Early Review: Baby Driver (2017)

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With Baby Driver, Edgar Wright has crafted a sly, whimsical and hardening genre film that emanates with wry invention and visual exuberance: even if it lacks the rich thematic depth, ingenious mosaic comic construction and witticisms of the British director’s earlier works. The title character refers to a young getaway driver who has chronic Tinnitus (the condition results in a person hearing sounds even where there is no external source of it present) and deals with it by playing a varied assortment of music that energises his high flying car antics.

Throughout the history of cinema, popular music has played a crucial role in being deft shorthand for a character or accentuating a mood and atmosphere. In Baby Driver, the form operates as a smart bridging between the two functions. Wright does this by cleverly choreographing everyday actions and gestures in a manner akin to dance steps in a musical. In one sequence, Wright also commendably captures the idealism and optimism of 1950s musicals as Baby (Ansel Elgort) gaily struts, jumps and dances on his way to the diner he frequents.

At the same time, the use of music in the film echoes Quentin Tarantino’s conceptualising of the form in his early work. There are many instances where the source music is abruptly turned off or interrupted by one of the members of the gang who thinks Baby is annoyingly aloof and arrogant. These moments call to mind the scene in Reservoir Dogs when Mr Blonde leaves his stereo on and walks out of the warehouse to get some equipment out of his car. As the scene goes on, the music ceases, and the audience instead hears the dulcet natural sounds of Los Angeles.

Moreover, much like Mr Blonde picks “Stuck in the Middle with you” as the track of choice when torturing a cop, Baby Driver contains many occurrences where the source music is curated. Button Brass’s “Tequila” is picked as a song to play when a gang have to go see one of their contacts for weapons and Buddy (played with emasculated dignity by Jon Hamm) complements and sings along to Barry White’s “Never, Never Gonna Give Ya Up” before quoting a line and using it to suggest an overt threat to Baby’s love interest- Deborah. (played with plucky down to earth charm by Lily James)

Baby Driver represents a maturation for Edgar Wright’s filmmaking. His quick and rapid-fire montages made up of close-ups of many ordinary objects that amusingly mock weapon preparation montages in actions pictures is replaced here with fanciful moments of fantasy. There is a moment where we see Baby and Deborah reflected in a spinning tumble dryer. As the scene goes on, the colour red pervades the screen, and this former reflection transforms into a vinyl record that Baby puts on in the next scene. And Wright’s black and white sequence where he sees Deborah waiting for him by a car resonates in its representation of wistful longing.

In numerous interviews over the years, Wright has expressed his fondness for Walter Hill’s 1978 movie- The Driver. The picture which has a similar premise to Baby Driver impresses as a taut and spiritual crime thriller where the cops and robbers dynamic is given archetypal heft. Ryan O’Neal’s efficiently still and silent performance carries weight in portraying a man whose inner life has been slowly poisoned by the moral dimensions of his getaway driving. With this in mind, it feels as though Wright is taking O’Neal’s nameless character as a jumping off point for injecting Baby with the blackening ethical implications of his part-time criminal job.

The assigned nickname of Baby is purposeful in evoking a character who is a neophyte in the area of crime. But it’s also an amusing shorthand in illustrating how other characters treat him. In one funny scene, the central female character of the gang that Baby is involved with asks her lover if they should be talking about a particular topic in front of the young driver. The alpha males of the group view Baby as a cushy liability who cannot make a decision when it counts.

Baby’s journey is all about him making the important choices that could either save others from harm or selfishly increase his criminal prestige and personal life. Also, he realises and deals with the consequences of his job that seeks to entrench him further into a lawless existence on the run. Wright subtlety conveys Baby’s transformation. In the aftermath of his last two jobs, we see the new facial scars that have emerged out of his recent fast road escapades. And Ansel Elgort’s performance of Zen fueled placidly becomes resolute and world-weary by the end of the picture.

In 1981, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior combined exploitation with the form of silent cinema to create an excellent piece of moviemaking that created a new canvas for the sub-genre of post-apocalyptic to reign supreme. In the same vein, Baby Driver feels like the dawn of something bold and exciting. No longer does the movie musical have to be dubiously produced adaptations of stage productions or star gazing stories that exist in the Hollywood hills. Instead, tyre screeches, gunshots and the subtle drumming of a gloved hand etched upon a steering wheel; while Queen and T-Rex blare through an iPod speaker can be as potent in showcasing the sweeping appeal of the longstanding genre.

Review: Pirates of the Carribean- Salazer’s Revenge (2017)

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES

At this point, the Pirates of the Carribean franchise has become the cinematic equivalent of a drunken man stumbling to a vague destination using the most inane route possible. As the series has worn on, its beating heart has resided in the various vignettes and narrative excursions that have pervaded the series like scurvy. The fifth picture entitled Salazer’s Revenge (the US got the far superior Dead Men Tell No Tales) proves to be the most semi-comprehensible, the series has gotten since The Curse of the Black Pearl.

Crucially, directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg understand the appeal of Johnny Depp as a silent comic actor and construct set pieces that accentuate this facet of the famous movie star. A scene early in the picture depicts an amusing heist where a collapsing house drags a minuscule bank vault with treasure, and Depp’s bemused facial expressions call to mind the bewildered silent comic stylings of Buster Keaton. And a prolonged comic interlude involving Sparrow escaping from a guillotine and subsequently fighting while retaining parts of it imbue the character with a rejuvenated physical comedic wit.

At the same time, the film reinforces more elegantly than any other instalment the pervading theme of heroes rarely living up their lionised status. A sequence involving the young Sparrow jostling with a pre-supernatural Captain Salazer (played by Javier Bardem with a mockable Spaniard inspired Schwarzenegger accent.) shows the character at his boldest and most valiant, which juxtaposes with his current self who does not command the same respect he once did, as the character is mocked by members of his crew as well as the younger generation.

Moreover, Carina Smyth (played with earnest gusto by Kaya Scodelario) represents the franchise at its most self-reflexive as her character comments upon the time she exists in and the dubious backstabbing machinations that have plagued the series. Unfortunately, the rest of the proceedings prove to be an overwrought and bombastic mess that varies between being an expensive remake of Carry on Cruising and generic hyperkinetic blockbuster fare.

Though a few of the dynamic aerial shots and tango inspired horror sequences (in one scene Salazer establishes that whenever he taps his foot one of his men dispatches of their hosts’ crew with lighting efficiency.) prove to be a welcome tonic to the televisual drudgery and mechanical direction of the last movie. (On Stranger Tides)

Any hopes of this being the last Pirates movie is marred by the stupefying implications of the central McGuffin. (In this film, the object of conquest is the Trident of Poseidon. It enables its user to break all curses and make people seem like they are on an endless waterslide, which is amusingly demonstrated during one scene in the climatic battle sequence.) The coffin has not been so much laid down than given tiny holes for a continued fragile life.

Review: Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992)

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Between its sordid soap opera antics and wholesome small town sensibility; Twin Peaks felt like a sprawling Jungian collective unconscious of Americana that was always shifting to understand its heritage and legacy. In one of the most interesting and eccentric storylines of the series, Benjamin Horne (played with smarmy effervescence by Richard Beymer) regresses to a warped mindset where he believes he is the Confederate General Robert E. Lee who is valiantly leading the South in a victorious campaign against the Union. Faced with this alarming behaviour, his psychiatrist advises the local tycoon’s family and friends to stage a faux surrender of the Northern forces to quicken the recovery of a man who has lapsed into depression after losing his business and livelihood.

The plot felt like a truthful cathartic acknowledgement of America’s historical racial tendencies and the attempt to make amends for this clear sub-conscious declaration, which Horne undertakes in the second half of season two. 

In the cinematic prequel, Fire Walk With Me, which chronicles the last week of Laura Palmer, (the young woman’s murder was the central mystery of the first half of the series) director David Lynch replaces the revered cheery quirkiness of the show with a powerfully sobering and bleakly tragic picture.

Throughout his oeuvre, the acclaimed auteur has showcased the deterministic desires and forces that have shaped his characters’ predicaments. In Blue Velvet, Jeffrey Beaumont’s youthful yearning of new experiences fuels his actions. In Eraserhead, a man in the sky pulls a lever resulting in Harry Spencer’s sudden responsibility of fatherhood. In Fire Walk With Me, Laura Palmer’s (Sheryl Lee) death is a foreboding inevitably. In the series, the film’s subtitle functioned as a potent poem that evoked the surrealism and supernatural antagonist of the series. In the film, it’s a stark statement of Laura’s demons and illicit lifestyle, which will eventually catch up with her and result in death.

Moreover, Lynch’s fascination with 1950s Hollywood shines in the film as Laura Palmer’s descent into drugs, revelry and fever-laden mood swings feel like the director is channelling the devastating youthful deaths of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe. Sheryl Lee’s performance as the young woman is powerfully operatic and heartbreaking in its scope. Like Monroe, Palmer presents a pristine public persona that carries within it the perceived ideals of flawless desirability. Lee conveys this with a casual and effortless ease with her physicality, facial expressions and vocal inclinations that can vary between erotic and innocent. However, the actress’ most striking moments are in her scenes with Donna. (Moira Kelly) The standout being an intimate moment where her best friend asks, “Do you think if you were falling in space that you would slow down after a while or go faster and faster?”

With Lee’s face in full frame, the actress delivers her lines as though she is witnessing herself in a dream state, forever striving to cover up a deep-seated pain she masks. Her response varies from contemplation, exhilaration and bitter resentment as the scene encapsulates Laura’s character; a highly attuned young woman whose metaphysical hankering, charitable acts and illegal nocturnal activities cannot save her from a grim truth.

The bitter pill is that Laura’s father under the guise of Bob (the primary mystical villain of the series) has been sexually assaulting her from an early age. Leland Palmer (Ray Wise) represents the fifties ideal of a father whose strong, stern and warm paternal outpouring keep the nuclear family unit together. And Wise’s performance turns these seemingly innocent expressions of fatherly love into malevolent acts of irony. But it’s the conflicted moments of shame and sexual longing that make Wise sublime. In one scene where a series of pressuring external events cause the middle-aged man to crack and sombrely reminisce, Wise’s expressions simultaneously carry the weight of guilt and nefarious intent.

Fire Walk With Me’s staggering masterstroke comes from Lynch’s subversion of the central location in Twin Peaks. No longer does the idealistic and painterly small town with its inviting diners, quaint lumber mills and awe-inspiring lush greeny feel like a safe and embracing place. Instead, it feels harsh, cold and secluded. Lynch’s sound design of natural and mundane sounds such as the bird song and crickets chirping combine to create an unfeeling portrait of nature that watches humanity with an unsentimental eye. Even Laura’s house becomes a source of dizzying horror as low angles shots of the outside and interior fan covered ceiling make the place seem imposing. Additionally, the free-roaming camera evokes the feeling of an entity who is watching Laura’s steps as it lurks through the upstairs area with swift movements.

In its cinematic form, Twin Peaks has not lost its sublime ability to deal with long-standing events that have pervaded the American psyche. However, at times Lynch proves to be his own worst enemy.

In his protracted framing, leisurely pace and casually deadpan exchanges, Lynch’s television doppelganger has proven to have a sharper sense of humour. Even the grim spectre of the television show presides over the film like a squawking crow as an occasional static punctuates certain moments and in so doing awkwardly reminds the viewer of the picture’s origin. To this end, one does wonder if the film can truly engage beyond the ardent Peakers. Moreover, the images in the director’s other films have stirred the senses and imagination with far more immediacy and grandiosity.

Nevertheless, Fire Walks With Me burns with an emotionally resonating universality, which comes from a truism in Laura Palmer’s plight. Even amongst the ones we hold dear, we cannot be ourselves, and the internal pain inside us all can eventually engulf us.

Review: Rachel Getting Married (2008)

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In Rachel Getting Married, the late Jonathan Demme combines the form of Cinema Vérité with a candid fly on the wall style that has the awkwardness and intimacy of a pristinely preserved wedding video. In fact, in an interview with Post Magazine, Demme stated he wanted to make “The most beautiful home movie ever.” The result is a subtle use of the camera in illustrating the seclusion and underlying familial disenchantment as former drug addict Kym (Anne Hathaway) returns home on the eve of her sister’s wedding- Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt)

Despite the loose and free roaming style requiring minimal setup, Demme’s framing proves to be essential and purposefully designed to evoke his characters’ strife. Kym’s persistent and palpable vying for attention is given fascinating life as the character is like a pervasive shadow that comes close to engulfing the narrative and shots. Demme commendably portrays the tug of war conflict between Kym and Rachel in a wonderfully engaging cinematic manner.

Rachel fears that her sister is attempting to ruin her wedding by upstaging her with her crippling psychological outbursts and Demme conveys this with careful placement of focus. In the aftermath of a particularly nasty argument, which has their father, Paul (played with indelibly heartening charm by Bill Irving) side with Kym; Rachel announces that she is pregnant. The news is greeted with boundless enthusiasm, and Demme orients the dynamics of the scene away from Kym as all the characters gather on one side of the kitchen while she remains stupefied in the corner.

In the tail end of the film, both characters appear united not only concerning their behaviour towards one another but also in the framing. Kym stands proudly looking on at her sister getting married to her betrothed, and there are many instances where they are positioned in perfect harmony with one another. In the film’s most touching moment Rachel washes and attends to her sister’s wounds while a Violin rendition of “Here Comes the Bride” is heard in the background. The moment signifies that Rachel has temporarily set aside her desire to be the centre of attention to help her sister and acknowledges the mental anguish she has experienced.

The power of Rachel Getting Married is in some of its ruinous family entanglements never being resolved. Much like life, there is no flawlessly wrapped bow on events; opportunities are missed, important words are never uttered, half-hearted painful truths cease the day, and soul bearing words never soothe the conscience. And in the picture’s most devastating scene, trauma can be induced by the most seemingly mundane and innocent household item as an amusing generational battle, fought over stacking the dishwasher, is soured by Paul stumbling upon a plate belonging to his long dead son.

Demme juxtaposes this with a unique portrait of marriage. Many of the scenes in the film are dedicated to showcasing the various members of both families bonding over memories of their time together. Screenwriter Jenny Lumet conceives of marriage as a union between two families as opposed to just being a state enacted commitment between man and woman. The choice of the bridesmaids to be dressed in sarees punctuates this idea because in Indian culture it’s a tradition that when a girl gets married, they leave their family to become part of the husband’s in-laws.

With this in mind, Kym’s alienation becomes all the more potent as her emotional seclusion is put on a bigger canvas. In many of the wedding sequences, the audience can barely see the live wire character as she gets lost amidst the various guests. In the moments we do see Kym, Hathaway’s intense facial expressions portray a convincing isolation and detachment.

Fundamentally, Demme used the cinema to chronicle human beings, and in the best moments of Rachel Getting Married, he does out this ostensibly mundane endeavour with touching and vivid authenticity.

Review: Alien Covenant (2017)

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A covenant is an agreement that can be made between a nation or people. In the context of the new film from Ridley Scott, it’s the name of the colony ship bound for a distant planet to repopulate and start a new life for humankind in the cosmos. The original Alien film was many things. Crucially, it was a narrative of feeble human choices resulting in the unveiling of a creature that acidly twisted the knife into the very notions of morality and compassion and replaced it with a savage survival instinct. This was demonstrated by way of a terrifying life cycle, that felt in equal parts- biologically credible and sexually transgressive. The aptly named Covenant continues this tradition of the horrific entangled web of events being spun by problematic judgements.

A reluctantly stern captain of faith impulsively responds to a human distress call and brashly thinks the sourced planet to be much more habitable for the two thousand colonists than a rigorously simulated and scientifically mapped out planet further out in space. The central antagonist of the picture arrogantly proclaims he loved a woman who showed him compassion and sees fit to still experiment on her for the sole purpose of curiosity. If Alien Covenant is about anything, then it is about the delusional egotism in leadership and creation.

For a film that bestows the central creature of the accoladed horror franchise to title status again, the Xenomorphs prove to be the most problematic aspect of the picture. Essentially, there is no dimension added to the creature’s life cycle or a new manner in which we could perceive them.

In Aliens, the sheer multiplicity of their race come from an Alien Queen, and they function as a nightmarish subversion of a truism parents tell their children, encapsulated when Newt says to Ripley- “My mummy always said there were no monsters, no real ones, but there are.” In Alien 3, the lone Xenomorph has an animalistic fury as it takes on the attributes of its non-human host resulting in the tense and frenetic point of views shots in the tail end of the picture. At the same time, the creature is seen as the embodiment of divine punishment by the prisoners of Fury 161 who create a nihilistic and cruel religion to deal with their crimes. In Alien Resurrection, there is a human/Xenomorph hybrid as Ripley’s DNA is replicated and modified. Even the woeful Alien Vs Predator movies had some sense of creativity in melding both creatures into an amusingly hissing new creation complete with dreadlocks and a new set of jaws.

In Covenant, the Xenomorph have lost their majestic sense of terror that came from their ability to be simultaneously horrifying and striking in their design. Additionally, the subtext of their attacks playing on fears of rape and male pregnancy become clumsy overt text as David (Michael Fassbender) lures the unsuspecting Captain Oram (Billy Crudup) to his lair. When asked what his creations need to be successful, the android retorts in a matter of fact manner- “A Mother.”

The best sequence involving the creature is when it attacks a couple during a heightened moment of passion in a running shower cubicle. Ridley Scott’s framing is impeccable as the Alien is seen through a mirror as it violently lunges at the male partner. The aftermath is the Xenomorph looking as though it was kissing Upworth (Callie Hernandez) and a darkly comic moment as blood gushes over the female crew member in what seems like an ironic twist of climaxing. As good as the sequence is, it does represent a sobering moment for the series; as it seemingly sinks into the slasher movie genre waters that it once transcended so masterfully.

From the ashes of the Xenomorph’s mediocrity, the android David arises to become the malevolent heart of the series. In Prometheus Fassbender’s performance subverted the Pinocchio portrait of an artificially intelligent being with a seemingly aloof and obedient nature that hid ominous intentions which occasionally manifested themselves in his wry sense of humour. In Covenant, Fassbender takes David to new heights of passion and all-consuming arrogance.

However, the most striking quality that the Irish actor adds to the character is a protracted sense of wistful sadness. In many of David’s exchanges with Walter (the newer android model again played by Fassbender), he expresses his love for Dr Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and his misery of not having her around. Even though the sentiments can be read as a ruse because he experimented on Shaw for his creations; there is still a deep-seated sense of love that went unfulfilled. (A starker reading of David’s feelings of unrequited love could be read as physical and retain the sexual subtext that the series always has at its core)

The added quality presents David with a fascinating dichotomy. In the opening sequence, the character stands before Michelangelo’s David sculpture as he chooses his name in view of his creator- Peter Weyland (Guy Pierce) Through the course of his conversation, David reflects on his creator’s mortality and concludes that he will outlive his human master. In many ways, David believes he is a supremely perfect being who has far exceeded humanity yet still revels in the sentiments of man as embodied in his feelings for Shaw. This conflict of egotism and emotion has particular resonance when thinking of it in the context of the beings that David has created. The creation of Xenomorphs could represent a purging of this conflict in lieu of a pure instinct of survival.

As David, Fassbender channels Vincent Price’s pomposity and cleverly echoes Rutger Hauer’s seductively impassioned portrait of Roy Batty. Whereas, Fassbender imbues Walter with a sense of innocence and discovery that is manifested in many of the interactions he has with David. A particular noteworthy scene has Walter acknowledging the parameters of his programming after learning to play the flute. At this moment, Fassbender’s subtle facial expressions of awe, wonder and reflection are endearing to watch.

Equally as compelling is Katherine Waterston’s performance as Daniels who repurposes a particular facet of Sigourney Weaver’s performance from Alien to interesting effect. In the 1979 picture, Weaver played Ripley with an economical stillness: her physical movements had a purpose, conviction and ultimately conveyed an assuredness about her duties aboard the Nostromo.

Waterston takes this stillness to a much more empathic place. While her physicality is efficient, there is something also undeniably warm and embracing about it too. In a scene towards the end, Waterson wonderfully encapsulates all these qualities as her solemn reflection on the terrible events of the film turn into a moment of an outward affection as she hugs Tennessee; (Danny McBride) and in so doing they share the losses they have both experienced.

For all its apparent deficiencies, Ridley Scott’s sense of scale and grandiosity has not lost its cinematic potency. From the wide angled shots of the Covenant’s long corridors to the Pompeii esque scene of mass genocide, you have a mainstream horror picture of utterly deprived beauty. The grislier imagery (which admirably retains a fidelity to the work of HR Giger) such as Shaw’s mangled form rival the repellent visual concoctions of Alien Resurrection; the only picture in the franchise that makes one feel as though they want to have a shower after watching.

In essence, Covenant represents a paradigm shift for the Alien series. The creature who travels through vents and hides in the darkest corner of the ship no longer scare us. Instead, the synthetic being and his freedom to experiment while we all sleep gets the heart beating just a little bit faster.

Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

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Writer/Director James Gunn makes films with the eternal optimism of a nine-year-old, who desperately attempts to get two identical magnetic poles to attract one another. Often his movies contain contrary elements that depending on the subject matter and genre sensibility; either beautifully harmonise or result in a woeful mess. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 represents a further division in this reading of the director’s work; namely the stark contrast between his low budget endeavours and blockbuster fare.

His indie pictures are like slyly crafted cinematic Jenga games, where one misstep results in a spectacular collapse of the entire construction. In particular, Gunn’s 2010 film Super fails due to a shrugging nihilistic subversion of superhero fiction; it takes the bestowing power motif to a bleakly delusion endpoint, and attempts to synthesise it with a romantic edge in an intrinsically whiplash-inducing ending.

As a result of the canvas being bigger Gunn’s sensibilities are let loose like an energetic and ravenous Tasmanian devil. The result can be an unusual blend that fuses contemporary tentpole moviemaking with old Hollywood craft. In remunerating on the original picture, it is incredible to conceive how much Gunn owed to Sergio Leone. (indeed, Gunn cited the Italian director as a source of inspiration in an interview with Elvis Mitchell in 2014) Much like Leone, Gunn’s closeups were striking in their detail, immediacy and emotional heft. While Gunn did not use the widescreen format to depict a mythical shoot-out, he nevertheless employed it to interesting effect. In the jailbreaking sequence, Gunn juxtaposes Rocket’s (Bradley Cooper) oral plan of escape with Groot (Vin Diesel) enacting a separate action that undermines his partner’s intentions.

Most notable of all is Gunn’s incorporation of music in the Guardian’s films. In a recent social media post, the director said “Tyler {Bates} (the film’s composer) creates the score BEFORE we shoot the movie. He writes the music from the script, and we play the music on set while we shoot so the actors and camera crew know exactly the tone we’re setting, and so that the music is an organic aspect of the film.” The process of music being used during production harkens back to Ennio Morricone’s scores being used on the set of many Sergio Leone films.

These cinematic flourishes accompany a visual scheme that is not beholden to film. Instead, Gunn wholeheartedly embraces the digital revolution and the potential imaginative power of computer generated imagery. Though, a lot of characters in the films are made with the same imaginative, practical spirit of the canteen scene in Star Wars. Gunn combines this with a postmodern snark, that is more likely to call out the absurdity of its extraordinary galactic sights, rather than longingly look upon them with awe and wonder.

With this in mind, the audience’s enjoyment of Vol. 2 will depend on how cool they find the idea of David Hasselhoff rapping in a seventies disco/eighties power ballad about the title characters. At it’s worst the film is a bloated, floundering and an occasionally adrift piece of work, that has all the terrible qualities of a sequel. In many ways, it is bigger, stupider and much more flimsier.

Nevertheless, there is an undeniable richness to the picture that remarkably improves upon its predecessor. If the original presented striking looking characters who were empty vessels for coolness, then the sequel provides these characters with weight, meaning and most importantly a voice. For example, Nebula (played with commendable seething hatred by Karen Gillan) has the most heart-wrenching moment of the film; as she reveals the reason for her animosity towards Gamora. (Zoe Saldana) Every time her adopted sister would win a bounty or conquest, her adopted father, Thanos would change her into a more of a cybernetic being to compete with the green-skinned being.

In its more reflective moments, Gunn’s characters do grapple with their mangled forms and internal conflicts. Rocket finds a kinship with Yondu (played with fascinating stillness by Michael Rooker) because they both present an obnoxious facade that hides the emotional and fearful sides of themselves. Drax’s (Dave Bautista) finds a sense of innocence in the course of his conversations with the naive and sweet Mantis. (played with touching sincerity by Pom Klementieff) Gamora comes to acknowledge the mistakes of her past by seeing Nebula as someone who has suffered and ultimately offering her familial shoulder as well as a new purpose.

The heart of the film lies in the relationship between Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and his father Ego. (Kurt Russell) In many ways, the handling of the narrative thread is the most problematic aspect of the picture. Just as it starts becoming absorbing and poignant, Gunn cuts to a frustratingly elongated comic interlude. In fact, the film seems engulfed with them. This problem is compounded with how repetitive they become; much like ceaseless clapping at a dog show. There are only so many times the name of the blustering Viking esque ravager (Taserface) is funny. Or the many wrong things Baby Groot brings back to Rocket and Yondu, while they are in a prison cell.

Crucially, the film never gives much time to Quill grappling with his future and his inherent Demigod nature. Moreover, there should have been much more of a parallel between Yondu and Ego. While one could argue this comes later in the film; they are handled in an obnoxious manner. Most of the dramatic moments in the tail end of the film are marred by occurring during intense action sequences, and the snarky humour ruining these sustained moments of importance.

Gunn is capable of elegant paralleling. In his first film, (Slither) the gossiping nature of a quiet American town is contrasted with the central creature; whose travels across the universe cause it to postulate in a human manner. Moreover, through the creature, the people of the small town still voice their opinions and feelings of Starla Grant (Elizabeth Banks) with reckless abandon. There is a darkly comic edge to the emotional climax; as Grant and her husband’s relationship is being worked out in front of the town with a frightening new dimension. The flurry of half whispered rumours, lies and judgement become public discourse.

Most egregious of all is the timing of Ego revealing that Peter will lose his divine essence if he dies. The moment happens when the rigged bomb in Ego’s central system is close to blowing up. Because Quill has not reflected on his identity throughout the picture, the moment loses tension and instead becomes hollow as opposed to emotionally resonating.

At the same time, the central relationship does offset a problem that persisted with the original Guardians movie. A goofball charm and humour pervaded that film, and it became rather tiresome after a while. However, in Vol. 2 it is used as a pretence and source of subversion. With the character of Ego, we are presented with a being who is the complete antithesis of a God. He is fair, laid-back and seems to observe the value in humanity. As he says when we first meet him, “I am a God with a lower case g.” Kurt Russell’s understated and effortless blue-collar charm accentuates this portrait. In many ways, it is an atypical Russell performance, sans the sense of buffoonish superiority, and instead replacing it with a worldly wisdom.

Later in the film, this brittle portrait is shattered as Ego reveals the extent of his bleak world view. In these sequences, Ego becomes a Zeus esque figure; whose petty and all too human isolated feelings cause him to reshape the universe in his image. This is contrasted with Quill, who subverts the traditional perfect heroic figure from Greek Mythology; with a childlike attitude. This is encapsulated in his delivery of the line- “You killed my Mum and broke my cassette player.” Something is endearing about seeing deities wax about the meaning of retro pop songs and their little disagreements resulting in detrimental universe spanning consequences.

The Marvel pictures of late have suffered from their asceticism: chiefly manifested in their colour palette, that has comprised of a murky grey wash and desaturated real world look. Fundamentally, the sequel oozes with exuberance and vibrancy that is worthy of its four coloured source material. From the gold and blue coloured palace of the Sovereign race to the rich uses of green, yellow and orange on Ego’s planet and you have the most beautiful picture in the cinematic canon.

In many ways, Vol. 2 takes on certain aspects of the original movie with interesting effect. The opening credits sequence depicts Baby Groot dancing while his teammates are fighting a hideous monster. The scene is amusing in its wry detachment more than any single moment of the previous picture. And Gunn’s heart seems to be in a lot of the Rocket sequences. In one particular scene, he is springing a trap for many Ravagers and does it to Glen Campbell’s “Southern Nights.” There is a distinct feeling that Rocket represents a cinematic avatar for Gunn. He functions as the mastermind: spearheading the ploys and finessing them with black comedic elements, much like Gunn in all his pictures. Moreover, the change of Rocket being the one who picks the source music in the film is an amusing touch.

The most sobering moment of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 comes in its fifth and final post- credit sequence. It shows Stan Lee with some of his creations. (The Watchers) He says to them “I have many more stories to tell”, as they are walking away from the comic book creator. The moment illustrates that the Ringmaster who once opened shows with “Excelsior” and “True Believers” has been replaced with James Gunn. Even with the more problematic aspects of the picture, the circus that is the Marvel Cosmic Universe is in good hands.

Review: Novecento (1976)

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Bernardo Bertolucci’s historical epic 1900 (Novecento) is the final film in Kino Klassika’s “A World To Win: A Century of Revolution on Screen.” Inspired by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ famous declaration in The Communist Manifesto, the season aims to educate and inform the public on the wave of Soviet Film that had swept Russia for a hundred years. The season ran from 17th February to April 15th at the prestigious Regent Street Cinema.

With 1900 (Novecento) Bertolucci has constructed a tight wire act of a film; combining interpersonal drama that has archetypal resonance, a generational struggle between rich landowners and impoverished farmhands as well as the political turmoil that had swept Italy across a forty-four year period. This is combined with a permeating bawdy operatic flair that comes dangerously close to derailing the ambitious endeavour. However, in its epic 317 minutes running length; Bertolucci deftly illustrates an interesting metaphorical rise of particular populist ideologies that were prevalent in the 20th century.

The early part of the film is dedicated to the childhoods of Alfredo Berlinghieri and Olmo Dalcò. They are both born at the same time in 1901 and are on opposite ends of the social/economic hierarchy. Alfredo is born into a wealthy land-owning family and is named after his grandfather. Whereas, Olmo is the son of a poor foreman and is named after a man who had recently passed away. One does get a sense that Bertolucci’s heart resides in this stretch of the film. Trackings shots reveal sumptuous feasts and familial traditions; natural sun-soaked radiance washes over the lush green, and straw covered environments and Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo’s painting “Il quarto stato” (The Fourth Estate) boldly accompanies the opening credits.

At the same time, Bertolucci presents pivotal moments that fundamentally shape deeply ingrained ideological beliefs. A particularly striking scene is when a young Olmo walks barefoot across crowded dinner table towards his father. (Leo) His paternal figure states that no matter what Olmo becomes he should never forget his poverty-stricken roots. The scene culminates in the nine-year-old boy saying his friend gave him a single gold coin and Leo simply retorts “whatever is yours belongs to us all.” The moment feels like a secular and humanist baptism as the sun shines on the boy in a particularly breathtaking manner that reminds one of the great Renaissance paintings of yore.

By his own admission, Bertolucci has amusingly said that “I don’t film messages. I let the post office take care of those.” However, at the core of 1900’s structure is the emergence of Fascism and Communism within the confines of a family and its agricultural business. With this in mind, one can read the film as a directorial grappling of both forms of ideology. In regards to Fascism, Bertolucci has paralleled the conditions for its emergence in the narrative to that of Europe. Crucially, Alfredo (At this point in the film, the character is played by Robert DeNiro) is ineffective in dealing with the escalating abhorrent acts of violence in his community.

In the final act, Olma (At this point in the film, the character is played by Gérard Depardieu) and the workers’ community he oversees put Alfredo on trial for his passive behaviour and profiting off the labour of the workers. Through the character of Alfredo, there is a clear historical brush being used to suggest that Fascism emerged in Europe because it went unchecked and was allowed to grow by weak leadership. Cinematically, Bertolucci also effectively illustrates the rise of Fascism in the narrative. One sequence makes the blackshirts feel like an unforeseen force in a horror movie as we get fleeting glimpses of the army that are cut like lightning as they emerge on constructed boats, land and the surrounding countryside. The mutated colour palette that is chiefly made up of grey and black also make the violent squad seem like a terrifying mythological entity that is an affront to nature.

In tandem is a Biblical idea of the sins of the father passing onto the son as Alfredo’s father hired Attila Mellanchini (Donald Sunderland) as a foreman and fanned the flames of his violently held beliefs. In lockstep with his father, Alfredo keeps Attila on as a foreman and is oblivious to his continued violent crimes and the fact that his new belief system is being incorporated into his dealings with the workers.

In the history of cinematic villainy, Sunderland’s performance is singularly unsung. His primary facial expression of sadistic glee and manic energy match Italian cinema and its fits of frantic, energetic emotion. And his quiet moments of contemplation, drunkenness and aloofness imbue the character with a humanity that has a steadfast commitment to an extreme authoritarianism.

Robert DeNiro is simply spellbinding as the affluent older Alfredo. There is a scene when the character is wearing a fur coat that is too big for him and the small moment perfectly encapsulates DeNiro’s performance. He plays Alfredo as though he is a ten-year-old child who is playing dressing up. He is easily bored, foolishly idealistic in his approach and quickly resorts to brash action. More noteworthy is the stark contrast between his paternal warmness and numbness in the tail end of the film. In the context of DeNiro’s entire acting oeuvre, 1900 represents his most fascinating performance. The common perception of the actor that comes from his crime films is subverted here in favour of a jovially foolish and ultimately nebbish portrait of a man.

In the aftermath of the trial, the workers’ community disappears into the fabric of the newly regulated government that was established in the final days of the Second World War. With this act, Bertolucci suggests that Communism was like a short-lived hurricane that swept Europe; it never truly caught on or got its vindication due to the pragmatism of many world leaders.

In a recent introduction to the film, Bertolucci said “I wanted to show the birth of Communism in the Po valley and the repression of the {blackshirts} of Mussolini” From this statement, one does get the impression that the director favours one ideology over the other. Consequently, the film’s point feels one-note in its exploration and thematic resonance. It is for this reason and the elusive nature of the central relationship (Bertolucci is indecisive on what to do with the underlying homoeroticism between Alfredo and Olmo) that the film never reaches the richness of the director’s last film- Last Tango In Paris.

Fundamentally, 1900 is a raggedy epic with the import of a boisterous elderly uncle at a wedding who feverishly recalls his youth with captivating enthusiasm and mesmerising detail.

My Brief Thoughts on The Last Jedi Panel, Poster and Trailer

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In what has seemed like a wonderfully generational celebration that has unified various disparate fans of the popular franchise; the headline Last Jedi panel felt like a humbling bow to the Galactic festivities in Orlando. Patience was rewarded with new details, funny anecdotes and an emphasised personable new vision of a Star Wars picture that has not been seen since the great bearded one himself. (George Lucas) Nevertheless, the piecemeal titbits did not compare to the sheer excitement for the first teaser trailer and poster for eighth film in the Skywalker saga.

The brand new poster for The Last Jedi simultaneously evokes the urgency of its premise and the galactic grandiosity of the Star Wars universe. It also harkens back to a time where the movies seemed like supreme event fare; even if it does echo the minimalism of the Tron (1982) poster a bit too much.

Finally, The Last Jedi Trailer is powerful, soul-stirring and lingering in its implications. The force is strong with Rian Johnson and his directing prowess; his widescreen canvas particularly stimulates the senses, and his close-ups are fiercely personal and meaningful. Quite simply, Star Wars has cinematic heft again.

Review: Prometheus (2012)

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In the warm and pleasant summer of 2012, I left Ridley Scott’s Prometheus with a sense of majestic confusion. The film had cast a spell of bewilderment that has been hard to untangle in the intervening years. This was in stark contrast to my fellow patrons whose vivid and graphic vocal utterances were as acidic as the Xenomorph’s blood from the acclaimed horror franchise. To say that Prometheus is a film that causes passions to run high (on both sides of the debate) is putting it lightly. On subsequent home viewings, the film has unravelled into a peculiar concoction that oozes with astonishing cinematic craftsmanship while simultaneously being confounding in its writing. Watching the film is akin to witnessing the last dying gasps of a conceptually ludicrous vaudeville production that is delivered with a considerable amount of gusto.

Conceived as a picture that retains the spirit as well as the DNA of 1979’s Alien: Prometheus chronicles a scientific expedition to the far-reaching moon of LV-223 for the purpose of finding the Engineers. They are beings who are considered the creators of humankind. In the writers’ audio commentary, co-writer Damon Lindelof states “For me, Prometheus was all about making an Alien-Blade Runner mash-up, using the best themes from both movies and dropping them all into the same world.” With this in mind, one could read the film as a reversal of the hefty metaphysical strife of Blade Runner. Crucially, Lindelof articulates that Prometheus is about a human who goes to ask his creator for more life whereas, in Blade Runner, it was the replicant Roy Batty who desired the same goal from his maker. (Edon Tyrell)

While this is a conceptually sound idea, the execution is infuriating in its sheer amateurishness. At its worst, Prometheus indulges in a fetishism for vagueness, a trait that emphatically espouses clarity as a troublesome menace to good writing, and it has plagued many films from The Force Awakens to Star Trek Into Darkness. Culturally, it is truly poisoning the movies; turning them from engaging pieces of art to novelty items that are supposedly orgasmic in their surprises. Instead, they are about as clever as a ten-year-old shouting boo.

Peter Weyland (Guy Pierce) is the man in Prometheus who seeks his creator’s wisdom to eternal life. However, his role in the film is regulated to a cameo as Lindelof considers his constant presence as detrimental to his vision of inane mysteries. There were scenes that had a young Weyland talking to his android creation David. (Michael Fassbender) However, they were exercised in favour of pointless intrigue. Worse yet, Weyland’s appeal for eternal life when meeting the lone engineer on the moon is on the cutting room floor. There is depth in a character expressing his desire, however, Lindelof didn’t get the memo. Blade Runner’s power came from Roy Batty’s violent and rhapsodic presence as well as a desire that blurred the line between human and android. Moreover, Batty truly learnt the value of mortality in his mournfully reflective final moments. By comparison, Weyland barely registers as a human being.

There are many instances of Prometheus decimating its depth in favour of a smooth two-hour running time. One of the picture’s sub-themes is how children view their elders. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) still clings to her father’s impactful words about choosing to believe as the lynchpin for her faith. David perceives Weyland as an obstacle to what he understands as freedom, slyly surmised when he says, “Doesn’t everyone want their parents dead.”

However, Meredith Vickers’ (Charlize Theron) relationship with her father, which is chiefly illustrated in a scene with Weyland in the third act feels superficial and sketchily developed. Theron’s best moment of acting is when she expresses her admiration for Weyland in the past along with her current source of disdain for the old man. The manner of her delivery and body language (in the moment she is kneeling down at her father’s side and placing her face on his hand) puts one in mind of the process of growing up; as it showcases a child’s shifting relationship to their parents; going from sweet and idealistic admiration to bitter resentment over minor differences. Sadly, the moment is not present in the finished film, and consequently, the scene in its current incarnation feels like a race towards an eyebrow-raising revelation.

One does get the distinct impression that the third act of Prometheus collapses under the weight of its hide and seek antics. The most emblematic aspect of this quality comes from the portrait of the Engineers whose presence were scaled back as the production of the film wore on. In particular, a scene when an Engineer converses with David was cut because Lindloff found “it robbed him of any coolness or mystery.” The opening sequence originally had a number of the humanoid aliens and a striking moment in the initially shot final confrontation had the lone Engineer observe a flickering colour projection of a young girl playing the violin. Contrary to the co-writers’ sentiment, the incomplete portrayal serves only to make the apparent divine beings seem like generic slasher movie fare as opposed to the fascinating creatures who were ascetically inspired by the works of Michelangelo.

In other regards, Prometheus is incredibly postmodern in its approach. The underhanded machinations of the corporate sleazes from the franchise are given overt life by Vickers. The basketball scene from Alien Resurrection is amusingly homaged here; proving that whether one is a Xenomorph/human hybrid or android that your physical prowess is proven by scoring a stupefyingly hard basket.

More noteworthy is the film retaining a quality that has permeated the series and imbuing it with a striking immediacy. The Alien films have always had a subtle judgement of humanity. In the first, our survival instincts are found wanting compared with the seemingly perfect Xenomorph whose biology and design makes it the perfect embodiment of Darwin’s survival of the fittest. In Aliens, Ripley’s (Sigourney Weaver) maternal instincts are tragically found wanting when she discovers her daughter died while she was in cryosleep for 57 years. They are eventually tested as she must face the nightmarish Alien Queen, for life of a little girl she has bonded with through the course of the movie. In Alien 3, the judgement is religious in nature as the lone Xenomorph is viewed as the physical manifestation of God’s vengeance for  all the prisoners on Fury 161. They believe that the creature is punishing them for their sins and their salvation might come from destroying it.

In Prometheus, David proves to be a constant source of judgement as his various responses towards the crew carry an underlying sense of delight at the fact that he is not a human being. A particularly amusing moment is when he says “Hopefully not too close” when responding to Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) about simulated humanity.

In the context of the many androids that have pervaded cinema; David is less Pinocchio then a curious entity with negative intentions. Director Ridley Scott expectedly conveys this in David’s first appearance. The android walks into a darkened room; the pitch blackness of the cryo room represents his insidious impulses and the brightly illuminated background evoke his flourishing inquisitive nature. His morality is surmised in the scene when he is watching Lawrence of Arabia, and the titular character says “The trick William Potter is not minding that it hurts.” David repeats the line like a mantra. Fassbender’s performance is captivating because it submerges any aspect of the android in favour of a seemingly aloof disposition that hides a remarkably dangerous edge.

Even with its woefully executed premise, Prometheus strangely captures the spirit of Alien in a unique manner. In my revisit of the original picture, I was struck by how it felt like a terrifying evocation of Lovecraftian cosmic horror combined with a potently nasty sexual subtext. The primary strength derives from a sheer insignificance and helplessness of the human characters in the face of a motiveless creature of instinct. One notable scene melds both facets to disturbing effect as Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) is reduced to paralytic fear when she gets a glimpse of the creature. Her unseen and audible death sounds like rape is occurring rather than a swift dispatching.

Prometheus’ sumptuous visuals and direction make humanity seem like an inconsequential species; the potent fear comes from the sheer unknown of meeting our makers. To this end, the picture achieves a certain amount of awe and terrifying wonder in its speculative musings. Humanity has never looked less worthy of consideration in any other Alien picture. The title ship looks like an insect while its travel through the galaxy as overarching clouds and looming landscapes diminishes its scientific and technological endeavour.

Scott’s cinematic artistry particularly shines in the opening sequence due to a series of aerial shots capturing earthly landscapes. The series of shots feel like a reinvention of the famed “phantom-ride” shot (in early cinema, director G.A. Smith, would put a camera on the front of fasting moving trains which would provide a ghostly effect) and gives the audience the distinctive feeling that Earth is being viewed as a single celled organism on a petri dish.

Despite this, the psychosexual subtext of Prometheus is lacking. Elizabeth Shaw cannot give birth and a plot point results in her removing an alien foetus from her belly. The sequence is undeniably great in its feverish intensity because of its uses of close-ups and graphic detail. Nevertheless, the permeating idea seems to be uninteresting and has the same amount import as someone shrugging their shoulders and saying in a detached manner, life is tough. Whereas, in Alien the subtext is tapping into instances of grotesque interspecies violations and a genuine horror of gender swapping birth.

The lingering existential question of Prometheus is what does the seemingly divine dimension add to the franchise? The answer may come in Alien Convent or the various other planned instalments, and that potential vagueness might be most maddening of all.

Brief Musings on Movies (March 12th-March 19th)

Wild At Heart (1990)

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I am fundamentally undecided about David Lynch’s Wild At Heart. A part of me wants to endorse the picture solely for the fiery, passionate and erotically charged love story between Sailor (Nicolas Cage) and Lula. (Laura Dern) However, the Wizard of Oz references, retrograde spirit and surrealism are elements that a second viewing might bring much more clarity.

Breathless (1960)

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Jean-Luc Godard’s debut picture Breathless (À bout de souffle) is less a cinematic experience than a dream of free-flowing, manic energy, which is both alive and vibrant in every frame. It is one of those rare films that transcends cultural context and contemporary cynicism. Instead, the film effortlessly makes one feel as though a veil as been lifted and an entire world has been opened up; fundamentally showing cinema in a sharp, subversive and sublime new light.

Snake Eyes (1998)

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One of those few films where one can wholly embrace the performances, camerawork and pure cinematic artistry even in the face of an increasingly preposterous narrative that becomes so absurd in the third act that one swears they are watching a surreal comedic sketch on a beginner’s guide atrocious storytelling.

The Black Dahila (2006)

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While the rich colour scheme comprised of ashy browns, striking uses of yellow and a lavish desaturated wash make The Black Dahlia a visual marvel; it is inherently a turgid and soulless experience with none of the portent, darkness or emotional resonance that the film ought to have. Not even Brain DePalma’s virtuoso camerawork can redeem this incoherent, overstuffed and ultimately floundering spectacle.

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

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Hammer Horror’s The Curse of Frankenstein is a slasher film of manners. Instead of an iconic masked individual who has a weapon and methodology of killing, the picture’s central antagonist who is responsible for the piling bodies is Baron Victor von Frankenstein. (Peter Cushing) Less a wolf in sheep’s clothing than a wolf with the veneer of respectability and comfort; Cushing imbues the character with a cold and harsh resolve that result in occasional moments of subtle paternal outpouring and comic moments of wit such as when he cocks his left eyebrow after brazenly dispatching of a distinguished Professor. 

More interestingly is some of the cinematic choices and narrative decisions that enhance this vision. The end of one scene, when Frankenstein expresses a constant desire to acquire a brain of a genius is slyly cut with the next sequence, where he is laughing and expressing the admiration of his host’s intellect.

Quite crucially, the creature (Christopher Lee) Frankenstein creates is destroyed at the end. Consequently, in the film’s horrific final moments (Courtesy of a shot of a guillotine from a window sill vividly showing the Baron’s doomed fate.) Frankenstein is seen as the central monster of the picture; one who can be clearly seen and is not in the least part supernatural, in essence, a slasher movie villain with a human face.