Brief Consideration: Wonder Woman (2017)

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Like its titular character, Wonder Woman is a bright, graceful and sweepingly optimistic picture. Ostensibly functioning as a prequel to Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice; the film charts the journey of the young Amazonian Princess Diana, (an effervescent and tenacious Gal Godot) who ventures into man’s world in the midst of The First World War.

Unlike many of its comic book movie brethren, the film effortlessly engages as a stirring genre picture that happens to feature a superpowered being. In its most powerful moments, Wonder Woman is an unflinching war film that depicts the sheer blackening and nihilistic feelings of The Great War.

At the same time, the movie wonderfully illustrates the enduring appeal of DC Comics. The longstanding comic company has prided itself on being a current generational medium for modern myth. The film earnestly commits to the mythological origins of Diana and uses it as a platform to illustrate the character’s budding goodness.

In fact, the picture is at its best when the mythological weight walks hand in hand with the emotional heft of its central wartime setting. Diana believes that the Greek God of War, Ares is the mastermind of the four-year conflict and that by stopping him, she will end the war. The prickling of this idea and subsequent final showdown serve to shape Diana’s view of humankind.

Despite the war, illustrating the abhorrent acts that we are capable of, it also showcases our capacity for self-sacrifice and courage. Diana acknowledges that every single human being carries both of these elements within themselves and concludes that true heroism arises out of letting the individual choose their path in life.

Like many of the tall tales that are internalised during youth, Wonder Woman allows us to examine ourselves in a heightened state and witness how our seemingly small and inconsequential choices take on a new-found grandeur.

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Review: mother!

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Darren Aronofsky makes films that emotionally and thematically aim for the rafters; however, his recent film- Mother, endeavours for the stratosphere and beyond. The picture is a potently off-kilter Gothic infused Ibsen chamber piece about the battle between the ego and nurture, which is remarkably filtered through the prism of the creative process and creation.

Javier Bardem and Jennifer Lawrence play nameless characters, but can be appropriately referred to as “The Poet” and “The Muse” respectively. They are a couple in the midst of the doldrums of domesticity and artistic woe; as the pair grapples with renovating their recently burnt down house and the prospect of crippling writer’s block. Their seemingly quiet existence is disrupted by the arrival of two strangers whose intrusion are a prelude to a series of erratic events.

Bardem’s seductive European charm is subverted here in favour of something far more primal and unnerving as the character exists on a monumental pedestal of adoration. His moments of unbridled rage and quiet intensity walk hand in hand in creating a portrait of a man who never feels quite right. Whereas, Jennifer Lawrence’s performance impresses in its subdued power, due to the young actress convincingly imbuing the character’s alienation, loneliness, and brittleness with breathtaking believability and power.

In fact, through extensive uses of handheld shots, Aronofsky frames “The Muse” like a fragile and precious porcelain doll. At once, Lawrence’s character is an embodiment of inspiration and maternity. Her fierce protection of home and domestic existence palpably resonates with a universality that transcends metaphorical subtext.

Aronofsky’s films have always had one foot in theological exploration: whether it was his last movie, Noah that took the long-standing Biblical epic to deliver intimate and haunting deliberations on humankind. Or his audacious 2006 film- The Fountain, in which the American auteur melded pivotal Biblical stories and themes to illustrate man’s eternal preoccupation with love and mortality.

The fundamental issue with Mother is that Aronofsky tries too hard to meld Biblical themes with the central contentions of the narrative. As conceived, the film is an exploration of the pursuit of the artistic life for the sole purpose of nourishing ego and self-worth. At the same time, the conflict of ego and nurture vividly reveals the tension of man and woman’s mark upon the world. Because Bardem’s character can’t take credit for producing life, he must create works of art that imprint a lasting meaning for people. Whereas, Lawrence’s character instead wants a simple life where she can take care of her home, husband and eventual children. The tension of this central clash lends the film with a ubiquitous emotional truth.

However, the ending of the picture undermines this central idea to frustrating and inane effect. Not only is it the storytelling equivalent of the rugged being pulled out from under you, but it also feels like Aronofsky is trying to have his Biblical cake and eat it too, as it seeks to put the story in a perpetual one-note metaphorical bubble. This is a shame as there many instances when Mother is the most of engaging and soul bearing experience that the cinema has provided all year.

There is a scene where Bardem’s Poet character is admiring a beautifully lavish crystal object. Featuring the complete absence of a musical score, along with the use of natural lighting and strikingly foreboding set design, Mother is directed with the meticulous construction of the sumptuous object that Bardem’s character treasures. It’s too bad that Aronofsky seems determined to let his film smash into tiny bits of incomprehensibility as opposed to lovingly preserve its spirited boldness.

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Brief Consideration: Under the Shadow (2016)

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In his feature film debut, writer/director Babak Anvari demonstrates an acute awareness of the underlying horror of day to day anxieties. Set in the middle period of the Iran-Iraq War, when Iraq systematically targeted major cities of the neighbouring county through aerial warfare: (War of the Cities), Under the Shadow depicts the struggling survival of a disgruntled mother Shideh (Narges Rashidi) and her young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) in the midst of a missile strike directed at Tiran.

A scene where Shideh is in bed and the camera is tilted to show her parallel with a wardrobe and the shadow of a taped up window encapsulates the picture’s sly slanting of horror movie conventions: namely the emergence of the supernatural elements of the story.

Throughout the film, there are frequent references to the legend of the Djinn. According to a story, “The winds refer to mysterious, ethereal and magical forces. Where there is fear and anxiety, the winds blow.” Consequently, the movie has this tantalising ambiguity where each strange occurrence could be the result of the brewing war-torn tension or something genuinely sinister.

One plot point has an ageing neighbour who dies in the aftermath of a missile coming through the ceiling of his house. The death could be interpreted as a heart attack or something much more malevolent. As a character says part way through the film- “People can convince themselves anything’s real if they want to.”

Ultimately, Anvari has crafted an engrossing chamber piece of interpersonal strife that touches on the fear of parent and child resentment; while also representing the overarching uneasiness of the central wartime conflict, which engulfs the narrative like an inevitable and unruly purging fire. Under the Shadow is a masterful exercise in minimal film-making and pertinent storytelling whose timely cultural edge lend it with a potent horrific power.

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Review: Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

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Blade Runner 2049 opens with a close-up of an eye with an immediate follow-up image of someone looking up at a large silver coloured circular structure. Much like the opening shots of the original film, which illustrated the desire and sights of its central Replicant character (Bioengineered androids with identical qualities of a human being except for superior strength, agility, and an infinite lifespan), 2049 functions in the same way.

While Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) coveted more life with a fiery and poetic passion; K (Ryan Gosling) guilelessly gazes upwards like a small child looking up at the stars, wondering if there is more to their place in the world. The universality of this existential longing is at the heart of 2049.

Officer K is a Blade Runner (specially assigned cops that hunt and retire (kill) Replicants) who finds himself embroiled in a case that involves him questioning his own identity as his implanted memories could be real because he may be the long-lost son of Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) and Rachael (Sean Young). The implications of such a miraculous event would mean that Replicants can reproduce.

Gosling’s assured silent and stoic performance impresses because it has a quality of touching youthful woundedness and loss. Throughout the film, there is a flashback to a painful memory from K’s childhood where he is running from a group of bullies who are trying to steal his inscribed wooden horse. In recollecting this occurrence, Gosling’s subtle facial expressions make him seem like he is morphing into that browbeaten boy.

In many regards, the sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 film resonates with the hermetically sealed innocence of a snow globe. In stark contrast to Scott’s picture, where perpetually downcast weather plagued Los Angeles, the city of Angels is now inundated with snow and looks closer to Soviet Russia as opposed to Japan.

Director Denis Villeneuve in collaboration with cinematographer Roger Deakins builds upon the canvas of Scott’s film with some stunning imagery. In particular, the smoggy brown and barren orange remains of Las Vagas impresses in subverting usual post-apocalyptic imagery.

At the same time, the picture has some fascinating examples of lighting. Niander Wallace’s (a terrifyingly serene Jared Leto) corporate headquarters has this wavy and refracted golden light that reflects off the wall. In a pivotal scene between Wallace and Deckard, the flourish accentuates the android tycoon as he comes across like Hades from Greek Mythology, presiding over the dead and holding the former Blade Runner in judgement.

If the original was a ghostly excavation of humanity that asked whether Androids have souls, then the thirty-five year follow up grapples with the purpose of life itself. Is it better to live a life with the knowledge of being the first of your kind and in turn a revolutionary figure for an entire race? Or is it better to aide an effort that is greater than yourself?

As a character says in the first half of the picture- “We’re all just looking for something real.” K may not have been the person he thought he was but at least got to look up at the stars and be responsible for the alignment of a few of them.

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Review: Blade Runner (1982)

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Blade Runner is a haunting film that gracefully submerges any sense of genre convention in favour of something far more evocative. The primary genre at play is Film Noir, and the movie wields the frequent cinematic touches of the “dark film” to fascinating effect.

In the context of a cross-examination scene, a character uses the archetypal Femme Fatale persona as a tough front to exude acute awareness. The rest of picture serves to illustrate the unraveling of this atypical type, as Racheal (a fascinatingly solemn and vulnerable Sean Young) wrestles with existential angst and purpose.

A recurring image in the picture is a pervasive and probing beam of light that illuminates the rancid and abandoned remains of an apartment complex. (The Bradbury Building) At once it points to the feverish paranoia of the author (Philip K Dick) of the source material (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), whose work featured continual instances of crass commercialism and authoritarianism.

More particularly, the noir lighting flourish is reminiscent of an exploratory beam that is searching the remains of a centuries-old sunken ship. The real power of Blade Runner is in its ghostly excavation of humanity.

Director Ridley Scott conceives of LA in 2019 as a blighted, overpopulated and rain-soaked city that feels like a purgatory where one is downtrodden even within the confines of mundanity. A frequently advertised blimp emphasis “a chance to begin again” on one of the off-world colonies.

In this way, the persistent message typifies humanity at its most progressive insofar as expanding beyond the parameters of our Earthbound existence. Though, this comes at the cost of many of our species, particularly the sickly who are left behind to live in a cesspool.

Philosophically, the film grapples with the question of the soul. Is a being whose memories are implanted susceptible to control? Or is there an inner spark or essence that propels the being in question. By the film’s admission, a desire for life and empathy are the essential qualities that define a human being.

In fact, the concept of empathy underpins the entire film. It’s used as a metric of measurement in determining whether someone is a Replicant. (Bioengineered androids with identical qualities of a human being except for superior strength, agility, and a four-year lifespan) Crucially, the concept is the fire that fuels Rick Deckard’s journey (Harrison Ford in compelling silent form)

Deckard is a bounty hunter who is tasked with finding and killing members of a renegade Replicant group called Nexus-6. However, through the course of his investigation, he gains empathy for his hunted prey. In a Gothic-inspired climatic showdown with Roy Batty, (a captivatingly heartfelt and maddening Rutger Hauer) Deckard is saved by the leader of the group and eventually watches him die. Consequently, a profound irony exists within the picture of a Replicant being responsible for Deckard gaining some semblance of his humanity again.

Whether it’s the cool blue colour scheme that permeates the film or the faint sound of a heartbeat during Zora’s death scene: Blade Runner is a science fiction film of strikingly unsettling small details and substantive thematic weight that in its final moment alludes to a fundamental existential dread.

Deckard’s adversarial colleague- Gaff says “It’s too bad she won’t live, but then again, who does?” It does not matter if you’re a Human or Replicant, who can claim to have lived a worthy life? Much like the synthetic beings, he once hunted, Deckard now lives in fear as the elevator doors close on him and Racheal, as they both venture into an uncertain future.

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Personal Tribute: Harry Dean Stanton

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Harry Dean Stanton was an actor of such marvellous raw authenticity and warm presence that to see him in a film was to wrap oneself in a blanket of reassurance. This rare quality was especially evident in his continued collaboration with David Lynch.

In Lynch’s 1990 film Wild At Heart, Stanton plays the morally upstanding private detective- Johnnie Farragut, who is tasked with finding and eventually bringing back the central couple.

Despite having a minimal role, Stanton’s performance in the picture represents a shining paragon of reason and virtue in a tale of passionate and twisted youthful love. Through a combination of natural and minimal gestures, Stanton creates a compelling and empathetic point of view character whose run-in with the sordid and colourful elements of the narrative illustrate its all too dangerous and vicious nature to the audience.

Earlier this year, Stanton reprised his role as Carl Rodd in Twin Peaks: The Return: turning the prickly glimpsed character in Fire Walk With Me to a kindly, aging neighborhood leader whose persistent generosity aligned with the enduringly sweet spirit of the show.

Elsewhere, Stanton demonstrated his deft comic timing as Brett in Alien. The character’s repeated single utterance of “right.” made him seem like a human parrot on the surface. However, there are pivotal moments where he appears to grasp and articulate his payment woes. Stanton convincingly portrayed these two aspects with a commendable ease and embodied the working class spirit of the picture with sobering clarity.

Stanton’s compelling silent work was on full display in John Carpenter’s 1981 picture- Escape from New York, where he played the memorably named Harold “Brain” Hellman. Even in his cameo appearance in The Avengers (2012), the late actor brought wry dignity and weight.

In many ways, the small appearance encapsulated his appeal as an actor. No matter how sizable the part, Harry Dean Stanton was always impactful and indelible. He was a character actor with clout.

RIP Harry Dean Stanton

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Brief Consideration: Twin Peaks: The Return (Part Seven- 2017)

Laura Dern  in a still from Twin Peaks. Photo: Patrick Wymore/SHOWTIME

Rarely does an episode of television inspire me to pick up my virtual pen; let alone use it to heap praise with absolute rhapsodic merriment about a medium, which I look upon with suspicion and fear. However, Part Seven (There’s a Body All Right) of Twin Peaks: The Return has awoken me from this rigid slumber.

The first third of the new series has been the visual equivalent of David Lynch blowing a belabored raspberry in the face of the loyal fans and brave newcomers who have dared to enter his domain with innocent presumptions. Between imagery that harkens back to the cinematic surrealist’s first picture Eraserhead and wry commentary on the numbing “going through the motions” nature of modern life; and you have an auteur who has fundamentally slashed the fabric of television structure to deliver his vision.

Part Seven particularly resonates because Lynch sincerely depicts the decaying nature of time. Mysterious, relationships and half-forgotten memories of twenty-five years bubble to surface like a long-standing nightmare that has only begun to make sense.

In particular, Laura Dern’s potently brittle performance as Diane impresses in painting a picture of a woman whose life has been incontrovertibly changed by a certain moment in time. This brief point has lingered like a painful memory that has never stopped hurting, and Dern wonderfully evokes this quality in her performance. Her scene with Mr. C (Agent Dale Cooper’s evil Doppelgänger) is remarkable in creating a sense of inner life for a character we have long heard about but have never seen.

Between breathtaking sweeping shots of enveloping fog moving over the green scenery and an excellent example of deep-staging within the context of a crucial exposition scene and Lynch has once again shown the true meaning of a cinematic television. Twin Peaks has well and truly returned, echoing with a reflective and sombre heart that still has many dangerous secrets hidden within its innocently quaint and quiet small town.

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