Making a Scene: Westworld season two…

It has been a while since I did an in-depth scene analysis, and I felt the time was ripe. Since Westworld season two has been airing for the past few weeks, and every scene in it is loaded with meaning, symbolism and subtext, I thought I’d take some time to look at one of my favourite scenes. The series seems to top itself every week, but there was a scene last week that was just a great blend of fantastic action and masterful character development. Jonathon Nolan, who is the writer behind many of his brother Christopher’s best films, is, in my opinion, one of the best writers in the industry currently. Here he works with his wife Lisa Joy to create one of the best scenes, and indeed the best episode, of the whole series so far. From this point onward there will be spoilers, so be careful.

The Riddle of the Sphinx is the fourth episode of the second season of Westworld. It continues multiple story-lines which are all infinitely interesting, however, for the purpose of this analysis we are focusing on the story-line of William, the Man in Black. After spending all of last season searching for the centre of the maze, hoping to discover a hidden meaning behind the park and create real stakes for the game, he finally got his wish when Ford allowed the hosts to shoot and kill the human guests. So far in the second season, he has been tasked with a new quest from hosts programmed by Ford; find the door. In this week’s episode, after finding his favourite host Laurence once again, he takes him back to his home town, hoping to find new hosts to help him on his journey. However, they find the place overrun by confederados, led by the unhinged Craddock, who after being resurrected by controllers last week is convinced he is death’s chosen man. In the scene I want to explore, he has the town under his thrall, and is using a glass of nitro-glycerine to taunt Laurence’s wife. He boasts of his relationship to death to William, who appears to be beginning to pity the hosts. As he looks at the women balancing the nitro in the rain, he is reminded of his wife’s suicide, and a twinge of guilt causes him to turn on Craddock. In a pivotal moment, he tells the man, “You didn’t recognise him sitting across from you this whole time…” and with that, he guns down Craddock’s men and allows Laurence to finish Craddock, performing, for the first time in decades, a righteous act.

There is a lot to unpack in this scene, which is why I have included a clip above. The episode is a directorial debut from Lisa Joy, co-creator of Westworld. She proves to be a masterful director, with a firm grasp of visual symbolism and subtlety. Her choice to shoot the scene in the rain creates a strong mood; rain is often used in pivotal moments to reflect turmoil within characters. However, the rain is also a great parallel to William’s own past. We see shots of water from a bathtub, mixed with blood, making it clear that this moment is reminding William of his wife’s death, without a need to show the actual body. The many close ups of water highlight this and provide a great metaphor for what this means for William. As he exits the tavern and faces off against the confederados, the rain serves as a symbolic baptism hinting at the idea of washing away past sins and starting again. However, the brutal way in which he forces Craddock to drink his own glass of nitro shows us that his good acts are still tempered by violence. William still has a way to go. The shots are well chosen and beautifully framed. The tight close ups and mid shots of the Man in Black make this his personal moment of triumph, a decision which has changed his arch for the rest of the season.

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The dialogue is crisp and chilling in this scene as well. Written by Gina Atwater and Jonathan Nolan, the script has no unnecessary words. William, after having been confronted with death in a real way that shook his understanding, doesn’t appreciate Craddock blabbering on about it. He knows that no host knows true death, and indeed has become desensitised to it himself over the years of coming to the park, to the point where he cannot process it when his wife succumbs to it. He chides Craddock, telling him that he hasn’t known a true thing in his life, but that death is true, final. He speaks of death with a reverence and an understanding that comes from his new experience of it. It is also very appropriate that he identifies himself as death, both because it shows his reliance on his tough persona, and because it shows the guilt he feels over his wife’s demise, partly because his daughter blames him for it.

So, the direction and scripting are both perfectly crafted, but what of the music? Ramin Djawadi, famous for Game of Thrones, provides the score for Westworld as well. This scene is him at his finest, lacing the scene with a mournful and somehow triumphant beat. The final moments also use the man in black’s personal leitmotif, an ominous and impressive tune which takes on a new meaning when William starts to finally stand up for the hosts. He becomes less of a villain and more of a dark protector, and the music reflects this. This musical change is mirrored in scenes with Dolores, who has begun to accept her role as the villain, which is reflected in a darker soundtrack whenever she is onscreen. It is interesting because it seems that Dolores and William are starting to switch roles as the series goes on. Djawadi does a smashing job in this scene and it illustrates and dictates the tone of it impeccably.

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Finally, we come to the actors themselves. Jonathan Tucker, who plays Major Craddock, does a great job playing a robot that has gone wrong, finding out that he cannot die. He plays a man who is unhinged, madness playing beneath the calm eyes. But the star of the show is Ed Harris. This is his scene, and he plays the contemplation of his situation perfectly. His thoughtful stares as he tries to come to terms with his wife’s death once again, and his delivery of his tough guy dialogue really sell the scene. He is a master of looking cool, in each of his action scenes his physicality and commitment really emphasis how long he has been playing this game. He is my favourite character for a very good reason. He is complex and cool at the same time.

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So, looking back over the scene, there is a lot to enjoy. The music, direction and dialogue are finely crafted to achieve a very meaningful and action filled scene. The actors give top performances, especially Ed Harris, and they are given perfect lines. The scene of course is part of a great episode on the whole, but it stands out to me as an almost transcendent moment, that will become a highlight for the entire series. I recommend Westworld for anyone, and I recommend this scene above all.

Deadpool 2: Bigger, Funnier, Better.

Deadpool is an interesting and often hilarious character from Marvel Comics. Whilst not always handled well, his character has the potential to be a great satire of superheroes in general, and a vital contrast, should the comics ever become too po-faced. Ever since I saw X-Men Origins: Wolverine, I have been hoping to see a better film adaptation of Deadpool. In that film he was wasted, expertly cast as Ryan Reynolds, who is a master of the quickfire quip, but given little connection to his comic counterpart. They even removed his mouth, one of the most important aspects of the character. In 2016 I finally got my wish. Deadpool was a smashing film, with some great crass and stupid humour, mixed in with a dollop of good-natured piss-taking at the expense of the entire superhero genre.

I did however, have some criticism. The film suffered from a lack of budget, although that did lead to a rather amusing joke in which Deadpool leaves most of his guns in the car and cannot use them. While it poked fun at other superhero and marvel films, Deadpool offered nothing as an alternative. There was little substance, and I could have used a few cleverer jokes, perhaps some proper character development. The new film seems to address much of my issues, perhaps owing to the increased budget or the change of director, and as a consequence I love it even more. There are more characters, a much more interesting plot, some fantastic cameos and a genuine emotional core, albeit one that is constantly interrupted for more jokes. I’m going to get into some specifics about the movie now so consider this your spoiler warning.

Deadpool 2 is a deeper movie than the first one. I know that sounds ridiculous, and I don’t mean that this is anywhere near the emotional wringer Logan was, but this sequel has matured slightly. Deadpool goes through loss and growth and comes out at the end, still a clown, but a clown with more weight as a character. His partner, Vanessa is murdered because of his actions as a contract killer, although one who only kills bad people. His arch throughout the film is to come to terms with her death and try to redeem himself for his inadvertent role in her death. This creates an interesting parallel between him and the film’s major villain, Cable. While Deadpool sinks into rock bottom in the most fantastically comedic way, Cable is dealing with the death of his family at the hands of another mutant. Travelling back to the past, he tries to kill the teenage boy who will one day destroy his family. This boy, played with just the right level of anger and vulnerability by Julian Dennison has grown up in an orphanage alone and abused. As such he desperately needs care and affection, but unfortunately comes across Deadpool right at the wrong moment, leading him down a dark path the kill the ones who tortured him. So, for the majority of the film, Wade Wilson tries to prevent Cable from taking out the boy, and recruits domino, played by Zazie Beetz to help.

The performances are very entertaining. It was a wise choice to cast Julian Dennison, who has proven to be an excellent comedic and serious actor in Hunt for the Wilder-people, directed by Taika Waititi. He manages to balance the feeling of years of torment and abuse with some excellent line delivery and great comedic timing. He matches Ryan Reynolds in every scene they are in, which is amazing as Reynolds himself is on fire. These films capitalise on Reynolds skills as a comedy actor perfectly, and I really admire the actor’s willingness to go there. Zazie Beetz, although with less funny lines, is still a great portrayal as Domino, very confident and cool with a calm outlook that contrasts well with Deadpool’s extreme energy. Josh Brolin plays a gruff, over the top Cable with a degree of empathy and is a fantastic straight man to Deadpool’s comedy. He could do with more depth as a character, but that is no fault of Brolin’s who looks like he was born to play Cable. The CGI for his robotic disease and Winter Soldier arm is very slick. There is also a ton of cameo performances that lend the film a much bigger scope than the first one, which felt a bit too self-contained. My personal favourite was the Vanisher, who we didn’t even know was real until he was killed, revealing the character to be played by Brad Pitt.

This film’s humour is on point. There is a good mix of fourth wall breaking, immature gags, violence and crudity, and very accurate jokes at the expense of the superhero genre. I laughed much more in this than in the first film, and I found that film really funny to begin with. I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone however. If you don’t like the more crude and gory style of humour then this isn’t a film for you. This film is quite brutal in places, although it goes right along with the tone. It is an excessive film, but excessive in the right way. The cinematography isn’t particularly memorable. There are a few shots that I remember thinking were well done, but I rarely noticed them. The costume design toes the line between cool and ridiculous. Cable is obviously over the top macho fantasy, but it is balanced by the X-force team, all of whom have silly impractical get-ups, designed to worn with the tongue firmly planted in the cheek. While Deadpool’s costume is well done, it degrades as the film goes on, by the end it is half made of duct tape, which is a nice subtle gag.

Overall, this film is a great time. It balances a varied and almost eclectic sense of humour with some genuine moments of emotion and character growth and presents a character who copes with the world through humour, coming to terms with great loss, and trying to save a young boy. This film may not be Schindler’s List but it does much more than I expected. It has grown and learned from the film that came before and doesn’t just repeat what worked in that film. I recommend this to anyone who watched the first one, and to anyone who enjoys a good R rated superhero comedy.

Infinity War: Finally Marvel has stakes…

The new Avengers film is a nice surprise…

I have felt a little burned out about marvel films for quite a while now. The problem is that there are so many superhero films coming out at the moment. While I love films like Thor Ragnarok I just can’t muster the same enthusiasm as back in 2012, when superheroes were becoming so popular for the first time. It’s been ten years, and I feel as though Hollywood needs a new fad, perhaps fantasy. So, when I went into this film I was fully expected it to be mediocre in every way. I couldn’t see how they would juggle so many characters in one film, or how they would make a coherent plot to begin with. However, I find myself pleasantly surprised by Avengers: Infinity War. It’s not a masterpiece, but it is a well-made film with some excellent action and some genuine character growth. Let’s take a closer look. Oh, and spoilers of course.

One of the first things that struck me about Infinity War is that is has managed to find focus. The Russo brothers have learned from directing films like Civil War that an ensemble film needs a character to focus on in order to have purpose. There were so many heroes in this films line-up that to focus on any to a large degree would have made the film feel uneven, and so the clever solution of the film is that is makes Thanos essentially the main character. Making the villain of the movie the most prominent character might strike some as odd but it allows him to become a much more layered and interesting character, which solves the villain problem Marvel has had for a while. Normally a Marvel villain, with one or two exceptions, is simply an antagonistic force to propel the plot forward, rather than an interesting character in his/her own right. Thanos by contrast has a plan, motivation, backstory and even a relationship to one of the characters. He has genuine affection for his adopted daughter Gamora. This is helped by some fantastic CGI, and a great motion capture performance by Josh Brolin, who makes Thanos into a very human character, one we may not root for, but can all understand.

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The cast all give solid performances, although inevitably the more popular and older characters get more screen time. There are too many actors to go through each of their performances and so I’m focusing on a few choice characters that stood out to me. Off the success of Ragnarok, Thor now has a much larger role, spending time with the Guardians of the Galaxy and taking Rocket and Groot to make a new weapon to take on Thanos himself. Thor is beaten soundly at the start of the film by Thanos and watches helpless as his people and friends are slain. The decision to kill Loki was a smart one, as his character arc had really finished in Ragnarok. Him dying at the hands of Thanos is also symbolic, representing a new, more threatening antagonist destroying the old. Chris Hemsworth plays a darker Thor than ever before, deeply hurting from the loss of all that he holds dear and is ready to die in order just to get back at Thanos. The scene in which takes the full force of a dying star in order to make his new axe is very powerful, as it forces him to earn the powerful weapon. When he uses it in battle at the end of the film, it doesn’t feel cheap because he has spent most of the film earning it.

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Robert Downey Jr is always fun as Tony Stark, and the way he clashes with the similar character of Doctor Strange is satisfying. Gamora, played by Zoe Saldana gives a moving performance as she grapples with her severe father issues, as well as the close bond she and Peter Quill have developed. Her and Chris Pratt have a great chemistry and it is great to see them share a moment. This emphasis on her character did make it clear she was going to die from the beginning, but it was still a powerful moment watching Thanos sacrifice her to gain his power. His genuine regret made the scene all the more unnerving.

Speaking of death, the film pulls few punches. We lose Gamora and Loki, two fairly major players who been with the MCU for a long while. At the end of the film, Thanos succeeds with his plan and wipes out half the universe. This is so refreshing I cannot emphasise it enough. Death has not mattered in the Marvel Universe for far too long. So many of these films are hampered by the fact they have not real stakes. We know the characters will all survive. In this film, not only do we fear for all the characters, knowing now that they may die, but it makes Thanos a credible threat. The fact that the film begins with him wiping out the Asgardians, whilst sort of ruining the ending of Ragnarok, sets the tone perfectly. No-one is safe.

Admittedly it would have been nice if one of the big three, Iron Man, Captain America or Thor had bit the bullet, but it is still a great start. The fact that the Avengers lose in failing to stop Thanos is so refreshing it elevates the film. No doubt they will still triumph next year in the sequel, but it is great to have the villain win for once. Many characters disappear as a consequence, including several major characters like Black Panther, Spider-man and almost all of the Guardians. However, I can’t feel sad about this, as it is pretty obvious they’ll all be returning next year. There are plans for sequels to Black Panther and Spider-man: Homecoming for a start. But nevertheless, the stakes have been raised for the next film, and I wait with bated breath to see what they will with Thanos next year.

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Finally, the action in this film is top-notch. There are some decent skirmishes on Earth early in the film which are quite fun, but for me the standout is the Battle for Wakanda that happens whilst Thanos fights Iron Man and Doctor Strange on Titan. The battle is shot very well, using the Russo Brothers signature hand held style, and it gets in amongst the action in a very unique way. The scale of the battle is impressive, and the brutal way they fight is a nice change from the over choreographed flippy style that tends to affect other Marvel films. I love that basic tactics are used in the battle, such as opening the shield around Wakanda to create a bottle-neck. Each of the fighters get a moment to shine, all except for the Hulk, and it almost reminds me of the battle sequences from Lord of the Rings. That isn’t to say the fight with Thanos is boring; the magical duel between him and Doctor Strange uses some very beautiful visuals, including transforming energy blasts into butterflies. A great gag in the film is that Thanos keeps turning his enemies’ attacks into bubbles. Overall the action is well done, and in places outstanding.

Apart from a few moments in which the film renders plots from previous movies obsolete, my major gripe is that the film lacks a unique visual style. Whilst it has many beautiful moments and images, it suffers from the blend of so many different locations, as though several marvel films crashed into each other. But this was never distracting and I can’t really think of any way the Russo brothers could have avoided this.

Avengers Infinity War may not be a masterpiece, it has issues and could definitely improve, but it is still a great fun movie. It has learned quite a lot from the films that came before and manages to juggle the most characters I have seen in one movie, while not feeling overstuffed. It somehow keeps focus, finally provides an engaging villain, and creates a desperate tone that keeps you paying attention all the way through. It has real stakes for the first time in a Marvel film and some fantastic performances from its cast. I recommend this, but be warned, you do have to have seen most of the previous Marvel movies in order to get what is going on!