Wednesday, 20 June 2018

"We Belong to the Light": Deadpool 2

Warning: Spoilers Below

Deadpool 2 is the most surprising superhero film I've seen in some time. This isn't due to any originality regarding the plot; as with the first instalment it borrows plot points from other films, most prominently from The Terminator and Looper. What I mean by surprising is how emotionally affecting it is. For all the irreverence and ironic detachment associated with the character, Deadpool 2 is perhaps the most nakedly sentimental superhero film since last year's Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. And like GOTG Vol. 2 I ended up liking this go-around more than it's predecessor. 

Now, since the film has been out a while I believe I can talk freely about the plot but but if you still haven't seen the film, turn back. At the film's beginning mercenary Wade Wilson/Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) fails to kill one of his targets, resulting in the death of his lover, Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), when the target returns to enact revenge.  While it appears like an example of killing the love interest as a revenge motivation, the film handles her death with genuine pathos. Deadpool can't get revenge since the guy who killed Vanessa is killed after he and Deadpool are hit by a car. Deadpool has a healing factor so he can't die. Deadpool blames himself for Vanessa's death and attempts suicide but again-due to his healing factor- he's essentially Bill Murray in Groundhogs Day

Deadpool attempts to better himself, finally conceding to X-Men Colossus and joining the X-Men as aa trainee. His first mission involves talking down Russell (who nicknames himself Firefist due to to his firestarting abilities) at a mutant re-education centre. Realizing Russell has been abused by the orphanage staff, Deadpool kills one of the staff, leading to him and Russell being put in a mutant prison called the "Ice Box."

David Leitch, co-director of the John Wick films, takes over from Tim Miller; Leitch's approach is both consistent with the original but he brings his specific action sensibilities to the table, specially in a jail break-in sequence with time-travelling mutant Cable (Josh Brolin). While the action was good in the first, I feel it's even stronger here. The film is packed with comedic and genuinely impressive comic-book-brought-to life set-pieces.

I love how this film delves more in to X-Men thematic territory than the first, focusing on a young mutant who has the choice to either be a Magneto or a Xavier. Funnily enough, this film feels more like the X-Men comics than the traditional X-Men comics- we have yellow costumes, Juggernaut being monstrously big, and power suppressor collars. 

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Complicating things further is the emergence of the aforementioned Cable (Josh Brolin). Russell kills Cable's family in the future and Cable plans to prevent that. Brolin is spot-on casting considering his history of playing gruff tough guys. He plays Cable seriously but not to the point of self-parody.  To stop Cable, Deadpool puts together "X-Force," which includes Domino (Zazie Beetz), whose mutant power is being lucky. The movie anticipates the audience reaction to has Deadpool outright say that luck isn't a power. The film then has fun visualizing how luck actually is her power in both cool and humourous way.

This isn't strictly a Deadpool/Cable buddy film though the two eventually have to team-up when Russell aligns himself with the Juggernaut and attempts to enact his own revenge. Deadpool and Cable are both men who've suffered tragic losses. The difference is in how they deal with them. Cable represents the more atypical revenge quest while Deadpool blames himself for Vanessa's death, attempting to better himself through helping Russell. This puts both their motivations at odds and the climax is largely about the two character arcs will be reconciled

I will say, as much as I loved the set-up and subversion of the X-Force team- with them all except Domino dying after jumping from a helicopter, it does feel like the second act is just a extended joke rather than structurally pushing the story forward. I also wish Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) had gotten a little more to do. On a side note, it's great that she has a girlfriend-Yukio- and the film doesn't make a big deal out of it. There's a little bit of contrivance in how Deadpool says he doesn't care about Russell so that Russell can team up with Juggernaut; I think Deadpool and Russell needed a few more moments together to beef up their relationship.

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The film pays off emotionally when Deadpool does "die," taking a bullet for Russell while having a collar on. The whole idea of Deadpool going to heaven may sound hokey to some but I really went with it. And as I said before, it's surprising since these films would be the last you'd expect to literally take it's wise-cracking character to heaven. I believe these two films have been able to ground Deadpool in some kind of emotional reality while stilling injecting the requisite fourth-wall breaking and digs at the superhero subgenre. 

I also liked how Cable's arc payed off, with him going back in time and finding a way to saving Deadpool. He finds redemption and discovers the future is not set, that Russell can still be a good person. I wanted more future scenes with Cable to flesh out where he came from but I understand the filmmakers didn't want to waste too much time getting Cable in to the story.

Deadpool 2 may be surprisingly sentimental but maybe it's par for a character who's all about subversion and unpredicatability. And of course, in the mid-credits, Deadpool goes back in time and saves Vanessa. Does that make the film pointless? I'd say no, since these films don't strictly obey strict continuity and may even ignore that going forward. That, and Deadpool still has learned about family throughout the film. I'd be interested to see the next film explore the consequences of bringing Vanessa back, especially if she becomes more like her comic-book counterpart, the mutant Copycat.

It's a little up in the air whether we will actually get a Deadpool 3. The next film may be an X-Force film with Deadpool as part of the ensemble or in a cameo appearance.  I love Brolin and Beetz in their roles and am excited to see them explored further down the line. Regardless, I hope Leitch stays around in this universe and the other creatives behind the franchise take even bigger risks going forward. I'm not quite ready to say Deadpool 2 is in my top ten superhero/comic-book films but it's certainly one of the my favourite of the recent superhero output.                         

Friday, 27 April 2018

Shakespeare on Screen: "Romeo + Juliet" (1996)

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Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet is both of its time but also slightly outside of it. It wasn't the first time Shakespeare was modernised on screen (Richard Loncraine's Richard III starring Ian McKellen as Richard in a fascist 1930s England was released the previous year) nor was it the first re-contextualisation of Romeo and Juliet in to a contemporary setting- West Side Story, which began as a play before becoming an Oscar-winning film in 1961, had already approached the story via the concept of rival gangs. But while Romeo + Juliet technically wasn't the first of its kind, it's still a one of a kind adaptation, fully committed without irony or embarrassment, sincere without being sappy- a genuine vision.

I would argue Romeo and Juliet, perhaps more than any of Shakespeare's other plays, makes the most sense to set in the present day. Two sexually aroused teenagers who take their love way too seriously and whose parents hate each other suits the modern era conceivably better than it did in 1597. Luhrmann opens the film with a television set in the distance, surrounded by black, an ominous image that immediately establishes the contemporary nature of the film and differentiates it from Franco Zeffirelli's classic and controversial (he cast actual teenage actors- Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting) 1968 version. The TV screen also establishes how in a modern setting, the story of Romeo and Juliet would be a media frenzy, especially with them being the children of prominent families in Verona Beach.

Luhrmann stages the opening brawl between the Capulets and Montagues at a gas station. Luhrmann plays it out like the most frantic neo-western you've ever seen, reminiscence of something out of a Robert Rodriguez movie. The media plays a part in this sequence as the shootout (I love that the guns are called swords and daggers) moves in to the wider area and we see Juliet's father Fulgencio Capulet (Paul Sorvino) turn on the news and see the headline "Third Civil Brawl." Prince Escalus from the play Captain Prince of the police, played by the stalwart actor Vondie Curtis-Hall. It's a bombastic opening that establishes the film's style and it's approach to the Bard.

I mentioned West Side Story earlier and I believe Luhrmann owes something to both the musical and film since Romeo + Juliet is a musical as well. No, Romeo (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Juliet (Claire Danes) don't burst in to song but the film's key emotional moments are accompanied by people singing either in the the scene or on the soundtrack. Also, most of the songs were written specifically for it. "Kissing You," the film's love theme sweetly underscores the first meeting of Romeo and Juliet as they view each other through a fish tank. This occurs after Romeo has sobered himself up after taking ecstasy from Mercutio (Harold Perrineau, clearly having a blast), during which we see Mercutio in drag sing "Young Hearts." The sequence is brazen and the transition to the softer interlude with Romeo and Juliet is reminiscence of what we would see in a musical, with a big number followed by a more intimate one by two lovers.  
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It's not surprising Shakespeare has been adapted in to Opera. He lends itself to the form since he's...well operatic. And appropriately, Luhrmann's next film would be Moulin Rouge (2001). I would also argue Romeo + Juliet is less about the poetry of Shakespeare's words than it is about the visuals and music. DiCaprio and Danes aren't great Shakespearean actors but I would put forward that for this film and it's intention, they don't have to be. Their sincerity is what really carries the film. Between this and Titanic the following year, I think DiCaprio was the biggest heartthrob on the planet, though DiCaprio did distance himself from these kind of roles. And Danes may be at her most beautiful here. The late Pete Postlethwaite (who had one of the great faces in movies) is supposedly the only actor in the film to speak in iambic pentameter and he's terrific as the no-nonsense but empathetic Father Laurence. 

The movie's energetic style also slows down considerably when it's focused on Romeo and Juliet. When the two first meet in the aforementioned fish tank scene, the movie is slowing down, making us feel the immediate intimacy and affection Romeo and Juliet share. The scene also communicates how time does slow down when you're falling in love. I also like the symbolic touch of Juliet wearing angel wings.

The famous balcony scene is staged in a pool, giving the scene an erotic energy. It also makes sense in a modern-context for them to be more intimate during this scene. I don't think they would allow themselves to be restricted by any barriers. The pool also parallels them meeting at a fish tank. 

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Romeo and Juliet represent teenage love at its most extreme. They fall in love after meeting and agree to get married. Moreover, they can't bare to live without each other. Romeo drinks poison when he believes Juliet to be dead. When Juliet wakes up and sees Romeo is dead she stabs herself. However, Romeo and Juliet begin the play in different emotional places. Romeo is in love with a girl named Rosaline but Juliet isn't interested in getting married to Paris, Dave Paris in the film (played by Paul Rudd). Romeo can't conceive of loving anyone else other than Rosaline. Then he literally falls in love at first sight with Juliet. We have to wonder, would Romeo had dropped Juliet for someone else had they lived? Romeo feels more obviously the one to kill himself over a girl than Juliet to kill herself over a boy. In a bold move, Luhrmann has Juliet wake up as Romeo is taking the poison. Unlike the play they do share one last moment together.

I can't help but think there's a lot of Romeo and Juliet in many teenagers- especially if you agree with critic Harold Bloom that Shakespeare invented human consciousness. Hell, I was probably too stuck on certain girls in my teenage years. It may be a little hard for many readers and audiences to non-ironically accept Romeo and Juliet's love. But I doubt is the story works if the interpretation is ironically detached. 

It's worth noting that what sets the tragedy in to motion is Mercutio's death by Tybalt (John Leguizamo), a casualty of the conflict between the Montagues  and Capulets,  who is of neither house. Mercutio's "A plague on both your houses" is essentially what happens. Mercutio is the play's most laid-back and jovial character and his death truly marks a dark turn for the story. For all his hyper-stylization, Luhrmann knows how to compose a shot. My favourite shot in the film is Romeo going off to kill Tybalt. Mercutio's body is in the foregound while Romeo in the background gets in the car while being persuaded to stay. 
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I'd say Romeo shooting down Tybalt is more potent than stabbing with him a sword. In the context of this universe Romeo has essentially committed a gangland murder. He's become a gangster, not that different than Tybalt.

At last, it is Romeo and Juliet's deaths that bring the Montagues and Capulets together. The story ends up being about parents' actions affecting their children, with the parents having to deal with those consequences. With Shakespeare, tragedy always is necessary for positive change or for a lesson to be passed down by the survivors In the context of this film's universe, the story is being told through the media. How will the people in this world react to this story. When viewing the film now in 2018, I can't help but think of how the media is criticised for supposedly spinning a particular narrative.

Luhrmann's film still stands as one of the boldest cinematic interpretations of Shakespeare, one that emphasises the appropriateness of placing the doomed romance in a modern setting. There's something more provocative in seeing the suicide of two young lovers in the present. Seeing them in body bags on a TV screen invokes real-life tragedy and asks how would we react to a story like this. Could we sum it up as eloquently as Shakespeare. Probably not. 

Saturday, 3 March 2018

World of Wakanda: "Black Panther"

Warning: Spoilers Below

It's incredible to think the Marvel Cinematic Universe began ten years ago with 2008's Iron Man, modest beginning for the largest franchise on the planet. At one point, putting a interconnected comic book universe on screen would have appeared too difficult an endeavour. Now we've become so used to this intricacy, it's hard to imagine when superheroes were isolated on screen. A large part of the the Marvel Studios' films is the continuity and while it's still inherent to their latest film, Black Panther, the film would still feel epic and expansive even if it wasn't in the MCU. This is due to the film's setting, Wakanda, a technologically advanced African country. Wakanda feels so rich with history and mythology. Wakanda presents itself as a third world country to the rest of the world, essentially isolationist, not providing aid or weapons to the rest of the world.

Despite the film's focus on Wakanda, this is also a globe-trotting film. We go from a casino in South Korea- right out of a James Bond movie and one of the best sustained action scenes in the Marvel films thus far- to Colorado and London. All this widens the epic scope of the film. Cinematographer Rachel Morrison (who became the first woman  to be nominated for Best Cinematography at the Oscars- for her work on Mudbound) provides a distinct look for these locations without feeling like we're constantly in a completely different film. This is also attributable to a consistent tone, which doesn't undermine itself with too much jokiness. It's serious while having a healthy amount of humour.  

Black Panther isn't the first black superhero film or the first black-led MCU property (Luke Cage), the significance of a blockbuster having a prominently black cast, a black director and being set in an African country (howbeit fictional) can't be understated. And it really feels like director Ryan Coogler (whose previous two films are Creed and Fruitvale Station) was able to make the film without watering down the deep African spirituality that pervades much of the film. There are scenes and moments in this film that are unlike any I've seen in a superhero film- including the primal combat that decides who will rule, and T'Challa seeing his father in a spirit world- a scene which invokes The Lion King.

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The film takes place shortly after Captain America: Civil War, in which the King of Wakanda, T'Chaka (John Kani) was killed by a terrorist attack. His son T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is to become the new king. Soon after his coronation, T'Challa is alerted to the re-emergence of arms-dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), who in the past stole Wakanda's precious resource vibranium (from which Captain America's shield is made). He has stolen a Wakandan artifact from a British museum. 

What T'Challa doesn't know is the theft is part of a larger plan concocted by Erik Killmonger (formerly Stevens), who's T'Challa's cousin. T'Chaka had sent his brother N'Jobu (Sterling K. Brown) undercover to America many years ago. He fell in love with an American woman and had a son- Erik. In 1992 T'Chaka (Atandwa Kani) comes to N'Jobu, accusing him of helping Klaue steal vibranium. N'Jobu's partner James is actually another Wakandan spy, Zuri (Denzel Whitaker, later Forest Whitaker), who confirms T'Chaka's suspicions. When N'Jobu attempts to kill Zuri, T'Chaka kills N'Jobu, leaving Erik behind, who eventually became a black ops soldier. N'Jobu was stealing vibranium so he could provide weapons to oppressed people across the world. Now Erik is continuing on his father's plan, part of which is claiming his birthright as King.

Erik is one of the strongest villains we've had in a Marvel film to date, because we can truly sympathise with him. He lost his father and was abandoned due to Wakanda's rejection of outsiders. I think T'Chala can see himself in Erik, the anger at the death of a father and the need for revenge. T'Challa even somewhat agrees with Erik. T'Challa blames Wakanda's isolationism for creating the monster Erik has become in the first place. There is validity in believing Wakanda should provide help to the oppressed but Erik's way is too extreme. I would argue that it's Erik's actions that help T'Challa realize that things have to change, that Wakanda should attempt to reach out and help others. 

I like that Erik feels like a real guy who just happens have a connection to a fantastical world.  His American accent and use of slang is juxtaposed with the Wakandan accents, highlighting his different upbringing and lack of pretence to fit in. Erik is way past attempting to assimilate in to Wakandan society. He wants to remodel Wakandan to fit him and his philosophy. The final scene between him and T'Challa, where Erik removes T'Challa's knife from his chest, allowing himself to die, is one of the most emotionally impactful villain deaths in quite some time. It has a Shakespearean quality to it. Erik's death is a tragedy because he could have done great things if events had happened differently. Moreover, what he says about his ancestors knowing it was better to die than live in bondage, is something more painfully truth than we're used to in superhero movies.

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I've talked so much about the men of Black Panther but it's important highlight the women as well. I love Letitia Wright as T'Challa's younger sister Shuri. Continuing the James Bond analogy she acts as his Q, creating his gadgets and upgrading his suit. Their big brother-little sister relationship humanizes T'Challa and makes him relatable. 

General Okoye (Danai Gurira) is loyal to the throne of Wakanda regardless of who's on it but eventually can't abide Erik's plan. Gurira is absolutely convincing as an austere warrior who feels deeply but is adept at hiding those feelings. She finds herself in conflict with her lover W'Kabi (Get Out's Daniel Kaluuya), who sides with Erik. She tells him that for Wakanda, she would kill him- and you believe her.

Wakandan spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o) is T'Challa's ex but she's never merely a love interest, but someone with her own point of view on Wakanda's isolationism. If Wakanda won't help others, Nakia will do whatever she can to aid the oppressed. 

There are some issues I have with the film. The sub-plot with C.I.A agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), particularly him helping save the day, feels like the only plot thread in the film which was studio-mandated (i.e. have at least one white character do something heroic). Freeman is such a likable actor that it doesn't sink the film but it feels like the most Marvel thing in the film.

Structurally, I find it odd that Erik is introduced fairly early in the film but disappears for a significant period. I also wanted more development of W'Kabi to better understand why he sides with Erik despite being friends with T'Challa and Erik apparently killing T'Challa. 

Overall I'm excited to see what happens now that Wakanda has revealed itself to the world. What are the positives and what are the negatives. I sense this will be the line of films leading the way for Marvel in the coming years. While I don't know if Black Panther is my favourite Marvel film, it's definitely in the top tier of their output. And it's a sure sign there's still life in the superhero sub-genre. 

Friday, 12 January 2018

Shakespeare on Screen: Laurence Olivier's "Richard III"

Laurence Olivier's Richard III (1955) was the third and last Shakespeare adaptation directed by Olivier, the two previous being Henry V (1944) and Hamlet (1948), the latter which won Olivier both Best Picture and Best Actor at the Oscars. Olivier did not intend Richard III to be his final interpretation of Shakespeare as director. He planned to helm a version of Macbeth with Vivien Leigh (to whom he was then married) but unfortunately, due to Richard III not performing well financially the film never came to fruition. However, Richard III befits a trilogy capper and is perhaps Olivier's crowning achievement as a filmmaker. The film is gorgeously photographed, expertly blends the theatrical and the cinematic, and Olivier's performance is a transformative marvel.

While Richard isn't as complex a villain as Iago or Macbeth he's conceivably Shakespeare's most entertaining creations. Despite his villainous acts Richard is very likeable, largely because he's intelligent and witty. I think we can respect his intelligence. There's also a darkly comic aspect to the proceedings, which makes us laugh even though we know we shouldn't. Vocally, Olivier plays Richard with a high pitched cadence, setting his voice apart from the other characters' graceful voices. Physically, Olivier moves roughly, reminding us of the burden of Richard's hunchback. The performance is theatrical but Olivier understands how close-ups and medium shots allow for more subtlety than a performance on stage
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But let's also remember the other tremendous actors who act texture and depth to the film. The role of Lady Anne is difficult since she hates Richard for murdering her husband and father-in-law but being wooed by him. Claire Bloom convincingly plays a Anne as conflicted, not merely falling in love with Richard but harbouring conflicting feelings of lust and hatred.  

John Gielguld makes Clarence a vivid and sympathetic character. He conveys the horror of Clarence's nightmare and its lasting effect once awake. 

Olivier wanted to cast Orson Welles as Richard's co-conspirator Buckingham but Olivier's friend Ralph Richardson wanted it and he felt he owed it to Richardson. Richardson lends an intelligence and genuine moral compass to his portrayal.

While it's understandable why'd we focus on the performances when walking an adaptation of Shakespeare, it must be said that Richard III is an elegantly well-crafted film this is. Just re-watching it, I was really noticing the camera movement, Olivier's compositions and blocking of scenes. Most notably, he plays out scenes either in one long take or in several long takes. Olivier brilliantly brings us in Richard's first soliloquy ("Now is the winter of our discontent") by moving the camera move through a closed door, revealing Richard in the background beside the throne. It's an unsettling image but oddly inviting since Richard only shares his thoughts with us. Olivier performs the soliloquy in a single take. This reflects the theatrical experience but it's also cinematic due to the camera movement through rooms and the ability for Olivier to move away from and towards the camera.

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Olivier begins the film with the final scene of King Henry VI Part III, in which King Edward IV (Cedric Hardwicke, adding warmth to the film) is coronated (the first shot, which is repeated when Richard is crowned, is a crown hanging from a ceiling). This provides context for viewers are new to this play. It also allows for the happiness of the coronation to be subverted as we transition to Richard stating his plan to become King. 

Olivier stages the scene where Edward (on his deathbed) learns of his brother Clarence's death in multiple long takes, only cutting on specific moments. The blocking of this scene and its camera movements are all specific and concise. It takes what could be a visually dull scene and makes it dynamic in regards to how its acted and filmed. 

What's also visually striking about this film is how colourful it is, as well as Roger K. Furse's extravagant production design. On the Criterion Collection commentary, playwright and stage director Russell Lees says there's an almost surrealistic, storybook quality to the look of the film. He argues Olivier does this to prepare the audience for the heightened quality of Shakespeare's language. The production design and cinematography remind me of an old Disney cartoon, particularly the recurring image of Richard's shadow. The most disquieting instant of this image is when Richard enters Anne's bed chamber. He opens the door and the camera pans down to show the bottom of her dress and his shadow enveloping it.  

Some other visuals I love include Richard looking out and through windows, with the deep-focus photography allowing us to seeing what he does. The introduction of Richard is also effective. At first, we only see the back of his head. Richard then turns his head. It appears as if he's looking at us but he's really looking at Buckingham. The aforementioned image of hanging crown is repeated when Richard is crowned and when Richmond becomes King Henry VII. It's a wonderful motif, representing the crown outliving its wearers, a continuously passed down symbol of power. The film begins with one King ushering in a new era of peace, one which doesn't last long. By the end Henry VII is doing the same, ideally an age of peace which lasts longer.

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Lees argues we should feel bad for liking Richard and adds that Lord Stanley (Laurence Naismith) is crowning us at the end, symbolizing power belonging to the people in democracy. Moreover, now that we have realized that we all have evil within us, what kind of ruler will we be?

How do we reconcile the pleasure we take in Richard's personality and scheming with the awareness of the pain and suffering he inflicts on others? We have to like Richard for his defeat to have the sobering effect it needs, to understand the inevitable downfall that follows ascension by murder and betrayal. Though Olivier does excise Queen Margaret, whose presence exemplifies the theme of being haunted by the past, the theme is still present, particularly when you consider Richard is literally haunted by ghosts before the final battle. Unfortunately, Olivier removes Richard's soliloquy after being haunted but I believe Olivier trusts the audience to understand Richard's guilt. When Richard dies Olivier has Richard lift his sword up by the blade, another of the film's trademark images. Lees highlights how its the sign of the cross- Olivier gives Richard a "a moment of grace".

Is Richard a tragic figure? He's certainly not a tragic figure like Othello or Hamlet, and on the commentary, former governor of the Royal Shakespeare Company, John Wilders, argues Richard lacks "tragic depth" even though the plot follows the structure of tragedy. I would argue villainy always comes from a very human place. While I don't condone Richard's actions I understand his bitterness at being a hunchback and his desire for power. I also think there's something sorrowful about being so hateful and power-hungry you'd have your own brother murdered. I would put forth that Richard is also a product of his environment, one that is full of violence and betrayal. and unclean hands. Again, this is not to apologize for Richard just to put his actions in a larger context, particularly that of Shakespeare's other History plays, which are full of betrayal 

Olivier created something special with this film. While we didn't get another Shakespeare adaptation from him, I'm thankful Olivier concludes his trilogy with a triumphant blend of theatre and cinema, and one of the great screen performances of all time.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Looking Forward to the 2018 Oscars

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While it's difficult not to feel somewhat cynical about awards season, particularly in the final weeks  before the Oscars, I can't help but still be invested in the guessing game that is the Oscars. And after Moonlight winning Best Picture this year and young members being inducted in to the Academy, could we be looking at a more diverse and exciting line-up? We'll have to see. I want to look at several of the categories and examine the contenders.
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Best Picture

Jordan Peele's Get Out is one of the year's best reviewed years and would likely been seen as an egregious snub is left out of the Best Picture race. It says more about race in America than other prestige films while operating as an entertaining horror thriller. While horror films have been nominated before, a horror-comedy may be a tougher sale.

Martin McDonagh's The Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (unwieldy title aside) is also capturing the zeitgeist- it concerns a woman name Mildred Hayes' (Frances McDormand) whose daughter's murder has yet to be investigated by the police. The anger at injustice and the inaction of authority figures can't help but be relevant. If it and McDormand (who's the Best Actress frontrunner) win, it'll be the first we've had a Best Picture/Actress win since Million Dollar Baby in 2005.

Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk was one of the summer's biggest non-franchise hits, proving Nolan's drawing power as a director. It's been called his masterpiece and could be this year's Gravity or Mad Max: Fury Road, a film that sweeps the technical awards. It could even snag Nolan's first Best Director Oscar. Though I wonder if it'll have the same impact on smaller screens when watched on screeners. Some may also feel the film is too "cold" and doesn't have enough character or story.

If that's the case, the WWII movie to support would be Joe Wright's The Darkest Hour, which chronicles newly elected Prime Minister Winston Churchill who has to decide what action to take regarding Adolf Hitler. I've heard it's a good companion piece to Nolan's film. And a story about standing your ground against fascism will speak to younger voters as much as older ones.

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Steven Spielberg's The Post is another period piece that could be a contender. The film concerns the Washington Post's publication of the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War. Said papers revealed a cover-up by the United States regarding the War. The film was just awarded Best Film of the year by the National Board of Review and Ton Hanks and Meryl Streep took lead acting honours.  You can't count Spielberg when's he in prestige drama mode, especially with Hanks and Streep leading the cast. This could be another Bridge of Spies or even Lincoln. And in a time when Journalists reporting the truth are called liars, the subject matter is timely.

Guillermo Del Toro's The Shape of Water, taking place in the 60s, is perhaps this year's oddest period film. It's Del Toro's most acclaimed film since 2006's Pan's Labyrinth, with some critics saying it's superior. While its love story between a woman and a fish creature won't work for everyone, the film is also said to be a love letter to cinema itself, which will appeal to the Academy (Argo, The Artist) However, it did miss the NBR top ten.

Call Me By Your Name is already being heralded as a masterpiece, even though it's stirred controversy for its a depiction of a relationship between a teenage boy and an older man. It could ultimately not make the cut.

While Greta Gerwig's coming-of-age dramedy Lady Bird is a small-scale film, it's stellar reviews will be hard to ignore. It may be this year's Brooklyn (which also starred Lady Bird's Saorise Ronan.) The Florida Project is another small-scale film that will benefit from critics' reviews. And both were in the NBR top ten.

Netflix could be getting their first Best Picture nomination for Dee Rees' Mudbound. It's gotten strong reviews and deals with issues of racism and life after war, subjects right up the Academy's alley.

Moving on from small-scale indie to a Hollywood blockbuster, could Wonder Woman be the first superhero film nominated for Best Picture? I have my doubts- it's generic climax could lead it to being seen as another superhero film. However, Warner Bros. is be pushing for it; and would be meaningful for the first superhero film to be Best Picture nominee to be led and directed by women.

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Best Director

Christopher Nolan has the aura of "overdue" around him (he appeared to be a sure-thing for Inception). While he has been criticised for being emotionally cold I think he could win Best Director even if Dunkirk doesn't win Best Picture. Best Picture/Director have been split recently, with Director going to the big technical film- i.e. Gravity, The Revenant  and La La Land). Guillermo Del Toro can also be considered overdue since he didn't get in for Pan's Labyrinth. The Shape of Water is already a critically beloved film- and after fellow Mexican filmmakers Alfonso Cuaron and Alejandro Inarritu winning, it feels like his time.

Martin McDonagh, like Kenneth Lonergan for Manchester by the Sea, is a playwright who'll likely receive his first Best Director nomination for Three Billboards. He's already an Oscar winner for his 2006 short film, Six Shooter. He was also nominated in Best Original Screenplay for 2008's In Bruges. 

Greta Gerwig would only be the fifth woman to be nominated for Best Director if she gets in for Lady Bird. And Dee Rees' would be the first African American female director nominee if Mudbound gains momentum.

Spielberg can't be counted out for The Post but if feels like the Academy will want to nominate new blood. Joe Wright missed for Atonement a decade ago but returning to WWII with The Darkest Hour could garner him his first nomination.

Call Me By Your Name is one of the year's most acclaimed films and Luca Guadagnino could be the Michael Hanake-esque nominee

Jordan Peele made of the most assured directorial debuts in recent memory with Get Out, balancing, horror, comedy, satire and drama with ease. He'd be the fifth black director to receive a Best Director nomination.

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Best Actress

I mentioned earlier that Frances McDormand is the front-runner for Three Billboards. She's one before (for Fargo) but the argument could definitely be made she's overdue for a second, considering she's been a consistently great actress. I could see Margot Robbie being a genuine threat to McDormand for her portrayal of disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding in I, Tonya. Actresses de-glamming themselves for a role (i.e. Halle Berry, Nicole Kidman, Charlize Theron) have won before and like Kidman and Theron, Robbie is playing a real life person. Saorise Ronan was the front-runner for Brooklyn a couple of years ago before Brie Larson stole her momentum. Her performance in Lady Bird will likely get her a third nomination (her first was for Best Supporting Actress for Atonement). 

Some consider Meryl Streep over-nominated (especially after her nomination for Florence Foster Jenkins) but you can never count her out, especially starring alongside Tom Hanks and being directed by Steven Spielberg in The Post. If her performance is genuinely one of her best then she's probably in.

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Sally Hawkins plays a mute woman in The Shape of Water and giving a silent performance led Jane Wyman and Holly Hunter to Oscars for Johnny Belinda and The Piano, respectively. Hawkins has gotten great reviews and already appears to be a favourite for some people. She also benefits from her work in Maudie earlier this year. Moreover, some may remember her being left out for Happy-Go-Lucky almost ten years ago and want to rectify that.  Though arguably, she could be like Amy Adams in Arrival and ultimately miss out on nomination morning.

Jessica Chastain in Aaron Sorkin's directorial debut Molly's Game (he also wrote the screenplay) appears to be the same situation as last year's Miss Sloane, a well-reviewed performance that gets left by the wayside. Though with one of the most acclaimed actresses working today reciting Sorkin's writing, she can't be entirely dismissed.

I don't think last year's winner Emma Stone will be nominated again for Battle of the Sexes. It feels like the film kind of came and went, though a Golden Globes nomination in the comedy/musical category is certainly likely. And the winner before her, Brie Larson- unless she gets a surprise SAG nomination- is probably not going to get any love this year for The Glass Castle.

Speaking of ingenue winners, I thought Jennifer Lawrence gave her best performance in Darren Aronofsky's Mother! And with 4 nominations already at such a young age it's not a stretch to think she could get in. However, it's a polarising film that turns off many people.

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Salma Hayek in Beatriz at Dinner could be another Viggo Mortensen or Demian Bechir, propelled by critics' support in to the final five.

Annette Bening missed for 20th Century Women but she has another chance this year for Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool. But she'll need a good critics' push and a strong campaign to get in to the top five.

Nicole Kidman delivered strong work alongside Colin Farrell in The Beguiled and The Killing of a Sacred Deer. The Beguiled is a better bet but she seems too far down the list of contenders.

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Best Actor

Gary Oldman seems like a shoe-in for Best Actor in The Darkest Hour. All the ingredients are there: he's never one and is considered overdue, he's covered in make-up and is playing a real-life figure (Winston Churchill) in a WWII film. And if the film gets in for Best Picture/Director and technical awards, all the better. 

Some consider Denzel Washington to have been robbed for Fences and if anyone could challenge Oldman it'd be Washington for Roman J. Israel, Esq. However, the reviews are mixed and it just doesn't seem like it'll be a contender.

Another major challenger could be Daniel Day-Lewis in his supposed final role, The Phantom Thread, which re-teams him with his There Will Be Blood director Paul Thomas Anderson (who directed him to his second Best Actor Oscar). Day-Lewis was the first to win three Best Actor Oscars and if he won again he'd make history again. Still, Anderson's films have become increasingly polarising and if the film doesn't hit off, Day-Lewis could miss.  

Tom Hanks hasn't been nominated since 2000's Castaway and has missed out for Captain Phillips and Sully. He's the type of actor that makes it look easy, which is why I think he's often overlooked. But he could in for The Post, playing the editor of the Washington Post Ben Bradlee, a role that got Jason Robards a Supporting Actor Oscar for All The President's Men back in 1977

On the younger side of things, Andrew Garfield could pull a Eddie Redmayne and receive a consecutive Best Actor nomination for Breathe, in which he plays Robin Cavendish, who was inflicted with polio at the age of 28. With the love of his wife he sets out to help other polio patients. I can't help but think of The Theory of Everything, which won Redmayne the Best Actor Oscar. 

I feel Jake Gyllenhaal has been unfairly left out of Best Actor for his recent work (particularly Nightcrawler) but he has a chance this year for Stronger, the story Jeff Bauman, who lost his legs in the Boston Marathon bombing. Gyllenhaal benefits from a more open Best Actor field and the strength of previous un-nominated work.

James Franco in The Disaster Artist is a funny situation. Older viewers won't get why his interpretation of The Room director Tommy Wisseau is funny but he could get a lot of support from younger voters. 
This also appears to be the most transformative performance Franco has given, which also helps.

Timothee Chalamet would be one of the youngest Best Actor nominees in history if he gets in for Call Me By Your Name. I don't think he'll win but it'd a major boost for his career.

If Get Out really hits off, Daniel Kuluuya could get in. He's arguably the most underrated part of the movie and he grounds the film with genuine emotion.

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Best Supporting Actress

Allison Janney has received accolades for he work on TV but has never gotten an Oscar nomination. That's likely to change come nomination morning. Her performance as Tonya Harding's mother, LaVona Fay Golden in I, Tonya is the kind of meaty role that can take her a win, though I've heard the character is one-note. It's been remarked that the category this year is full of mothers. Laurie Metcalf and Holly Hunter are also up for playing mothers in Lady Bird and The Big Sick, respectively. It makes sense why Hunter is being positioned as the acting representative for the film. Along with Ray Romano, she's the most known actor in the film and has some standout moments.

Moving on from mothers to wives/girlfriends, Claire Foy being campaigned in this category for playing Diana Cavendish in Breathe appears to be a case of category fraud a la Alicia Vikander in The Danish Girl. Tatiana Maslany, who like Foy and Janney has gotten a lot praise for her TV work could get in for Stronger. And If The Darkest Hour is another The King's Speech, Kristen Scott Thomas could easily get in for playing Clementine Churchill.

Octavia Spencer could get a consecutive nomination after Hidden Figures for The Shape of Water. Mary J. Blige is also getting buzz for Mudbound, which would give us two black actresses in this category. And if Hong Cho gets in for Alexander Payne's science-fiction comedy Downsizing, we'd have the first Thai actress nominated for an Oscar. 

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Best Supporting Actor

Willem Dafoe could be getting a career achievement Oscar for his work in The Florida Project. He's the most recognisable actor in the film and would be the way to honour the film- since it faces strong competition in other categories.

Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson are both up for Three Billboards. Rockwell is a hard-working character actor who's never been nominated and it feels like Harrelson is due for another nomination considering his post-True Detective work. Unfortunately, two actors from the same film in the same category can lead the two cancelling each other out.

Speaking of which, there may be some category fraud with Armie Hammer being in Best Supporting Actor for Call Me By Your Name, where he's more of a co-lead. He and Chalamet's co-star Michael Stuhlbarg could actually sneak in over Hammer.

Ben Mendelshon is an expert character actor and may finally get his due with his role as King VI  in The Darkest Hour. Buzz is also growing for Mark Rylance in Dunkirk. He's the film's best bet for an acting nomination but I feel the film's characterisation is too minimal to snag a nomination.

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Best Original Screenplay

Martin McDonagh's screenplay for Three Billboards could be the one to beat but let's not forget Lady Bird, written by Greta Gerwig and loosely based on her adolescence. Jordan Peele's sharp and insightful screenplay for Get Out certainly deserves to be here. The Darkest Hour feels like the British Lincoln- which won Tony Kushner a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar in 2013. The film's writer, Anthony McCarten, could win. Moreover, he's a previous nominee for The Theory of Everything- as both screenwriter and producer.  

The Big Sick, written by Emily V. Gordan and Kumail Nanjiani and based on their relationship, could win, especially since this would be the place to honour the film. 

If The Shape of Water is to be a major contender Guillermo Del Toro's screenplay is sure to be here.

Look out for: The Post, The Florida Project

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Best Adapted Screenplay

This is where Call Me By Your Name could win, especially with James Ivory (of Merchant Ivory) being the film's screenwriter. Ivory hasn't been nominated at the Oscars since 1994 (Best Director, The Remains of the Day) and this would be his first screenplay nomination.

Aaron Sorkin missed out for Steve Jobs but he could come back for Molly's Game, especially if Chastain gets in for Best Actress.

If Mudbound becomes a Best Picture contender, Dee Rees and and Virgil Williams' screenplay will have a good chance of scoring a nomination 

The younger voters who would get James Franco in to Best Actor for The Disaster Artist would also put support behind its screenplay, written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber.

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Best Cinematography

Are the Academy ever going to give Roger Deakins an Oscar. His work on Blade Runner 2049 may finally earn him his first Oscar. Hoyte van Hoytema is gunning for his first nomination and possibly first win for Dunkirk.

Bruno Delbonnel has been nominated four times and will surely get a fifth for The Darkest Hour. The Shape of Water's Dan Lausten has never been nominated but appears poised to receive his first for Del Toro's romantic fantasy. Sayombhu Mukdeeprom is another conceivable newcomer for Call Me By Your Name.

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Best Editing 

I'm betting on Dunkirk to win this award, since the film is so much about its specific editing. Lee Smith has already been nominated twice and perhaps will win his first Oscar. The Darkest Hour's editor Valerio Bonelli is also a viable contender. Blade Runner 2049 will reasonably get several deserved technical nominations, and its editing contributes to its atmosphere as much as its cinematography. Expect Joe Walker, who was nominated for Arrival, to secure a second consecutive nomination and his third overall (his first being for 12 Years a Slave). Walter Fasano has already acquired a Spirit Awards nomination for his editing of Call Me By Your Name, which gives a boost. 

So, those are pretty much my thoughts as of now. What are your predictions and/or hopes for this year's Oscar nominations?

Friday, 3 November 2017

Revisiting the Thor Films

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With Thor: Ragnarok being released to North American audiences this weekend, I decided to revisit the first two Thor films. It feels like a long time since we've gotten a Thor film. Thor: The Dark World came out back in 2013, pre-The Winter Soldier and the first Guardians of the Galaxy. That film ended with a huge twist- Tom Hiddelston's Loki disguising himself as Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and ruling on the throne of Asgard. I find it surprising such a major plot point was never addressed in the subsequent Marvel films- though I assume Ragnarok wraps it up. 

The first Thor, directed by Kenneth Branagh, is the film that opened up the Marvel Cinematic Universe beyond Tony Stark/Iron Man. We already knew Stark was part of a larger universe but Thor announced that Norse Gods existed in this world. Branagh's background in theatre and Shakespeare suited the...well, Shakespearean qualities of the source material. The best parts of the film take place in Asgard. Usually I find the the fantasy elements in Hollywood blockbusters can come across as dry and exposition-heavy. However, I like the interpersonal dynamics of these scenes. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is about to be crowned Asgard's King when Frost Giants invade. They are killed but Thor wants to retaliate. His anger at this "day of triumph" being ruined and Odin dismissing Thor's desire for revenge shows his arrogance while also making him relatable. Loki is more reserved and an observational than Thor, an Iago-esque character that remains the MCU's most alluring antagonist.

Bo Welch's production design and the  gives Asgard a somewhat alien look feel. There's a grandness and mystery to it, with an specifically spooky atmosphere to it. Alexandra Byrne's costume design finds a middle ground between fantasy and science-fiction. I love how Thor's red cape stands out in this show. I also think it's a beautiful example of the production design, art direction and direction.
After battling with the Frost Giants in their home world of Jotenheim, Odin banishes Thor to Earth (Midgard to the Asgardians) and strips of his power. He sends Thor's hammer Mjolnir as well but Thor won't be able to pick it up until he becomes worthy. Thor encounters Astrophysicist Dr. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman,) Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) and Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings). S.H.I.E.L.D  shows up and takes all their equipment and research due to the three being where Thor landed on Earth. S.H.I.E.L.D's presence in the story is a good example of organic world-building. It makes sense they'd be in this story because they're interested in Mjolnir. They also provide essential conflict for Thor on Earth while not being outright villains. When Thor can't lift Mjolnir at the S.H.I.E.L.D research site and then is lied to by Loki (He tells Thor he's permanently banished) Thor goes from brass braggart to humbled man with no home shows how good Hemsworth is in this role. He's able to be both arrogant, charming, romantic, heroic, and vulnerable. It's a true superhero movie performance.

I think the best scene in the movie is Loki confronting Odin about true lineage. Loki is a Frost Giant- Laufey's (Colm Feore) son- Odin adopted when he was a baby, after Odin waged war against the Frost Giants. We feel Loki's resentment at being lied to and realising while Thor was always favoured over him. Odin's pain over his relationship with both his sons' being broken is also apparent. While Odin can be viewed as simply a pay-cheque role, I think Hopkins is great at both scenery-chewing and more deeply-felt moments. What's intriguing about Loki is you see the evolution of his villainy, though I think the script makes things a little too convenient for Loki, with Thor being banished and Odin, overcome with emotion, falls in to the "Odinsleep." And honestly, I'm still not sure what that it is.
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I wish this film was set entirely in Asgard- a Shakespearean Lord of the Rings mixed with Game of Thrones and 300. I do understand why they needed to create a connection between Thor and Earth, particularly his relationship with Jane. Hemsworth and Portman have good chemistry, the two characters clearly like each other. However, I think this romance needed a few more scenes to develop and deepen, particularly when we get to the second film. The relationship never feels like the grand romance it's supposed to be. 

Returning the matter of scale, I also think the filmmakers wanted to do a throwback to what a Thor movie would be like in the 80s or 90s. I find this movie resembles a early 2000s version of a Thor movie made with 2011 special effects. Even the use of the Foo Fighter's "Walk" over the end credits feels reminiscent of Sam Raimi's Spider-Man films.  

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I remember enjoying Thor: The Dark World in theatres, despite feeling it was just a filler film. Revisiting it for the first time since theatres, it's even more apparent the film is essentially a two part TV finale rather than a movie. It's story has potential but it's never fully developed enough, especially in a movie that's under two hours. That's not to say you can't have a well-developed story in under two hours, just that this film felt it needed more time to breathe. I glean there was difficulty in figuring where to take Thor next. Thor doesn't really have an arc in this film. At the beginning he doesn't want to be King of Asgard and by the end he feels the same way. The only real change is he admires Loki for sacrificing his life to help him; but that emotional development is undermined by the ending reveal, essentially an"Oh that Loki" moment that reinforces the filler quality of the film. 

The scenes between Thor and Loki are the film's strongest and emotional. Loki continues to be more multilayered than the other MCU villains. Moreover, The conversation between Loki and his his mother Frigga (Rene Russo) reveals Loki's emotional vulnerability. When he learns of her death at the hands of the Dark Elves, he psychically smashes things in his cell. Without dialogue or even seeing his face, we feel his anger and despair and his mother's death.  

Alan Taylor, who had directed several Game of Thrones episodes, replaced Branagh on this film. Taylor made sense as a replacement due to Game of Thrones having the qualities that would suit a Thor film but I feel Taylor doesn't bring the same directorial stamp as Branagh. Asgard does have a more Game of Thrones feel but it lacks the atmosphere and striking visual look of the first film

Malekith is the weakest villain of the MCU thus far, a shame since Christopher Eccleston is wasted and the character is much more entertaining sinister in the comics. I do like the Star Trek/Wars look of the Dark Elves, with their blasters and spaceships. They're a good representation of how the Thor side of the MCU blends fantasy and science fiction.

The teleportation climax is inventive and Thor getting on the train is a great bit. Skarsgard smartly deadpans Selvig's insanity after being possessed by Loki in The Avengers and is pretty funny- but I wish this plot thread was treated more dramatically. 

Ragnarok is supposed to be the best of the three Thor films. I gather it's the Iron Man 3 to The Dark World's Iron Man 2, less filler, more style and energy. I think Thor is a mostly good film and The Dark World has its entertaining moments but Ragnarok has be excited. Walking in to the Marvel films I always hope it'll be my favourite one so far. 

Thursday, 24 August 2017

"That's a name I've not heard in a long time..." Some thoughts on the Obi Wan Movie

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I find it a little odd how many Star Wars films we've gotten that take place before the original trilogy- the prequel trilogy, last year's Rogue One, and next year's Han Solo film. The original Star Wars doesn't feel to me like part four of an ongoing saga, even though it begins in the middle of a chase sequence. While the film establishes a larger mythology and backstory the film stands on its own.  This isn't to say I don't appreciate expanding the mythology- the mythology is I love most about Star Wars, even though I have issues with how the prequels dealt with certain events. I liked that Rogue One gave a reason for the Death Star's design flaw. This was an example of ret-conning I felt actually improved the original film's story. 

It was recently announced we will be getting an anthology film centred around Obi Wan Kenobi, with Oscar nominated filmmaker Stephen Daldry in talks to direct. It hasn't been revealed what will be the film's story but Lucasfilm and Disney are somewhat limited with what they can do with Obi Wan. The film can't really be an origin story since the prequel trilogy- even though its main focus was Anakin Skywalker's turn to the dark side and his transformation in to Darth Vader-  was about Obi Wan's relationship with Anakin and his journey from apprentice to Jedi Master. In The Phantom Menace we're introduced to Obi Wan as a padawan learner; he meets 9 year old Anakin, loses his master Qui-Gon Jinn at the hands of Sith Lord Darth Maul and kills Maul, becoming a Jedi Knight and taking on Anakin as an apprentice. In the subsequent prequels Obi Wan becomes a Jedi Master and a general in the Clone Wars. Ultimately Obi Wan and Anakin duel, leading to Anakin becoming horrifically burned  and being placed in the iconic Darth Vader suit. The prequel trilogy even ends with Obi Wan walking off in to the Tatooine desert, book-ending the trilogy, as he was in the first scene of the trilogy. 

The only other way to do an Obi Wan origin is to go back pre-The Phantom Menace, with Obi Wan as a teen. For me there's not really a story there; Obi Wan's story begins with The Phantom Menace and ends with him reunited in death with his friends at the end of Return of the Jedi. The Clone Wars have already been covered pretty much by the animated series. To me- and I always presumed this would be the case- the story of the Obi Wan film would be his time on Tatooine looking over Luke Skywalker and living as a hermit. I know some people will wonder how you could make a movie out of that time period. I envision it as western/samurai film, with Obi-Wan helping people- going by the name "Ben" of course. George Lucas was heavily inspired by the films of Akira Kurosawa so I think it's appropriate to return to those works for inspiration- think Yojimbo and Sanjuro. 

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The film would largely be a character study, exploring the psychology of a man who's lost everything. The Republic he fought for has become an authoritarian Empire, the Clones who fought alongside him betrayed him and the other Jedi Knights, his friend and brother has become an agent of evil, for which he's partly responsible, and the Lars family- who are raising Luke- don't want a thing to do with him. It's a pretty bleak story, even though, as with the other prequel films, we know there will eventually be hope. The fact that the filmmakers behind Rogue One were allowed to kill off the entire principal cast gives me hope we could get a film that shows Obi Wan in a really dark place. 

Of course, Ewan McGregor would return. McGregor has expressed interest in the past regarding a possible solo film. For people who grew up with the prequels there would be a definite nostalgic reaction to McGregor's return. And even though I have my issues with the prequels I do like McGregor's performance- particularly his final moments with Anakin. Joel Edgerton- who played Luke's Uncle Owen Lars in the prequels could also return. I'd like to see the conflict between Owen and Obi Wan. Owen would blame Obi Wan for Anakin's turn to the dark side and wouldn't want leading Luke down the path of becoming a Jedi. 
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I do hope we eventually move past the original trilogy's characters and events but I hold that there's real potential for a compelling and beautiful drama about Obi Wan during his life on Tatooine, a film that isn't merely another franchise movie.