Review: Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist (2019)

Preamble

The Exorcist has always been one of my cinematic obsessions. When I was younger, its premise of a demonic possessed girl stuck with me like a formative camp fire story. When I saw it in my late teens, the film was far more engaging and horrific then I imagined. Despite finding it less scary in the intervening years (in large part to paling in comparison to the superior and terrifying source material), the 1973 film shows how dramatic and thematically rich the horror genre can be. With that in mind, whenever there’s an Exorcist documentary on the block, I gravitate to it like Pac-Man does with fruit. Before I get into my review of the documentary, what do you think of Leap of Faith? Let me know in the comments below.

Review

Despite having The Exorcist in the title, Leap of Faith is far more than a simple tell-all about the celebrated horror film. It’s a personal meditation on the concept of faith and a cinematic manifesto for William Friedkin’s documentary style. The phrase Leap of Faith takes on a fascinating meaning, with some of the events that happened during the making of the film (such as Friedkin replacing Stacy Keach with Jason Miller). But this concept also extends to Friedkin’s faith in certain sequences in the film.

The most notable being the opening in Northern Iraq where Father Merrin comes face to face with a statue of the demon he will confront in the film’s climax. Despite puzzling audiences and William Peter Blatty’s publishers, Friedkin contends that the sequence is “the very solid underpinning for the whole piece.” Its inclusion has always spoken highly of the director’s faith in the audience to understand its meaning and place in the narrative.

At the same time, the documentary has some lip service about fate with Friedkin contending that many of the film’s elements came from “forces beyond me that brought things to that movie like offerings.” The inclusion of this aspect does create an interesting tug of war between artistic intent and the dominos of life, that sometimes combine to create a perfect clarity (when viewed in hindsight). Friedkin splits the difference between acknowledging the role that fate played in him getting the gig and being clear about the film he wanted to make (after reading Blatty’s novel).

Aside from these notions that permeate the film, Leap of Faith is at its best when Friedkin is expounding upon choices for certain scenes. The best one being the various camera moves in the scene between Lieutenant Kinderman and Chris MacNeil. They’re both sitting at a table and there are two setups; with the camera, over MacNeil’s shoulder as it moves towards the Detective and vice versa. It’s a remarkable instance of subtle filmmaking that creates a fundamental tension between both characters (in an intimate and mundane setting).

This aspect also extends to a discussion about the paintings and artworks that inspired some of the film’s most iconic scenes. In particular, Friedkin’s breakdown of how René Magritte’s painting- “The Empire of Light” inspired the dreamlike image of Father Merrin outside of the MacNeil house, is a highlight.

Leap of Faith runs into problems when it comes to how it addresses William Peter Blatty. While there are instances where Friedkin discusses great points of contention with Blatty (such as the writer’s initial screenplay for the film and the fact he wanted to play Father Damien Karras), there’s no moment where Friedkin reflects on the legacy of the man’s work or his friendship with him. The closest the documentary comes is a moment when the director says that he and Blatty bonded over the love of their mothers.

By the same token, the documentary skates around The Exorcist: The Version You’ve Never Seen that came out in 2000. It would have been interesting to see how the director views this extended version after nearly 20 years, and how the editing process spoke to some of the choices he made with the original cut.

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Brief Thoughts on a Trailer: Mortal Kombat (2021)

Preamble

This week has seen a few trailers, between Zack Snyder’s Justice League, Cruella and Mortal Kombat. I could not muster much enthusiasm for the previews of the upcoming Disney film or Snyder’s four hour experience, beyond some virtual chicken scratches that you would find in a bad Chinese fortune cookie. However, Mortal Kombat’s first trailer piqued my interest due to what it means for video game adaptations. Before I get on to my full thoughts, what did you think of the film’s first trailer? Let me know in the comments below.

Brief Thoughts

The trailer for Mortal Kombat has enough ultraviolence to make Alex from A Clockwork Orange, smile. But beyond that is a genuine sense of the filmmakers taking the material seriously. Some notable instances of this quality are the set up of the premise, a pretty nifty bit of set design (the statue of Shao Kahn) and some of the fight sequences.

This aspect can be a sliding scale as the video game property does not lend itself to the most sedate narratives. If there’s one thing that does give me pause about the trailer, it’s a sense of sullen self- seriousness that could sink the entire film.

In this regard, the trailer for the 1995 film does notably beat (pun intended) the current preview’s earnestness with its sugar high goofiness, along with (practically) lifted game audio when announcing the roster of characters.

On the other hand, there’s something nice about not breaking into a fit of laughter when hearing Sub-Zero introduce himself or Scorpion’s iconic line- “Get over here!” And my mouth was agape when seeing Scorpion’s fiery dragon manifestation for the first time. For all my concerns about the film’s tone, the spirit of the fighting game series appears to be intact.

The trailer’s use of violence is also quite interesting. Aside from matching one of the staples of the game franchise, (via the brutal attacks you can inflict upon your opponent called Fatalities) it also serves a purpose. In the trailer’s opening moments, Sub-Zero freezes and crushes an agent’s (Jax) arms. Later on, we see that Jax has metal replacement arms. From that one plot point, the violence in the film seems to have consequence.

At the same time, this aspect made me realise that Mortal Kombat is fairly immune to the central problem of video game based movies. There’s always a law of of diminishing returns when translating video games into movies. Fundamentally, you’re always trading an active experience whereby the player interacts and absorb the story first hand, as opposed to passively watching it. While there’s a thrill with learning and pulling off a Fatality, this feeling can be replicated or even evoked via watching one too.

In this way, a Mortal Kombat film has the same quality as a slasher film, where the audience turn up to see the kills by the antagonist as opposed to the story and characters. Whether the 2021 film coasts on its brutal fight sequences remains to be seen.

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My Top Three Christopher Plummer Performances

Preamble

2021 has seen its first great loss in the realm of movies with the death of Christopher Plummer. Much like Stan Lee and Christopher Lee, the 91-year old Canadian actor belonged to a rare category of people, who made you believe they were going to live forever. Reflecting on his performances has made me realise how formative he was in my appreciation of cinema, and realisation of what an actor could bring to a film. What are some of your favourite Christopher Plummer performances? Let me know in the comments below.

3) The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus (2009)

In his latter day career, Plummer had a knack for playing patriarchal figures in interesting ways, whether thinking of his sly turn in Knives Out or emotive performance in David Fincher’s remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. However, his acting as the title character in Imaginarium is captivating. It’s such an unassuming performance, comprising of stillness, quiet reflection and occasional barminess; fueling the notion of Parnassus being a forgotten entity in the modern world. With this in mind, it’s an impressive piece of subtle acting. It feels so ingrained within the film’s spirit that you almost take it for granted.

2) Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1992)

Combining Shakespearean gravitas and broad theatricality, Plummer’s performance as the warmongering Klingon- General Chang is a joyful exercise in villainy. It’s also quite versatile too. You could take it out of this movie, and it would equally play well in a restaging of Julius Caesar, as much as a vintage Saturday Matinee serial. There’s also something quite amusing about Plummer reciting Shakespeare to a nonchalant William Shatner (considering their history with the Bard’s various productions for stage and radio).

1) The Sound of Music (1965)

Before Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable and Cary Grant, Christopher Plummer’s dashing and debonair performance as Captain Von Trapp was my first exposure to the Hollywood leading man. His performance was also my introduction to the seemingly larger than life quality of Hollywood, where actors carried this monumental weight of romanticism. Aside from these qualities, Plummer’s performance proves to be a foundational text for a lot of his patriarchal roles.

Many of these parts have a veneer of respectability, in which there’s always something altogether surprising and vulnerable, going on beneath the surface. Moments such as Von Trapp’s wry smile to Maria (Julie Andrews) after their dance and accidentally saying “Captain” during a heated exchange illustrate this quality well.

In this way, Plummer was quietly subversive at presenting and pricking at the perfect picture of the Hollywood leading man, with flickers of humanity that made the pristine fantasy a little more real.

For this reason and many more, Christopher Plummer was a towering figure in Hollywood history.

May he rest in peace.

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Review: Songbird (2020)

Preamble

Since I was made aware of its existence, Songbird is a film I’ve been curious to see. Despite its subject matter, I think films like this are important for helping us deal with our stark times. And I was curious, if it had anything meaningful to say about our COVID-19 world. Does it speak to our times? Or use its premise as mere window dressing? Well, let’s put on our masks and find out.

However, before I get to my thoughts on the film, there’s something that needs to be acknowledged. Earlier this week, the UK reached 100,000 people who have died from Coronavirus. These are people who’s stories have been tragically cut short and never allowed to resume. For those of us who remain, it’s our duty to remember these people, whether it’s by reading about how much they meant to the people they left behind or being extra vigilant. Stay at home, wear a mask (outdoors), and cherish the fact that you’re still able to tell your story.

Review

Despite having a provocative premise, Songbird is the cinematic equivalent of chewing gum, enticing the viewer with a strong focus on its button pushing set up. However, it soon becomes so insipid that like a stick of gum, you’ve forgotten you’d watched it entirely. Even now, I struggle to remember much about it. And I only watched it a couple of hours ago.

But for the curious and people still awake at the back, Songbird is about a lovestruck couple who must survive amidst COVID-23 (a mutated new strain of the disease). The boy in question is Nico Price (KJ Apa), an immune courier who delivers packages to people in his city. The girl is Sara Garcia (Sofia Carson), a shut-in who likes to draw and speak Spanish. After Garcia’s caretaker falls ill, Price is in a race against time to get his girlfriend an immunity wristband, to prevent her from being taken to one of the Quarantine Zones (Q-Zones).

From top to bottom, Songbird is a mess. Its screenplay is a sprawling and frustrating exercise in sentimentality, often jumping to supposedly quite deep and moving moments without laying a solid foundation. In this way, the movie plays like a fifth or sixth episode in a television series, wherein the audience is expected be moved by its important moments (despite a lack of context).

One such moment is a conversation between Piper Griffin (Demi Moore) and her immune compromised daughter- Emma (Lia McHugh). Emma expresses sadness and guilt at being a burden and not being strong enough to cope with the virus. Conceptually, it’s an interesting struggle to grapple with. However, nothing in the story up until that point justifies this emotional confession. Neither her mother or father express frustration with looking after her, and there’s been no encounter where she’s being scorned for being weak etc.

This aspect is compounded by some of the more interesting aspects of the premise being sidelined. These include the notion of living as someone whose immune from the disease, and the horrifying implications of the Q-Zones (which are strongly implied to be concentration camps).

Worse yet is the screenplay playing fast and loose with its rules. Based on the technology we see in the film, the responses to people falling ill and being rounded up appear to be quite swift. Despite this, the middle part of the film is elongated to ensure that Price can hatch and carry out a plan to save his girlfriend (even though she would have been targeted much earlier).

The camera work is comprised of many sources that vary from iPhones to body cams. On the surface, this is an interesting way to portray a sense of immediacy. However, the editing and cutting between shots is so short. They’re akin to someone whose had too many Red Bulls, and decided to scroll and switch between the apps on their phone at lightning speed. And for the rare moments that do linger, they tend to come across as boringly staged and lit sequences that do not trigger any emotion. For a film that’s set during a pandemic, it’s quite a feat that the sequences of empty streets are not haunting or chilling.

Despite all these problems, the picture is not without its redeeming qualities. Chief among them is Peter Stormare’s exhilarating performance. Stormare plays the part as though he’s delivering a protracted and animated villain’s monologue from a Quentin Tarantino directed James Bond film, that happens to involve buzz words, and new lingo about COVID-19. It’s quite a display and certainly prevents the film from becoming a total tedious experience.

There are also a few charming scenes that do hit at some interesting aspects of the pandemic, such as a moment when the central couple watch a movie together via a projector and phone link up. However, these moments were few and far between for my liking.

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Review: Wonder Woman 1984 (2020)

Preamble

2021 brings its first ray of good news (relatively speaking) courtesy of the home release of Wonder Woman 1984 (via rental on various VOD platforms). Even with the movie being caught up in the pandemic delay blender, 1984 has felt like a long time coming. Originally, it was slated for a December 2019 release before moving back a month to November. From there, the film got pinballed around until its seemingly limited release in UK cinemas late last year. Was it worth the wait? Well, let’s put on a colourful oversized blazer or some embarrassing pink Yoga gear and take a trip to the eighties to find out. In the meantime, what did you think of Wonder Woman 1984? Let me know in the comments below.

Review

Looking back, Wonder Woman was somewhat of a revelation. Thanks to its solid direction, engaging screenplay and heartfelt performances, the movie effortlessly infused its larger than life title character with a mythical grandeur, that carried weight and pathos in its WW1 setting. In short, it was a surprisingly engaging and clever adaptation of comics’ most celebrated female character and her universe.

By comparison, 1984 is a light and excessive effort. The film comes across as an upmarket episode of Fantasy Island that’s mated with the spirit of Richard Donner’s Superman films.

Wonder Woman 1984 is about the title character aka Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), attempting to uncover the origins of a MacGuffin called the dream stone. It grants the sole wish of people who come into contact with it. However, in return, it takes away an essential quality of the person who wishes upon it. The artifact has personal implications for Diana, as her one true love from the First World War- Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) comes back to life via possession of another body.

Whilst dealing with this emotional revelation, Diana must contend with Max Lord (Pedro Pascal), a failing businessman who has absorbed the stone, and uses it to fulfil his selfish desires. At the same time, Diana’s new friend- Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig) is transformed by the stone into a shadow version of Wonder Woman, and refuses to give up her power.

In its best moments, Wonder Woman 1984 does capture the spirit of Richard Donner’s Superman pictures. In fact, Gadot’s finest moments as the title character have an earnest commitment to the aspirational, and down to earth qualities of the character. They’re akin to Christopher Reeve’s performance as the Man of Steel, particularly when Gadot greets the criminals or interacts with some of the kids in the film’s early moments. At the same time, Gadot is often framed in a larger than life manner in some sequences- such as when she’s doing a tribute to the flyby scenes that came at the end of Donner’s films.

However, for all the Donner esque charm that graces 1984, the film lacks the strengths of those pictures (particularly the 1978 movie). At its best, Superman the Movie was akin to a biblical epic that juggled many disparate genres and types of films to tell its story. Because of these elements, Donner’s film near effortlessly papered over the cracks of its narrative problems. Wonder Woman 1984 does not share the same luxury.

This is in part due to a screenplay that even by standards of the genre feels simplistic and commonplace. The central dreamstone and its implications traps the characters in this perpetual void of single mindedness, that consistently feels shallow and emotionally uninteresting. It also serves to undermine Diana. She comes across as someone whose happiness solely comes from having Steve Trevor back in her life. This is a far cry from the first film that painted the character as someone who found enjoyment in the small charms of life. This character choice seeks to undermine an enlightened protagonist into a one note person, who occasionally slides into the realm of being unheroic.

The film also suffers in comparison to its predecessor. The 2017 film used its screenplay to consider Diana’s budding relationship with humankind at arguably one of its worst times. Without this central conundrum and depth, 1984 never rises above its shallowness.

Despite these problems, there’s some entertainment to be had in the performances. Pedro Pascal plays Max Lord like a sleazy televangelist whose channeling Mr Roark’s shiftiness and Donald Trump’s bravado. Pascal’s performance is a go for broke cocktail that mixes over the top line readings, occasional heartfelt moments, and enough zany energy to rival a battery operated Furby.

Despite being saddled with the cliche material of the nebbish geek, who lives in the shadow of the central hero, Kristen Wigg surprised me as Barbara Minerva. Her transformation felt quite engaging, and her awkward comedic shtick giving rise to an intense desperation felt resonating. At times, her performance reminded me of when Robin Williams turned his motormouthed comic persona into some great stark performances. Despite elevating the material, Wigg’s acting made me wish that the screenplay devoted more time to Barbara and Diana’s friendship, as tension in a female friendship is rarely seen in a comic book movie.

Despite occasionally being marred by some odd riffs on some previously written material, Hans Zimmer’s score proves to be his most diverse music in years. It’s operatic, bombastic, and in many ways feels like an eighties superhero movie score. And I would be lying, if I did not say that the movie did not charm with its period setting. From the set design to the clothes and opening credits, 1984 fully embraces the eighties with a loving and nostalgic embrace.

In spite of having a considerable amount of shortcomings, Wonder Woman 1984 is a non offensive, fleeting trifle of a movie. It entertains, somewhat amuses, and provides a large popcorn bucket’s worth of escapism. However, it stands in the shadow of an incredible first film, that did interesting things with its mythology and storytelling. And in a genre that’s crowded, erratically plucking at the strings of a bare bones premise is not good enough.

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My Top Five Lockdown Films (Volume 2)

Introduction

Alas, 2021 is proving to be a continuation of 2020’s swift kick in the groin at random intervals. Earlier this week, England was put into a third lockdown, and with it comes a groundhog day insofar as restrictions are concerned. However, despite the sour note that the year has started on, the show must go on, and at my humble blog, I intend to do that with full gusto. We can beat Covid by being staying at home, and not letting it crush our spirits.

My first top five lockdown films list was a mixture of comforting favourites and movies that I attempted to relate to the crisis, whether it was art somewhat imitating life in 28 Days Later or the personal connection established between Jessie and Celine (via walking around Vienna) in Before Sunrise. For this reason, I thought a second list felt redundant.

However, the prospect of a New Year inspired an idea. Rather than pluck five movies out of the air with a vague connection, I thought I would use this list to pick movies that introduce the viewer to something: be it a genre, actor or even a whole cinematic trend. I’ve also ensured that all these recommendations can be found on various streaming services (UK versions).

5) Mortal Kombat (1995)

Mortal Kombat is the epitome of Pauline Kael’s wise quote on the medium- “Movies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash we have very little reason to be interested in them.” The movie serves as a fascinating introduction to the often maligned video game adaptations. Kombat takes a measured approach to adapting the fighting game series with its high spirited action, performances, and earnest commitment to the goofiness of its source material. But above all, it’s a snapshot of how the budding sub-genre was treated in a period of time when video games were slowly evolving. The 1995 movie is available to stream on Prime Video.

4) Stripes (1981)

It goes without saying that Bill Murray is a unique screen presence. He’s someone who can charm with a sardonic wit, and emotionally resonate with an inherent melancholy that makes his later characters relatable in their weariness and sadness. Stripes is the missing link between these two qualities of the actor. The film’s best moments illustrate this dichotomy, and is an excellent introduction to how we see Murray in films such as Rushmore, Lost in Translation and Broken Flowers. Stripes is available to stream on Netflix.

3) The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

From the small crop of Hammer Horror films I’ve seen, The Curse of Frankenstein is the best introduction to the studio’s horror output. In part, this is due to the film’s distinctive approach. It’s a slasher film with manners, with the central monster being Peter Cushing’s debonair and wolfish doctor. At the same time, it also contains the studio’s famed overt innuendo, garish colour scheme and general winking silliness. The film is available to stream on Shudder.

2) The Sword in the Stone (1963)

There are countless animated movies that could be your gateway drug into getting hooked on Disney. Heck you could pretty much pick any movie from the studio’s 90s era. However, I think The Sword in the Stone is as good a candidate as any. At the heart of the movie, is an emphasis on education being important for a child’s development. At the same time, the film greatly illustrates the studio’s charm with its amusing physical gags, charming characters and imaginative spirit.

But above all, the movie is slyly subversive insofar as the hero’s journey is cast aside in favour of something far more interesting. We know that Arthur will become king, but the movie establishes the building blocks of what will make him a great man, one whose defined by intelligence and not heroic deeds. The 1963 animated feature is available to stream on Disney Plus.

1) Rashomon (1950)

Where do I start with Rashomon? Well, its story about four unreliable accounts of a murdered samurai is a wellspring for future cinematic endeavours. It’s also the film that introduced Japanese cinema to an international audience, Akira Kurosawa to many notable filmmakers, and the actor- Toshiro Mifune to the mainstream. The fact that it birthed a whole storytelling style (the Rashomon effect) and its imprint can still be traced in films as diverse as The Last Jedi and Isle of Dogs make it a must watch. For these reasons and many more, Rashomon is a perfect foundation for thinking of cinema as art. The 1950 film is available to stream on the BFI Player.

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Review: Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas (2003)

New Year’s Message

Happy New Year everyone. I hope you all have a wonderful 2021 that is full of happiness, success and good memories. Let’s hope 2021 is such a great year that it will make 2020 seem like a distant and hazy memory. Thank you for continually choosing to visit my little corner of the internet. Now onto the film of the day.

Preamble

Choosing the first movie to watch in a new year has become like a game at a fancy casino. You spin the roulette wheel and place your bets on picking a comforting favourite, newer title or that one film you’ve always wanted to catch up with, and see where your mood takes you. Whilst browsing the selection of movies on Prime Video (UK version), I came across the 2003 animated feature- Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas.

It was a proverbial favourite in my pre-teen days. Alas, the pull of nostalgia did not persuade me to watch it. Instead, the dreaded “Leaves Prime Video on 14 January” did. Seriously, if you ever want a cure to the eternal problem of deciding what to watch next, then always go for the leaving soon selections on any streaming platform.

It will light a fire under your ass faster than a Gumba who falls victim to Fire Mario in a classic Super Mario Bros game. Tortured gaming metaphors aside, does the movie hold up? Let’s find out, but in the meantime, let me know- what’s the first movie you watched in 2021?

Review

Inspired by aspects from the Arabian Nights and Greek Mythology, the 2003 Sinbad film is about the titular character (Brad Pitt) attempting to steal a magical McGuffin called the “Book of Peace” from the Greek goddess of Chaos- Eris (Michelle Pfeiffer). Previously, Eris had framed the notorious pirate for stealing the artefact from its resting place in Syracuse.

The kingdom’s prince and Sinbad’s childhood friend- Proteus (Joseph Fiennes) commits to being executed if his old friend does not bring back the book in 10 days. On his journey, Sinbad is joined by Proteus’s fiancee- Marina (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who represents a source of temptation for the veteran sailor.

Looking back, Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas came out at an interesting time for animated features. With the release of Shrek, the film’s studio- “DreamWorks Animation” was already embracing CGI animated features, and by this point, Pixar was already on course with their fifth computer-generated animated film- “Finding Nemo.”

With this in mind, Seven Seas is a melding of traditional and computer animation. The result tends to be a mixed bag. One bad instance is a Lovecraftian inspired monster in the film’s opening section. It has a quality of artificiality, akin to a badly pasted photoshop image amid a stunning pre-rendered background.

However, scenes that involve Eris prove to have the best balance. One memorable sequence is when a bird’s-eye view of the central ship is panned up from, to reveal the goddess looking at the entire seven seas in a wine glass. The moment greatly highlights how Greek gods meddled in human affairs with the casualness of stirring a coffee. For this reason and Pfeiffer’s sultry vocal performance, Eris is the standout character of the film.

The rest of the characters prove to be largely unimpressive. The screenplay’s biggest problem is that the relationship between the central three characters is told to us and not shown. Much of their backstory is confined to breaks in the narrative and usually are one-sided, such as the backstory only telling us how Sinbad met Proteus.

What we’re left with is the typical bickering that comes to define many romantic films. Sinbad’s and Marina’s relationship exist somewhere between Han and Leia as well as the screwball comedy dynamics that permeated classic Hollywood films- such as “His Girl Friday.”

Pitt and Zeta-Jones commit to the material with gusto. However, the screenplay lets them down. Their moments often feel immature, with silly lines, and Sinbad’s romantic revelation comes across as quite hollow as opposed to sweet and endearing.

This material is a far cry from the surprisingly resonating brother dynamic that defined the studio’s 1998 effort- “The Prince of Egypt.” Aside from Harry Gregson-Williams’s touching and adventurous score as well as the imaginative set-pieces: Seven Seas is a middle of the road effort, nothing offensive or particularly spectacular. However, it does provide a good origin story for a budding cinematic universe involving Brad Pitt’s dogs (between Spike in this film and Brandy from Once Upon a Time in Hollywood).

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My Top Five Films of 2020

Intro

In many ways, 2020 has been a strange year. With cinemas closing, subsequently re-opening in a limited window and the genuine safety concerns of returning to them: watching newer movies has been a frustrating experience. This is even without considering the fact that a lot of films have been delayed due the pandemic. With this in mind, I abandoned trying to ride the awkward wave of newer releases. Instead, I decided to treat the blog as a blank canvas for some of the nutty post ideas I’ve had. These have varied from posts about film music, themed months and some top five lists thrown in for good measure. As a result, I’ve not seen as many newer titles, and in good conscience, I could not present a typical top ten list.

However, here’s my top five films of 2020. What are your top films of 2020? Did you see any at the cinema? Let me know in the comments below.

5) Uncut Gems

Uncut Gems is extraordinary & unlike any film I've seen in years

Uncut Gems is an alarming experience. Watching the film is akin to being a third wheel on a date where you feel uncomfortable being around the general chaos going on from all corners off the screen. However, the Safdie brothers commendably mix the film with non-actors and veterans to make this sleazy and disconcerting world feel raw and real. Combined with some chilling tension and Adam Sandlar’s electrifying central performance, Uncut Gems is a film that I will not be forgetting any time soon.

4) Soul

Soul Review | Movie - Empire

Pixar’s latest is a charming and often amusing tribute to life. It’s about the sense of blues that kick in when you’ve reached the end of a goal. It’s also about appreciating the small throwaway aspects of our lives that we often take for granted. Aside from these aspects, Soul is remarkable in how it harmonises Jazz with its central theme, and its use of animation in depicting some of our most blissful moments.

3) Parasite

How “Parasite” Falls Short of Greatness | The New Yorker

Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite more then lives up to its Oscar and Palme d’Or prestige. The film captivates with its story of an impoverished family working in the employ of an upper class family. It also features a darkly comedic edge, and potent relatability that in its best moments, cosmically illustrates how the best laid plans are sometimes to no avail.

2) The Lighthouse

Pin on The Lighthouse 2019 Movie 4K~HD

However you choose to interpret The Lighthouse, there’s no denying it’s power to enthral and disturb. It’s a film that does not walk the tight rope of convention but instead runs at its own frantic and strange pace. It also cements Robert Eggers as a director, who’s able to chart lengthy excursions into the dark corners of the human psyche, with flair and ease.

1) The Invisible Man

How to watch 'The Invisible Man,' 'The Hunt' and 'Emma' at home - Los  Angeles Times

The Invisible Man is a fresh and engrossing interpretation of a classic premise. It’s made by someone who understands the genre’s blurred lines between horror, comedy and the victim and killer vantage points. The fact that it’s never satisfied with indulging in one of these exclusively is remarkable. But it’s even more commendable for illustrating the genre’s ability to depict fears, that largely go unseen in life. It was also the last film I saw on the big screen. More than anything I’ve seen this year, it powerfully spoke to why the cinematic experience needs to be preserved. There’s nothing like collectively taking in a movie together.

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Review: Tenet (2020)

Depending on who you ask, Tenet’s release in 2020 became symbolic for something larger about the medium. At worst, it represented a trend for art to trump all adversity (even amidst a pandemic) or at best: the film that will save the cinematic experience by keeping many theatres in business. Going by the UK box office, it certainly achieved the latter to a certain degree, ruling as the number one movie for an impressive eight weeks.

However, despite this huge burden the film hoisted upon its shoulders (with the hard worn weariness of a turtle), my curiosity about Tenet came from what it says about Christopher Nolan’s style. Having made a movie backwards, elevated the comic book movie to such a degree that it ignited a whole trend (heightened realism), and depict the true cost of time on a group of scientists; Tenet had my attention.

The end result is something of a mixed blessing. Tenet is certainly engrossing, ambitious and Nolan’s most primal film. However, it’s also an effort that exposes some of his problems as a screenwriter.

Tenet is about a secret agent called The Protagonist, (John David Washington) who finds himself thrust into the world of futuristic espionage after surviving an interrogation. In his new role, he has to track down a Russian arms dealer- Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) to prevent him from hatching a world annihilating plan. He does this by trying to befriend Sator’s wife- Kat (Elizabeth Debicki). Along the way, Washington’s CIA agent is allied with Neil (Robert Pattison) and Priya (Dimple Kapadia) whose insights provide him with a vital grounding about his current predicament.

On the surface, Tenet is Nolan’s closest attempt at making a James Bond film with an emphasis on globe trotting, impressive set pieces and Washington’s cool but dangerous persona. However, the story contains a “mind bending” premise that attempts to prevent the film from becoming a Bondian facsimile.

Notably, Sator has discovered a means of travelling back in time and wants to destroy the past via a series of artifacts that will trigger an algorithm that inverts entropy (the idea that time has a single direction like an arrow).

While this concept results in some spectacular sequences, particularly a series of car chases on a freeway, and a crucial moment where Sator is viewing a tense scene through the vantage point of how the audience just saw it, Nolan’s portrait of time in Tenet feels like it’s lacking.

In his previous films, Nolan’s high concepts were often married with crucial revelations that would greatly speak with an emotional truth about the human condition. In Memento, the director not only used the central character’s inability to form short-term memories to make the audience feel like they have the condition, but also make points about how we often lie to ourselves to keep going in life. Equally, in Intersteller, time is arguably the overarching antagonist. It forces the characters to assess their priorities and reflect on their losses (amid the central plan of saving humanity by finding a habitual planet).

In Tenet, the inversion of time instead comes across as a fuel for the action sequences and plot as opposed to something revelatory. To make matters worse, the concept gives rise to an overabundance of exposition that at times is poorly handled. One scene that’s particularly troublesome is when Washington’s character and Neil are sketching out a plan. The scene is scored and directed as though it’s a montage as opposed to a long scene that’s meant to impart crucial information. Consequently, vital information can be lost based on Nolan’s approach to conveying it.

The screenplay also feels overwritten with character motivations often told as opposed to shown to us. One example is the revelation that Sator is slowly passing away from Pancreatic Cancer, resulting in why he wants to take the world with him. Rather then this being an emotional moment that’s communicated from the character, it’s lumped in with other exposition to set up the climax.

Interestingly, Tenet feels closest to Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West insofar as its subtext is concerned. There’s a potentially intriguing thread about Washington’s character, via a persistent conversation he has with Priya about his place in the mission and story at large. Conceptually, it feels like Nolan is making a primal point about the nature of storytelling, and a character’s attempt to carve an identity as the centrepiece of the narrative. However, in execution, it lacks depth and instead feels as a means to get to a clumsy final twist. This is also a far cry in comparison with Leone’s film, whose existential grappling made larger points about the genre, and the characters place in a changing America.

In spite of this, Tenet does have a few things going for it. Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography is stunning. One memorable instance comes in the film’s closing moments where three characters are framed in a large circle amid the backdrop of a desert. In its colours (a chalky brown mixed with muted gray) composition and blocking, the scene evokes the iconic duel at the end of Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. Moments like this illustrate Nolan’s deft understanding of the medium, and its power to cast larger then life imagery (even out of seemingly ordinary interaction).

Between Blackkklansman and Tenet, John David Washington has illustrated a knack for being able to show the underlying emotions that fuel his characters. Some of the actor’s best moments in the film are when these come to the fore: such as his sadness at failing his team at the start of the film or snappy line readings, hinting at his deadly side. Robert Pattinson steals the show as a British agent whose nonchalance matches the spirit of Bond actors gone by. And Kenneth Branagh proves to be a formidable presence as Sator.

Ludwig Göransson’s score is an experimental treat. Some tracks give you the impression you’re listening to a propulsive series of waves. And others wonderfully take cues from Nolan’s high concept with some parts sounding like the forward and backwards motions of time are engaged in a tense tug of war with one another.

Part way through Tenet, a character simply muses- “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.” The line encapsulates the central problem with Tenet. Its high concept hits you at the speed of a Concorde. But it ultimately leaves you empty and unfulfilled, due to not being anchored by anything meaningful or something that has a semblance of emotional truth.

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My Top Five Alternative Christmas Films

5) Jingle All The Way (1996)

Straight up, I don’t like Jingle All The Way. It ruins the holiday spirit with a full embrace of cynical commercialism (via its plot of a father’s search for a hot new toy for his son). This is coupled with awful casting and a screenplay that does not care about its family dynamics. However, this year, I think the film does have its place as an ironic mirror, reflecting the hunt for the season’s must have items. In this way, the film is a timely reminder that it’s not worth punching a reindeer or teaming up with Sinbad to get a PS5.

4) Lethal Weapon (1987)

At first, you could raise your eyebrow, shake your head, and make a snorting sound of disbelief at this pick. That’s understandable. In fact, the traditional favourite movie in this spot is Die Hard. However, that film uses the Christmas setting as a backdrop as opposed to a tool to say anything meaningful about the season. By comparison, Lethal Weapon does.

It takes one of the season’s most tragic realities (the time of year where suicide is most apparent) and uses it as a backbone for the film. Suicide is not only the inciting incident that triggers the film’s narrative, but it’s also soberly depicted with Martin Riggs.

After his wife dies in a car accident, Riggs becomes committed to taking his own life (via various attempts and brash behaviour in the field). With this in mind, it could be argued that Lethal Weapon is about Riggs finding light in his life again, through friendship and the festive spirit of fellowship and family. The film also marks a start for Shane Black’s (the movie’s screenwriter) penchant for using Christmas as a backdrop for many of his movies.

3) The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

Ah, The Nightmare Before Christmas, a film that manages to blur the line between Christmas and Halloween. I’ve always thought of it as a Halloween movie, attempting to dress up and pretend it’s a Christmas movie for a day. The plot reflects this point with Jack Skellington wanting to oversee Christmas by dressing up as Santa and giving presents from Halloween town. In this way, Nightmare is an alternative Christmas film because it’s about an attempt from an outsider to spread the joy of the season without understanding its full ramifications.

2) Black Christmas (1974)

Out of all the films on this list, Black Christmas would appear to be the outlier. Sure, it’s set at Christmas but does it use that backdrop in an interesting way? I think it does. There’s potent subtext with its central couple (Jess and Peter) whose argument about whether or not to keep their baby is fascinating in the context of the Nativity Story. At the same time, it juxtaposes the innocence of the season with the cold and harsh nature of its murders. But its best trick is taking the good cheer of the season and subverting it into something alarming, elusive and scary.

1) Batman Returns (1992)

There’s nothing quite like putting a live canary in your mouth or a bit of nose biting to bring in some festive cheer. In all seriousness, Batman Returns is the text book definition of an alternative Christmas film. It takes the central aspects of the season and uses them as a canvas for something that’s unique and meaningful about the holiday.

In particular, one could interpret Tim Burton’s second Batman film as a riff on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Penguin, Catwoman and Max Shrek all represent certain aspects of the title character. Penguin is a mirror of the orphan who lost his parents or in this instance was purposefully given up by his parents (Ghost of Christmas past). Max Shrek is a dark mirror of Bruce Wayne’s businessman persona, whose out to consolidate his power by being a metaphorical vampire with his power plant sucking power out of unsuspecting Gothamites (Ghost of Christmas present). The naming allusion to the actor who played the original cinematic vampire (Nosferatu) feels purposeful in cementing this aspect of his character. And Catwoman/Selina Kyle mirrors Batman’s vigilante side, a sobering reflection of what his crime fighting career could become (Ghost of Christmas future).

Above all, I truly appreciate Batman Returns as an alternative Christmas movie because it takes an aesthetic I love (German Expressionism) and melds it with a season that’s meant to bring and joy and cheer.

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