to Korg, the giant rock monster who’s super sweet and soft-spoken. Literally everything this dude said was pure gold.

Style: 9/10

I like how each Thor film has explored different elements of the world of Asgard. The first one had a gleaming clean golden aesthetic. The Dark World focused more on the Rivendell-esque  ornateness of the rest of Asgard. This one tears both of those down (literally) and focuses on Asgard as a people, not a place.

Plus we get the crazy fun day-glo world of Sakaar, lorded over by Jeff Goldblum. I mean, his character has a name, but let’s be real here, it’s Jeff Goldblum in a fun costume. It also serves to bridge the gap between Guardians of the Galaxy and the rest of the Avengers in terms of linking the feel of this huge universe to the goings on of Earth.

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I also like how we get those sweeping Lord-of-the-Rings-esque visuals that made The Dark World so cool looking, but the film doesn’t rely on them exclusively. This film doesn’t take itself seriously, except for the few moments when it absolutely has to. Then it goes all out. Valkyrie’s flashback is especially striking and iconic.

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I took off a point because they cut Thor’s hair, and that’s just wrong. I don’t care how CRAZY good he looks with that darker beard. It’s just…he needs his hair.

The Villain: 8/10

Remember in the Fellowship of the Ring when Galadriel almost takes the One Ring but decides against it? I feel like this is the perfect depiction of what would have happened had she actually gotten a hold of the ring.

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Hela is FANTASTIC. The script gives her enough depth that she’s not just a rage-monster who wants to destroy everything. She’s got sass, a killer wardrobe, and looks great walking away from explosions in slow motion (though I’m not sure she actually does that in this one…). But I like the gradient she creates with Thor and Loki. Loki went pretty evil for a while, but he was able to be pulled back from the brink. Hela has gone farther and overreaches, which causes her own downfall.

I wish we’d gotten more inside her head, but the script is juggling a LOT so I understand why we didn’t explore a lot more of her backstory. But she manages to keep the film from reducing her to a simple “Final Boss Battle” that a lot of other MCU films resort to through sheer force of will. Cate Blanchett has so much amazing screen presence and charisma that she suggests all the missing backstory every time she smirks evilly at the camera.

Explosions: 9/10

There are many explosions (I didn’t count) and they are all super essential to the story.

Thor’s discovery of his power and then Loki’s release of Surtur provide the film with some FANTASTIC explodey moments.

Favorite explosion: I hate to admit this, but the destruction of Asgard was pretty freaking cool. The moment was made better by Korg’s bookending comments.

The Hero’s Journey: 8/10

Thor’s journey has come full circle, and it makes me super happy that he finds himself in his father’s shoes by the end of it.

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Throughout the MCU, Thor became the muscle and little else (and since The Hulk was also The Muscle, Thor often felt superfluous). But with this one, we get to return to his overall arc of learning what it is to be a leader. He loses an eye and gains a throne, and throughout it all, is able to make peace with both Odin and Loki. I get the feeling he’ll “retire” somehow after Infinity War, but if that happens, it’s nice to see his story reach a satisfying end in this one.

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Bruce Banner doesn’t have a huge arc, but the Hulk sure does. Since Hulk was in control for two years, he learned to speak a bit better and has developed a more stable personality, which is awesome. I wish it had been made clearer how Bruce ended up so far away and separated from one another. Previous MCU films hinted that the two of them went off together after Age of Ultron, but in this one, it’s suggested that just Thor went off, assuming Bruce had died at the end of the Sokovia event. Maybe I need to re-marathon these movies again…

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Shout out also to Valkyrie and Skurge for have fantastic arcs. Valkyrie’s rediscovery of her confidence and Skurge’s sacrifice for his people following a whole bunch of self-serving cowardice were both excellent.

Score and Rank

  1. Captain America: Civil War (49/50)
  2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (46/50)
  3. The Avengers (45/50)
  4. Iron Man (43/50)
  5. Thor: Ragnarok (43/50) RT had this one tie with Homecoming, but I enjoyed it a wee bit more. That means we’ve got a new Top Five contender!
  6. Spider-Man: Homecoming (43/50)
  7. Doctor Strange (42/50)
  8. Iron Man 3 (42/50)
  9. Guardians of the Galaxy (41/50)
  10. Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 (41/50)
  11. Captain America: The First Avenger (40/50)
  12. Thor (39/50)
  13. Avengers: Age of Ultron (39/50)
  14. Ant-Man (38/50)
  15. Thor: The Dark World (36/50)
  16. The Incredible Hulk (34/50)
  17. Iron Man 2 (33/50)

Next up we’re looking at Black Panther!

 

Spielberg By Numbers – The Adventures of Tintin

Spielberg’s first animated feature!

The Adventures of Tintin (2011)

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The Plot: (based on the comics by Hergé) After casually buying a model ship, adventuring Reporter Tintin (and his dog Snowy) finds himself caught up in a centuries-old treasure hunt and his only lead is a drunken sailor who is more interested in whisky than treasure.

Seen It Before?: I’m really upset that I haven’t seen this one before. Like, I wish I could go back in time and force myself to see this when it first came out.

Writing (9): Watching this, I found myself really impressed with the “British-ness” of the script. It’s no surprise that the script comes from the minds of both Steven Moffat (of Doctor Who fame) and Edgar Wright (of Shaun of the Dead/Hot Fuzz/The World’s End fame). Throw in Joe Cornish (who wrote Marvel’s Ant-Man) and you’ve got a tight script that keeps the focus on the characters and moves the plot along with beautiful pacing.

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Interestingly enough, this is a very dialogue heavy film (often unusual for animation) but it’s all the better for it. The characters, especially Haddock, are fantastic and you become that much more invested in the swashbuckling adventure as a result. Since the scriptwriters are all so good at banter and physical comedy, there are also a great deal of genuinely hilarious moments that I was not expecting.

Acting (8): The motion capture technology (which tragically disqualified this film from the Animation Oscar it rightly deserved) really allows the actors to give more than just their voices to their characters. It was the animators who brought the characters to life, but there’s so much in facial expressions and body language that had to come from the actors.

Andy Serkis continually surprises me with how incredible he can be in literally any situation. Captain Haddock is by far my favorite character. He’s warm and likable, but he’s also deeply flawed and in search of a purpose. I also LOVE how he’s more helpful to everyone when he’s drunk. The one scene with a sober Haddock is so weird that Snowy goes out of his way to make sure Haddock gets drunk again.

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Jamie Bell captures the feel of Tintin beautifully, though the character by his very nature is sort of a blank slate. He’s a good guy without many flaws, so naturally everyone else sort of orbits around him.

Daniel Craig (no doubt enjoying a lighthearted break from the intensity of Munich) makes for a great villain. Sure he is quite often a moustache-twirler, but there is enough intelligence and cleverness there that you really wish Sakharine joined up with the good guys. Craig infuses the character with a sly sass that I really appreciate.

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Visual Style (10): It took a few glances at Hergé’s original Tintin comics to appreciate how well this film captures the character models and even the crystal clear line-drawing style. Every character is immediately recognizable (take a look at this original cover featuring Haddock, Tintin and Snowy).

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Everything has a clear brightness to it that just makes this a crazy fun movie to watch for the visuals alone.  Peter Jackson’s involvement in this film (he was one of the main producers ) brought with it Weta’s crazy talented corps of animators and visual artists, and the result is so gorgeous that I found myself wondering why this technology hasn’t been used more often. Robert Zemeckis’ Beowulf and The Polar Express come to mind, but they came out in 2007 and 2004. Tintin definitely perfects the model that those films pioneered.

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I also like how the film doesn’t overreach its bounds in terms of the visuals. It feels like a heightened Indiana Jones sort of reality, but it avoids sequences which would have taxed the motion capture technology beyond what would have looked realistic (Beowulf is one such movie wherein the ambition of the visuals leads to some rather cartoonish scenes which stand out amid all the grit and depth of the rest of the film).

Music (8): John Williams clearly had a lot of fun with this one. The score is a great callback to Indiana Jones without repeating itself. The bright fun bounce of the score beautifully matches the bright colors and crystal clear visuals. The main theme for Tintin isn’t as crazy memorable as some of Williams’ other scores, but overall, the score works very well to bring the film to life.

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Genre (9): My experience with Tintin comes from the animated Canadian TV show back in the early 90’s. I didn’t see a lot of it (my devotion belonged to Darkwing Duck and Talespin at that point), but based on what I did see, this film does a really good job of blending the comedy with the swashbuckling adventure stuff.

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There are moments of goofy slapstick comedy and scenes of heightened emotion and tension, and the script blends all of these elements together really well. In terms of its audience, I think adults will enjoy it more than kids (even though there are some great scenes that kids will like) simply because its a lot more violent than kids may be used to (think Princess Mononoke from Studio Ghibli). I think Spielberg adequately makes an animated film that feels very different from the Pixar/Disney/Dreamworks stuff that dominated at that time, but it’s definitely a filmed aimed at older kids.

Overall Thoughts: A crazy enjoyable adventure film that I’m super upset I haven’t seen before.

Total Score: 44/50

Rank

  1. Schindler’s List (50)
  2. Saving Private Ryan (48)
  3. Catch Me If You Can (46)
  4. E.T. (45)
  5. Jurassic Park (44)
  6. The Color Purple (44)
  7. The Adventures of Tintin (44) RT loved both Jurassic Park and The Color Purple more than this one, which I can understand.
  8. Raiders of the Lost Ark (43)
  9. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (43)
  10. Jaws (42)
  11. Empire of the Sun (42)
  12. Minority Report (41)
  13. Munich (41)
  14. Amistad (41)
  15. A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (40)
  16. War of the Worlds (39)
  17. The Terminal (39)
  18. Hook (39)
  19. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (38)
  20. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (37)
  21. The Sugarland Express (35)
  22. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (35)
  23. Always (34)
  24. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (33)
  25. 1941 (27)

Next up, we’ll be catching up with Marvel By Numbers, so Spielberg will be back in two weeks!

Spielberg By Numbers – Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Dun da da DAAA!

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

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The Plot: In the 1950’s, Indiana Jones embarks on one last adventure when a Soviet paranormal scientist begins investigating Indy’s connection to a certain unexplained event in Roswell. When a friend of Indy’s vanishes, he must race to stop the Soviets from uncovering the secret of a crystal skull unlike any other that has ties to an otherworldly secret.

Seen It Before?: Yep!

Writing (5): This is really the film’s biggest stumbling block. The first three Indy films were a perfect blending of Spielberg and Lucas. This one feels like a lot more studio lackeys got involved and muddied the waters a bit.

The plot is certainly fun, but it’s filled with a lot of unnecessary stuff and some super goofy moments that would make even Temple of Doom cringe. Plus, the dialogue doesn’t have the easy snap that the rest of the series had.  I do love Indy and Marion’s snark, and Harrison Ford and Shia LaBeouf have surprisingly good chemistry which sort of hints at the relationship Ford had with Sean Connery in Last Crusade.

Lucas’s sense of fun and Spielberg’s eye for action are both there, but they’re watered down a lot. It makes sense when you look at the film’s genesis, which spanned many years and involved a lot of creative minds coming and going.

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Acting (7): Cate Blanchett is fantastic. She’s definitely one of the series’ best villains. She’s not all iron and business. You definitely get a sense of her desire for wonder and discovery, and that keeps her from being just a flat single-minded villain.

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Harrison Ford is great, but I definitely feel like he was more interested in finishing Indy’s story than anything else.

The rest of the cast is OK, but nothing really jumps out. Shia LaBeouf works well with Harrison Ford, but just doesn’t leave enough of an impression to make me feel like he could really carry the series on his own after this, as the ending suggests.

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Visual Style (8): One thing I really do like is how Spielberg decided to shoot the film on an older style of film, which gives it this great classic feel. It’s shot in the 2000’s, set in the 1950’s, yet looks like it was shot in the early 90’s a few years after Last Crusade, which I really dig. This retro look is counteracted by an overuse of CGI that is a bit beyond the limits of what could look believable, leading to some cartoonish moments, but we saw that in previous Indy films (especially Temple of Doom).

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Also, the cinematographer for this one was Janusz Kamiński, who has worked with Spielberg since Schindler’s List, and I really appreciate how well he’s able to emulate cinematographer Douglas Slocombe’s style from the first three films. The jungle chase scene looks like it could be a deleted scene from Last Crusade. It’s awesome.

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Because of this, this film definitely still feels like an Indy film, and I think that’s one of the main reasons why I don’t mind rewatching this one, despite its other issues.

Music (7): John Williams does a great job with this one, though the score is filled with so many musical callbacks to previous Indy lietmotifs that it doesn’t really ever find an iconic phrase or theme of its own. Raiders gave us the classic march and the haunting Ark of the Covenant theme. Temple gave us the “March of the Slave Children,” and Crusade has that amazing “Scherzo for motorcycle and Orchestra” which features the big bold Nazi fanfare. This one doesn’t really have its own enduring musical moment. I know Williams, after his work in the 90’s, went for more layered atmospheric scores that set mood and character in complex ways, but I definitely found myself craving a good old fashioned Williams score here filled with Peter-and-the-Wolf-style musical phrases that basically told the story for you in musical form.

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Genre (8): I know people took issue with the Roswell angle, but I think it’s great. It blends the Indy tropes of hidden temples and secret passages with the B movie atmosphere of the 50’s which was filled with Soviet plots and flying saucers. But it doesn’t ever go full sci-fi. It knows its roots, and it sticks to them.

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My only issue was the overuse of comedy. The series is FILLED with comedy, but it was always of the sarcastic banter type (“I said no camels, that’s five camels, can’t you count!?”) and this one goes dumb slapstick a bit too often. The bouncing fridge and the prairie dogs were just a bit too cartoonish, and felt really out of place.

Overall Thoughts: A fun movie that isn’t quite able to recapture the magic of classic Indy.

Total Score: 35/50

Rank

  1. Schindler’s List (50)
  2. Saving Private Ryan (48)
  3. Catch Me If You Can (46)
  4. E.T. (45)
  5. Jurassic Park (44)
  6. The Color Purple (44)
  7. Raiders of the Lost Ark (43)
  8. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (43)
  9. Jaws (42)
  10. Empire of the Sun (42)
  11. Minority Report (41)
  12. Munich (41)
  13. Amistad (41)
  14. A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (40)
  15. War of the Worlds (39)
  16. The Terminal (39)
  17. Hook (39)
  18. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (38)
  19. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (37)
  20. The Sugarland Express (35)
  21. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (35)
  22. Always (34)
  23. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (33)
  24. 1941 (27)

Next up, we venture into animated territory!

Spielberg By Numbers – Munich

This is officially my 200th post! Wooooo! Let’s do this!

Munich (2005)

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The Plot: (Inspired by true events) The story of Israel’s covert assassination of members of the Black September terrorist group following the killing of members of the Israeli Olympic team during the 1972 Olympics.

Seen It Before?: Nope. I’m glad I didn’t before this, though. It was nice to go into this with a completely blank slate.

Writing (7): In terms of plotting, this film is utterly fantastic. It’s hard to surprise audiences with real edge-of-your-seat tension, but this one succeeds, especially in the early scenes where the mission is getting going.

I do think it fails to really flesh out the characters of the Mossad team. Eric Bana’s character has the most depth, but I think his increasing worry with the cycle of violence that’s at the heart of his entire existence could have been drawn out in a more believable way. The core of this film is the impossible ethical dilemmas that arise when one is a government assassin, and that is dealt with in such a way that it comes across as naive. The script is paced beautifully, but it deals with controversial topics in such a way that it manages to be simultaneously edgy and skirts a lot of issues.

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I do like how it brings up a lot of really difficult questions and doesn’t really offer a lot of answers. It does play fast and loose with history, so it shouldn’t be treated as a docu-drama, but it uses elements from history to ask questions about terrorism and how governments should deal with it, and in that regard, I think it works well.

My only major complaint is that, while the overall pacing and through line of the plot works well, there are several very disjointed sections that leave you scratching your head, wondering when the plot is going to wander back into more familiar territory.

Acting (8): Although there are a lot of actors who are sort of constrained by the limitations of the script, there are some performances here that BLEW me away. Interestingly, both had ties to James Bond (and that’s not including Daniel Craig’s performance).

The character known only as Papa, played by Michael Lonsdale (known to Bond fans as Hugo Drax from Moonraker), is by far my favorite character in the movie. He’s such a corrupt individual, but you also get this great Godfather-esque vibe from him. He’s likable, but you know just how evil he is, even though he’s able to justify his actions by saying that he doesn’t align with any government, you also know that such a thing is impossible, and he must be incredibly naive to think he hasn’t worked for the interests of any governments in the past.

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I also really enjoyed Mathieu Amalric (Known to Bond fans as Dominic Greene from Quantum of Solace) as Louis, Papa’s son, and Avner’s main contact within their criminal organization. He has such a vulnerability about him. His whole existence is leading up to inheriting this incredibly powerful and dangerous organization from his father someday, but you can tell that, no matter how much bluster he employs when dealing with Avner, he is still incredibly insecure and burdened with self-doubt whenever he’s in the presence of his father.  I could EASILY watch a whole Godfather-style crime drama about Louis and his father. The actors bring these characters to life to such an extent that it leaves the other characters feeling like flat generic action-thriller characters.

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A major shout out to Geoffrey Rush, as well. His character is fantastic as always (I don’t think Rush is capable of NOT creating memorable characters), and you find yourself wanting to side with him even though he represents a major iffy aspect of the government he works for.

Eric Bana’s performance is great, as well, but I think he’s sort of lost in the mix. He never feels like a protagonist you’re really rooting for. You want him to succeed, until you realize that his efforts are sacrificing short-term safety for long-term conflict, the you just want him to survive this whole ordeal. But since we don’t get into his head (unless we’re seeing the damage that this assassin’s lifestyle is doing to both his conscience and his soul) he doesn’t really win the audience over all the way. But as I’ve said before, that’s more an issue with the scrip, not Bana’s acting.

The rest of the cast feels a bit flat especially Daniel Craig, whose character seems to never fully coalesce into a memorable performance.

Visual Style (9): The tight claustrophobic shots work really well to ramp up the tension.

 

I also like how Spielberg suddenly shifts to overhead shots during moments of heightened tension, especially one crazy brilliant scene where the Mossad guys are given a room that was also given to a group of Palestinians. The standoff, which features a dozen people frozen and tense, holding guns, ends abruptly when the camera suddenly cuts to an overhead shot of the room and the rotating ceiling fan is the first movement you see, and the movement is so startling that you keep expecting the guns to all start going off.

The two scenes where Avner relives terrorist attacks are completely harrowing. It’s in these two scenes that we see some of the most brutal violence in the film, which effectively conveys how damaged he is by the killings. The second scene, where he is reliving a terrorist attack while in an intimate moment with his wife is troubling in that his wife becomes basically just an object for him to take out his sexual frustration while undergoing a traumatic mental episode, but I suppose it does show how this culture of violence has caused him to disassociate from the things he holds dear. But still, I feel like that scene could have been done differently.

Music (9): John Williams’ score is fantastic. I like how it blends the electronic thriller/caper-style beats with a more emotional traditional symphonic score that brings out the solo vocalist for moments of heightened emotion. On top of that, there’s the array of diegetic music that stretches throughout the film, demonstrating the clash of cultures that underpins everything. The best use of this is the scene where Steve and one of the PLO terrorists keep changing the radio from Arabic traditional music to French pop music before settling on an American song.

I’m legitimately sad that the score for this one lost the Oscar to Brokeback Mountain. That one’s a good movie, obviously, but I really don’t remember the score that much (Sorry Gustavo Santaolalla…).

Genre (8): I think the subversion of the caper/thriller format works well, for the most part. The film is filled with grey areas, so we never really have a “hero” to root for. I like how you start out rooting for the team of Mossad operatives, but then when you realize that their activities are only escalating things, you start to wonder where this is all leading. At this point, the genre breaks down and it becomes a psychological drama as we come to realize, along with the characters, that there are no heroic finales waiting for them. They’re one part in an endless bloody conflict, and nothing they do is really going to end the conflict.

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Now, I do think that the film, in trying to keep everything steeped in shades of grey, fails to really establish a compelling central conflict, but it does present a number of intriguing smaller conflicts, both psychological and interpersonal. So, even though the genre itself breaks down and ends up lost and confused, that’s the point. This isn’t a film about heroes killing bad guys, it’s a microcosm of an endless conflict told from the point of view of the people it uses and hurts.

Overall Thoughts: A gripping drama that asks big questions and makes you think, even though most of the characters fail to make a lasting impression.

Total Score: 41/50

Rank

  1. Schindler’s List (50)
  2. Saving Private Ryan (48)
  3. Catch Me If You Can (46)
  4. E.T. (45)
  5. Jurassic Park (44)
  6. The Color Purple (44)
  7. Raiders of the Lost Ark (43)
  8. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (43)
  9. Jaws (42)
  10. Empire of the Sun (42)
  11. Minority Report (41)
  12. Munich (41) (RT loves Minority Report a lot more, but places Munich only one percent above Amistad)
  13. Amistad (41)
  14. A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (40)
  15. War of the Worlds (39)
  16. The Terminal (39)
  17. Hook (39)
  18. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (38)
  19. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (37)
  20. The Sugarland Express (35)
  21. Always (34)
  22. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (33)
  23. 1941 (27)

Next week we get another visit from an iconic hero we’ve met before!

No Post Today!

But there will be one next week.

The truth is, I’ve been training a new puppy and I want to seal myself in a crypt far beneath the ground, far away from potty breaks and shredded shoes so I can finally get a proper night’s sleep.

By next week, I’ll be feeling human again, so things will be back where they’re supposed to be.

Ciao until then!

Spielberg By Numbers – War of the Worlds

Aliens.

War of the Worlds (2005)

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The Plot: (VERY LOOSELY based on the H.G. Wells novel) Aliens invade Earth. Madness ensues.

Seen It Before?: Yep. Saw this in the theater, actually. It FREAKED me out, but I’ve grown to appreciate it more in recent years.

Writing (6): OK, so first off we need to address how well it addresses the source material. I’m probably going to get shot for this, but I think it certainly knows what it needs to do, even if it stumbles here and there.

Wells wrote this book as a slap in the face to English readers who had grown comfortable with the colonialism of the British Empire. He would have read about peoples being wiped out, such as the natives in Tasmania, and that definitely made him angry. So he wrote this as a way to put people in the position of the conquered and then end it with the message that invading a foreign place and killing its inhabitants is literally a crime against nature with nature, not humanity, defeating the invading aliens.

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Spielberg isn’t using this film as a commentary on colonialism, but he is definitely reacting to the senselessness of mass violence and exploring the feelings of helplessness that all Americans felt when New York was attacked four years earlier in 9/11. This film was also released only months before Katrina hit and chillingly predicts the violence that erupted as the city was left to fend for itself early on in the disaster.

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I think where the script trips up is when it tries to add in the whole broken family plot. I know that’s a common theme that Spielberg likes to explore, but it’s done to such an extreme level that I think it muddies things.

But this is very much a visual film, and so script issues aside, it can still be very effective.

Acting (7): Tom Cruise is genuinely good in this. Say what you will about him, but he’s a good actor. I tend to think of this film as more of a silent film in that so much of its impact is visual, so his reactions to what is happening really sell them as genuine horrifying tragedies as opposed to a backdrop to a dumb action flick, which I appreciate.

The rest of the cast is a bit shakier. Dakota Fanning gets TONS of flak for her performance, but I genuinely find it genuine. If a kid was thrown into a situation like this, they WOULD be terrified and would be upset and panicked. I guess people were expecting her to be a fully competent mature superhero with James Bond’s ability to disassociate from his emotions and deal with tragedies with cold resolve. Like…she’s a little girl, guys…

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The characters I like the least are the son (I can’t even remember his name) and Tim Robbins’ character, Ogilvy. The son is selfish and petulant and adds nothing to the story except to be a bit of a source of conflict with tom Cruise’s character. And the actor just doesn’t add any layers to the character to make us invest anything in his story.

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Tim Robbins is great, but again, he plays Ogilvy as so wacky that we breathe a sigh of relief when he’s removed from the story.

Visual Style (10): OK, this is where this film succeeds beautifully. For all its issues, this film looks GREAT.

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Spielberg decided to shoot the film more or less from eye-level and avoid sweeping cinematic panoramas to more closely replicate the news footage/found footage look of the 9/11 attacks. We see the tripod’s invasion from the level of people. There are no JurassicPark-esque panoramas or Close-Encounters-of-the-Third-Kind-esque visuals. We don’t even see the main action of the invasion except for a brief look on a TV screen. This ties in with the novel in which much of the narrator’s narration happens when he’s walking through ruined cities after the attacks, looking with horror on how easily humanity has been destroyed.

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This chillingly recreates how most of the world saw the 9/11 attacks. It was all via the news stories and home video and pictures. One of the most effective scenes is where Rachel sees the bodies floating down the river after some sort of calamity. We know nothing about what happened, but just seeing the aftermath is almost scarier because it’s obvious there’s nothing these people could have done.

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Plus, I LOVE the design of the tripods and the aliens. They feel familiar enough that there’s no question that this is War of the Worlds and not an Independence Day clone. The tripod’s tentacle with the camera on the end is also a great callback to the film version from the 1950’s, which I appreciate. Also the scene where the tripods begin using human blood to fertilize their red weed is soooo creepy, and I dig it.

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Also, this isn’t necessarily visual, but I have to say this is also one of the first movies that I saw where I was very aware of the sound design. The lightning at the beginning, the tripod rising out of the ground, the tripods’ booming calls, they all sound AMAZING.

There’s a reason this film was nominated for three Oscars in technical categories (though it lost all to King Kong).

Music (9): John Williams’ atonal score is wonderful with some great Jaws-esque pounding themes as well as some great use of choirs. Williams is one of those composers who doesn’t use choirs a lot, but when he does, he uses them very well. Apparently he used a mens choir in the score, singing waaaaay down at the bottom of their range so they’re barely audible.

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I really want to see this with headphones so I can appreciate the score in its layered awesomeness. It feels like a more mature incarnation of the Jaws score, but because it doesn’t have a catchy “main theme” it didn’t get as much attention as Williams’ other scores. But it’s legitimately a really good score and takes some interesting risks that I think pays off well.

Genre (7): The original novel is a horror novel. It’s not an adventure a la Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars, nor is it a fantasy romp  like The Time Machine. It’s a terrifying portrait of what it is like to be conquered from the point of the view of a helpless people with no way to fight off the attackers who want to use the conquered as resources. When this film plays of up the horror aspects, it works. Near the end, in order to appease audiences who wouldn’t be able to handle a more pessimistic worldview in the wake of the horror of 9/11, the film does become a bit of an action flick where Ray is able to single-handedly destroy a tripod (which is kind of eh since in the book the only tripods they’re able to destroy is by using a ship, the Thunder Child, in a brutal kamikaze run that ultimately only delays the Martians enough so the people can escape). And then we get the military heroically shooting down the disoriented tripod, but that doesn’t bother me that much since the alien inside is already dying.

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But overall, this film keeps things closer to the horror aspect of things. The first tripod attack is bewildering and upsetting, but Spielberg never lets it become an action-packed chase scene. It’s a terrifying pointless slaughter, and Ray isn’t a hero. He’s just running for his life while people are indiscriminately vaporized around him. Plus, the tension comes to a head in the basement scene where Ray is forced to become desperate enough to kill Ogilvy in order to save them, even though they are found out anyway, making the death of Ogilvy even more senseless.

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Overall Thoughts: Uneven writing and intentions don’t diminish the amazing visuals and score for this film that can’t ever live up to the original book, even though it does effectively speak to Americans dealing with the horror of 9/11 effectively.

Total Score: 39/50

Rank

  1. Schindler’s List (50)
  2. Saving Private Ryan (48)
  3. Catch Me If You Can (46)
  4. E.T. (45)
  5. Jurassic Park (44)
  6. The Color Purple (44)
  7. Raiders of the Lost Ark (43)
  8. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (43)
  9. Jaws (42)
  10. Empire of the Sun (42)
  11. Minority Report (41)
  12. Amistad (41)
  13. A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (40)
  14. War of the Worlds (39) RT liked this one a bit more than The Terminal, but audiences liked The Terminal better.
  15. The Terminal (39)
  16. Hook (39)
  17. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (38)
  18. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (37)
  19. The Sugarland Express (35)
  20. Always (34)
  21. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (33)
  22. 1941 (27)

Next up, we’ll return to the world of the historical drama!