Review: Hellraiser (1987)

Some films fill you with a feverish excitement and the ability to endlessly rhapsodise about them like a hyperactive parrot. Hellraiser is one of those films. Since I first saw it in my late teens, the film has equally disturbed and fascinated me.

Written, adapted and directed by Clive Barker from his novella- ‘The Hellbound Heart’, the 1987 film is about a couple who have moved from Brooklyn to England. For wife, Julia (Clare Higgins), the move represents an awakening of the past, as the house is where she had an affair with her husband’s brother- Frank (Sean Chapman). While moving a mattress upstairs- Larry’s (Andrew Robinson) hand is caught on a nail. When his blood spills on the floor panels of the upstairs attic, Frank awakens in a horrific state.

To restore his human appearance, he has to feed on strangers and absorb their blood. He makes a pact with Julia to do this to hide from the Cenobites. They’re hellish demons who respond to the call of people who summon them (via a puzzle box). Frank previously escaped from the clutches of their continual torture.

In the context of the late 80s horror scene, Hellraiser is an interesting outlier. The slasher genre was still stoking the genre’s popularity in multiplexes. Films such as Evil Dead 2 and Re-Animator were experimenting with the genre’s blurred line between horror and comedy.

Hellraiser in part represents a return to the genre’s roots as well as a bold step forward for it too. The film is fundamentally a Gothic horror picture that plays with eroticism. In fact, in its best moments, the film blurs the line between the Gothic and erotic, essentially making them exist on the same plane of existence.

The premise of a puzzle box that promises a world of indescribable pleasure feels in keeping with the sweeping and sublime qualities of Gothic fiction. At the same time, the central house is a great inversion of the typical looming Gothic mansions that permeate the genre.

Clive Barker’s best moments of direction are when he evokes the typical elements of Gothic stories and harmonises them with the film’s erotic subtext. One moment that stands out is when Julia is engulfed in shadow at the top of a stairway.

In similar stories, there would have been something ominous about a character in this pose. However, Barker frames Julia as someone whose trying to hide the shame of sexual longing that she clings to with desperation.

Despite the film representing the debut of horror icon- Pinhead (Doug Bradley), the character is interestingly quite limited in his screentime. While Doug Bradley casts a looming presence with his detached and forthright vocals as the lead cenobite, Clare Higgins proves to be the centrepiece of the film.

Higgins impresses in her subtle changes of character that manifest throughout the film, such as a small moment where she collects herself after a murder or her imposing physicality when confronting Larry’s daughter- Kirsty (Ashley Laurence).

Through Julia, the puzzle of Hellraiser’s appeal is unlocked with the film being about a marriage in its last throes. It becomes quite drastic that the equilibrium between Julia and Larry gets restored (albeit in a twisted way). In this way, the 1987 picture takes on a dramatic quality, with the lack of intimacy and warmness between the pair becoming quite potent and apparent to the viewer.

However, the reason that Hellraiser has resonated and stuck with me for many years is how it constructs its horror. Most films in the genre involve the protagonist being complicit in the evil that befalls them: going to a forbidden place, reading from an ancient scroll or meddling with something forbidden. On the surface, Hellraiser has this quality with Frank opening the puzzle box. But the film has this eerie quality that the supernatural is so present in the mundane that it could spill into it.

Subtle choices such as echos of Frank’s voice when Julia first walks up into the attic illustrate this. But Barker also has sequences that greatly rely on the juxtaposition between the surreal and mundane, such as a scene where a hobo eats flies while Kirsty is on shift at a local pet shop.

In this way, Hellraiser portrays the every day like a puzzle box that’s slowly being unravelled by the supernatural forces, who plie the characters with seductive promises of new sensations. But like the core of most H.P. Lovecraft stories, the knowledge and reality of such supernatural entities are inherently maddening.

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Review: To Catch a Thief (1955)

Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest has been often interpreted as his version of a James Bond picture. However, To Catch a Thief is equally worthy of consideration for the crown. Cary Grant’s John Robie (a former cat burglar) has to go undercover with a fake alias in an exotic location (the French Riviera) and catches the eye of a beautiful woman- Frances Stevens (Grace Kelly). Kelly’s character has a Bond nickname of sorts. She prefers that everyone calls her Francie. Okay. It’s not a cringe-worthy name that resides in innuendo town, but it’s cute. Barring a world domination plot, an egomaniacal villain who likes to monologue, and a gimmicky henchman whose primary occupation is scowling: To Catch a Thief is a pleasant and witty primer to the Bond franchise.

Like the famous spy franchise, it’s an appealing travelogue with the lush French Riviera taking centre stage. However, unlike the franchise, it’s a heightened fantasy with much more humble ambitions. Instead of presenting an appealing lifestyle filled full of adventure, intrigue and hedonist fulfilment, Thief is about the moment to moment delights.

This comes from John Michael Hayes’s screenplay that’s filled with such wit that you could feel the writer hugging himself after each zinger. It’s intentionally catty (particularly between Stevens and her mother). But it’s also filled with joyful curiosity. The dialogue is used as a tool to tease and unmask, particularly illustrated in Robie’s and Steven’s combative but flirtatious relationship. In this way, To Catch a Thief is about the power of the encounter, meeting someone, figuring out their motives, and trying to unpick them with sharpness.

Cary Grant has always come across as the affable reluctant hero. He’s also someone who’s on the cheerier side of Humphrey Bogart in portraying his cynicism and annoyance at his plight. However, his performance in Thief is striking for its flickers of humanity. These come in moments where he’s protesting his innocence, hinting at a quiet desperation for people to understand him. But his best moment is when Stevens and a French girl he meets called Danielle Foussard (Brigitte Auber) are trading barbs and he’s caught in the middle. Stevens asks him- “Enjoying yourself, Mr Burns?” Nearly every Bond actor would have played that moment like an amorous Cheshire cat. But Grant’s facial expressions hint at a relatable awkwardness.

Grace Kelly is impressive in portraying a sense of nonchalance and scepticism that make her character intriguing. But her later moments of elation at discovering Grant’s character make the actress particularly impressive. She balances a sense of girlish glee and seductiveness in wanting to be complicit as Robie’s partner in crime.

Nowadays, we often think of Hitchcock as a cinematic auteur whose films contained strange and interesting subtext of his predilections towards his actresses (among other things). However, before this French revisionism of his work (courtesy of François Truffaut), the British director was thought of as a populist who made light fare. To Catch a Thief is an encapsulation of this pre-Truffaut mindset.

Hitchcock’s direction is playful. There’s a sense of wryness going on behind the camera, particularly in the opening robbery that’s juxtaposed with a slinking cat. Even Hitch’s trademark tension has this quality. A shotgun is set up and used as a prank to fool the audience as well as the French police that Robie is attempting to escape from.

To Catch a Thief may not hold a candle to other Hitchcock films, it’s nevertheless, spirited, enjoyable and embodies the director as a skilled craftsman of well put together features. Its screenplay and main actors lead the way in making the film charming. Along with North by Northwest, the film deserves recognition in inspiring the Bond franchise.

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Brief Thoughts on a Trailer: Dune (2020)

If there ever was a trailer that was going to make me drop everything and immediately watch (with the mad crazed energy of a chihuahua on a sugar high) then it’s the one for Denis Villeneuve’s Dune. In a year that’s been unpredictable and scary, Frank Herbert’s book series has been my one constant haven. But even before that, the David Lynch film was my pathway to my love affair with the director’s surrealist films, the music of Brian Eno and ambient music.

Remarkably, the trailer does effortlessly sell the appeal of the celebrated book series, while also providing enough for general audiences to raise a curious eyebrow. Part of this comes from the framing of the trailer. The novel’s tense and dramatic opening is the backdrop for the trailer. The protagonist (Paul Atreides) is tested by Gaius Helen Mohiam via putting his hand in a box where he will feel pain. If he removes it, he dies via a poisoned needle (referred to as a Gom Jabbar in the novel).

By showing us this scene, the filmmakers illustrate some of the things that Paul has to consider, such as leadership, legacy and what he does when he’s caught in a tough spot. At the same time, these scenes hint at some of the themes that Herbert contended within the novel, namely what differentiates human beings from animals and the inheritance of power.

For the casual moviegoer, the trailer impresses with some stunning imagery (courtesy of DP Greig Fraser). The planet Arrakis is shown in full bloom with sweeping desert vistas and intimate granular detail. But the trailer’s starker scenes, such as the one where we see a full display of military power that’s arranged in front of a tall rock formation and line of ships, particularly catch the eye. I love the scene’s use of light (via the sun) that breaks through some spots of the clouds and randomly illuminates some of the elements we see in the scene (such as the soldiers and parts of the ships).

But if there’s one scene from the trailer that personifies this dance of appeal for the Dune trailer, then it’s the final one with the Sandworm. It’s a stunning spectacle, particularly when we see the creature’s full open mouth. There’s a sound design choice of a protracted intake of breath that makes me think of vintage science fiction movies (particularly Alien and 2001). A moment like this would emphasis the excitement, but there’s almost a haunting quality with this sound design choice, proving that Dune might follow in the footsteps of its genre brethren of stimulating the senses and mind.

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Review: Mulan (2020)

Out of all the animated features that graced the 90s Disney renaissance, Mulan was the most intriguing. The film proved to be an interesting inversion of the Disney formula: justifying the existence of its central sidekick (Mushu) by paralleling his plight with that of the main character. The narrative also existed as a post-modern commentary and subversion of Disney Princesses (namely their place in society and the movies at large). By comparison, the 2020 live-action remake is a resplendent war epic that is allowed to soar by leaning into the realism and genre conventions of its premise.

Mulan (2020) tells the story of a young woman who is expected to bring honour to her family by being a dutiful suitor to an aspiring husband. However, Mulan (Liu Yifei) has always had boundless energy (Qi) that she’s had to suppress to conform to her station in life. However, when the Chinese Emperor (Jet Li) issues conscription for every family, Mulan takes her ailing father’s place by masquerading as a man to fight in the upcoming war. China is under threat from a vengeance filled warrior known as Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee), who is allied with a witch called Xian Lang (Gong Li). He seeks revenge on the Emperor who killed his father.

Despite being stripped of the musical element, comedic sidekicks and occasionally goofy tone, the live-action remake proves to hold its own. This is partly due to its change in emphasis. If the original was about a woman trying to bring honour to her family in an unconventional manner, then the new movie is about what happens when society discourages potential.

This is most clearly drawn in the relationship between Mulan and Lang. The female antagonist is a dark reflection of Mulan insofar as her path shows what could happen if Mulan is rejected by society because of revealing her full self and skill as a warrior in battle. Lang’s realisation of trading societal subjugation for a loss of personal control is when Mulan’s screenplay is at its best.

But the film does manage to retain some of the original’s spirit. Harry Gregson-Williams’s score gives the tunes of the animated film an orchestral makeover that provides some of the film’s most emotional moments. And the film does lean into the ickiness that Mulan found with spending time with the male soldiers (via a recurring physical comedic joke).

As the title character, Yifei proves to be a versatile actress who is able to admirably balance the comedic awkwardness of her predicament and the dramatic moments of internal strife. Gong Li is a striking presence with her bird-like physicality and imposing costume design. Meanwhile, Donnie Yen and Jet Li add prestige and gravity to their brief roles.

At times, the film staggers into the overwrought territory. There’s an overabundance of narration from Mulan’s father, which seeks to over-explain aspects that the viewer is pretty clued in on. There’s also a magical realism motif in the form of a Phoenix who follows Mulan throughout her journey. The metaphor and continued use of the creature prove to bludgeon the audience senselessly, particularly when a character uses it as a motivational tool in the last act.

Mulan’s greatest strength proves to be a double-edged sword. Visually, the film is a sumptuous effort with some epic vistas where the characters appear like microscopic specs in comparison with the looming portrait of nature. One moment that particularly struck me was a scene when Mulan is looking at her horse on a mountain amid the backdrop of a beige twilight. The frame is engulfed with the mountainous terrain and you almost have to squint to notice the character in the top left-hand side of the frame.

Director Niki Caro also employs some breathtaking sweeping shots, quaint stop motion photography and bird’s-eye shots to cement the film’s war epic status. The imagery and filmmaking actually solve a problem that’s plagued previous live-action remakes, which is making the visuals as imaginative and absorbing as their animated counterparts.

With its striking cinematic moments, Mulan is made to be seen on the silver screen and the film loses power at home. In this way, the film is akin to a West End production, awkwardly shuffling on a small and cramped high school stage.

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Review: X-Men (2000)

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In the context of the booming comic book movie genre, returning to watch X-Men is akin to looking through old photos of yourself as a teenager. Sure, you looked goofy trying to be a goth or regret that one time you climbed up a flag pole to impress a crush, but you nevertheless understand the choices you made at that age. The same applies to X-Men, a flawed pilot that’s more interesting as a road map for the genre than a fulfilling singular experience.

The 2000 superhero film is about a bitter struggle between two mutants. Mutants are human beings who are born with powers that first manifest under highly emotional situations or in early adolescence. Charles Xavier aka Professor X (Patrick Stewart) advocates peaceful co-existence with the human race through education and understanding. Whereas Eric Lensharr aka Magneto (Ian McKellen) believes that mutants are the next stage in human evolution, who should take their place as the dominant species on the planet.

Caught in the middle are two lone mutants- Marie aka Rogue (Anna Paquin) and Logan aka Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). They attempt to find their place in Xavier’s school for gifted youngsters amongst the backdrop of the US Senate’s continual pressure for mutant registration.

Bryan Singer’s choice of a stripped down, colourless and plausible reality (with allusions to real world history) in which mutants can exist feels like a foreshadowing of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. But on this viewing, Singer’s film has the closest relationship with Nolan’s Batman Begins. Just like that film posited fear as a weapon of its protagonist and antagonist, Singer’s uses fear as the main driving force of his movie.

This comes into play with the presentation of the powers. There are many sequences that illustrate the revealing of the character’s abilities as a horrific moment of self discovery, whether it’s a young Eric Lensharr’s magnetic powers being revealed as a response to being separated from his mother or the first time Wolverine unleashes his claws on a man in a bar. Singer even extends this aspect to some of the X-Men with Storm’s (Halle Berry) and Cyclops’s (James Marsden) first appearance having an ominous quality.

In fact, fear is a major factor of the plot. To end many people’s fear and uncertainty of mutants, Magneto creates a machine that will induce mutation in all the world leaders of of an international summit. The first time Magneto tests the machine results in some of the film’s most striking imagery, with Senator Kelly’s (Bruce Davison) new form being a cross between Cronenberg body horror and comic book imagery.

Ian McKellen steals the show as a central antagonist. Despite the character’s horrific backstory, McKellen plays the part with a deep seated sense of superiority and condescension, manifesting in biting asides (delivered with great comic timing) and quite pointed observations. Hugh Jackman’s performance proves to do a lot of heavy lifting. Not only does Jackman deftly play the character’s animalistic aggression and tendencies with ease, but he also plays a reluctant mentor, romantic lead and the film’s sole postmodern voice (via calling out the absurdities of the source material) remarkably well.

X-Men’s problems come from integrating aspects from the source material within the established plausible aesthetic. Some of the elements such as Magneto’s sidekicks (Toad and Sabretooth) come across as too campy to exist within the world established in the film. And the love triangle between Jean Grey, Logan and Scott Summers comes across as forced. There’s a sense that the screenwriters and Singer added these aspects as an afterthought as opposed organically integrating them. In their current form, they seem quite shallow and underdeveloped (particularly Sabretooth and Wolverine’s relationship or lack thereof).

For Singer, it would be a slow climb to embracing the colourful and melodramatic flair of the source material. But as it stands, X-Men feels like a small scale television pilot that’s laying out the table for its conflict. However, aside from Rogue and Wolverine, there’s little consideration for the other characters and their place in the larger conflict. One gets the sense that the screenwriters don’t know what to do with some of the more ancillary pieces in Magneto’s and Professor X’s seemingly eternal game of Chess.

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Editorial: My Top Five X-Men Scenes

5) An Awkward Reunion 

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If you wanted an encapsulation of James McAvoy’s range as Charles Xavier, then this scene delivers in spades. Awkward, amusing, heartfelt and even flirtatious, McAvoy deftly illustrates Xavier’s hard but necessary choice to erase Moira McTaggart’s memory of him and mutants at large.

At the same time, the scene is also a post-modern response to Superman erasing Lois Lane’s memory in Superman II. This scene takes that silly and unexplored plot point and illustrates its dramatic weight, with Xavier having to put personal desire aside for the good of the larger cause. The lingering moments of Xavier reflecting on the fact he carries memories of times that Moira does not remember is particularly resonating. The scene is also great for its small details, such as the picture of Ronald Reagan in the background as well as Xaiver’s casualness at freezing an entire room of people.

4) A Metal Escape

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One of X-Men 2’s greatest strengths is the set pieces it creates out of some of the mutant powers. While the opening Nightcrawler sequence is a visceral treat, I prefer Magneto’s escape for what it says about the character. From the beginning, Erik Lehnsherr is like a predator slowly circling its prey with the discovery that his security guard has too much iron in his blood.

From here, the sequence is like a series of cinematic splash pages that could have easily graced a comic book issue. Out of the blood that Lehnsherr extracts, little metallic balls are formed that brake the glass of the prison. Then Lehnsherr creates a single metal disc that he uses to travel to the entrance of the prison. Aside from being an amusing and cool display of power, the scene best illustrates Magneto’s lofty sense of self, particularly when travelling on the self created metallic disc.

In this moment, Ian McKellen (particularly in his physicality via loosely crossed arms) plays the part as though he’s a genie that’s just been released from a lamp, and is ready to laud his superiority over the poor unfortunate soul, who has just woken him up.

3) A Chance to Die

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This scene makes Logan interesting again by pointing out the cracks of his seemingly immortal existence. The old man (Yashida) was saved by Logan during the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. To show his gratitude, he offers Logan a chance to become mortal via a transfer of power, so he can carrying on living. Yashida equates Logan to a Rōnin (a Samurai who is wandering through life without purpose because of the loss of a master). On some level, the audience could agree with this observation, based on what we’ve seen of the character during the first act of the film.

But there’s also an inherent appeal in this process based on how we’ve collectively seen how much pain the character has gone through (in the movie series). Presenting a central hero with their mortality is a fascinating conundrum for a superhero movie. The scene is also excellent for reminding us how versatile Wolverine is by paralleling his plight with a Japanese archetype.

2) Hope Again

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If Xavier’s reunion with Moira is an illustration of the personal cost of his powers, then his meeting with his older self is an attempt to expound upon the central virtue of his ability. Charles has the power to directly empathise with the people he encounters by feeling their pain. But rather then be weighed down by this burden, the elder Charles appeals to his younger self that this is a chance to hope. His optimism allows people to overcome their pain, become better people and essentially choose to fight for humanity. Punctuated by Bryan Singer’s psychedelic direction and John Ottman’s emotionally ethereal score, this scene is a justification for Xaiver’s place in the franchise and his soothing, peaceful worldview.

1) Peace Was Never An Option

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Simply put, this scene between Charles and Erik distils their worldviews and the central metaphor of the series (a persistent chess game between the two individuals). Much like the film itself, this scene gives the floor more to Erik for his continuing disillusionment with humanity and presumption of mutants being the next stage in human evolution. Even Erik’s aggressive chess move of taking one of Charles’s pieces showcases his violent resolve.

The scene is excellent for illustrating that Charles’s and Erik’s perspective being cemented by the people they’ve met: Shaw embodying the worst of humanity and Moira representing the best of it. The scene builds up to the sublime last line- “Peace was never an option.” It speaks to an alignment of Erik’s internal mindset and external cause. He will never feel peace for killing Shaw just as peace was never going to be the means of his fight for mutant kind.

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Personal Post: Why I’m Not Seeing Tenet when it hits UK Cinemas

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It’s never easy being the man who sits at the back of auditorium with their arms firmly crossed and their head shaking when the rest of the room is in general agreement over a course of action. But alas, I must wear the party pooper hat today and perhaps for a considerable amount of time.

Through some miracle, Christopher Nolan’s high concept thriller, Tenet, has finally landed a UK release date (after numerous delays). In fact, it’s already ridden the review merry-go-round, had a soundtrack release announcement and bombarded the public with enough adverts to cement its definite release on Wednesday 26th August.

While it’s been a joy to bask in the normality of the movie release cycle after nearly six months, I’m afraid I cannot get on my bike or excitedly dubstep to my local cinema with a mask and hand sanitiser in tow. My primary reason for this is because I don’t feel safe returning to watch films on the big screen.

While I’m fairly young (late twenties) and keep healthy via indoor exercise, a good diet and maintaining a healthy weight, I cannot escape the reality that these choices are borne out of a longstanding health issue. Long story short: I’ve had two kidney transplants, which results in having a lower immunity and thus puts me at a greater risk of catching the virus.

The most terrifying aspect of COVID-19 is that it varies in its effects from person to person. Some shake it of like it’s the common cold and others can potentially be on life support fighting for their lives. And that’s not even to mention the lingering effects of the virus. With this in mind, I find that the risk is too great to venture out to the cinema to see Tenet.

But aside from that, I find there are other factors that have enforced my choice. I don’t presume to have a huge voice (in blogging terms) but nevertheless I feel it’s my duty to use my platform to inform with careful consideration (particularly these days). At the moment, it feels wrong to recommend or make a film seem appealing enough for someone to take a trip to the cinema.

At the same time, I’ve been in a privileged position to be able to work from home and I feel that it’s my responsibility with that benefit to maintain my livelihood in a time when that’s tough for a lot of people to do.

Aside from the virus creating a major health crisis, it also presents a fundamental tension between health and wealth. This can manifest on a personal level with someone potentially putting their health on the line (via going to work) to ensure monetary stability.

In my case, I do feel a slight tinge of guilt about not supporting cinemas (particularly independent ones) when they’ve been suffering from the lack of business due to the virus. Part of this comes for wanting to preserve a pastime that I adore partaking in. And another part is a sense of a top down view that it’s people’s civic duty to start fuelling the economy again, (even if it’s in the midst of a pandemic). But that’s a Russell Brand esque rant for another time.

However, my health takes priority. Plus, I do think there are genuine alternatives to supporting cinemas without visiting them via buying gift cards or memberships to use at a later date.

Above all, I think Matthew Buck aka Film Brain in his video- “Why I’m Not Returning to Cinemas” perfectly encapsulates why I don’t plan on seeing Tenet next week- “Holidays and Cinema trips are luxuries, they’re not necessities. They are privileges afforded to us by social stability… but, we don’t have that right now.”

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My Favourite Track: X-Men 2 (2003)

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In the context of modern superhero scores, X-Men 2 appeared on the scene like a breath of fresh air. Despite the 90s X-Men animated series having a dedicated theme (via the electrifying and energising intro music), superhero movies by and large did not have team based themes. You’d have to go back to the 1966 Batman movie for something close or even the serials before that. Whilst Micheal Kamen’s score for the 2000 original X-Men could be considered a first in this regard, the score proved to be severely compromised, with much of the theme based material scrapped in favour of atmospheric electronic music.

The score for X-Men 2 is cut from the same cloth as John Williams’s and Jerry Goldsmith’s movie scores, insofar as being a stunning melodic effort with a heavy reliance on themes and motifs to tell its story. Returning to the score was a pleasant and surprising experience, due to realising just how ambitious the score is in its musical material.

My favourite track of the score is the first one, entitled- Suite from X2. On soundtracks, these tracks typically serve as a glossary for the major themes throughout the film (or in the case of a sequel, the new themes composed for that film). However, it’s quite telling how much is missing from this track. Mystique’s slinky and alluring harp motif did not make the cut. Neither did Nightcrawler’s reflective and sad string theme. Or even, Magneto’s imposing and deep choral based music. However, what remains on the track is quite an excellent encapsulation of the score’s ability to move and sweep the listener.

The track opens with the X-Men theme. There are two parts to the theme. The first aspect has this quiet and almost searching quality that gives the impression that the cosmos itself is being explored for extraordinary beings. There’s then this heavenly choral part that is almost a response akin to a collective voice crying out in one united voice. This part is tight and controlled to illustrate the unity of the collective. The track then launches into the second and more well known aspect of the X-Men theme.

The percussive and string led aspect of the theme is an adrenaline pumping march for the super team. It paints a picture of a group that is equally committed to organising and fighting as much as seeking out and helping mutants in need. The theme ends with a calming response to that first aspect insofar as the choral element is concerned. It acts as as a soothing and compassionate presence to evoke someone in fear who is being heard and nurtured.

Despite only appearing in three movies in the franchise, John Ottman’s theme for the X-Men is as indelible as John Williams’s Superman theme and Danny Elfman’s Batman theme. I think that’s in part to the theme illustrating the duality of the team. They seek out and help mutants who feel lost while also assembling to fight the threats that plague human and mutant kind.

At the same time, I’m also reminded by something Richard Donner said about Williams’s Superman theme. In a behind the scenes documentary discussing the music, he said- “And as soon as Superman came on the screen, I swear to god if you listen carefully, the music speaks the words.” In the same vein, I think during the action part of the X-Men theme, you can hear the music saying we’re the X-Men. Perhaps Donner was onto something there.

The rest of the track is dedicated to two additional themes. The first is Jean Grey’s theme. As presented within the track, it tells a compelling story of someone who constantly doubts themselves but then is able to rise above it and transcend to something higher. The first part of this story is conveyed via a light piano motif that conveys Jean Grey’s uncertainty with sobering power. The second part features a heavy use of strings as the character sounds like she’s gaining a better sense of herself as the music illustrates the feeling of climbing. Eventually, the third part culminates in a light use of choral that has a bit of religiosity to it.

The third and final musical element of the track is Pyro’s theme. In a featurette that focuses on the score, John Ottman says the following about the theme- “I wanted to have, in a odd way, some sense of longing in {Pyro’s} theme.” This yearning quality is musically conveyed in long held use of strings. But what’s interesting about the presentation of the theme in this track is that it feels like Pyro is having an internal debate about what side he belongs to. There’s this ominous use of choral that’s juxtaposed with the choral aspect of the X-Men theme. In the context of the track, the debate is never settled, but the track “Playing with Fire”alludes to his brutal police attack and his eventual siding with Magneto.

Overall, Suite from X2 is a rich and interesting prism to view the score for X-Men 2. It illustrates Ottman’s commitment to make heartfelt themes that illustrate humanity, internal conflict and duality, much like the 2003 film does within its running time.

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Editorial: Intro to X-Men August

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After taking some time off, it’s honestly good to be back. I’ve been wracking my brains about to do in August. There are many directors, genres and even actors that could have easily chimed with August (from Pedro Almodóvar to Anime). However, I ultimately decided to go with a franchise. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the first X-Men film and with it, the comic book movie’s first major series. I’m curious to return to it and see how it stacks up in a post MCU world. Rather then cover every film in the series, I’m instead going dedicate this month to X-Men with a series of posts, which you can read more info about below.

Post 1: My Favourite Track 

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From the late Micheal Kamen to Hans Zimmer (and John Ottoman’s memorable theme for the series in between): the composers who have graced the series could be an Avengers styled team all their own. While I’ve not quite decided on the track or soundtrack, I’m interested in writing about the music that’s fueled the series for two decades.

Post 2: My Top Five X-Men Scenes

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Focusing on individual scenes and pin pointing what makes them resonating and effective is always fun to do. But with the sheer number of films in the X-Men franchise, the task is going to be tough and exciting.

Post 3: My review of X-Men

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Ah, the reason this whole month exists. Does Bryan Singer’s first foray into the genre signal any meaningful aspects that would be replicated or commented upon in later films? How does his ascetic and approach speak to a genre that was in its infancy? These are questions that I look forward to addressing when I revisit the 2000 film later this month.

Post 4: My ranking of the X-Men series

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Alas, Jean, I can relate to you, ranking films can give one a bit of a headache. But in all seriousness, these are always enjoyable to do. You’re constantly navigating how a particular film speaks to you versus assessing its effectiveness as a singular experience and in this instance, how it connects to a series at large. This is all the more meaningful due to Fox’s X franchise (for all intents and purposes) being over (New Mutants notwithstanding).

Posted in 2020, Comic Book Movies, Marvel, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Editorial: My Top Three Ennio Morricone Scores

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I honestly could not let the week slip away without paying tribute to Ennio Morricone. My introduction to the Italian maestro was at a pub lunch in 2014. A friend of mine was writing a list of essential movies to watch. Much to my shame, when he mentioned the composer, there were crickets coming from my direction. I had no idea who he was.

Even now, I feel as though I don’t know enough of his work as I ought to. However, from the small sample of his music that I’ve come across, they’ve been quite powerful experiences. They transcended film music and became meaningful pieces of art that profoundly spoke to me. I have a long way to go in appreciating Morricone’s extensive body of work. But, I hope that this is a meaningful placeholder before I make that journey.

3) The Hateful Eight (2016)

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In Quentin Tarantino’s eclectic soundtrack choices, some of Morricone’s music has made the cut (memorably in Death Proof and Django Unchained). However, the Hateful Eight represented Tarantino’s full embrace of a symphonic score (along with a dash of horror reference music). The result is a fascinating Morricone score that represents the composer’s return to the Western in over 30 years. The Oscar winning score is an exercise in foreboding atmosphere with some of the instrumentation giving the impression of a persistent ticking clock. It’s also a very controlled score, much like a carefully constructed campfire story, where the attentive listener waits for the horror to unfold.

At the same time, there’s something classic about it too. Matching Tarantino’s desire for the film to match the scope of a vintage epic, Morricone composed an Overture for the film. The result is something quite intimate as opposed to sweeping. There’s a persistent motif of something that sounds like a child’s music box. It’s akin to innocence itself. Slowly, it gets engulfed by the cynicism of the world until it’s drowned out and fundamentally changed at the end of the track. Pieces like this reinforce Morricone’s deft ability to still be able to contribute to a genre he’s fundamentally shaped with his music.

2) Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

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Morricone’s score for Once Upon a Time in America has some of the most thoughtful music that I’ve ever heard. The main theme expresses regret and age with such clarity that it seeps into your soul. Deborah’s theme is tinged with melancholy as though the main character Noodles is reflecting on his inability to have her. The female choral work in the track is particularly striking, evoking something quite beautiful, innocent and sad in equal measures.

At the same time, Morricone’s music reflects how our own perception affects how we remember things. So, later in the score, there’s a much more romantic and luscious rendition of Deborah’s theme, reflecting Noodle’s memories of their courting days. The score also features some interesting instrumentation.

Morricone hired the Hungarian musician- Gheorghe Zamfir for the pan flutes sections (particularly in the track- “Cockeye’s song”) And the track- “Prohibition Dirge” is a fun Jazzy track that incorporates trumpets and drums. The score for the 1984 film is utterly engrossing, heartfelt and eclectic. It may also be Morricone’s most underrated film music too.

Once Upon a Time in the West (1969) 

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Once Upon a Time in the West is one of my all time favourite scores. It fundamentally changed the way I looked at film music. Morricone famously wrote the music before production begun, so it could be played on set. The result are sequences where the music works in tandem with the filmmaking to create sublime moments. One example is when Jill enters a station. The camera pans across to show her talking to the station master. As she leaves, the camera pans up slowly revealing the entire town as Jill is engulfed in the bustle of activity. The music goes from distant female chorals to something uplifting and sweeping. In this moment, the score represents a fulfilment of an America that Jill will preside over.

The score also blurs the line between source music and musical score with Harmonica’s theme. The lone gunslinger carries an Harmonica that he plays from time to time to signal his presence and persona. It’s heard by everyone in the story and at the same time is his central theme. Chayenne’s theme feels closest in spirit to the music that Morricone composed for the Dollars Trilogy, particularly with the use of whistles and array of instruments. Above all, the score (particularly in its main theme) has the quality that this is the last Western story that will be told, as the business man overtakes the need for the gunslinger. And in that sense, the score for West is also a fond farewell to Morricone’s musical reinvention of the genre.

Ennio Morricone composed some of cinema’s most iconic scores and music that communicated potent emotions with profound power. And like the best artists, he was also experimental and inventive.

May he rest in peace.

Posted in 2020, Editorials, Quentin Tarantino | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments