200th Post Special: My Top Ten Favourite Films

10) Rashomon (1950)

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Akira Kurosawa’s mesmerising tale about the subjective accounts of a murdered Samurai introduced the world to Japanese Cinema. Its imprint can still be traced in films as diverse as The Last Jedi and Isle of Dogs. As a budding lover of film, it vividly demonstrated to me the power of weather and nature in cinematic storytelling.

9) Wild Strawberries (1957)

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Admittedly, Wild Strawberries is a warmer and less bleak affair from Ingmar Bergman. But it’s quandaries about ageing, legacy and fatherhood are still palpable. Additionally, its lush and trance-inducing use of black and white are as impressive as any of the Expressionist films of the early days of the medium. 

8) Before Sunset (2004)

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The Before Trilogy is an impressive and charming exercise in making conversations seem authentic and urgent. Collectively, the films depict the eroding nature of time and its effect on love and one’s worldview. Before Sunset is touching in its depiction of rekindling romance and intriguing in its question of whether it can be sustained after so many years.

7) Blade Runner (1982)

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Even in light of a spectacular sequel, Blade Runner has lost none of its originality or power. Ridley Scott’s vision of a rain-drenched, globalised and impoverished 2019 Los Angeles still remains one of cinema’s great creations. And the film’s philosophical questions about the essence of the soul and memory remain haunting.  

6) Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)

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How to do you remake one of the most influential German films of the silent era? Hiring Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski to illustrate the humanity of the vampire’s immortal existence in all its sad and amusing colours is not a bad way to go.

5) Young Frankenstein (1974)

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Young Frankenstein is an excellent showcasing of how to make a spoof movie. The shadowy black and white photography, bombastic score and elaborate production design lovingly embrace the Universal Monster Movies. And Gene Wilder’s performance as a scientist who persistently fails to keep a measure of calm and restraint is the hilarious cherry on top.

4) Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

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Brian De Palma’s gonzo and trashy reinterpretation of the Phantom of the Opera represents the pinnacle of cult moviemaking. Even within the confines of its excess is a genuine sense of an auteur in the making. The eclectic array of music by Paul Williams does not hurt either.

3) The Dark Knight (2008)

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Christopher Nolans engrossing and gut-wrenching crime drama is a potent reminder of the heights that the comic book movie can reach. Using The Long Halloween and The Killing Joke as a foundation, the Nolan brothers construct a narrative that explores the ethical lines that three characters are challenged with when facing the societal embodiment of pure anarchy.

2) Star Wars: A New Hope (1977)

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George Lucas’s seminal space fable is perhaps the most earnest movie ever made. Combining elements from World Cinema, Saturday Matinee Serials and spirituality, Star Wars is a paradigm of cinematic world building and retro romanticism that never ceases to inspire me.

1) Rushmore (1999)

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Rushmore is a sincere coming of age drama that illustrates how art can transform from being an expression of egotism to a valuable tool in uniting people. Wes Anderson’s reinvention of Bill Murray as a figure of malaise is sublime and watching the director’s carefully constructed ascetic in a looser form is a treat. The film also happens to be sweet, funny and quaint.

 

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Brief Consideration: The Mad Max Series (1979-1985)

Mad Max (1979)

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Mad Max is a flawed and occasionally impressive first directorial effort from George Miller. His ability to construct set pieces is the real highlight of the film. For example, the opening action scene combines subtle humour, a Western-style standoff between two cars and a Film Noir set up for the central character Max. The camera only reveals parts of him until we see a close up of his face at the pivotal moment during the chase. The sequence is also impeccably edited and constructed, feeling like a homage to silent cinema. Additionally, the film has intense horror sequences that are indicative of the period. The movie at times feels like it is directly channelling pictures like the Last House on the Left and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

As for Mel Gibson’s first on-screen performance, he has a magnetic and indelible screen presence. Additionally, in the final act of the film, he plays driven and unhinged convincingly. The latter, in particular, would be a signature strength of his appeal as an actor. However, he is less believable during the dramatic scenes with his wife, looking uncomfortable and out of his element. This mainly hurts one speech he has to deliver during the middle of the film, which feels like the director’s admiration for the John Wayne type of a man and hero.

The central flaw of the film comes from one of the conceits of the screenplay. During a conversation with his boss, Max says that he fears that he is becoming like the criminals he is chasing, which comes from the sheer enjoyment of his job. However, we never see this occur elsewhere in the story at all. The closest that we reach is when Max first sees his custom black car. It is a gaping hole in the film that makes the central theme and story lack potency. Additionally, there is lip service paid to Max’s boss being an idealistic man and believing in heroes, but this is never developed.

Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)

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Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior is the best sequel in genre cinema and a masterclass in apocalyptic world building and madcap vision. Though your level of tolerance will vary, based on the ascetic that director George Miller has for his view of the future.

There is a lot to admire in the film. Whether it is the charming moments between characters that can last mere seconds. Or the virtuoso filmmaking that is best encapsulated in the finale. It synthesises the concept of a Western on wheels with Carmageddon thrills.

However, the best element of the picture is that Miller has mostly taken a simple story of revenge and has now elevated it into the realm of the mythical and western. This results in an entirely different beast from its predecessor. The Road Warrior, snarls, clonks and roars throughout its ninety-minute runtime, and what a glorious sound and result it makes. A true classic.

Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985)

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Despite some quite apparent jarring tonal shifts throughout its running time, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome adds enough to its central character and universe. Max’s main journey turns him from a silent mythological figure into a fabled defender of the younger generation. Barter Town provides George Millar’s post-apocalyptic vision with a sense of place, history and archaic societal structure. The lost boys esque group of young children that Max encounters is the closest that the original films will come to exploring religion. And the last twenty minutes of the film delivers some great and exciting car chases in the vein of its predecessors.

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Brief Consideration: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)

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Sergio Leone’s 1966 film opens with an elaborate title sequence. The audience is treated to various images that range from looking like chalk-drawn wanted posters, Warhol pop art concoctions and patient stencilled undertakings. The eclectic array of styles encapsulates the film’s enduring appeal. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly may lack the existential grapplings of its future genre brethren. However, it fundamentally puts the Western on its largest canvas and illustrates its potential to sweep, move and enthral.

Leone’s West is contradictory: heightened, mythical, zany and sometimes wryly amusing, the full spectrum of emotions on display flicker like the dusty desert air. Even Ennio Morricone’s grandiose score is wielded to such effect. In Angel Eye’s (Lee Van Cleef) introductory scene, Morricone’s simple use of acoustic guitar gives the impression we are watching a heroic Western gunslinger ride into town with noble and benevolent intentions. However, this is subverted by Angel Eye’s amoral behaviour throughout the film.

The picture is filled to the brim with these push and pulls elements. For every quick death, there is an equally protracted and gut-wrenching variant. On previous viewings, the film impressed me in how it juxtaposed the Amorality of the central characters with the ongoing wave of the American Civil War. In this way, the film could almost be read as a melding of archetypes and history. The result is these larger than life figures becoming more human.

Crucially, Leone embodies this quality in the film-making. Some of the long shots are an epic canvas for the mythic characters to have blisteringly tense showdowns, but his use of close-ups reminds us that they are all too human.

On this viewing, I was struck by an added element that enriched my reading. In one scene, Tucco (Eli Wallach) confronts his brother by stating that his way of escaping poverty was harder as opposed to his brother, who chose to hide in an occupation by becoming a Priest. With this scene and later events in mind, the film is illustrating a nobility in the gunslinger’s life. Rather than die of starvation or at the whims of a drunken army captain, the gunslinger takes his life into his own hands and is wholly responsible for it.

Like many aspects of the film, the central trio of characters is different things at various times. One of Leone’s most significant contributions to the Western was the shading of the gunslinger archetype.

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Brief Consideration: The Predator (2018)

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Depending on the viewer, The Predator will either be a howling laugh riot with the occasional instance of shocking, bloody violence. Or it will play like a tedious, tone deaf and persistently erratic revival of the B-movie franchise. Count me in the second camp. Trying to explain the plot would be akin to weaving a narrative out of the various body parts of Frankenstein’s monster.

But here goes nothing. In essence: A biologist, small boy and group of ragtag soldiers all team up against an improved Predator, who upgrades itself with DNA from other species.

The Predator is a film that dies the slow death of a thousand cuts. Some of these include grossly overlong comic interludes, poor aping of Spielbergian sentimentality and bewildering plot points. The film feels like it has a profound identity crisis and from scene to scene revels in it.

Conceptually, the film is pitching itself as Close Encounters of the Third Kind. There is even a scene where two characters are framed like the long-limbed aliens (via a blurring effect in a long shot), from the 1977 picture. However, it lacks the awe and sheer tragic nature of that film.

Crucially, director Shane Black doesn’t harmonise the film’s various disparate elements together. In his other films, Black has been deft at balancing wonder, postmodern joshing and vicious violence. Even Black’s usual postmodern riffing feels desperate rather than sharp. A gag about the definition of the franchise’s name is bandied about at least three times.

The problem partially comes from the material itself. Predator has always been a one-note franchise. It has been about humankind embracing its primal nature to fend off creatures that consider our race to be prey in the galaxy-wide pecking order. The 2010 entry, Predators, peaked in an ever engaging genre picture that paralleled earthly predators against their alien counterparts.

Perhaps, wonderment in the vein of Close Encounters could not be achieved with a monster, we have collectively seen too much off. As it stands, there is a slice of three movies in The Predator. It’s a shame nobody knows which one to go for.

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Review: BlacKkKlansman (2018)

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BlacKkKlansman spins a fiendishly hilarious yarn that would even make Kirk Lazarus from Tropic Thunder pause in sheer bemusement. Set in the early seventies, BlacKkKlansman chronicles Detective Ron Stallworth’s (John David Washington) infiltration and subsequent exposure of a local Ku Klux Klan group. He does this by employing a deceptive double act, wherein he keeps in contact with various members of the clan on the phone, and his partner, Detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) attends their gatherings (in person) to extract information.

While Spike Lee’s new film is undoubtedly a crowd-pleasing comedy that will often unite audiences in regular fits of laughter and disgust, it is the moments shaded in the margins that are particularly resonating.

The infiltration operation is a jumping off point for an exploration of a different kind of bigotry as Zimmerman is confronted with a pervasive anti-Semitism streak within the organisation. Consequently, the character has to come to terms with his Jewish upbringing and faith.

With this in mind, there is a parallel that the film draws between the marginalisation of black and Jewish people. This comes from the tension in the stake that both officers have in the undercover operation. In one scene, Zimmerman points out that Stallworth sees the endeavour as a crusade and he sees it as a job. Stallworth responds by pointing out that he ought to be as outraged at the clan for their views on Jews. This scene illustrates that much like Ron Stallworth has to display a considerable amount of calm and restraint in the face of institutional prejudice, so does Flip Zimmerman in dealing with members of the clan.

Adam Driver delivers a nuanced performance that impresses in evoking a subdued sense of uneasiness, particularly evident in the moments between the pleasantries and friendly gesturing with the clansmen. Equally as impressive is John David Washington who walks a fine line between being a spirited embodiment of blacksploitation coolness and worldly sombreness.

At the heart of BlacKkKlansman is a genuine showcasing of the role that cinema plays in giving power to ideology. The film opens with a scene from Gone with the Wind in which an elaborate crane and tracking shot shows Scarlett O’Hara attempting to find a doctor amongst a train deport of wounded soldiers. The scene ends with the camera panning up to reveal the Confederate flag. With the use of the footage, Spike Lee reminds the audience that the typically rosy cultural portrait of the Victor Fleming picture was rooted in a Southern viewpoint of the Civil War.

Crucially, Lee posits that cinema has given much more power to white supremacy movements then it has to the disenfranchised minority. A protracted cross-cutting sequence of clan members enjoying D.W. Griffith’s 1915 silent film- The Birth of a Nation juxtaposed with a black community leader telling his fellow brethren about the ensuring violence it had on black people is powerful in illustrating this fact.

Throughout the film, there is a persistent debate between Stallworth and Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier). Dumas is the president of the local black student union. They argue about the best course of action advocating for black rights. Stallworth thinks its best to work within the system, and Dumas contends that protesting against oppression will get people to listen and engage.

During one of their discussions, they both bring up Blaxploitation as a subgenre in cinema. Dumas concludes that it does not ultimately help the cause because fantasy can’t offset the problems of reality.

Lee wonderfully evokes the stylish nature of the genre for the ending by framing Stallworth and Dumas like Blaxploitation characters. Soon after, there is a hellish sequence involving a KKK cross burning ceremony. The film then employs an extensive amount of newsreel footage from the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. With this choice, Lee suggests the empowering nature of Blaxploitation and how it has armed an entire generation against an incoming wave of disenchantment.

Despite being rough around the edges and having too many ideas thrown at the dartboard in a fragmented fashion, BlacKkKlansman is a potent parable for our times and a reminder of how movies have helped in shaping it.

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Review: The Incredibles 2 (2018)

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In hindsight, it’s hard not to view Brad Bird’s 2004 animated feature- The Incredibles as a breezy, heartfelt and sobering postmodern bow to the minuscule superhero genre that existed in the early 2000s. Through its family-focused story, the film grappled with the pragmatism about exceptionalism, insofar as when it is right to show off genuine ability in a world that favours mediocrity and shuns excellence. At the same time, the film was an unabashed love letter to a long-gone era of James Bond films that were sly and elaborately designed.

The Incredibles 2 now enters a superhero movie landscape that feels like it’s persistently expanding in its scope. This year alone has seen the sub-genre make cultural strides with Black Panther and tear up its cinematic universe-building rulebook with the death infested, cosmic epic- Avengers: Infinity War. It’s a credit to the fourteen-year follow-up that it manages to retain the spirit of the original picture, while still having enough to say about the genre.

Rather than setting the narrative in the far future, The Incredibles 2 immediately picks up after the events of the first picture. After stopping an attack from the amusingly named villain- The Underminer (John Ratzenberger): the Parr family are called to task for causing damage to a government building.

The inciting event means that the family have to embrace domesticity, due to the slowly eroding public trust of superheroes. To counter, a tech company (DevTech) run by ardent superhero devotee, Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) and his technologically inclined sister- Evelyn (Catherine Keener); seek to restore the reputation of costumed crusaders with a series of publicity stunts involving Elastic Girl (Holly Hunter).

At its best, The Incredibles 2 engages as a mirror image of the 2004 film. Part of its appeal is in seeing the ripple effects of the reversed dynamics. The original had Robert Parr (Craig T Nelson) embracing the Mr Incredible identity for a sense of self-worth. Whereas, Helen Parr was at peace with her civilian identity and role as a mother. The sequel has Helen pragmatically adopting the persona of Elastic Girl for the potential of legalising costumed crime fighting. Consequently, Robert has to hang up his tights and embrace his role as a father.

In its most resonating moments, The Incredibles 2 is a potent reminder of the stresses of parenthood, in which the act of keeping up with the everyday activities is as divine as lifting a heavy truck. Writer/Director Brad Bird injects these sequences with a zippy and energetic pace that results in a charming series of vignettes about a frustrated father. Though, a protracted sequence involving Jack-Jack’s ever-morphing powerset in a showdown with a squirrel wears out its welcome with its inherently one-note premise.

On the other hand, The Incredibles 2 frustrates with its half-baked central antagonist. The character of Screenslaver is a thematically timely character, who directly plunges a knife into the heart of superhero fiction, by equating its existence with the passivity of the technological age. The mid-film monologue in which this point was delivered filled me with an incomparable dizzying surreality.  In the immediate aftermath, I felt as though a deleted reel from David Cronenberg’s Videodrome had been accidentally inserted into the film.

Despite this early promise, the character is never quite so engaging again. Crucially, Screenslaver is posited as a dark mirror of Helen. However, in execution, this comes off as an underdeveloped idea that can’t help, but feel superficial in terms of the paralleling. To make matters worse, the reveal of the character’s identity feels like its cinematically evoking the oldest archetype in the book, with the Film Noir shot composition. This is a shame as the design of the Screenslaver was unique because it felt like an interesting riff on the glasses motif from John Carpenter’s 1988 film- They Live.

By comparison, the antagonist of The Incredibles, Syndrome (Jason Lee) was a clear and prophetic mirror for Robert, whose self-gratification of his heroic identity could equally lead to familial resentment, as much as it did to the inventive young kid that adored Mr Incredible. And his design was frightening because it felt like a twelve-year-old’s fantasy of hero worship gone array as the character had framed himself as Mr Incredible’s ultimate nemesis.

The Incredibles 2 never ceases to be charming, engaging, or beautifully animated, particularly with its darker colour palate comprised of green and black. However, it feels less potent then it ought to be. What the original film conveyed in one powerful line, the sequel stumbles in evoking throughout its running time.

 

 

 

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Brief Consideration: Lady Bird (2018)

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At their worst, coming of age movies are fraught with the over-egging of bludgeoning teenage antics that make their journeys seem severely unremarkable, as maddening hysterics are favoured over sobering personal growth. Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, Lady Bird, commendably bridges the gap with effortless ease. The picture captures the teenage experience in all its endearing and frustrating dimension.

Lady Bird refers to the given name that Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) gives herself. On the cusp of going to college, Christine attempts to deal with the increasingly mounting pressures of the opposite sex, college funding, the ever-morphing social hierarchy of her Catholic high school and a turbulent relationship with her mother- Marion (Laurie Metcalf).

Ronan plays Christine with a delicate balance of brash assuredness and honest acknowledgement. She often portrays the volatile nature of the character with an air of sympathy, most evident in some of the film’s most tumultuous sequences. In many ways, Lady Bird’s external confidence has ripples of Jason Schwartzman’s Max Fischer from Rushmore (1998), insofar as being a character who can be equally wise and frustrating in the same moment with their intelligence being wielded for insight and mockery.

Laurie Metcalf is equally as potent with her counter-intuitive performance. Rather than play Marion as the adoring mother, Metcalf allows for the moments of sheer frustration to be brought to the fore.

In her direction, Greta Gerwig achieves a delicate balance between illustrating the sheer fast and dizzying nature of growing up with the sobering reality of adulthood. The first half is edited with the quickness and efficiency of a Jazz drum solo as moments abruptly end and intersect. While the effect is showcasing how mere moments pass us by like the sand going through an hourglass, the editing is often employed for comedic effect. One particularly humorous scene homages Orson Welles’ famous opera scene from Citizen Kane with a quick succession of the adults’ facial expressions reacting to a school play. In the second half, the camera lingers like a distant observer as many of the characters’ private moments are revealed to the audience.

With the cinematic approach of the second half, Gerwig illustrates that Lady Bird’s character arc is of overcoming self-absorption and ultimately acknowledging people’s struggles in life. In a broader sense, this aspect is irrevocably tied to the personal shame of her hometown, which she gains a greater sense of pride about in the film’s closing moments. Lady Bird’s great virtue is that it’s made with a sense of humbleness that never fails to feel personal and universal.

 

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