Review: 1917 (2020)

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Cinema is no stranger to one take shots. Orson Welles and Stanley Kubrick created indelible sequences that made Touch of Evil and Paths of Glory part of our cinematic dreamscape. Alfred Hitchcock impressively tried to make his one location murder mystery (Rope) appear as though it was a continuous sequence. Even in Spectre, director Sam Mendes attempted to meld the typical James Bond opening sequence with the technique. 1917 represents the most ambitious use of the technique in the war genre, (namely the film appearing to be one continuous take). The result is a breathtaking and beautiful filmic experience that suffers from not being about anything interesting.

Partially based of an account from Sam Mendes’ paternal grandfather, (Alfred Mendes) 1917 is about two British world war one soldiers, Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Corporal Thomas (Dean-Charles Chapman). They must deliver a message to the distant Devonshire Battalion, who are planning to attack a seemingly retreating German army. However, their message makes it clear that the attack needs to be called off because the enemy forces have gathered a large amount of artillery.

At first, Mendes’ attempt to make the film a continuous take, can’t escape the ghost of Kubrick’s unhurried trench tour in Paths of Glory (albeit with a little more frantic activity). But once, the two soldiers have their mission, the film opens its canvas with some stunning landscape shots.

In these moments, 1917 resembles the films of Werner Herzog, in which humankind were both dwarfed and challenged by nature. Some of the film’s best moments depict the degrading effect of war on the land as much as the British and German troops. In fact, in one scene, a solider says when surveying the passing by countryside- “Look at it. Three bloody years, we’ve been fighting over this. I mean who machine guns cows?” There’s a sense throughout the film of the Germans leaving the environment spoilt to make their mark and lessen their enemies, (whether it’s shooting cows or leaving trip wire bombs in abandoned trenches).

Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins break the suspension of the one take by having the main character wake up at night after being knocked out. During this stretch of the film, the character’s experiences become akin to an intense dream, depicting war as a hellish experience. One memorable scene has Lance Corporal Schofield coming into a room and encountering a French woman. Through a use of deep focus and fade out, the woman appears to us as though she’s a still image painting on a wall, illustrating the undiscerning nature of the conflict.

Despite its technical brilliance, the haunting Thomas Newman score, Deakins’ Oscar winning cinematography and Mendes’ tense direction: 1917 is superficial in what it’s trying to convey about war. Part of this comes from the main character appearing like a cipher. Other then seeing little value in a medal and finding it hard to settle back into life at home, Lance Corporal Schofield appears like a representative of the heroism of one individual. This results in him feeling one note and his encounters somewhat meaningless. The film does not give us enough of an impression of Schofield for the events to matter to him on a personal level, (other then keep moving and survive).

In this regard, 1917 has more in common with vintage genre pictures insofar as it delivers in spades on its base thrills. However, with the high calibre behind the scenes talent, I was expecting something a little more transcendent. The film may have the striking visual imagery to rival Apocalypse Now and Dunkirk. But its subtext (for what there is) seems shallow compared to those movies. As it stands, 1917 is as pure cinema as you’re going to get this year. But don’t expect it to linger in your mind for very long after.

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Review: Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey (2020)

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Despite having some arresting imagery and a few good performances, Suicide Squad was a poor aping of a John Carpenter film that did not entertain or amuse. The movie did not even do right by its central attraction- Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn: reducing her origin story to music video cliff notes and her most human and interesting moments to the cutting room floor.

Now we have Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey or as it was known last week (Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn). Taking place after Harley Quinn’s break up with the Joker: Birds of Prey places Margot Robbie’s Jersey jester front and centre in a self directed story about how a chase for a diamond unites her with: a vengeance seeking vigilante known as Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), veteran and disgruntled cop, Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), mob driver and singer, Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and a young pickpocket, Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco).

Despite being a female centred comic book movie, Birds of Prey does little of interest with this premise. On the surface, the film is about whether Harley Quinn can carve out her own identity outside of the Joker. But the film does not seem bothered in answering that question, often reducing it down to a gag about the career options Harley scribbles on a faux business card. There’s even an attempt to parallel the film’s central antagonist, Black Mask (Ewan McGregor) with the Joker insofar as they both want to control her, but it comes too late and can’t help but feel like hollow third act speechifying.

This is all compounded by a screenplay that is centred on a scrambled MacGuffin chase that does not unite its central cast until the very end. Birds of Prey often feels like a raspberry blowing reaction to its male counterparts. It does prove that female led comic book films can be as irreverent and violent. But that’s its only trick. It has as much interest in its female characters and their empowerment as the lyrics of a Spice Girls song, often painting them in generic terms. A constant gag about Renee Montoya being compared to a bad eighties cop encapsulates this quality.

Despite this, Birds of Prey does coast on its stylish direction, stunning action sequences and lively performances. Some of the movie’s best moments are vignettes that hint at some promise. There’s an early sequence where Harley is looking at a sandwich in a manner akin to a love struck boy looking at a girl in a romantic comedy. Set to Barry White’s “I’m Gonna Love You Just A Little More Baby” and filmed in slow motion, the sequence takes an atypical way in which women are seen in films and satires it to hilarious effect.

Likewise, a watery slow motion action sequence in a police station is impressive in its ferocity and use of technique to focus on its stunt work as opposed to the female character doing them.

Margot Robbie excels in the central spotlight as Harley Quinn. She often mixes a wicked Dennis the Menace streak with a few insightful moments of observation that lend her character with intelligence. Robbie can be both comically sharp and heartfelt. Some of her best moments as the character walk this tightrope wonderfully. One early moment has her cutting her hair while saying changing yourself will make you feel better, only to cry at the end result of her hair looking different.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead brings a great deal of uncertainty and aloofness to Huntress, often feeling like someone who’s training hard to sound like an unfazed superhero. Ewan McGregor steals the show as Roman Sionis/Black Mask, who balances child like behaviour (particularly when reacting to spit) with a sadistic and animated nature that often makes him a captivating presence.

Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey is a consistently energetic experience that charms with its spirited performances and dazzling direction. But it’s undermined by a screenplay that does not have much interest in assembling its team or doing anything particularly interesting with them. For the most part, its attitude and ascetic papers over its hollow cracks, but I can’t help but feel that it’s a reactionary effort.

 

 

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Brief Consideration: What Did Jack Do? (2020)

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David Lynch’s birthday came with a surprise short film that was released on Netflix. Written, edited, directed and starring the famed American filmmaker: the short takes place within a train station that has been placed under lockdown. Lynch plays a detective who is questioning a suspect involved with the murder of Max Clegg. The twist is that he’s interrogating an angst- ridden monkey. The short film is a peculiar and often hilarious distillation of Lynch’s surreal style.

Lynch’s extensive short film work has ranged from being extensions of his paintings to short documentaries. What Did Jack Do? falls in the middle as an off-beat tribute to Film Noir. Lynch plays the detective with the earnest commitment of a no-nonsense individual, who occasionally interjects with some colourful remarks. These instances such as an early moment where Santa Claus is referenced show that Lynch is in on the joke and is being playful with the material. If the short does anything, then it proves how much of a skilled comic actor Lynch can be (with some great timing and line readings).

As for the monkey (Capuchin for those keeping score at home), he impresses with some quite versatile facial expressions, particularly when expressing sadness. The voice actor for the character particularly strikes a chord with his deliberately slow line readings.

Rather then rely on pristine black and white imagery, Lynch’s use of the technique feels like a throwback to his older work, (particularly Eraserhead with its strong use of blacks). It also has the quality of early horror films where you could see the lines and distortions on the film print, giving them a quality of an unreal dream unfolding before your eyes. Lynch compounds this with a soundscape made up of eerie static sounds and roaring trains.

The musical sequence with Jack plays on Lynch’s visual motif of stage performance with its frequent use of superimposed spotlights. It reminded me of the opening title credits for King Kong (1933). Therein lies the appeals of the short film, the moment to moment weirdness, purely cinematic in its technical homages and spirit. It’s an absurdist riff on genre fare, usually dressed in murky morality and dread. Perhaps, that’s Lynch’s point. As you become older, you start to see the inherent comedy in material you’ve loved for so long. It’s no longer precious but deflated and amusing.

 

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Brief Consideration: Oscar Nominations (2020)

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The nominations for the 92nd Academy Awards were announced on Monday. Much like previous years, there are some excellent picks, some infuriating ones and a few surprises. The biggest shock for me comes from Joker leading the pack with an astonishing eleven nominations. The news cements the film as a game changer for the genre. It could also possibly echo the populist sweep of films gone by, such as Titanic and The Return of the King.

Likewise, Parasite being nominated for Best Picture and Best Foreign Language film is interesting, following last year’s pattern in which Roma was nominated in both categories. Whether Bun Joon-ho repeats his success at Cannes remains to be seen.

I’m also quite heartened by Brad Pitt’s Best Supporting Acting nod. He gave a layered performance, juxtaposing an amiable front with the boiling tension of a penchant for violence. It almost makes up for the Academy overlooking Pitt’s performance in Tree of Life, almost.

And as someone whose had John Williams’ final Star Wars score- The Rise of Skywalker on repeat since the film’s release, I’m pleased for its Best Original Score nomination. If the score for Episode IX wins, then it would be a touching full circle moment for the legendary composer. In 1978, the first Star Wars movie (A New Hope) won Best Original Score.

In terms of snubs, there are a few. The first one that struck me was no Best Actor nomination for Robert De Niro in The Irishman. Aside from being De Niro’s best performance in years, it’s also a portrait of a man who does not have much to say for himself.

The performance is subtle. Some of the actor’s best moments are when he can’t express himself. Aside from the direction, Scorsese’s melancholic and reflective interpretation of the gangster picture is in embodied De Niro’s performance (as Frank Sheeran).

The Best Actor in a Supporting Role category actually contains a fascinating battle between Joe Pesci and Al Pacino. They both represent the full spectrum of acting in the film. Pesci’s subdued crime boss against Pacino’s big and brash performance as Jimmy Hoffa.

I’m quite disappointed that Lupita Nyong’o’s fantastically creepy and moving dual performance in Us was not nominated. Like De Niro, Nyong’o’s work embodies her director’s vision. In the case of Us, her dual character represents the duality of the American spirit, it’s affluent nonchalance contrasted with its impoverished anger. In the years to come, I hope Lupita’s performance will be fondly remembered by the horror community.

Last but not least insofar as snubs are concerned is no Best Director nomination for Greta Gerwig. The omission reminds me of Christopher Nolan’s snub for the same award in 2011. It calls into question how a film, its actors and music can be nominated, but the central person who unites those aspects is overlooked. Odd. Baffling. Silly. These are just some of the words that cover it.

What do you think of this year’s crop of Oscar Nominations? What choices do you love? What choices do you loath? Do you have any snubs? Let me know me know in the comments below.

 

 

 

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Thoughts on a Trailer: Morbius (2020)

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As the comic book movie genre has grown, it has taken great leaps with projects that focus on some of the genre’s most dastardly foes. Stripped of their central heroes, these films are interesting experiments. Morbius represents a further division in this new form of the genre: namely, taking a D grade villain and attempt to put him in the cinematic world building blender (through the prism of a semi important aspect of the hero’s movie),

The major headline of this trailer is the final moments that feature Micheal Keaton’s Adrian Toomes from Spider-Man Homecoming. I’m guessing this takes place some time after Homecoming, with Toomes being having ended his prison sentence. I don’t think there will be much more to this cameo other then a establishing that Sony’s solo villain films are in the Marvel Cinematic universe. In a landscape where movie audiences enjoy continuity as much as comic book fans, is this really an exciting prospect?

The Morbius trailer plays like a boring mashup of the science gone wrong genre along with the most passionless vampire movie you’ve ever seen. For all the talk of Jared Leto being a daring actor who throws himself into a part beyond the point of stupidity, he seems remarkably bored.

So far, there seems to be no inherent excitement or conflict of the powers he gains. The  trailer also seems to be too self serious about its premise. There’s no joy or sense of fun.  Perhaps the vampire point of view shots might be a slight welcome relief. In spirit, Morbius seems like David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake of The Fly, insofar as the central characters are slowly losing their humanity to the creature instincts they’ve gained. Whether, it’s even as half as interesting as that film, remains to be seen.

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My Movie Blogging Resolutions for 2020

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Happy New Year everyone. Love them or hate them, New Year’s resolutions help to focus the mind on what we need to improve or achieve. In the spirit of that, here are my movie blogging resolutions for 2020. What do you think of New Year’s resolutions? Do you have any? What would you improve? Let me know in the comments below.

3) Start writing about Film Music

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I’m not an expert in the genre. But I’ve always been drawn to how Film Music communications the emotions of a film and as a form of storytelling in its own right. While I’ve infrequently discussed in other places, I’d like to start writing about it for the blog. Watch this space.

2) Themed Months

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Themed months are a great opportunity to introduce a fun activity for everyone to get involved with. They’re also good as a crash course to get into a particular genre or a director’s filmography. I’ve some ideas up my sleeves.

1) Write more Blog Posts 

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This is always a tricky one to judge. All I have to go on is how good I’ve felt getting a good number of blog posts out. This particularly struck me in the tail end of 2019. I will do my utmost to continue that this year.

 

 

 

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My Top Ten Anticipated Movies of 2020

10 The King’s Man

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This is quite an odd pick, seeing as I have not seen the first two Kingmans films. However, based on the trailer, the film seems like an intriguing early 20th-century spy film with colourful revisionism for many of historys great players, including Grigori Rasputin. Im interested to see what Matthew Vaughn does with an exotic spy story that predates the James Bond franchise.

9) Halloween Kills

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I was not particularly enamoured with David Gordon Greens Halloween. I felt it occupied a strange middle ground between the sense of mystery that permeated John Carpenter’s film, and the streak of sadism that defined many of its imitators. However, Halloween Kills represents a part one of a duology and that alone peaks my curiosity.   

8) No Time To Die

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Despite having interesting themes and moments of great filmmaking: Spectre felt dramatically unfulfilling as Daniel Craigs last bow to the franchise. However, No Time to Die has a chance to rewrite that mistake. With the additions of Cary Fukunaga and Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Im optimistic.

7) Godzilla vs. Kong

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Nothing much to say here, except Japan’s most beloved monster squaring off with the Eighth Wonder of the World. The concept and battle sell itself.

6) The Invisible Man

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The Invisible Man has a first-rate actress in Elizabeth Moss and promises to use its title character as a metaphor for gaslighting. In theory, this sounds like the stuff of a visionary horror movie. Let’s hope the movie lives up to its promise.

5) Tenet

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Since the announcement of Tenet, I’ve been pretty blase about it. However, the extended IMAX preview changed my mind. It made me feel like I had been handed a beautifully chaotic piece of a jigsaw puzzle. I’m dying to solve the rest of it and see if it results in an interesting picture.

4) Wonder Woman 1984

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Picture this: a comic book movie that seems to be a big-screen adaptation of Fantasy Island, with a colourful eighties ascetic and Pedro Pascal channelling Ricardo Montalban. I’m in.

3) Mulan 

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Out of all the animated Disney movies that have been slated to have live-action remakes, Mulan seems like the one film to have the most potential. It can be a genuine war epic that says interesting things about Japanese culture and the role of women in society.

2) The Lighthouse

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From the trailer alone, The Lighthouse seems like a lost relic from the silent era that has been remade with sound and given a dash of expressionist era imagery. Is it January 31st yet?

1) Dune

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Dune is one of the Science Fiction genre’s crowning achievements and has been notoriously tricky to adapt. But Denis Villeneuve and a solidly assembled cast seem like the best shot to bring this celebrated novel to the silver screen.

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