Review: Jodorowsky’s Dune (2014)

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Jodorowsky’s Dune is a heartening and often amusing experience that hoists the weight of the auteur theory on its shoulders with vivid and sobering clarity. Frank Pavich’s documentary charts the early career of Chilian-French director- Alejandro Jodorowsky and his subsequent attempt to bring his vision of Frank Herbert’s celebrated and influential science fiction novel to life.

As conceived, Jodorowsky’s Dune would have been a twelve-fourteen hour film that claimed to have replicated the effects of LSD and ultimately represent a sacred life-changing event for its young viewers; particularly in reference to its conception of God as universal consciousness. The picture also would have boasted visuals that were going to be based on the sexually macabre concept art of H.R. Giger and the imaginative science fiction illustrations of Chris Foss.

While the central appeal of the documentary may come from finding out the sheer surreal and frankly demented behind the scenes wrangling of talent: Salvador Dali, Mick Jagger and Orson Welles are among a few of the names that casually glide through the picture. Jodorowsky’s Dune primarily engages as an examination of the auteur theory.

By his actions and words, Alejandro Jodorowsky has enough gusto to inspire a small country, and the film’s humour arises from the comic timing via graceful juxtapositions of Jodorowsky’s fiery outcries with the severe and sobering version of the events under discussion. At the same time, the picture illustrates how his passionate nature could be interpreted as having the overtones of a cult leader.

In stark contrast to other directors, Jodorowsky expected his technical crew to not only help bring his vision to life but wholeheartedly believe in it too. He even resorted to asking some of his loyal members to abandon their current life and move to Paris and work on the film. The famed cult director would not hire anyone unless they were deemed a spiritual person who believed his vision was the second coming. He thought that his crew were “spiritual warriors” who he permanently controlled and owned.

This aspect is wonderfully subverted through the course of the film as Jodorowsky is shown compromising his vision in fascinating ways to get certain people to commit to working with him. One sequence animates a storyboard of a scene involving a burning giraffe, which was one of Dali’s conditions to starring in the film. Even the director’s musical choices that varied from Pink Floyd to the French prog rock group- Magma show that he dipped his toe in the waters of commercial viability to sustain his picture’s longevity.

If there is a problem with the film, then it stems from Jodorowsky’s conception of the film becoming an overwhelming force of nature. By the premise of the picture, it has to expound upon his version of Dune, but at times it comes at the expense of other versions of the famed Science Fiction story. There is cursory mention of the original text, and the tail end of the picture acknowledges David Lynch’s adaptation as a compromised counterpoint to Jodorowsky’s unproduced endeavour.

This element is somewhat redeemed by a hopeful irony that gets revealed in the final stretch of the documentary. While Jodorowsky never got to make his “celluloid prophet” of a film, he at least has been able to see his dream for the project have ripple effects in science fiction cinema. In that regard, his work can be at least deemed an accomplishment as a fever dream that everyone keeps aspiring to comprehend.

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Brief Consideration: Icarus (2017)

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Icarus initially starts out as a story that examines the effectiveness of the American anti-doping system with an amateur cyclist undergoing the same doping regiment as Lance Armstrong, under the tutelage of Grigory Rodchenkov- the former director of Russia’s national anti-doping laboratory. The documentary then morphs into an expose of a supposed Russian state-sponsored Olympic doping program, which some of the participants of the documentary speculate goes as far back as the late sixties.

Although the recent Academy Award-winning documentary is not aptly titled, mostly due to the first fifteen minutes being a neat and tidy, contemporary approximation of the character from Greek Mythology’s ill-fated flight: Icarus does prove to be an incredibly nimble piece of work.

Part of this is due to the malleable editing that presents montages at the breathless pace of a Tour de France race and revelations with such sobering urgency that one can feel the truth seeping out of the screen. A particularly chilling scene has Rodchenko’s high powered lawyer stating his fear of his client being taped, which he reasons will lead to his position being triangulated by Russian officials, ensuring that harm could come to him more than before.

While the central scandal is enough to cause the audience to pause in thought for its sheer mind-bogglingly implications, Icarus’s most profound moments come in its piecemeal moments of self-reflection. An early statistic of how much doping truly adds to a cyclist’s performance causes one to at least reconsider the utility of such a rigorous program.

And Rodchenkov’s obsession with the English novelist George Orwell allows the film to make its most salient points. In particular, he soberly acknowledges how he has been partaking in doublethink by facilitating countless numbers of athletes to win medals by doping while officially working for an anti-doping company.

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Review: Black Panther (2018)

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To say that Black Panther is a movie of the moment is one of the most significant understatements of the century. Aside from the character’s solo feature debut representing the culmination of nearly thirty years of various attempts to bring Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s comic book creation to the silver screen; the film also carries the weight of being the first mainstream example of Afrofuturism. Embodied in art, music, literature, and cinema: The movement employs a science fiction lens to cast light on issues about black culture and history such as African diaspora and alienation.

With all that said, Black Panther is a brutal, stirring and occasionally nourishing film that provokes fascinating questions about equality and isolationism. Taking place immediately after the events of Captain America: Civil War: Marvel Studios’ eighteenth film is about the heir apparent T’Challa (Chadwick Bosman) returning to his home of Wakanda to take up the mantle of the Black Panther. Once crowned, the picture depicts the challenges T’Challa faces as a ruler of a technologically advanced nation that exists as a faint whisper to the rest of the world.

Aesthetically, the film is a melange of varied sources. The sweeping wide angle shots of Wakanda’s radiant and natural beauty, which come in the form of its waterfalls and green mountainous terrain feel like they have been inspired by the majesty of the Planet Earth documentary series. Elsewhere, the streets of the fictional nation feel like they owe a debt to District 9 insofar as visually portraying a place that has kept its cultural identity in the midst of technological innovation.

Even some of the imagery from the film seems as though it has been claimed back in a sense. In particular, the blue and purple engulfed vistas of the ancestral plane seem like a direct response to James Cameron’s Avatar in which the fluorescent nighttime sequences went a long way in portraying an analogue for a natural and spiritual planet that was on the brink of colonisation.

Less impressive are some of the clumsy camera moves that director Ryan Coogler employs to make some quite simply inane points. A particularly egregious instance is when Erik Killmonger (Micheal B. Jordan) is approaching his newly won throne, and the camera slowly pans from its established 180 degrees angle until it we can see the new leader taking up the frame in a right side up shot. As an illustration of the kingdom becoming topsy-turvy, it’s not so much an elegant directorial fingerprint as much as an awkward smudge.

Jordan’s electrifying screen presence and casual manner combine to create a central antagonist whose point of view injects the film with its real Afrofuturist thematic weight. African diaspora refers to the spread of the people from their native homeland to many places around the world. One of the prevalent questions that the issue raises is about identity within these new countries where Africans have forged their new lives.

In the context of Black Panther, Killmonger believes that people outside of Wakanda should have the same luxury of absolute supremacy over their environment and external threats. To this end, he resolves to take weapons from the nation and hand it to crime bosses to wage war against the system to continue his father’s goal of African descent.

Aside from reframing the struggle between Killmonger and T’Challa as an alternative spin on the haves and have-nots for their respective people: the plan does neatly expound upon the central conflict of the movie, which is whether or not Wakanda should intervene with the plight of people within the world at large. Or remain an independent nation that upholds its customs and scientific advancement for the betterment of its citizens.

From Lupita Nyong’o’s assured performance to the comically manic intensity of Andy Serkis, Black Panther’s ensemble cast is a treasure trove of upcoming and veteran talent that lend the proceedings with a light touch. However, Chadwick Bosman’s compelling central performance gives the film a real potency. Balancing the understandably doubtful characteristics of a newly appointed leader and the firm physicality of his superhero identity; Bosman’s portrait of the title character is a rich tapestry of surprising elements that combine together to create the most human character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe since Captain America.

In spite of all this, the film does fall victim to the problems that plague contemporary cinema. Despite the film’s contrasting action sequences that vary between an ultra-futuristic James Bond car chase and tense one on one primal fights with immediate stakes: The film’s third act battle never feels particularly exciting or engaging. This is primarily because of the extensive use of CGI and some of the immediate character changes.

And perhaps more than any film before it, Black Panther demonstrates the harmful side of Marvel Studios’ post-credit sequences. The film’s ending scene is commendably efficient insofar as it gracefully wraps a bow on its thematic exploration and symmetrically aligns with the pre-title sequence. However, the mid-credit sequence seems far too important to be relegated to after the movie, and it becomes so bothersome that it should have been excised from the film entirely. Or at least be one of the opening scenes of the sequel.

Black Panther was one of those few movie experiences in which there was a tinge of surrealism in witnessing and contemplating that a film like this was produced by a major studio. Like the outliers in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the film is made with firm confidence. But unlike many of those pictures, it dares to consider the world and its many morphing contradictions.

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Review: The Shape of Water (2018)

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The Shape of Water is an enchanting fairy tale drenched in Americana. Set against the backdrop of the Cold War in the early sixties: The latest film from the Mexican fantasy auteur, (Guillermo del Toro) recounts the touching love story between a mute janitress named Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) and a humanoid amphibian (Doug Jones). The latter character is being held in a top-security government facility, which is overseen by the nefarious Colonel Richard Strickland (Micheal Shannon).

Del Toro’s English language pictures always have trace elements of Americana coursing through their veins. Despite the Lovecraftian origins of the titular character from the Hellboy series: Ron Perlman injected the horned superhero with a gruff casualness that made him as quintessentially American as baseball.

The interpersonal conflicts and incidental flourishes of the world building in Pacific Rim made that picture seem like an American sports movie in Kaiju clothing. And the trials and tribulations of Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) in Crimson Peak felt like Del Toro was providing a cinematic origin story for the budding literary American Gothic genre.

In the context of Shape of Water, Del Toro uses one of Hollywood’s preeminent genres to engulf the film in an effortlessly nostalgic hue. Throughout the film, Elisa connects with her neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins) over classic black and white musicals that are playing on the television.

More crucially, Del Toro uses the genre as a means of bonding between Elisa and the creature as he responds to various records she plays for him. In the film’s most sublime moment, the idealistic qualities of the musical give rise to a monochromatic sequence in which Elisa sings about her feelings for the creature. Del Toro’s immaculate framing and extensive use of long shots combine with Alexander Desplat’s sweeping score to create a scene that feels genuinely romantic as opposed to a piece of mockable camp.

Sally Hawkins’s performance in the midst of this scene is commendable insofar as she takes a previously established internal frigidness and turns it into a raw and powerful new-found confidence, which burns with passion and flickers with a touch of melancholy.

Equally as compelling is Micheal Shannon, whose scintillating screen presence makes the Colonel a domineering force of nature. Despite appearing on the surface as a decorated war hero and upstanding father of the 1950s nuclear family, his character represents the arrogance and brashness of Americana. This is accentuated by Strickland’s presumption that men like him were made in God’s image.

The Shape of Water’s masterstroke comes from the interplay between this aspect of Americana and the title creature. Throughout the film, the humanoid amphibian affects some aspects of the people he comes into contact with. Giles’s lamenting of his youthful days, which comes in the form of his baldness is partially restored.

In the midst of undergoing torture at the hands of Strickland, the creature bites two of his fingers off. They are quickly sewn back together. However, rather than eventually healing, they instead turn to blackened ash. There is lip service given to the fact that the captured creature was a God in the land he was taken from (Amazonia).

Fundamentally, Del Toro has taken one of the most iconic movie monsters (Gill-man) in all of American cinema and turned him into a God figure whose behaviour can be attributed as embodying the values of the New Testament. This is directly juxtaposed with the prescribed fire and fury of the Old Testament that Shanon’s character represents. In one scene in the third act, he dramatically frames the Sampson and Delilah parable as a form of elemental vengeance.

In all his films, Del Toro’s monsters represent an interesting prism for us to consider humanity. The most enduring image of The Shape of Water comes from its final one in which Elisa and the creature are held in a long embrace deep within the ocean. The shot has a tremendous amount of religiosity as it evokes Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam.” Just like that painting depicts God breathing life into the first man: The final moment of the film illustrates a God figure, giving life to a mortal being via healing and turning Elisa’s neck scars (the source of the character’s mutism) into gills.

Ultimately, the moment represents our capacity to transcend and become better versions of ourselves; while also signifying that we are worthy of being loved by a higher being.

 

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Editorial: My Top Five Marvel Cinematic Universe Movies

Coinciding with the release of Marvel Studios’ upcoming eighteenth film- Black Panther and the tenth anniversary of the famed comic book movie studio: I thought it would be great opportunity to present my top five movies in the ongoing shared universe canon.

5) Captain America: The First Avenger

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In retrospect, it’s easy to look back at the original Captain America movie as a necessary box that needed to be ticked. However, Joe Johnston’s 2011 picture is sincere and resplendent war epic that presents an earnest portrait of its central hero and the conflict between his societal function as an idealised image of propaganda and the genuine help he can provide to the war effort as a soldier on the frontlines. Like Superman The Movie, Wonder Woman and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy: The First Avenger reminds the audience of the inherent appeal of comic books via the heightened portraits of good and evil they depict.

4) Avengers: Age of Ultron

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Joss Whedon’s follow up to his 2012 blockbuster juggernaut is a thoughtful piece of work about the nature of heroism and control. The film is also a fascinating reconceptualisation of the Frankenstein story, resulting in a compelling prism in which our creations perceive humanity as a species. Out of all my selections, Age of Ultron feels the most undervalued and deserves revaluation.

3) Iron Man 3

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Shane Black, the maestro of edgy and ingenious eighties genre fare deliveries a personal threequel that focuses on Tony Stark and the demons that plague him. But in between the amusing repartee and stripped down narrative is a development that harkens back to the crassness of Drew Pierce’s short-lived British sitcom- No Heroics. More crucially, the plot twist is a significantly potent commentary on manufactured evil in the post 9/11 age.

2) Thor: Ragnarok

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In the context of the comic book films that graced the silver screen in 2017, Thor: Ragnarok seems like a big budget frolic. However, Taika Waititi’s first foray into tent pole moviemaking subtly reconfigures the formula of the Marvel Studios movie into something that feels effortlessly unconstrained. Filled with the sublime comic flourishes that permeated his earlier films, Waititi’s second sequel is an off-kilter and lavish comedic sketch of a movie with a penetrating central theme of a deterministic reckoning for an ailing society that has attempted to cover up its bloody past.

1) Captain America: The Winter Soldier

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Delivering the best film in the franchise to date: The Winter Soldier pits the black and white sensibilities of Captain America against the murky morality of the contemporary world in an utterly engrossing political thriller with monumental implications for the cinematic world the characters inhabit. Coupled with claustrophobic and tense action sequences as well as a personal storyline that forces Steve Rogers to reconcile the past and present: the ninth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a stunning piece of pop art that illustrates the enduring appeal of the genre and the ever fruitful tales it can spin.

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Review: Phantom Thread (2018)

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Much like the lavish and regally constructed dresses that the renowned central character makes throughout Phantom Thread: Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest feature is a nimble and cunningly made drama that has many surprises woven within its fabric. Set in 1950s London amid the bustling couture world: Phantom Thread depicts the tempestuous relationship between a celebrated society dressmaker- Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his newly appointed muse- Alma Elson (a warm and brash Vicky Krieps).

Perhaps more than the director himself, whose films draw an intense devout fervency from enthusiastic cinephiles: Phantom Thread has a massive tidal wave of curiosity due to it featuring the last ever performance from the illustrious English actor- Daniel Day-Lewis.

With this in mind, it’s hard not to read Day-Lewis’ solemn last bow as a post-modern critique of the actor’s persona. In a perfect melding of actor and character: Reynold Woodcock’s fiendishly fussy habits and manner can be equally ascribed to the actor whose craft is painstakingly regimented. There are many scenes dedicated to Reynold’s morning routine in which even the most minute sound and whisper of confrontation sends the designer into a flustered state of annoyance and creative idleness.

The series of scenes can be interpreted as a metaphor for acting: Woodcock’s prefered approach of stony silences and calmness match the complete immersion of method acting. Whereas, Alma’s intuitive everyday actions represent the moment to moment discovery of a character through life’s various eccentricities.

Phantom Thread is also a remarkable white gothic that is bathed in loss and innocence. If the essence of a gothic story is in its portrait of a decaying and forlorn house that is a stand-in for the protagonist’s soul, then Thread is steadfast in subverting this usual conception of the genre. In stark contrast to large and looming ecclesiastical buildings with flickers of shadows emerging from candlelight: Reynolds’ luxury fashion house looks like a pristine and elaborate doll’s house with white walls that are decayed by the bright beams of the morning sun.

Anderson’s pictures have always portrayed fascinating relationships, and Phantom Thread reconfigures the way in which we perceive the artist and muse relationship. Usually, the creative person devours their source of inspiration much like the big bad wolf in Little Red Riding Hood. However, Phantom Thread is an illustration of the wolf being tamed by the muse. Alma loves Reynolds but poisons him at random intervals to make him vulnerable so that she can take of him and lower his defensive side.

The relationship takes on Gothic resonance in a scene when Reynolds in an intensely feverish state sees a ghost of his mother. She is dressed in white and has a heavenly glow that fills the room. Earlier in the picture, Reynolds says that he has always found the idea of the dead watching over their loved ones as a comforting as opposed to a horrifying notion. He sees her while Alma is taking care of him in the aftermath of a poisoned incident.

Alma represents a surrogate mother figure, and their relationship is, in essence, a soothing of a little boy who has never stopped playing with his dolls and their clothes. Accentuated by Jonny Greenwood’s masterfully elegant symphonic score: the passing of the torch scene between Reynolds’ idealised and metaphorical mother is vital in further painting this portrait of a white gothic picture that soulfully laments.

Despite all this, Phantom Thread’s Achilles heel comes in the character of Cyril Woodcock (Lesley Manville). The film never truly conveys that her character and Reynolds are siblings. Sure, it is stated a few times, but one never feels it from the emotional distance Cyril has with Reynolds. She also has no perspective let alone a semblance of a relationship with her mother. And despite Manville’s stirringly dry and sharp performance, it does not give the character any sense of internal life. Worse yet, the screenplay relegates her most significant revelatory moments to offscreen purgatory.

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Editorial: My Top Five Questions for Cinema in 2018 (Inspired by Filmspotting)

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In an attempt to make my blog seem less like a cranky and sputtering machine that magically manufacturers reviews: I have resolved to write more editorials for the express purpose of making the blog much more accessible much like a warm mug of milk before bed. In my first of the year, I have decided to look ahead at Cinema in 2018. But rather than presenting an arbitrary list of the most anticipated films: I thought it would be much more interesting to pose questions about the upcoming year in film.

 

5) Will Halloween (2018) revitalise the slasher genre?

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In recent times, the slasher genre has significantly dwindled. The Nightmare on Elm Street franchise has stagnated. Friday the 13th has been stumbling around in development hell, and the Child’s Play as well as Texas Chainsaw Massacre series has joined the swarm of smaller movies vying for attention in the digital download market. Even films outside of the prestigious all-stars of the sub-genre have been far and few between. With this in mind, will the touted direct sequel to the 1978 film provide the genre with a new lease of life? Boasting the return of John Carpenter and Jamie Lee Curtis to the franchise, David Gordon Green’s entry has a lot to live up to and comes out on October 19th.

 

4) Will Christopher McQuarrie do anything interesting with Mission Impossible: Fallout?

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The Mission Impossible series has always been propelled by Tom Cruise’s boyish enthusiasm to test the limits of stunt work along with each film having a firm directorial vision that works within this framework. The sixth picture represents the first instance of the same director returning to the series. The move begs the question of what Christopher McQuarrie has to add to the twenty-year spy franchise. Fallout hits UK cinemas on the 27th July.

 

3) Is Sicario 2: Soldado going to be a worthy sequel?

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The announcement of a sequel to Sicario was quite astonishing because it felt like hearing something from a bygone era where medium budget films were in vogue. Despite the notable absence of Denis Villeneuve in the directing chair, the second picture will have Taylor Sheridan coming back to pen the script. It will be interesting to see how this sequel compares with the first film’s singular depiction of the duplicitous and murky war against the Mexican drug cartel. Soldado is in UK cinemas from the 29th June.

 

2) Will Pacific Rim Uprising prove the worth of television directors?

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In the current climate, many film directors venture into the world of television because it’s a medium that can tell overarching and personal stories that the cinema no longer caters for. When the reverse occurs, the result varies from excellent to mediocre. Steven S. DeKnight, who was the showrunner for Spartacus and Daredevil, takes over the directing duties from Guillermo del Toro. Part of the curiosity of Pacific Rim Uprising will be seeing how DeKnight transitions from television to the silver screen, and the implications of how it will affect the current paradigm. The sequel comes out on 23rd March.

 

1) Will Duncan Jones’s Mute be a return to form?

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Duncan Jones makes personal and poignant science fictions films with concepts that give rise to earth-shattering revelations for his protagonists. Jones’s third film, Warcraft, was a fascinating labour of love that felt conceptually adrift in its portrayal of the warring feud between Humans and Orcs. Mute represents a return to science fiction for the British director. It will be interesting to see if he can recapture the unique blend of interpersonal drama and big ideas that made Moon and Source Code so indelible. The dubbed “spiritual sequel” to Moon will be available to stream on Netflix from the 23rd February.  

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