Editorial: My Top Five Comfort Movies

5) The Pink Panther (1964)

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The Pink Panther mixes a bemused comic spirit with ambitious and farcical comedic set pieces. But the film’s most comforting element is Peter Sellers’s Inspector Clouseau. There’s something inherently relatable about him. At times, I feel as though the universe can’t help but want to pull the rug from under him. But often, his incompetence and hapless nature get the better of him. In this way, the character is an amusing stand-in for impostor syndrome. Clouseau is a cathartic reminder of how we all just tumble through life trying to look mildly sensible. But no matter how hard we try, we often end up looking silly.

4) Dawn of the Dead (1980)

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On the surface, a zombie apocalypse is not the most comforting thing in the world. But amid the chaotic and often cynical portrait of the end of the world, George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead is infectiously fun. The stretch of the movie where the main group play around in an empty mall is like a sugar rush of frivolity and childlike high jinks. By leaning into this aspect, Romero adds fuel to his satire of consumer culture and its fleeting nature.

But the director outdoes himself with an outrageous finale that combines a large biker gang, pie fights and gags involving a blood pressure machine. These moments of utter disorder often make me forget that Dawn is a horror movie. Instead, I often think it’s a comedic film that happens to be about a zombie outbreak. And with the film’s occasionally zany score and comic book ascetic, Romero seems to think so too.

3) The Elephant Man (1980)

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In spite of the cruelty that John Merrick (John Hurt) undergoes, The Elephant Man is a touching and resonating depiction of the aspects of life that we take for granted. Merrick’s integration into society is like watching someone who’s afraid of dipping their toe in a pond. But through patience and acceptance, he gains the confidence to put his best foot forward. Hurt’s measured performance is truly heart-rendering as Merrick experiences kindness, friendship and fulfilment. The film is a baptism of empathy that never ceases to move me.

2) Beetlejuice (1988)

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Honestly, it was a coin flip between this and Ed Wood, but Beetlejuice won because it’s a film that gave me enormous comfort during my teenage years. Tim Burton’s takedown of yuppie culture and their obsession with appearance really appealed to me. Lydia’s (Winona Ryder) detached but perceptive character spoke to me. And Micheal Keaton’s central performance as the live wire title character was the entertaining cherry on top.

1) Fantastic Mr Fox (2009)

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No matter how I’m feeling, Wes Anderson’s stop-motion adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox always lifts me up. The film is energetically edited, consistently funny and moving in its journey of someone, who has to learn to curb his instincts, to preserve his family and community. Anderson’s ability to deflate the earnestness of his characters by reminding you that they’re animals never fails to make me laugh. And the film’s moments of revelation and transcendence (elevated by Alexander Desplat’s beautiful score) are second to none.

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Editorial: My Top Five Moviegoing Experiences (Inspired by Filmspotting)

Introduction & Tribute

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Cinemas are still unfortunately closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But the memories of how our movie outings have moved us, thrilled us and in some rare instances- changed our lives, still linger. As we reflect fondly on our most memorable moviegoing experiences, we can only hope that one day soon (when it’s safe), we will be sitting in a dark room to see the silver screen play its grand tune again. What are some of your most memorable moviegoing experiences? Let me know in the comments below.

Before I reveal my top five, I’d like to dedicate this post to my late Grandfather who sadly passed away last week. He was a kind, informative and gentle man. In his 100 year old life, he saw things that could easily fill the length of a movie trilogy. I never got to know him as much as I wanted and wish that we had shared the experience of seeing a movie together.

5) Solo: A Star Wars Story

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From seeing A New Hope in concert at the Royal Albert Hall to my bittersweet IMAX screening of The Rise of Skywalker: the Star Wars franchise has always held some of my most memorable instances of going to the movies. However, my third viewing of Solo: A Star Wars Story stands out for a very personal reason. My father has never liked Star Wars or space faring entertainment for that matter. So, when I dragged him and my family to see Solo, I was expecting a typical crossed armed and eye rolling reaction. However, much to my surprise, he quite liked the film.

In a moment that’s been burnt into my memory with the semi permanence of a tattoo: my Dad and I locked eyes in the lobby after the film, he simply smiled like a joyful child and said “I actually enjoyed that.”

As you grow older, it’s sometimes hard to see eye to eye with your parents. But in that one moment, I felt as though an essential bridge had been crossed. My Dad in some small way had come to appreciate something I had loved for a long time. The fact that Star Wars is about familial ties and the family that can emerge from disparate people uniting made the experience even more meaningful.

4) Suspiria (2018)

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Oh boy! Where do I start with Suspiria? The beginning is as a good place as any. Few films in my adult life have caused as much feverish excitement then Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria remake. I was lucky to get a ticket to an advanced screening at the prestigious Picturehouse Central in London. Before the film started, I met and became friendly with a die hard Dario Argento fan, whose post screening opinion I was eager to hear.

Watching the film was like experiencing a vivid and confounding nightmare in real time. I was consistently curious and on edge. The audience reaction was also memorable: a mixture of horrified utterances with mutterings of boredom and disbelief. And those were just from the two seats beside me. There were palpable screams elsewhere. In those moments, it was though some of the people in attendance had morphed into cats who had jumped up a tree in fright.

When the film ended, I felt conflicted. On the one hand, I was terrified as though I had gone through a traumatic incident that I did not want to experience again. On the other hand, I did not have an immediate view of the film and knew it needed a lot of consideration. In a rare moment of being burdened, I felt daunted at writing a review. In fact, as I was leaving the auditorium, I turned to the Argento fan and exclaimed- I have to write about this tomorrow. Amusingly, someone from behind me replied- “No you don’t.”

Soon after, the Argento fan and I exchanged views over a drink. He liked it for the most part. That was quite a useful and unique post-screening experience, (not only because the bar area made me feel as though I had entered the opening party scene from Eyes Wide Shut- with its opulent decor and bright lighting). I usually see films by myself and sit with my own thoughts long after they’re finished.

The trip home was scary. The omnipresence of the witches had really got under my skin and caused me to think I was being watched. At the screening, I got a free poster of one of the nightmarish images that Susie Bannion sees in the film. I remember putting it in front of me whilst writing the review as though I was indulging in a flooding treatment. That’s how much the movie had got to me. In a sense, I had to exorcise my fear of it.

3) 1900 (Novecento)

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Frankly, this could go on the list alone for being the longest film I’ve seen in the cinema- (330 minutes (5.5 hours), split into two 165 minutes sessions with a 40 minute interval). However, the experience was memorable for other reasons too. I had made friends with a contact I had met through covering the Russian Film Week for my blog. She offered me some additional films to watch and I could not pass this one up at all. It was a rare privilege to be on a guest list and have a free ticket with my name on it. It was also an honour to see a pre-recorded message from Bernardo Bertolucci who introduced and briefly spoke about the film. Rare instances like that make you feel as though you’re about to see something special.

During the interval there was a full spread of traditional Italian food that had matched the big tables of feasts that had permeated the movie. However, I did not indulge in them. Instead, I was sat on the steps leading to the bar like an unassuming ghostly presence. I used the time to frantically jot down all my thoughts in a notepad because this was a film that was making my mind race like a vintage clock on speed.

No cinematic experience has ever made me feel less like a stranger. I did not know anybody at this screening and at times felt like I had entered a different country entirely. At the same time, I’ve never felt as determined in trying to get a sense of how a movie had struck me. Although, in retrospect, I probably should have exchanged some small talk over a slice of olive bread.

 2) Piccadilly

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At this point in my life, I had just moved to London to study Philosophy at University. The Prince Charles Cinema in Leicester Square had become this new haven for me to indulge in new movie experiences. I started getting into silent cinema through the German Expressionist era (via films such as the Cabinet of Dr Caligari and Metropolis). Piccadilly was the first non German silent film that I had seen. It had completely transformed my perception of the sub-genre. Instead of surreal dreamlike backdrops and haunting imagery, it favoured the power of human emotion and a real sense of place. German Expressionism got me interested in silent cinema but Piccadilly made me fall in love with it.

1) The Dark Knight

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My advanced screening of The Dark Knight was life changing in all senses of the phrase. Not only was I treated to a sheer genre defying spectacle but also to an emotionally draining and intellectually stimulating film. My first viewing of the film also left me with several things to contend with. I did not know quite how to feel about Heath Ledger’s Joker. I was also asking myself- what was the film truly about? In addition to, what was the meaning of the Ferry experiment in relation to the rest of the film?

For the first time, I had been able to drown out all the hype and just focus on untangling my thoughts about the experience. While I did not write a review for The Dark Knight at the time or since, the film was a crucial stepping stone in my development. I was no longer satisfied with letting a movie wash over me. Instead, I started thinking about them thoughtfully. Quite simply, The Dark Knight had led me to my love of writing about movies.

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Miyazaki May: The Wind Rises (2014)

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More then any other film that Hayao Miyazaki has made, The Wind Rises seems to be a mirror that casts the most personal reflection of the animated auteur. Part of this comes from Rises being the last movie he made (before his temporary retirement). But it also comes from the parallels that the director has with the main character.

The Wind Rises is a story that spans several decades in its depiction of the creation of the Mitsubishi A5M fighter plane by designer- Jiro Horikoshi. Initially starting out as a boy with dreams of flying planes, Jiro eventually becomes enamoured with designing aircraft. In between this major event, the film charts his early days of surviving the Great Kantō earthquake to his meeting and marriage with the love of his life- Naoko Satomi.

Despite being a film that’s not directly made to speak to kids: The Wind Rises is made with the sensibility of a child with a boundless imagination. There are many sequences that have Horikoshi speaking to his hero- Giovanni Battista Caproni (an Italian aircraft designer). Aside from being sequences that allow Jiro to dream and be inspired by the planes he sees Caproni make, they also represent Miyazaki’s most personal moments.

Jiro’s conflict of wanting to creating planes that are not designed for war, but instead are beautiful creations feel like Miyazaki wanting to make stunning animated features that are awe inducing in their own right. Through Jiro, it feels as though Miyazaki is depicting his frustration of making art in a world that demands products are made for profit and particular markets.

At the same time, Miyazaki also has other scenes that make certain events seem like a child is perceiving them. The sequence depicting the Kanto earthquake makes the event appear like a living and breathing monster who is swallowing the surrounding area. These scenes along with many shots that have scenery that feels like Eastern infused William Turner paintings are some of Miyazaki’s most stunning instances of animation.

But the film’s best moments are those where the more adult oriented material pervade the picture. They’re like shadows that loom over the characters, whether it’s lip service given to a company going bust or Japan’s future after joining Germany in the war.

But there’s always a sense of Jiro fearing his planes being turned into instruments of war, along with his duty to his work and ailing wife. For this reason and many more, The Wind Rises is a soaring film that speaks to the value of imagination and a life well lived.

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Miyazaki May: Spirited Away (2003)

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Spirited Away is a special film. It’s an experience that’s delightful, wondrous and truly transportive. Whilst on a stroll with her parents, Chihiro Ogino (Rumi Hiiragi) comes across an empty street with some restaurants that are seemingly open for business. After gorging on some lavishly displayed food, Chihiro’s parents are turned into pigs and no longer recognise her. Soon after, Chihiro comes across a young man called Haku (Miyu Irino). He reveals the young girl is in another world, where she must try to get a job in a bathhouse, otherwise she will face the wrath of a witch called Yubaba (Mari Natsuki).

Spirited Away is a fascinating coming of age tale. Rather then depicting a narrative that is about the main character’s transition from adolescence to adulthood, Miyazaki instead chooses to make a satire about the working world. The result is some amusing and imaginative sequences that have Chihiro trying to steer one of the crucial aspects of adulthood.

One sequence that comes to mind is when Chihiro is being frantically instructed to get a herbal soak tag for cleaning a particularly dirty area. After being briefed by a co-worker, the character turns round and asks quite innocently- “What’s a foreman?” The moment is a typical instance of feeling overwhelmed when first starting  a new job and putting it through a heightened prism. At the same time, Miyazaki does make some quite potent points about the absorbing nature of work place culture.

After being persistent in asking for a job, Yubaba grants her wish to work at the bathhouse. However, the catch is that Chihiro has to sign away her old name and identity (in a sense). With this plot point, Miyazaki is commenting on how one’s job can be so all consuming that you lose your individuality in the process, as you sign up to become part of a corporate will.

This aspect also extends to being the emotional centre of the film. The second half changes from Chihiro’s workplace tribulations to a quest to help revive an injured Haku. The conclusion of this results in Haku finding out his former name and identity after years of being Yubaba’s apprentice. Much like the relationship between Sen and Ashitaka in Princess Mononoke, the central pairing in Spirited Away is sweet, not only for what each character sees in one another, but also for the potentiality for their friendship to blossom in a new way.

Cinematically, Miyazaki excellently conveys the sheer daunting nature of the world that Chihiro finds herself in. Many of the shots are low angled, making us feel as though we’re seeing events from Chihiro’s point of view as we feel tiny within the environment. But this is also quite effective for the world building. Details loom large and pervade our senses with overwhelming power.

In fact, the best moments of filmmaking in Spirited Away are the ones where Miyazaki plays around with scale. One scene is when Chihiro stumbles upon Kamaji (the bathhouse’s boiler-man) who has four extra arms. Throughout the scene, the audience’s perspective is played with as the character multitasks in getting his workers motivated, retrieving items from the high shelves and talking to Chihiro.

The film is also filled to the brim with striking and memorably drawn characters. The most interesting is a tall spectral figure who wears a mask and goes by the name of No-Face. With his seemingly neutral expression, he seems like a character that’s inspired by Japan’s Noh Theatre tradition. However, he’s a also crucial side character who embodies the theme of finding your place within society (via the work place).

The imagery is compounded by a stunning musical score. At times it’s innocent with its light piano main theme as well as playful and grand with the fully orchestrated sections.

Spirited Away is one of those essential touchstone films. It illustrates how fantasy can be a genre that takes our very mundane struggles and puts it through a lens that feels unique and poignant.

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Miyazaki May: Princess Mononoke (2001)

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As a genre, animated movies are by and large treated with kid gloves, often being dismissed based on their cartoony aesthetic and place in the multiplex cycle. Films like Princess Mononoke shatter this frequent preconception. Hayao Miyazaki’s stunning and meditative epic illustrates that the genre can be a canvas for exploring complex themes and depicting the world in ways that not only awe us, but also enlighten us too.

Princess Mononoke tells the story of a young prince- Ashitaka (Yōji Matsuda). After fending off and sustaining injuries at the hands of a cursed boar, the prince goes in search of a cure. His travels take him to a distant land in the East, where he finds himself in the middle of a bitter feud between industrialist- Lady Eboshi (Yūko Tanaka) and the title character- (frequently referred to as San throughout the film) who is a ferocious human warrior that was raised by wolves.

Rather then being a standard fairy tale about the ills of man in taking down the natural world, Mononoke is instead a potent parable about Japan dealing with its post war trauma. On the one hand is the industrial response whereby Lady Eboshi believes that arming and conquering will make her little corner of the world (Iron Town) much more powerful.

In this way, Iron Town is a stand-in for Japan insofar as becoming more like its enemy in developing weapons that will bring catastrophic ruin to generations of people (in this case animals). Then you have the various factions of the forest (wolves, boars, apes) who believe in retaining their small corner of the world thorough whatever means possible. This is representative of Japan licking its wounds by attempting to hold on to its identity amid the growing escalation of continual warfare.

This aspect is thrown into even starker clarity with some of the characters in the margins such as the leper and priest. Their cynicism about the cursed nature of the world (resulting from war and anger) and what it’s done to the land is akin to a mournful Greek chorus for Japan’s malaise after the Second World War.

Aside from this central metaphor coursing through the film’s veins, Princess Mononoke is also an excellent example of a Russian doll set plot. As the movie goes on, the initial  ideas of good and evil are slowly unravelled as factions and motives are revealed. But this also embodied in the central plot involving Ashitaka’s attempts to get through to San. At first he sees a primal person whose seething hatred and attempts to get revenge are all consuming. But deep down he sees someone whose humanity and life does not have to perish in the pursuit of vengeance. This central relationship is touching and heartfelt.

Visually, the film is an interesting mixture of Western and Japanese imagery. There’s a clear homage to John Ford and Sergio Leone with the design of Iron Town insofar as being a place that could have existed in any of their Western pictures. But the film’s most arresting imagery are the ones where nature is being in a sense corrupted. One example is the initial image of the demonic Boar, which is quite striking, particularly the pulsating and gooey black substance revealing the creature. It calls to mind the work of H.R. Giger filtered through depictions of the Symbiote from Marvel Comics.

With an enchanting score, stunning painted background vistas and breathtaking point of view shots, Princess Mononoke is a beauty to behold in terms of animated features. It sometimes suffers from bombarding the viewer, but in its best moments it’s a spirited adventure for the mind and senses.

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Editorial: Intro to Miyazaki May

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May sees the continuation of themed months. From the small pockets of reactions, I’ve gotten in my personal life, admitting to not seeing a Hayao Miyazaki movie is akin to a cinematic sin. Well, your honour I now stand here ready to watch and review some of Miyazaki’s films for May. In my defence: despite my early love of animation, courtesy of the 90s Disney Renaissance and the studio’s classic hand drawn efforts, the genre has not held my interest in my adult years. I’m hoping this changes with Miyazaki’s films.

Last month, I only managed to watch and review three movies as opposed to the advertised four. This was because I was feeling a little burnout in the middle of the month, which caused me to fall behind. I did not think the quality of my fourth review would match the rest, so I decided to abandon it. Sorry for any disappointment caused. A review of Dario Argento’s Dracula will turn up in another themed month (down the road).

With this in mind, I will only be watching and reviewing three movies this month. I’m still fortunate enough to be working from home on a full time basis, but it does mean that my output is slightly reduced. In terms of selecting which Miyazaki’s movies to watch, I’ve gone for the films that I’ve most wanted to see (due to striking me in terms of subject matter or critical consensus etc). I’m also going to watch the original versions with Japanese dubbing and English subtitles. I think this is a no-brainer to respect Miyazaki’s vision.

Like last month, down below are the titles for the month along with a brief comment and where you can watch them.

Movie 1: Princess Mononoke (2001)

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This is not only my introduction to Miyazaki but also my first dip into the genre pool of Japanese high fantasy. Out of all the movies I’m covering, this is the one I’ve been most curious about. Princess Mononoke is available to stream on Netflix.

Spirited Away (2003)

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This is the one Miyazaki film that’s broken into the mainstream in terms of critical acclaim and his talent. I’m eager to see if it lives up to its celebrated status. Spirited Away is available to stream on Netflix.

The Wind Rises (2014) 

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The Wind Rises was on my radar when it was originally released in 2014. What put me off was that it was touted as Miyazaki’s last film. I did not think I could speak to it meaningfully because I had no prior knowledge or relationship with the rest of his movies. Hopefully, that can change (slightly) when I cover it for Miyazaki May. Like the other two films, The Wind Rises is available to stream on Netflix.

In the meantime, what film out of the lineup intrigues you the most? Which Miyazaki films have you seen? Let me know in the comments below.

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My Favourite Track: The Force Awakens (2015)

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Welcome to my favourite track, a new series of blog posts dedicated to a piece of film music that has moved me enough to get off the proverbial couch and madly type at the keyboard. From snappy songs to stupendous scores, the sky is the limit on the discussion. However, my knowledge of music theory is about as good as a cat’s knowledge of the innermost workings of the human psyche. So, I do hope you bear with me as I attempt to make my way through the exciting world of Film Music.

John Williams’s return to the Star Wars franchise in 2015 with The Force Awakens was equally as miraculous and exciting as the series itself. Williams’ score proved to be captivating with its exciting assortment of new themes and retooling of vintage ones.

There are many tracks that I could cite as my favourite. The mysteriousness and eventual budding of Rey’s theme (via the chimes of bells) make The Scavenger a blissful listening experience. The gentle use of strings in Jedi Steps illustrate the humbleness of Rey’s journey. And there’s just a tragic beauty in the track- The Starkiller Base.

However, my favourite track of The Force Awakens is Finn’s Confession. Though it’s shorter compared to a lot of the tracks on the soundtrack, it says so much in that time. At first listen, it has a striking resemblance to Anakin’s Theme from The Phantom Menace. That theme was a pure embodiment of innocence and a jubilant testament to Anakin’s  boyhood dreams of adventure.

In Finn’s Confession, Williams takes that strand of innocence but injects it with a measured and melancholic tinge (via the use of strings at a slow tempo).  It greatly illustrates Finn’s strife in telling Rey about his Stormtrooper past. I think Williams chose to evoke Anakin’s theme because it’s his way of telling the audience that despite Finn’s angst, he’s innocent and his heart is in the right place. It’s musical judgement through the referencing of a pre-established theme.

The next important part of the track starts at 0.55 seconds. This stretch of music is played in the movie when the Millennium Falcon is making its approach to Takodana and Rey remarks while seeing the planet’s surface for the first time- “I didn’t know there was this much green in the galaxy.” The music is soaring and uplifting, conveying Rey’s awe at that moment.

In the context of the track, it seems like a response to Finn’s attempt to reach out to Rey. It’s akin to a reward for being honest and sincere. But with its use in the movie in mind, the track is much more applicable to Rey. For choosing to go on the adventure and helping BB8, she’s opened herself to a much larger world via stunning green pastures.

One excellent aspect of the the Force Awakens score is Williams’s choices in the track inclusions. He’s not only going for what sounds good for the audience insofar as a 70 minute soundtrack experience is concerned. But he’s also choosing music based on emotion and theme.

An instance of this comes from “That Girl with the Staff.” In that track, Williams musically depicts three instances of how Rey is viewed through the narrative. The first is warm and familiar with the use of a light statement of Rey’s theme as she introduces herself to Finn. The second is when Finn encounters Rey while she is running towards him with her staff (via a brisk tempo). The final employs the brass section in an ominous manner to evoke Kylo Ren’s first encounter with Rey.

In the same vein, Finn’s Confession feels as though Williams is paralleling Rey and Finn. They’re both attempting to open up in some way and are in a sense rewarded for their efforts, whether it’s through understanding (in the case of Williams’ homaging Anakin’s theme with Finn’s plight) or Rey seeing much more of the galaxy.

In contrast to the proceeding music, the last minute of the track feels quite playful and fun. The music is used to accompany Finn’s, Rey’s, BB8’s and Han Solo’s walk through the entrance of Maz Kanata’s castle. As the camera pans up, the audience is treated to many flags and a statue of Kanata. I love the swell of the string section as the characters pass these sights, particularly as it’s edited exactly in time when the audience see the statue for the first time.

It echos the moment in Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring when the remaining members of the Fellowship look up at the giant Argonath statues. In that scene, there’s grandiosity to the music as the camera pans up and sweeps around to show the ancient monuments. Equally, Williams is illustrating ancient grandness as Han alludes to the age of Maz’s castle. The final moments have a calming reassurance to tell the audience that our characters are in safe hands.

Overall, Finn’s Confession is a track that for me encapsulates one of the major themes of the franchise. It’s about reaching out, whether that’s to another person or beyond the parameters of your every day existence. The track is like a warm embrace (in musical terms) for that mind set.

What do you think of Finn’s Confession? What’s your favourite track from The Force Awakens soundtrack? Let me know in the comments below. Happy Star Wars Day. May the 4th be with you.

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Argento April: The Stendhal Syndrome (1996)

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In the context of what’s come before in Argento April: The Stendhal Syndrome miraculously seems like an answer to my chief criticism of Dario Argento’s output. He seems more fixated on the cinematic flourishes that pervade his films as opposed to doing anything interesting with some of his characters or aspects of his narratives.

The Stendhal Syndrome is about Detective Anna Manni (Asia Argento) who’s on the trail of a sadistic serial killer- Alfredo Grossi (Thomas Kretschmann). Manni is afflicted with a condition called Stendhal Syndrome. It causes someone to become dizzy and devastated when viewing stunning pieces of art. In their battle of wills, Grossi attempts to exploit this weakness while Manni attempts to heal herself via sessions with a therapist.

In contrast to Argento’s earlier efforts, The Stendhal Syndrome is a film that’s less firmly rooted within the horror genre. In fact, it fits squarely within the genre of twisty ’90s thrillers such as Seven (complete with a shocking end reveal). But the film that’s mostly on Argento’s mind is Vertigo. Like Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal classic, Syndrome concerns itself with a controlling character who attempts to remake a woman in his perfect image.

Conceptually, this seems like an interesting idea, particularly within the context of a  relationship between a serial killer and a committed detective. However, in execution, the movie only seems to play to this idea with its ending twist. In fact, it reframes the entire relationship as Grossi is seen a controlling person who had a masterplan for breaking down Manni. This seems like a far cry from Grossi’s modus operandi of torture and torment as opposed to ownership and control. The retcon goes into the realm of preposterous to evoke Hitchcock’s film.

Instead, The Stendhal Syndrome is much more interesting as an illustration of how a woman deals with rape. Manni primarily overcompensates by showing very masculine traits (most prevalent in her relationship with boyfriend- Marco). She also reviles sex as and any sense of weakness. During this stretch, the idea of Manni being like her tormentor is theorised and is much more interesting then where the film goes with the “control twist.”

As a portrait of someone whose being psychologically damaged by a traumatising event, it feels sensitive and resonating. Most of this comes from Asia Argento’s daring central performance that flickers between victim and aggressor with believable and captivating power.

Unfortunately, this level of care is not present in Argento’s direction. Throughout he tends to over egg the pudding, whether it’s the unnecessary use of CGI in mundane situations or distracting camera moves that unnecessarily point upwards. Argento’s signature style of a slow creeping dread (courtesy of camera moves that evoke a looming omnipresent predator) is gone and replaced with something far more average. Giuseppe Rotunno’s hazy cinematography and Ennio Morricone’s eerie dreamlike score pick up the slack in providing the film’s atmosphere.

The Stendhal Syndrome never rises above being an average curiosity. While it’s good to see Argento focusing more on character, his exploration in some areas lack shading and direction insofar as thematic focus is concerned. But there’s something special in Asia Argento’s performance that has an emotional truth even when the film does not quite lay the tracks down for her eventual path.

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Argento April: Deep Red (1974)

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Deep Red or Profundo Russo (Italian title) is the cinematic equivalent of soaring. It’s a film that illustrates Dario Argento is not merely working within the horror genre, but understands it so profoundly that he can bend it to his will and in the process the audience too.

Much like his debut feature (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage), Deep Red is a Giallo set in Rome. However, this time the film is about a British pianist- Marcus Daly (David Hemmings) who finds himself thrust into a murder mystery, after witnessing his neighbour- Helga Ulmann (Macha Meril) being brutally killed through her apartment window.

Watching Deep Red is akin to waking from a long unwinding nightmare at 3.00 am in the morning. There’s a slow and haunting quality that pervades the film as the camera takes on a mysterious omnipresent quality, slowing panning around the surroundings with predatory precision.

In Crystal Plumage, Argento mixed opulence and terror. In Deep Red, the director is concerned with images of innocence that are corrupted and transformed into something nasty. The opening moments (via a low angle shot) depict a seemingly picturesque Christmas display. However, this is soon ruined by a murder (depicted via shadows) and a bloody knife, which falls close to where the grisly act is being witnessed.

Argento brings this quality of corrupting innocence throughout the picture. There are frequent shots that frame toys and strange looking objects as omens of the carnage that’s about to occur. A particularly freaky image is the black gloved murderer picking up a figurine of a baby.

Less impressive are some of the human elements of the story. The relationship between Daly and kooky reporter- Gianna Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi) is less Howard Hawkes in its charm and more a Punch and Judy show (involving casual male chauvinism and childish antics).

Despite the recurring theme of innocence being corrupted in the imagery, I wish Argento had explored this more in the characters. There’s a tantalising prospect of the theme playing out by the killer being Daly’s friend- Carlo (Gabriele Lavia). This aspect would have made sense, given who we find out is the boy who picks up the knife in the flashback scene. However, the film opts for a far less interesting reveal that feels like the ticking of a plot point then a genuine revelation.

There’s a scene when Daly is talking to Carlo early on. They’re both dwarfed by the scenery as Argento employs a wide angle shot. The moment embodies how the director feels about characterisation and how it’s secondary to the cinematic framing of the experience. Deep Red is flawed in this area along with occasional spots of plotting the mystery.

However, there’s something exciting about Argento finding his voice within the horror genre and melding it to his heightened sensibilities. This is even apparent with his first collaboration with Goblin, who create a chilling rock infused score. Deep Red is the sort of film that coasts on its cinematic verve and technique. For the devout and curious, it’s an enriching exercise in horror movie making. For everyone else, it may be an indulgent chore.

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Argento April: The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1971)

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Loosely defined: Giallo is a popular 20th century genre that specialises in mysteries, thrillers and occasionally supernatural horror. The Italian word translates to yellow and the genre gets its name from the yellow coloured paperback novels that dominated bookshelves in post war Italy. While there were many Giallo movies before 1970, Dario Argento popularised the genre (with Crystal Plumage) and kick started its resurgence in post 70s Italian cinema.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is about an American writer, Sam Dalmas (Tony Mustane) whose been on a long holiday in Italy. Grappled with writer’s block as he’s about to leave the country: Sam’s world is turned upside down when he witnesses a woman in an art gallery being stabbed. Soon after, the writer finds himself in an investigation and race against time with a black gloved figure, whose been on a murderous rampage of local women.

Crystal Plumage’s greatest trick is its distortion. Much like Sam is convinced that he’s seeing the opening attack in one way, the audience is likewise led to believe that what we’re seeing is real. Part of this comes from genre expectation and who we typically see as the victim in similar stories. Argento also brings this aspect to some of the sequences.

One has Sam being chased by a gunman wearing a yellow jacket (an amusing reference to the genre’s roots). Sam eventually tracks the lone man to a sports convention where the majority of people are wearing yellow jackets.

In contrast to other Argento films I’ve seen, the direction is less bombastic and assaultive. Instead, the director in his first film favours opulence and dread. Many scenes have the characters slowly realising their impending doom in lavish surroundings. One scene that comes to mind is when a woman is walking back up to her apartment. As she climbs the staircase, the lights start to go out until she is met with complete darkness and has to resort to using a match.

Argento’s use of the top down shot that shows all the staircases aligned looks like a surreal panting. It evokes tension and the pervasive nature of the killer. Ennio Morricone’s eclectic score made up of gloomy bells, low male choral chants and a moaning woman provide the scene with its electrifying horror.

Despite this, the film’s central problem comes from the handling of Sam’s character. Conceptually, it’s fascinating to see someone who starts out as helpless in aiding a victim of the black gloved killer, becomes obsessed and end up helping to bring the notorious figure to justice. However, I don’t get any sense is grappling with anything (other then trying to remember details about the killer) and instead strung from one plot element to the next.

With Sam being a writer whose is in the midst of writer’s block, it would have been interesting to see him wanting to stay because it inspires him to write again. Or he has to solve the mystery, due to wanting to write a story about his experiences. Instead, it just feels like he stays because it’s convenient to the plot.

As it stands, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is a scorching debut from Dario Argento. He plucks the strings of the Giallo genre with finesse, a black comedic streak (particularly with some of the secondary characters) and subversive wit. However, I can’t help but feel that the film could have soared and become something far more interesting, particularly with the exploration of Sam and his further entrenchment into the central mystery.

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