Concise Review: Night of the Living Dead (1968)

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Night of the Living Dead is unquestionably a masterpiece of horror cinema because of its dizzying, surreal style and potent social commentary. However, on this viewing a new facet emerged that made my esteem for the picture grow to new heights. The aspect in question is its place in horror cinema and the interplay of this in the filmmaking. At times, director George A. Romero in his shot composition and choice of music makes the film evoke the 1930s Universal Monster Films. Romero captures the fear induced majesty of those films in a really unique way.

However, at other times the film seems like a precursor to Tobe Hooper’s 1974 picture- The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The scene where Helen Cooper dies at the hands of her newly born zombified daughter is an example of this filmic inspiration. The moment has creepy atonal music and trippy quick cuts, which called to mind the fever-inducing finale of Hooper’s film. Finally, the title of the film calls to mind gimmicky and schlocky films from the 1950s.

However, despite these elements, Night of the Living Dead is truly powerful in its articulation of the fear of the human self. Our desires, beliefs and conflicts are played out against the backdrop of looming supernatural threat. The central idea is what we can do to one another as opposed to the monsters outside our door.

 

Concise Review: A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2015)

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A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is the most audacious vampire film since Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake of Nosferatu. Its portrait of the fiendish creature is commendably minimalist. Sheila Vand, who plays the titular character, is merely dressed in a black chador. The attire conjures cultural perceptions of repression and mourning. However, director Ana Lily Amirpour turns this simple item of clothing into a terrifying reminder of the vampire’s visage. It called to mind the minimalism of John Carpenter’s Halloween. That film took an everyday mask and turned it into a face that became the picture’s convincing thesis of supernatural evil.

Concise Review: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

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Don Siegal’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers is impressive because of its potent bleakness, which slowly engulfs the film like a distant shadow that grows in size. The stark black and white look complements this all-encompassing feeling along with the frantic close-ups in the third act. At its heart though is a terrifying idea that another version of ourselves can replace us with no sense of the human experience. Our memories have no meaning to this replacement other than being an unnecessary byproduct. Thus, the central question of the film becomes whether or not our emotions are a necessary part of life? By the film’s admission, the answer seems to be a resounding yes.

Concise Review: Jackie Brown (1997)

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Jackie Brown is Quentin Tarantino’s most underrated and unique film because his usual thematic fixations, motifs and techniques are fascinatingly repurposed. For example, his usual exploration of the self-constructed persona is used as a subtle change in attitude for the central character. Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) changes her behaviour and emotional state based on who she is dealing with. She has to sound convincing in her planning and reasoning.

The rational for this is because she is trying to get half a million dollars whilst the cops and many others are watching her every move. Grier plays the title character with a great casualness, vulnerability and a constant sense of meticulously inner thinking. The best example of this theme having a singular purpose is when Jackie is waiting in the dark for Ordell Robbie. (Samuel L. Jackson) The small scene shows Jackie affecting different stances, facial expressions and vocal tones for the purpose of engaging Ordell.

Additionally, Jackie Brown feels like a film that is not trying to subvert or present schlocky genre fare in an interesting new way. The primary reason for this is because the picture is an adaptation of the Elmore Leonard’s 1992 novel, Rum Punch. The consequence of this yields some great sequences that are intrinsic to the story as opposed to illustrating extensive film knowledge.

The best example is a simple scene where Jackie is leaving the money in a major retailer dressing room. The audience is initially shocked at this scene, but then Tarantino presents the same scene from other character’s points of views. The result is a great subversion of the expectation of the narrative as opposed to genre conventions. Coupled with Tarantino’s best use of music and a rare feeling of melancholy and Jackie Brown may be Quentin Tarintino’s finest film.

Concise Review: Natural Born Killers (1995)

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Natural Born Killers is a brutal and uniquely potent film. Its exploration of the media perpetuating the two man killers is fascinating and gut-wrenching. Oliver Stone’s evokes this idea throughout the entire picture. He makes the film feel like a series of television shows, idealised and patently absurd, which allows the commentary to be a constant presence. Additionally, his use of black and white is commendable. In the beginning, it is used as a means of showcasing absolute romantic idealism as Mickey (Woody Harrison) and Mallory (Juliette Lewis) nostalgically remember their first meeting. In the third act, it is used as a means to illustrate painful moments of the past as Detective Jack Scagnetti (Tom Sizemore) expounds upon a tragic incident in his childhood to Warden Dwight McClusky. (Tommy Lee Jones)

Finally, it is also compelling to consider Natural Born Killers within the context of Bonnie and Clyde, which was an equally controversial coupled based crime drama. That picture can be seen as a romanticised portrait of the outlaw life with an ironic and pessimistic ending. Stone advocates Natural Born Killers to be a positive film because, “it’s about freedom, and the ability of every human being to get it.” I disagree with Stone as the film seems to show that killing is an innate state of nature, which extends to humanity. With this in mind, even the most positive aspects of the human condition cannot hope to contain this idea at all.

Second Viewing: Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

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As much as I admire Pauline Kael’s approach of only seeing a film once, insofar as it forces the reviewer to come to firm opinion and yields an exciting immediacy. There is something to be said for the second viewing of a film. The reviewer has a fixed impression of the picture in question as well as the images and moments that have struck him. What is left are those, little moments, possible reconciliation and clarifications as only the second viewing can provide.

Watching Mad Max: Fury Road again proved to be revelatory. What had immediately struck me was that some previously harrowing scenes played more comically. For example, the scenes where Max was strapped to the front of Nux’s car played like comedy from the silent era. Director George Miller goes so far to evoke this by intentionally speeding up the footage, which results in some amusing moments of unnatural movement. In fact, if one were to ignore the overt harrowing portrait of how people have become dehumanised and a means of flittering out resources. Then the first half of Fury Road would play like absurdist and a farcical piece that depicts a man’s unlucky woes as he attempts to escape at the hands of his mad capped captors.

The comedic edge of the film extends to other parts of the film. Miller has always filled his previous Mad Max directorial efforts with strange and quirky peripheral characters and that is no different here. There is one character who is a brother of the primary antagonist, Immoten Joe who looks like a political cartoonist interpretation of a banker. And his dialogue even aligns with this conception, which is shown when he talks about assets and prices in regards to the primary goal. There are even nice little amusing moments when some of the gang members comment upon Joe’s plan, one encapsulates it as a pointless family squabble.

Finally, the most impressive aspect of Fury Road is in its editing. In the Trailers From Hell video on the picture, the Australian director, Brian Trenchard-Smith revealed that George Miller had shot over 480 hours of footage. The continuous playback of this would add up to three weeks of film. It is commendable that Miller was able to distill all this into a coherent and purely visual two hour film.

Pauline Kael famously remarked on the nature of films that “When you clean them up, when you make movies respectable, you kill them. The wellspring of their art, their greatness, is in not being respectable.” Fury Road is a pure vision that thankfully has not been censored or made to answer for its maddening existence.

Review: Macbeth (2015)

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Cinema has been kind to The Scottish Play. Orson Welles’ 1948 iteration impressed with its potent expressionist imagery despite its meager budget and behind the scenes woes. The American literary critic Harold Bloom called Akira Kurosawa’s 1957 adaptation “the most successful film version of Macbeth.” And Roman Polanski’s 1971 version stands out as a piece of powerful cinema where the film transcends the bard’s original text, with its lingering violence, powerful final image and an acute sense that the director is bearing his soul through the titular character.

Onto the bloody screen enters Justin Kurzel’s 2015 adaptation in which nature and war are at the heart of this artful retelling. The former could almost be considered a character as it lingers and watches our characters do their grisly work. Whether it is the hissing flames that reflect in the eyes of Macbeth before he commits murder. Or the gentle snow that falls upon Lady Macbeth’s brow when she reflects on the bloodshed of the past.

The most compelling illustration of nature and its place in this film is when it harmonises with Shakespeare’s words. The line, “And now a wood comes toward Dunsinane”, resonates with chilling new clarity as Macbeth breathes in the ashy air of the burned forest around his castle. The evocative colours of brown and orange permeate this scene and reflect Macbeth’s blood-soaked reign in a fresh and terrifying manner. Additionally, the camera and how it captures shots of still icy mountains, torn down tents and tall church spires are as dynamic as the famous soliloquies.

War is the other central fascination of the picture as Macbeth’s tragic fall comes across as the result of the effects of war more than ambition and prophecy. For example, in the aftermath of Ducan’s death, Macbeth relishes the murder, even going so far as lying with the dead king. This interpretation of Macbeth paints the picture of a man who can’t stop his compulsion for killing. The reason of which firstly comes from war, the second is the grief over his children’s death. In an interesting new facet, Macbeth has two children, one of which dies in battle and the other from an unknown reason. This choice results in its some fascinating new details in the story.

The witches become constant figures of grief as you see Macbeth’s dead daughter with them. Macbeth’s son appears in the story as the person holding the dagger in the famous soliloquy of the object. All these figures appear at some point on the battlefield, which speaks to the importance of war in this retelling. Whether it is the weird sisters watching Macbeth in the battle scenes. Or Macbeth having a vision of his dead son. Or the title character seeing his comrades bathed in a golden light when he visits the witches for the final time.

All these additions result in a Macbeth, who is haunted from the start. This suggests that the conditions for him becoming murderous emerge from a need to keep committing violence because of a lack of heirs and a war driven nature. The most enduring shots of this interpretation come from its ending ones that depict Malcolm and Banquo’s son, Fleance picking up swords in different locations. Much like Polanski’s last shot, they suggest an eternal cycle. In that film, it was the nature of ambition and violence within man. In this picture, it is the inevitability of war and consequences that ensue.

 

 

Concise Review: Pulp Fiction (1994)

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Pulp Fiction is an example of a rarely seen sophisticated and transcendent style over substance film. It would seem like a contradiction in terms to assert this, however, the influential 1994 picture warrants this claim in a few ways. Firstly, compared to his other films, Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction is not really about anything. He does not have a thesis and his usual fascination with the appointed and self-created persona are only given lip service by a few characters. However, the style of the picture is so masterful and interesting that it does become one of those rare films where the lack of substance does not matter.

For example, the structure of the film demands repeated viewings as it creates a fascinating time line for all the characters, which in turn makes the universe they inhabit richer and their depth boundless. With this in mind, one could essentially watch the film through the prism of a single character and still walk away feeling satisfied with the experience. For instance, in the course of my recent viewing of the film, the character of Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) resonated with me most. Her plight was not only tense but also tragic as she comes across as a woman who is deeply unhappy but is nonetheless biting and charming. Thurman plays Mia with a precise balance of seductive and sad edge, which makes her dialogue and actions some of the best in the entire film.

Finally, Fiction has to be commended for its impeccable balance of disparate genres and tones. The picture goes from a scene that evokes 1950s Americana and Film to a scene that feels like it came out of a nasty, 1970s revenge exploitation film. This is an aspect that extends to some of the camera work and shots. For example, there is a scene that feels superimposed on a frame of a film from the 1960s, with an unnatural and surreal looking city surrounding, which is black and white. Along with the same fascination as Sergio Leone, which is a concern for the build up and drama before the gunshot and Tarantino has made a film that feels like a warm and loving embrace of the cinematic medium.