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It is an odd thing to examine the landscape we find ourselves in in 2017. If you can recall what things were like before December of 2012, fans of the Star Wars series could only dream that there would be further cinematic outings featuring that universe, and if that were to come to fruition it would only ever likely come once George Lucas kicked the bucket and found himself as a means to describe a similarly dead parrot. And yet here we are five years and two cinematic entries into the series later and the landscape has decidedly changed. As fans of the Star Wars universe, we have had to twist our way of thinking and align it with the reality that whether we want them or not, we will be seeing yearly entries into the cinematic canon. How long will it be before Disney tries their luck with more than one film in a calendar year? We can’t know for sure, but having seen success with their Marvel output, I would wager a guess that it can’t be too far away.
A more interesting question going forward is whether or not future installments will branch away from what we consider to be the central narrative of the series thus far, the chronology that began with The Phantom Menace and is still directly continuing with The Last Jedi later this year. Every film thus far has been a link in a chain. Is it possible to tell a story in this universe that does not have ties to the central stories of Episodes I-VIII+? When Rogue One was released in December, it was an experiment. A Star Wars film featuring no Jedi? That would be a stretch for a good many casual fans. Indeed a good amount of chatter on the web featured confused commenters wondering why there was another death star, unaware that this was meant to serve as a prequel to A New Hope. Given the overall box office success of the film, earning a total $1,055,724,829 worldwide based off of a reported 200 million dollar budget, it is highly likely that the takeaway Disney got from the release of Rogue One is that so long as the words “Star” and “Wars” are somewhere in proximity to the title they can expect astronomical returns on their monetary investment.
The upcoming Han Solo film directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller featuring Alden Ehrenreich in the role originated by Harrison Ford will be another major test for Disney. They want to see if audiences will allow and support the recasting of central characters for spinoff projects. When people think of Han Solo they think of Harrison Ford. It is not a James Bond situation where the name conjures multiple actors to mind depending on the personal experience of the audience in relation to the series. Han Solo and Harrison Ford are inseparable at this point. It was made the third act of The Force Awakens resonate in the manner that it did, as any attempt to have a new actor carry on the performance would have undercut the emotional reaction the audience was expected to have regarding the end of his arc in the larger narrative. Having someone play the character at a point prior to the moment we first meet him in A New Hope is not as bitter a pill to swallow in the minds of most audience members. At least this is the hope of executives planning the next several years of spinoffs and sequels bearing the Star Wars brand.
Rogue One, upon first viewing can be viewed as a bit too tethered to the original trilogy. The script uses the established saga as a crutch on which to give the story means to amble forward. Under close scrutiny, large holes appear in the narrative construction and the depth of the characters can be called into question. However, that raises the question of whether or not the film needs to divest itself of its own legacy in order to be valid. Simply because nobody in the cast is named Skywalker or carries a lightsaber does not mean that it isn’t an integral part of the greater story being told in the main saga. It is retroactively thus, and that may feel like a bit of a cheat. However, the film crafts a story that directly ties to central moments of A New Hope. I cannot speak to how well the film plays on a structural, emotional, and objective level without a prior connection to A New Hope, as I have had that film etched into the back of my brain since I was five years old. Analytically speaking, only two moments require a connection on the part of the audience;
- Anything involving Darth Vader
- CGI Princess Leia
Aside from those instances, the film’s narrative stands on its own and establishes its own internal logic and narrative force. The conflict presented within Jyn Erso as a character may not be as rich as others in the central saga, though much of that can be attributed to the logistical reality of a standalone film versus a multi-part epic. Her struggle to reconcile her feelings toward her father and his desire to undermine the Imperial war machine with her sense of self-preservation drives the central theme of the film; personal investment in societal change. The script takes strides to contrast Jyn with characters who fall on a spectrum of ideals, specifically through Chirrut’s mysticism-driven ideals that insist that what happens is the will of the universe (see force) and Cassian Andor’s deeply personalized sense of purpose in rebellion.
There is enough thematic and narrative meat to allow Rogue One to stand on its own. Ultimately its ties to the greater Star Wars canon are simply embellishments for the sake of the initiated that do little to detract from the experience for casual observers. The film could take greater pains to force an investment in the characters on the part of the audience, but the end product is ultimately serviceable in every regard. There is little here that could be critiqued to a degree as to classify Rogue One as a poor film. While some may not enjoy the film enthusiastically, from an objective point of view the film functions well in every regard; composition, editing, effects, score, etc. They all work. Where the film deserves a critical eye is in regard to the script itself, which does seem to fail to develop our central characters fully. While some might argue that this is a trapping of an ensemble production, it is clear that the film was probably another full draft away from being where it needed to be in terms of character development. It is unclear how much of this is as a result of the much ballyhooed reshoots and editing bay shenanigans, but if we take things at face value there is still enough to find issue with.
Beyond The Last Jedi and the as-yet-untitled Han Solo film, we really do not know much about the future of the franchise. What direction will they go? In what ways will they course correct from Rogue One? Do they need to course correct at all? Everything at this juncture is speculation, and however things pan out, the first steps of this marathon have worked out well for Disney and Lucasfilm.
**Major spoilers for Logan are contained within. Be forewarned**
As a teacher of literature, I often preach the importance of understanding genre conventions. In trying to teach the concept of analysis, I have always found it important to build a bedrock of understanding that lies in comprehending the expectations present when examining a particular type of writing. I talk about text features, patterns, structure, etc. There are some who do not agree with this approach; that it hamstrings the person trying to formulate effective analysis because if they can’t tick a box they can’t generate a thesis, and while I feel that in some ways this is a logical argument, it can also easily be countered by taking a look at a selection that so readily establishes itself as a deconstruction of a genre itself or a commentary on the tropes and expectations contained therein.
Case in point; James Mangold’s Logan. The film, directed by Mangold based off a story he generated with a script by Scott Frank, is a direct response to the superhero genre as it has been established over the past ten years.
The “superhero genre” is one that, for a good while at least, was ill-defined at best. Many of the tropes schemes associated with the genre by the middle of the 1990s have been discarded, phased out in response to what feels like a steady rise in “focus group” or “Four Quadrant” mainstream film-making. While superhero films have been around for decades, it was the wave of films in the immediate aftermath of Bryan Singer’s X-Men in 2000 that started to form the mold that would be firmly solidified by the success of the Marvel cinematic universe in the wake of Iron Man in 2008. As a result, the expectations of the genre have, by and large, been set by Marvel Studios and Disney over the last ten years. Audiences are conditioned to look for certain elements; films that break from that mold are viewed as outliers.
What Marvel has done over the last decade is decide what tropes from published comic books they wanted to translate over to the world of film and television. It was Marvel studios that reversed the idea brought upon the cinematic landscape by X-Men in 2000 that heroes could not or should not wear their traditional costumes. There is also much to be said about the formula that they apply to their character archetypes, the structure of their narratives (Marvel never met a macguffin it didn’t like) and the congruous “house style” of their framing and color palettes.
While this has happened for films produced by Marvel’s association with the “Mouse House,” films produced by other studios have largely eschewed those conventions, either seeking to establish their own, or simply seeking to subvert them and comment on them in such a way as to stand apart from the herd. Warner Brothers attempted to sell their DC cinematic universe as “filmmaker driven,” as a dig at Marvel Studio’s perceived desire to keep their universe homogeneous to the point that, some argue, it renders the overall product increasingly bland. It is hard to see any WB/DC films, especially those under the guided hand of Zack Snyder as anything other than a direct antithesis of genre conventions established by the cultural powerhouse of Marvel Studios.
Where films like Batman v. Superman, Suicide Squad, et al. fail in that regard however is as a commentary on those conventions. The WB/DC films offer a counter-point in tone but do little to make an argument regarding that selfsame tone. What purpose does the implied darkness serve in the grander scheme of the narrative? In what way does reshaping the core fundamentals of firmly established characters shape the stories that they tell? It would appear that there is no such purpose.
Contrast that with other films that seek to deconstruct the genre; namely last year’s surprise (to some people, anyway) hit Deadpool and this year’s dark-horse candidate for comic adaptation of the year, Logan. Whereas the WB/DC films sought to provide a counter-balance to the Marvel cinematic universe in terms of tone, Deadpool and Logan seek to provide a rebuttal in terms, not only of tone, but of intent. Deadpool was a reverent, sophomoric exercise in showing that homogeneous, same-samey cinematic adaptions of popular characters could only get you so far. Trying to fit the character of Deadpool into the mold established by films like Iron Man and Thor simply would not work. Instead, they focused on subverting the genre expectations established by the films that preceded it, and utilized the character’s fourth-wall breaking tendencies to offer commentary directly to the audience. The subversion of genre tropes was both text and sub-text within the context of the film itself.
That commentary and subversion continues with Logan. It is no coincidence that Logan begins with a false-start that turns out to actually be a teaser trailer for Deadpool 2; both of these films, in their very DNA, a similarity in intent. Though the two films could not be any different if they tried, they share a connection that cannot be disputed; both films wear their R rating like badge of honor(though the reasoning and utilization of the freedom it allows are also quite disparate in nature), both scale back the drama in ways that make the narrative less about the external conflict with an ill-defined villain and more about the internal conflict with themselves, and both films seek to show that tone disparate from established genre norms requires that the intent of utilizing it also be addressed from a narrative standpoint.
Logan is an R rated film. It earns the R rating not only through a veritable overload of graphic violence but through a cavalcade of cursing that would feel right at home in a film directed by Quentin Tarantino. Both of these points seek to reinforce that Logan is, itself, a commentary on the genre itself. Hugh Jackman has played the character of Wolverine for seventeen years. To put that in perspective, if Wolverine is Jackman’s baby, that baby is now old enough to purchase a ticket to Logan without a parent or guardian present. Fans have clamored for an R rated Wolverine film for almost as long as there has been an X-Men franchise. Following the release of X2, fans lamented the bloodless nature of Wolverine’s berserker rage as it was presented on camera. In that film however, it simply would not have been appropriate with regard to the tone being established. The violence in Logan is a commentary; from the very first scene it is established that Wolverine as a character is trying to move past violence. Just as the world has moved on, so too has he. The men trying to steal Logan’s limo initiate the violence with a cursory shotgun blast to his chest. Even after taking the hit, Logan attempts to talk his way out of the situation. Once the situation reaches an apex, only then do the claws come out. Every bit of violence that follows is deliberate and meaningful. It echoes the world that surrounds it. The world has fallen into decay. Logan, too, has fallen into decay. The veil of humanity and civilization and structure and order is now simply a specter, thus allowing the levels of violence and bloodshed shown on screen to be congruous with the story being told. The reason we, as an audience, didn’t need to see people getting claws shoved through their skulls in previous X-Men films is because there was still hope in the world where the narrative was transpiring. There, Logan was making an attempt to live within the norms of society; here, that restraint is gone, and so too is any censorship of his actions.
This same lack of censorship can be applied to the linguistic aspect of the script as well, specifically the casual nature with which the central characters drop f-bomb after f-bomb. The X-Men franchise has been toying around with this for several films now, with each film utilizing their one MPAA approved, non-sexual utterance of the word to varying degrees of comedic effect. Here, however, the word is not played for laughs, aside from perhaps the first time we hear Patrick Stewart’s Xavier use it because we feel it to be so far out of the natural confines of his character. But as we move deeper into the film and we as an audience come to understand the depths of sorrow and despair that have plagued both Logan and Charles since things all went sideways, the blue nature of the dialog begins to make organic sense, as it is a distillation of their emotional turmoil and serves as a means of non-violent catharsis. Again, this is something that would have been out of place in other entries in the franchise but is tied heavily to the film’s own thematic statements that when the credits roll you would be hard pressed to find an audience member who found the dialog to be incongruous with the story being told.
The single biggest challenge to the established expectations of the superhero genre however come simply in the form of the climax and the focus of the narrative. A majority of major comic book superhero adaptations feel the need to have an exaggerated climax, usually involving an under-developed villain and their desire to control/regain/destroy some type of macguffin. This usually ends with some sort of sky-portal or something falling from the sky. The sky is almost always involved. (Avengers had a sky portal, Avengers: Age of Ultron had a country falling out of the sky, Guardians of the Galaxy had a ship falling out of the sky, Thor: The Dark World had something falling out of the sky, a pattern does seem to develop) Logan eschews this in favor of focusing the narrative around Wolverine’s internal conflict; to what degree does he owe anything to Xavier, to Laura, who comes into his life at a time that could only bring complications, to Caliban, and ultimately to himself. It is ultimately fitting that Logan does battle with himself in the literal sense when he ends up fighting X-24; a younger, more virile version of himself that represents the unsuppressed violence that he had so desperately tried to control his entire life.
Ultimately, Logan is not a film that simply has Hugh Jackman violently stabbing people and dropping f-bombs for the sake of novelty; there is purpose and intent in the film’s construction. Logan serves to show that when you work within a genre, there are boxes that the audience is expecting you to tick, and if you don’t there had better be a reason for it, otherwise why would you be working with that genre to begin with? James Mangold took superhero DNA and infused it into a western, then used it as a way to hold a mirror up to the entirety of the superhero genre and show them a reflection of their own conflict. Not every film needs to do this. In fact, Logan’s success is largely dependent on a mold being present to break free from. What remains to be seen is what, if any, lessons upcoming films will take away from Wolverine’s last ride.
Film is a medium that is ruled by the sum of its parts. This is why it is possible to enjoy a film when certain elements falter in the eyes of the viewer. It is a function of the medium itself that a film can overcome the under-performance of its own elements to be viewed as a success by the audience. This is an understanding that most lovers of film will readily acknowledge when discussing the art form. It is a reason why viewers are apt to have so-called “guilty pleasures” wherein some element of an otherwise disposable piece of entertainment overpowers its combined negative elements to provide enjoyment to the person watching. There is nothing wrong with being the dissenting opinion. There is nothing wrong with believing that a film has merit that others do not see. However, in the wake of the release of mega-blockbuster Batman v Superman : Dawn of Justice, there has been an explosion of inflammatory rhetoric and combative attitudes put forth by both critics and supporters of the film that seems to ignore the basic central tenet of film criticism; that artistic value is ultimately subjective.
One of the prevailing false equivalencies in defending one’s opinion on a piece of art or entertainment is to dismiss the person stating the opinion rather than providing a logical opposition to the opinion itself. This is what is known as an ad hominem attack. A sizeable amount of the street-level conversation regarding the release of Batman v Superman : Dawn of Justice has circled around the fact that those criticizing the film are doing so out of customer loyalty to rival Marvel Comics, and in no way predicated on the fact that the film, like any produced by mere mortals, has flaws that many will see as inexcusable when trying to assess its relative value. In the world of film criticism, to a certain degree, any argument is valid provided that it resides in sound logic. Dismissing legitimate criticisms as an aftereffect of a perceived cultural hive-mind is not a basis for defending one’s own position. However, a sizeable faction of those supporting Batman v Superman : Dawn of Justice seem incapable of drafting their own thesis in defense of the film and would rather predicate their attack on the criticism the film has received, hoping to undermine the voices of those who would question whatever artistic merit it might have by painting those who would speak against it as preternaturally biased. It is somewhat perplexing that so many defenders of the film have chosen this path because in the world of film criticism the best offence is not a good defense. Supporters of the film, if they are seeking credibility or validity for their own viewpoint, should focus on presenting the merits of the film rather than attacking those who fail to see them.
Batman v Superman : Dawn of Justice is a film that seems equal parts genetically engineered for close analysis and wholly underdeveloped to the point that any analysis would be equally insubstantial. Director Zack Snyder begins the film with a sequence in which a young Bruce Wayne, following the funeral of his parents, finds himself at the bottom of a well after tumbling down an unseen shaft. The young child is then shown ascending out of the cave in a maelstrom of bats. This is a powerful metaphor to be certain, or rather it could be, but ultimately it is meaningless because nothing in the film follows up on the symbolism presented in that scene. It is an isolated piece of imagery that exists only to provide a stirring visual. This is a legitimate criticism of an aspect of the film. Does it, in and of itself, mean that the film is a disaster? No. It does not. This criticism is not predicated on any particular loyalty to an outside brand or a bias against the film walking into the theater. It is an observation that explains why someone might take issue with the film and call it ultimately empty and lackluster in its construction.
Another rhetorical fallacy being paraded by supporters of the film is that it heralds the arrival of mainstream comic adaptations that ascend in maturity the way that rival Marvel adaptations are afraid to embrace. This seems entirely centered around a false definition of the word “mature.” In the parlance of those who herald Batman v Superman : Dawn of Justice as a mature alternative to Marvel, the word they are likely looking for is simply “dark.” Maturity implies sophistication. Batman v Superman : Dawn of Justice is many things but sophisticated is low among the adjectives that could be reasonably applied to it with a straight face. By implying that Batman v Superman : Dawn of Justice is a mature film, supporters would then be arguing that it is intricately crafted and sophisticated in its design in a way that a lesser or more juvenile film could not attain. While I will say that there are points in the film that are artfully and tastefully rendered, with a careful intricacy in developing certain themes, the majority of the film’s construction is ultimately haphazard and disjointed in a way that defies the term “mature.” Coherency is a central part of narrative storytelling. There are myriad elements within the script of Batman v Superman : Dawn of Justice which defy logical cohesion. They are not so much “plot holes” as they are “logic holes,” and moments that could and should have been caught in revising the draft before being placed in production.
Again, that is not to say that there are not sophisticated elements showcasing this abstract concept of maturity within the film. Batman v Superman : Dawn of Justice does an excellent job with its operatic interpretation of the death of Martha and Thomas Wayne, a singularly important moment in developing Batman as a character. It is even more striking when you realize that this scene, very early in the film, sets the philosophical principles of Batman in an organic way that utilized economic storytelling and strong visuals instead of the ham-fisted expository dialog that permeates the rest of the film. To wit, Thomas Wayne is shot down in the midst of attempting to fight off the attacker who would rob them. This is a direct act of aggression, which sets the tone for our more active-minded, aggressive Batman throughout the rest of the film. Contrast this with the Batman of the Christopher Nolan trilogy, whose Thomas Wayne died while trying to place himself between the attacker and his wife, an act of defense. To construct the scene this way, Snyder was likely attempting to prove his thesis on heroism; that passivity has no place in the heart of those we should call heroes. This is indeed a bold choice and shows some of the maturity that supporters of the film like to point to. However, much of the goodwill earned by flourishes like this are balanced out by scenes in which Lex Luthor taunts a senator with a glass of urine on her desk before suicide bomber takes out the capitol building.
Batman v Superman : Dawn of Justice is not an unholy abomination of a film. It is not even the worst comic book film of the last five years. Oddly enough, as much as this film drew from the oeuvre of Frank Miller, it was that man’s Sin City : A Dame to Kill For that takes the prize as the most incoherent, painfully unwatchable comic book adaptation since the genre saw its resurgence in the middle of the 2000s. What Batman v Superman : Dawn of Justice is actually is a deeply flawed film whose individual parts do not add up to a competent film but possesses minute elements that work in such a way that the flaws can be overlooked by a certain contingency of the audience. In a way, supporters of Batman v Superman : Dawn of Justice are correct. The film is critic proof. It will and has made the studio the money they so obviously desired. But for those who were hoping to see a film that embraced the true meaning of maturity, the concept that so many are quick to rally around to defend this film, they will only be disappointed.
A good friend of mine from high school may be the biggest James Bond fan in existence. I’m pretty sure his inner monologue has a backing score by James Berry. Back in the day, which really is only about ten years ago but let’s roll with it, I was one of those obnoxious kids who spent way too much time caring about film history and cinema. I wanted to make indie films and got to film school at UT and become the next Wes Anderson. My friend was equally well versed in obscure movies and we introduced each other to a lot of films we probably wouldn’t have seen otherwise. Each of us had our own little niche that we loved but didn’t seem to fit into the pretentious pre-film school selections we protested that we loved so much. For me, it was old action films like Commando and Cobra. Stuff that couldn’t pass for an art film if it tried. I know I was supposed to think that if Michel Gondry didn’t direct it I shouldn’t enjoy it, but already I had started to move into the mindset that genre films have a lot to offer and it was what led me into discovering the old pulp stories and comics that put me on the path to writing fiction instead of trying to put everything on film. My friend, though he loved high art films as much as the next cinephile, was absolutely obsessed with James Bond films because his family had dual citizenship with the UK. This man was like a walking encyclopedia of knowledge containing the entire history of James Bond on film and we connected on some level because we both enjoyed the series so much, albeit for different reasons. I always liked James Bond because I thought it was the true successor to the serial adventure genre. Borne out of the cold war to bring a fresh look at a familiar archetype. It fit in with my love of action movies but was also something in and of itself that intrigued me.
Of course, then Die Another Day happened and both of us had to put the James Bond love into a deep dark hole because that shit was just embarrassing. Both of us could tolerate The World is Not Enough, Denise Richards; Nuclear Scientist aside. But the final Brosnan Bond outing to us was the equivalent of nipples on the Bat-suit. By the time Casino Royale came out and it was okay to love Bond again, my friend and I had drifted apart because college will do that to high school friends. But I imagine if we were talking about it right now we would be discussing whether Skyfall is Daniel Craig’s best Bond film or simply the best Bond film.
Skyfall is most definitely the best of Craig’s run. By a wide margin. I’ll discuss why in detail but the bullet points are that the direction, cinematography, editing, script, acting, and characterization are the best they could possibly be. Choosing Sam Mendes to direct and hiring Roger Deakins to film Skyfall is one of the smartest franchise moves ever made. Mendes is a prestige director. He knows his stuff. He cares about the story. Deakins could shoot a bowl of cereal for four hours and somehow make it the most striking, beautiful thing you have ever seen. The work he does in Skyfall is as good as his work has ever been. He certainly brought his A-game. The script is a major upgrade from Quantum of Solace, although that’s not saying much. What is saying much is that the story works better than Casino Royale because while the running time is about the same, Casino Royale had a tendency to drag because of the narrative structure. Skyfall has a classic sort of four-act plotting that blends within itself to tell a very smooth story. Craig is in top form here and gives us the most depth we’ve ever seen in Bond. Judi Dench gets to really dig in and give M some definition in a way the character has never had before, which just adds to how refreshing the film is on that level. And Javier Bardem is quite possibly one of the best villains of all time.
Javier Bardem is what makes so much of this movie work. He is a credible threat. He plays the character with a menace that has been lacking in Bond villains for quite some time. I think the last time we had a villain this effective he was played by Sean Bean. Bardem is going to go down as one of the most effective Bond villains of all time and there will be controversy surrounding his performance simply because of some of the choices made with the character. He is clearly a sociopath. He has gone made with rage and while his performance is equal parts subtlety and flamboyance, audiences may interpret him in a variety of ways. By now its no secret that in a moment of cat-and-mouse (or rat-and-rat) he makes intimidating sexual advances towards 007 that Bond rebukes by implying that it would be nothing new to him. This could swing viewers in any number of ways. Is Bond just showing off false bravado? Is he truly so sexually promiscuous that he’s been intimate with a man? Does it matter? The more frightening question is whether it is implied that Bardem’s sexual flamboyance is as a result of the trauma that turned him into a sociopath or if it was something previously existing. I know some people will have a field day with it, but honestly I see it as something where Bardem’s character knows what vibe he gives off and was trying to play mind games. It seems in line with his character, although I could just be making too much out of the issue. The fact remains that his performance is absolutely stunning and he has definitely left his mark on the series.
What I liked most about the film was how it equally serviced the lore and history of the franchise while at the same time doing things that have not been done before. The climax of the film is not something you will typically find in a Bond film. In fact, I would say that it was done in a manner that subverts the typical Bond climax and turns it on its ear. And it is in that climax that Roger Deakins really gets to shine. The shadows and light that are cast by the fire in total darkness are beautiful and it really gives the film a distinct look that no other film has matched. I really cannot gush enough about how well shot this film is and the fact that Deakins got to shoot one of the best Bond adventures in years only adds to it. If he had shot Quantum of Solace it may have looked amazing but I still would have been let down by the limp narrative.
To make a long review short, my opinion is that this is the best 007 film on record. It hits every mark it should. No other film nails it the way this one does. As far as I am concerned, Skyfall is the perfect 007 film.
Happy 50th, Anniversary James Bond.
P.T. Anderson is, indisputably, one of the finest working directors alive. He has the technical expertise that almost no one can touch and a handle on characterization that most will kill for. There Will Be Blood is a cinematic masterpiece. Boogie Nights and Magnolia are almost equally impressive and in some ways speak more to Anderson’s perfection. With The Master, expectations run high. The film will likely sink under the weight of those own expectations. This is simultaneously the culmination of P.T. Anderson defining what he is as a filmmaker while being unlike anything else he has ever done. It is not a simple film. It is not a film that those who seek to praise it will even enjoy, in my opinion. This is a harsh movie that tosses aside everything we as an audience expect from a film. The film does not rise and fall. Traditional story structure does not apply here. There is no climax. There is no resolution. It is important to note that what we see on screen is simply a slice of existence presented to us for dissection, not a true narrative. There is no beginning, middle, or end. There is simply a swath of reality presented in 70mm that seeks to test what we know about film as an artistic storytelling medium.
Let me start out by saying that this is an acting showcase. Joaquin Phoenix is absolutely stunning here. He transforms himself in almost every possible way. His speech, his stance, his walk, his nervous tics, his breathing, his movement, all coalesce into a very real character. He is a broken mess of a man in body, mind, and spirit. He is a traumatized puppy let loose from an overcrowded shelter into the harsh world with only the skills given to him from the life that broke him in the first place. He attempts to fit in but he is a puzzle piece in the wrong jigsaw. His perception of the world around him is not the world as it is and his perception of himself is at the same time startlingly inaccurate and also spot on. He knows what he is but at the same time does not understand the implications of what that means or why his differences matter. He is a simple man. His mind’s basic animal nature, embodied by his fascination and obsession with sex, forces the audience to keep their distance and never truly grasp or empathize with him as a protagonist. Instead the audience takes on the role of the anthropological observer, trying to take in what we see and make sense of the findings.
Phillip Seymour Hoffman is more readily understandable a character as the charismatic leader of “The Cause” in Lancaster Dodd. He is a man who does not believe in his own system. He is a con man. He is weak and he is afraid of failure. When confronted with contrarian ideas he loses his concentration and reverts to the rough animal underside of the human existence that he so vividly campaigns against. At the same time he treats those who would follow him, especially Phoenix, as one would treat an animal. His “pet talk” of admonishing Phoenix’s character as a “naughty boy” when he has done wrong and the affable praise of “good boy” when he has done something admirable, as well as the repeated back and forth resistance training in Phoenix’s indoctrination into the ideas of the “cause” show that he is feeding a pack of lies to his underlings. When he flip-flops on the wording of his own doctrine and is questioned about it by a devout follower, he again looses his calm demeanor and reverts to unrestrained animal rage. He admits, in his own words, that casting a wider net to capture more minds is more important than the purity of the doctrine.
I will not deny that as a character study the film is absolutely mesmerizing. The “processing” scenes between Hoffman and Phoenix are enthralling. But the film has greater issues at play. Mainly that the film itself never feels fully realized. Phoenix’s character is simple enough that we can grasp what we need to from him within moments of meeting him. He is awkward and he will never fit in. He won’t fit in with the Navy. He won’t fit in at work. He won’t fit in the ranks of the “cause.” His lack of an arc is very much the point of the film entirely. Hoffman however suffers from the film’s static state. His arc does not work because we as an audience don’t see how he got to a point where he believed in his own lies enough to abandon that belief in search of legitimacy. We see that Phoenix prompts a change in him but we do not know precisely what he changed from and where he was as a man before that. We know that “The Master” has fooled his supporters into following him blindly but it feels like there is a whole story that happened before this film occurred that we aren’t privy to that would give us a better idea of what is in play.
As I said at the start of this review, the film is simply a slice of reality. The narrative is only loosely structured and our central focus has no arc. The arc occurs in the background and neither character receives any sort of resolution. The film simply ends. There is no rise, there is no climax, there is no tension. This film, to me, is like watching the waves of the ocean wash against the shoreline. There is a slow melody to it but nothing of ascertainable substance. It is like watching a recording of nature, of animals interacting. It is endlessly fascinating to watch the interactions of what is presented but at the end of the credits you can’t help but feel that what transpired was ultimately empty, and perhaps that was the point. Perhaps that was a statement that P.T. Anderson wanted to make on the nature of new-age religion. Perhaps it was a statement on life. There are plenty of thematic elements within the film to incite several heated discussions but as a film I believe it ultimately fails because of the manner in which it disregards story structure in favor of an abstract lack of narrative flow. On some level there needs to be an emotional resonance to the characters’ story, some investment in their fate or the film feels like it was a waste. With There Will Be Blood, I never truly empathized with Daniel Plainview but I felt an emotional response to his story. There was pity and there was understanding. Joaquin Phoenix was simply too detached for me to latch onto and Hoffman was fully realized as a character but somehow still lacked that element of understanding for the audience to invest in. We don’t know what drove him to become what he became and so the title character of this film is somehow out of our reach as well.
As a film, The Master is not cohesive enough to be considered a success on the level that I believe P.T. Anderson was striving toward. The acting and the technical proficiency of the filmmaking is not to be disputed but a dramatic film requires some form of narrative and though the threads are there are enough elements missing that the film as a whole suffers. There is much to discuss here and that gives the film merit but it is definitely a missed opportunity in many regards. The talent on hand dictates that there is a better film to be made here and that saddens me. This should have been something that was taught in film classes for being the perfect storm of material, actors, and craftsmen but instead it will likely be dissected as how a loss of focus and form can sink an otherwise wonderful film.
Originally Posted at Comics Con Queso:
My dad was a cop for most of my childhood before he decided to leave the force and become a private investigator. I shit you not, that’s a real thing. I’m not making that up. A good portion of my time as a youngster was spent in the police station with my dad and his police buddies. I can still vividly remember the hum of the fluorescent lighting and the furnishings leftover from a hodgepodge of decades gone by. In my mind the accident division room is perpetually stuck in the early eighties and nobody was allowed through the door without a prototypical mustache. Even though my dad retired early, he never lost contact with his former friends in the department and some of them were so close they were practically family. Basically, I’ve been around enough cops to know what most people don’t really understand; they’re people. Some of them are assholes. Some of them are the nicest men and women you will ever meet. Some of them have strange hobbies and some of them are smarter than you could ever hope to be yourself. Some are as dumb as dirt. Police departments are walking samplings of the community they are tasked to serve. If you truly wish to find one police officer to fit a profile to a T, chances are you can find that officer somewhere. They are exactly what you think they are as well as everything you never would expect.
David Ayer’s End of Watch tries to show us the world of law enforcement through a lens that is far more positive than what you generally get from most cinematic outings. This is one of the few cop films I have ever seen that doesn’t feature the trope of the corrupt police officer. This is a film that wants you to come out of the theater feeling a little more respect for what cops do and it does it in the only way that you can manage that feat; by focusing more on the fact that there are men and women wearing those uniforms who have lives and feelings and families. Although the film features plenty of on-duty heroics and action, the script seems far more focused on showing you that even if these men and women don’t take gunfire at every turn they still operate under the constant threat of violence and bodily harm and they do so with wives and husbands and young children at home. Essentially, the film wants to take the patriotic love most Americans have for soldiers and sprinkle that a little bit towards the police. It’s easy to love soldiers. They’re overseas fighting the good fight and how much daily interaction do we have with them while on duty? Very little. The public will always have a resentment towards the police because they are policing us as citizens. If the military were the ones telling us not to drive over 55 or not to run that red light, I’m sure there would be far fewer “Support the Troops” bumper stickers around. I’m not saying that the police are perfect and that each one deserves our undying love. I read an article this morning about a Houston cop who shot a man in a wheelchair. This is that officer’s second shooting in five years. There are plenty of questions to ask about law enforcement in this country. The militarization of most American police departments as part of the escalating war on drugs has bled over into everyday tactics and has had serious repercussions in the way we view our police officers. That having been said, you can see why they might get a little defensive when most people have a blanket “Fuck the Police” mindset.
I think films like End of Watch need to exist to balance out the “dirty cop” genre. Not only does it serve as a chance to remind people that cops really are out there trying to help, but the counterpoint feels exceedingly fresh among the crop of films that seek to push the opposite image of law enforcement. I feel that for every show like The Shield or every film like Bad Lieutenant, we need something like this to balance things out. If it weren’t a good movie in and of itself, regardless of the message behind it, I probably wouldn’t be writing this review at all. The thing about End of Watch is that it is entertaining in and of itself. It feels like an extended episode of COPS that doesn’t leave you feeling like you need a shower. The acting on display is excellent. I’m not really a fan of Jake Gyllenhaal but here he really turns in a great performance as an everyman who the audience can relate to and empathize with. He is equal parts immature and stoic and he pulls it off well. Michael Pena really deserves to be showcased more often because I feel he is insanely talented. He and Gyllenhaal really do feel like they’ve been rolling in a shop together for an extended period of time. Their chemistry rings very true and because this film works so hard to sell the “people behind the badge” aspect, that element cannot be undersold.
I don’t know how well this film will go over. I think people will go in expecting something more action oriented and be surprised that it is about 85% character drama with rare flare-ups in violence. It’s a seemingly realistic depiction of law enforcement in that when the shit does hit the fan it does so unexpectedly and it catches you off guard. The audience I saw this with were visibly and audibly shocked multiple times during the showing and had a very visceral reaction to the film as a whole. It was also a packed house, so maybe the film will do well enough to make it a success. It is definitely a film that had the crowd talking afterward and that’s always a good sign.