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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Brief Thoughts on a Trailer: Songbird (2020)

The trailer for Songbird snuck up on me with the hard hitting force of a snowball to the ear (true story). Through a conversation with a dear confidante, I was made aware of the controversy of the trailer that seemed “too real” for our current pandemic times. Naturally, this piqued my interest and made me go to YouTube with the speed of a locomotive train.

With buzz words and phrases like “COVID-23, lockdown and grim new reality”, the trailer for Songbird does hit quite close to home. However, this is not necessarily a bad thing. At its best, the horror genre can be a canvas for our fears to be projected and explored (be they realistic, supernatural or even outlandish). In turn, the best movies in the genre powerfully speak to our fears and in a sense allow us to achieve a degree of catharsis.

With this in mind, movies that deal with the pandemic should not be dismissed out of hand, in the same way that a movie like The Strangers should not be disregarded for depicting our fear of home invasion. In fact, it would not surprise me if the horror genre deals more with the pandemic in the coming years. Indeed, the upcoming Halloween Kills (sequel to the 2018 reboot) has some trace element of post pandemic subtext. In describing what the film is about, director David Gordon Green said:

“This [Halloween Kills] is more about the unraveling of a community into chaos. It’s about how fear spreads virally.”

My biggest problem with the trailer comes from its behind the scenes talent. The ghost at the feast is producer Micheal Bay. The infamous director and producer’s company (Platinum Dunes) have been responsible for insipid horror remakes such as Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street. While there’s no source material to butcher here, Bay’s loud and regressive aesthetic can infect his producer efforts.

The true horror of Songbird could perhaps be its button pushing premise being slowly drowned out by Bay’s style. As it stands, the trailer sells a film with some intriguing elements. But will it have anything to say about our post Coronavirus world? That remains to be seen.

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My Top Five Alternative Horror Films

5) Black Sabbath (1963)

What’s Halloween without an anthology film to make your blood run cold? Mario Bava’s striking, colourful and dreamlike film tell stories that vary from telephone stalking to a chilling vampire tale. Aside from inspiring the name of British heavy metal band- Black Sabbath, the film had quite an effect on Quentin Tarantino. In shaping Pulp Fiction, he looked to this film, stating- “what Mario Bava did with the horror film in Black Sabbath, I was gonna do with the crime film.” In many ways, the 1963 film legitimised the horror anthology as a meaningful sub-genre that could be gripping and artful.

4) The Black Cat (1934)

Despite being a horror film from the 30s, there’s something deeply unsettling about The Black Cat. Part of this comes from the film’s understated creepiness, be it Hjalmar Poelzig’s (Boris Karloff) insidious intentions or the use of shadow. One such scene has an implied torture that particularly feels boundary pushing in the pre-code era. Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi are electrifying in a story that pits their characters in a bitter conflict. Beneath the veneer of Hollywood respectability, Black Cat has a horrific and rotten core. The careful dance between these elements is the film’s true power.

3) The Haunting (1963)

Despite a glowing endorsement from Martin Scorsese, The Haunting has always felt like an undervalued movie within the genre. This has become even more apparent with Mike Flanagan’s dramatic and emotionally nourishing Netflix adaptation. However, the film still proves to be a excellent exercise in ambiguity (built upon the foundation of solid character work). The film’s spooky bumps in the night can either be the manifestation of the supernatural workings of its central location (Hill House). Or the product of psychologically scared woman who yearns for acceptance and a place to belong.

2) Demons (1985)

Demons wreck shit in a cinema, with thumping metal music blaring and occasional self referential moments. Nothing much to say here. The premise speaks for itself. But in all seriousness, this is one of those trashy horror films that you’d be enticed to see because of its intriguing poster. Fortunately, Demons lives up to the promise of its foggy and elusive wrapper.

1) Prince of Darkness (1987)

I love Prince of Darkness. It’s bonkers, disconcerting and ambitious in its melding of scientific intrigue and supernatural horror. In what feels like an ode to Italian horror cinema, John Carpenter constructs a film that’s leisurely paced but potent in the evoking of its central evil. It may not be as celebrated as Halloween or The Thing, but for my money, it’s Carpenter’s most fascinating film.

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Review: Hellraiser (1987)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: To Catch a Thief (1955)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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