Initial Impression: Last Flag Flying (2017)

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Richard Linklater’s preoccupation with time reaches its most poignant heights in Last Flag Flying. The film is about Vietnam veteran, Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carrel) who reunites with his former war buddies, Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) and Richard Mueller (Lawrence Fishburne) in the hopes that they accompany him to pick up his son’s body for a home funeral. During the course of the film, we learn that Doc’s son was killed in the Iraq War.

In Linklater’s previous films, time has been depicted as a snapshot for the audience to learn how it has affected his characters. This is most evident in the Before Trilogy, where we see how the years have changed Celine and Jessie’s worldviews as much as their feelings for one another.

By comparison, time in Last Flag Flying is used as a form of paralleling, as the experiences of the Vietnam veterans are juxtaposed with the soldiers who fought during the Iraq War. Aside from the correlations between both conflicts, Linklater’s most salient points are about how time does not change the nature of war, and how it’s sadly still used as a form of character and masculinity building.

In other regards, the concept is used as a ticking clock as to how long the audience have to wait to see the veterans regressing to their old personalities. This culminates in an amusingly protracted comic sequence with all the characters reminiscing about how they spent their downtime during the war.

The scene along with a line from Sal, “With time ticking fast away… so if there’s one minute that’s not too terrible, I’d like to try to enjoy it” shows that Linklater is equally playful with time.

Last Flag Flying is a real slice of life picture. It’s a film that is propelled by its characters having a rare sort of every-day authenticity that makes them feel like fun and charming people to be around. Bryan Cranston, in particular, impresses with a no-nonsense stubbornness that can both frustrate and delight at the same moment.

Though the picture is occasionally deflated by some unnecessary moralising, such as an awkward scene when Doc reacts to a news broadcast of Saddam Hussein and George W. Bush, as well as a slightly clumsy ending. Linklater’s trademark genuineness flies high here, and his grappling with time and the personal meaning of being a soldier resonate exceedingly well.

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My Top Ten Most Anticipated Films of 2019

10) Captain Marvel

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Marvel Studios’ first female-led superhero film boasts an enticing 90s period piece, an Invasion of the Body Snatchers esque premise and a heavy influence of RoboCop. I’m curious to see whether these various elements will result in an engaging and interesting film.

9) Avengers: Endgame

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Despite its massive scale and a cast of characters as large as the catering staff at a Royal Wedding, Infinity War impressed in making death feel meaningful and weighty for its heroes and central antagonist. With this in mind, can Endgame carry on the promise of Infinity War’s sobering exploration of death? April can’t come soon enough.

8) Toy Story 4

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Frankly, a part of me wishes Toy Story 4 did not exist. But alas this is not the best of all possible worlds. What we are left with is Pixar potentially doing a near two-hour victory lap to see off a charming and poignant trilogy. Or perhaps it might be a meaningful continuation. Time will tell.

7) It: Chapter Two

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In many ways, It: Chapter One was a loving embrace of Amblin’s eighties output as much as it was a homage to A Nightmare on Elm Street with its gripping hallucination sequences. This ascetic melange will be fascinating to see through the lens of It: Chapter Two’s adult characters returning to Derry to face their childhood fears.

 

6) Us

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Us promises a seemingly bloody and vicious version of The Stepford Wives from the director who made the socially potent Get Out. In the words of Kevin Smith, “Take all my money.”

5) The Irishman

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If 2018 proved anything for movies, then it was that Netflix is a haven for filmmakers to make unique and personal films. Their most significant investment is Martin Scorecese’s long-held passion project about “a {labour} union official with mob connections, {recalling} his involvement in the slaying of Jimmy Hoffa, an American {labour} union leader.” Touted as Scorcese’s largest budgeted and most effects-heavy film, the Irishman promise a tantalising dance between an old master and the modern advent of De-aging technology within the confines of a genre he left an indelible mark upon.

4) Knives Out

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Rian Johnson makes films that affectionately picks at foundational genre conventions and builds them back up with the eye and precision of a sculptor. It will be interesting to see how his approach fares with the murder mystery genre.

3) Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

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Quentin Tarantino’s last few period films have been revenge films that have taken the plight of oppressed people and used their empowering as fuel for violent genre thrills. By comparison, the Once Upon a Time in Hollywood film looks to be an epic in the vein of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, and this seems like intriguing territory for the acclaimed indie auteur.

2) The French Dispatch

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Wes Anderson’s last two films have pushed the boundaries of his ascetic, whether it was the aspect ratio juggling in The Grand Budapest Hotel or his kinetic camerawork in the Isle of Dogs. This trend seems to be continuing in The French Dispatch, which has been described as “a love letter to journalists set at an outpost of an American newspaper in 20th-century Paris.” It could be Anderson’s response to the Trump era or a mere charming curiosity. Either way, I’m there opening day.

1) Star Wars: Episode IX

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Honestly, The Last Jedi reinforced my love of the epic space franchise. It was a potent parable about failure and a sombre rumination on the series’ spiritual soul. The film spoke to me as much as the series did when I was a child and teenager.  It’s as visionary as Star Wars is ever likely to get in a generation. Torturous gushing aside, Episode IX has a lot to live up to, and its hard not get cynical about its chances of wrapping up the Skywalker saga, successfully. But I would be lying if I said my excitement did not burn with the intensity of a crimson coloured lightsaber.

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My Top Ten Films of 2018

10) You Were Never Really Here

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You Were Never Really Here is a blistering and stark character study of a man whose violent existence is no longer soothing the traumas of his past. Instead, it entrenches him further into hopelessness and suicide. Lynne Ramsay directs the film with the careful precision of a conductor, with present moments awakening horrifying memories of the past. The choice reinforces the film’s approach of favouring the exploration of inner anguish over the precision and bloody nature of Joe’s hired gun occupation.

9) The Shape of Water

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The Shape of Water is an enchanting fairy tale drenched in Americana. Guillermo del Toro’s Oscar-winning film is many things, sweet, sincere and strange in all the right places. But its most sly trick is framing the central creature as an embodiment of New Testament values against the antagonist who represents the prescribed fire and fury of the Old Testament.

8) Lady Bird 

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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, bridges the gap with effortless ease. The picture captures the teenage experience in all its endearing and frustrating dimension.

7) Mission: Impossible- Fallout

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The sixth entry in the enthusiastically boyish and death-defying action franchise marked the first time that a director returned to the series. Christopher McQuarrie melds the various facets of the series together in a gripping and well-constructed film. Fallout is a seductive spy thriller in the vein of Brian DePalma’s first entry, a post-modern justification for the series’ elaborate disguise antics and a wonderfully edited stunt spectacular that never ceases in its excitement.

6) BlacKkKlansman

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While BlacKkKlansman is undoubtedly a crowd-pleasing comedy that will often unite audiences in regular fits of laughter and disgust, the film is also a potent parable for our times and a reminder of how movies have helped in shaping it.

5) Mandy

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Mandy is a film that presents the manly revenge thriller at its most artistic and visionary. It seems less concerned with enticing the audience with its genre fueled comeuppance then startling with its heightened reality.

4) Black Panther 

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Black Panther is a brutal, stirring and nourishing film that provokes fascinating questions about equality and isolationism. It was one of those few movie experiences in which I felt a tinge of surrealism in witnessing and contemplating that a major studio produced a film like this. 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.

3) Phantom Thread

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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.

2) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

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In The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the Coen brothers conceive of the West as puckish, frightfully cruel and tragically ironic. It’s remarkable that after No Country for Old Men and True Grit, the directing duo has an engaging vision of the genre. It’s even more miraculous that they use the Western as a jumping-off point for absurd and poignant stories that illustrate why we enjoy such tall tales.

1) Suspiria

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Undoubtedly, Suspiria is an ambitious horror film. It may be trying to some, baffling to most, but for those who are seduced; it is a persistently engrossing and unnerving experience that admirably attempts to combine historical weight and primordial pathos.

 

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Brief Consideration: Aquaman (2018)

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Aquaman is the best superhero movie that George Lucas never got to make. The film impresses as a grandiose four coloured epic that is unexpectedly moving and wholly surprising. Taking inspiration from Geoff Johns’s New 52 comic book series; the aquatic superhero tale is about Arthur Curry, (Jason Momoa) a reluctant heir to the sea sunken kingdom of Atlantis. He must embrace his heritage and family to prevent a political plot against his home; frequently referred to as the surface world.

If Johns’s comic run was a postmodern response to the persistent ribbing of Aquaman’s power set, then the 2018 film is a meta-exercise in justifying the heroism of its fishy title character. In Justice League, Momoa’s one-note dude, bro persona was a particular source of irritation. In Aquaman, the persona is frequently questioned and eye-rollingly acknowledged as an ill-fitting choice for Atlantis’s one true king. If anything, the film goes to great lengths to illustrate how much Arthur is out of his depth as his punch first attitude gets him into trouble, resulting in many Wile E Coyote esque punchlines in the action sequences.

Like Arthur Curry, the film is goofy, awkward, heavy-handed, but well-intentioned and heartfelt. Though its narrative is steeped in the conventional territory of a protagonist being a bridge for two races to unite, the lens it is viewed through is fun. It’s the comic book movie equivalent of Star Wars; if George Lucas swapped Saturday matinee serials for Saturday morning cartoons and new age spirituality for every inspirational 80s movie.  

The director of the film is James Wan, an often overrated director whose horror movies contain impressively constructed sequences, but are never fully effective bone chillers in their own right. Fortunately, this proves to be an asset for Aquaman. I felt a great amount of joy in seeing Wan’s penchant for creative set pieces being unencumbered and frequently employed throughout the picture. A memorable section is Aquaman’s first appearance, which depicts the character dispatching a group of pirates who have taken control of a submarine. 

The series of scenes are directed with the headbanging energy of a Metallica music video- as a shirtless Momoa is wielded like an action figure with heavy guitar riffs punctuating his amusing facial expressions and actions. With frequent uses of slow motion and a 360 panning shot from the point of view of a gun, the sequence presents a rare form of male objectivism that somehow manages to retain an innocent cartoony charm.

In moments like this, Aquaman proves to be subtly bold and spirited in its presentation of its central hero. In other regards, the film commendably portrays male anguish with genuineness and allows its characters to bemoan their choices with real weight.  

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Review: Suspiria (2018)

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Remaking Suspiria is a dicey proposition. Daria Argento’s 1977 film is a towering and effective mood piece. It straddles the line between being a nightmarish Technicolor fairy tale and feeling like a nasty snuff film conjured by its supernatural antagonist. Even with its dramatic shortcomings, it still remains one of horror cinema’s most grandiose creations.

To its credit, Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 re-imagining is equally as startling and visionary. Taking the essential narrative spine of the original, the new film is about aspiring American dancer Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) who enrols at a prestigious German dance academy. Under the tutelage of the company’s artistic director, Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), Bannion is trained to become a more expressive and self-assured dancer. In reality, the young woman is being groomed for a ritualistic ceremony for a coven of witches.

Rather than presenting a heightened fable with primary colours bleeding onto the screen, Guadagnino employs a cold and stark colour scheme that exists somewhere between Kubrickian pristineness and documentary realism. The choice is crucial for serving the film’s 1977 West Berlin setting. In an interesting left turn from the original, the political turmoil in the midst of the German Autumn is frequently mentioned by characters in the narrative (in addition to radio and television broadcasts).

Consequently, the film has a pervasive historical weight. The choice feels like an interesting commentary on the events of the academy. The central dance piece (Volk) could be considered an embodiment of the German people and the witches’ infighting represents a war for whether or not the people have control of their artistic expression.

Tilda Swinton appears as three characters in the film. The choice is equally interesting in illustrating an internal battle for the German soul. Helena Markos (elected head witch of the coven) seeks to carry on the atrocities of the country’s blood-soaked past by preying on the young and innocent. Whereas, Dr. Josef Klemperer chooses to be the sole individual who will no longer turn a blind eye to the savagery. This is due to his experiences with his wife and the Holocaust. This is made all the more palpable when he says in the third act, “There are a lot of guilty men in Germany, I am not one of them.” Blanc exists in the middle as a complicit instigator, who in a sense is carrying out the orders of a ruling power much like many of the men and women who served under the Nazi regime.

At the same time, the instructor’s relationship with Bannion encapsulates the film’s preoccupation with motherhood. Blanc’s teachings about opening oneself and being part of something larger are as applicable to a young woman dealing with the problems of the external world as much as dancing. With this in mind, Bannion’s journey is equally about an awakening of maternal instincts and a literal ascension to motherhood.

Swinton casts the biggest impression as Blanc. Her maternal outpouring is illustrated in sweet and caring gestures that feel like an extension of her art form. As the young Bannion, Dakota Johnson impresses with a versatile physicality that lends her sequences with raw visceral power.

In fact, some of the film’s most striking moments wield Bannion’s swift movements as an instrument of the witches’ will. One particular cross-cutting sequence disturbs in contrasting the euphoria of creative expression and the literal physical damage it has on a dancer’s body.

Aside from its nightmarish imagery and harrowing instances of cross-cutting, Suspiria truly got under my skin with its subdued moments. Like Roman Polanski, Guadagnino understands how to turn seemingly ordinary situations into instances of acute uneasiness. One sequence has an impressive continuous long shot that travels the full length of a kitchen. Throughout, we see dishes being clean and plates being put away. Whilst this is occurring, we hear a meeting between the members of the coven, who are voting on their new leader.

The sequence takes one of the appealing aspects of the original film, which was this sense of the witches pervading every corner of the film, and filters that feeling through a prism of normalcy. The scene is additionally elevated by Thom Yorke’s beautifully haunting score that serves as a good replacement for Goblin’s assaultive prog rock music.

In many ways, Suspiria feels like the heir to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Like the 1980 film, it has a surreal moment that defies comprehension. At the same time, it also shares that film’s understanding of the horror coming from a slowly creeping dread of the supernatural having complete sway over the mundane. Like Kubrick’s film, Suspiria presents the audience with a puzzle of a movie and invites them to fit its various pieces together.

This undoubtedly makes Suspiria an ambitious horror film. It may be trying to some, baffling to most, but for those who are seduced, it is a persistently engrossing and unnerving experience that admirably attempts to combine historical weight and primordial pathos.

 

 

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Brief Consideration: Mandy (2018)

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If you were to have a casual glance at any of the posters for Mandy, you would not be wrong in presuming that the film may well be a hellish and intense experience. In reality, the picture is surprisingly serene, dreamlike and elemental in its depiction of vengeance. The title character refers to Red Miller’s (Nicolas Cage) artistic and eternally innocent girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough), who is kidnapped and burned to death by a cult leader called Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache).

Mandy works less as an exercise in pulse-pounding genre thrills than a slow descent into a warped world. At nearly every turn, the film presents a situation in which there’s potential for a joyous revelling of its violence. However, this is usually undercut by its laboured style that matter of factly presents the violence as opposed to lingering on its effects.

At the same time, the film also functions as a deconstruction of Nicolas Cage’s screen persona. Various moments present Cage’s different approaches to acting and these harmonise to illustrate his appeal. Whether it’s his early scenes that feel like outtakes from his more sombre moments in Wild at Heart or his later scenes where Cage’s over the top zaniness is a measured response to his blood-soaked surroundings. The unifying factor that makes Cage’s performance fascinating is that his choices are filtered through a palpable portrait of loss and pain.

The ascetic: comprised of psychedelic, metal and occasional anime elements paint a feverishly surreal world that is both striking and horrifying. These facets are punctuated by Jóhann Jóhannsson’s mesmerising score that feels like Vangelis’s 80s work is being filtered through David Lynch’s atonal soundscape. The commendably foreboding and experimental score is a testament to the late Jóhannsson’s ability to craft beautiful musical compositions- even within the confines of a bleak and souring framework.

Mandy is a film that presents the manly revenge thriller at its most artistic and visionary. It seems less concerned with enticing the audience with its comeuppance then startling with its heightened reality.

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Review: Halloween (2018)

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John Carpenter’s Halloween was a minimalist masterpiece with an effortlessly versatile central antagonist. He was as much an unconscious manifestation of male aggression to the central heroine, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), as he was the proverbial bogeyman- walking among the unsuspecting denizens of (every town) Haddonfield. Commonly credited as Michael Myers (or The Shape to the attentive viewer), the slasher villain would go on to appear in over a dozen instalments; including a remake, several reboots, and even a reality television plot starring Busta Rhymes.

The 2018 entry is a clear-cut separation from the franchise’s past, instead choosing to pick up forty years after Carpenter’s 1978 film. Strode is now an overbearing and ultra-paranoid elderly woman who lies in wait for Myers’s return. The babysitter killer has been incarcerated for a considerable amount of time and is due to be transferred to a maximum-security prison, along with a large assortment of inmates. Unsurprisingly, the bus of inmates is let loose and Myers returns to the humble town he once wreaked havoc upon. Laurie’s relatives: including estranged daughter- Karen (Judy Greer) and granddaughter- Allyson (Andi Matichak); as well as a new generation of teens are the unsuspecting victims that stand between Laurie and Michael’s final confrontation.

The 2018 iteration occupies a strange middle ground between the sense of mystery that permeated Carpenter’s film, and the streak of sadism that defined many of its imitators. The result is an often safe feeling film that attempts to harmonise subgenre thrills and homage. In some cases, this results in some inspired scenes. Through an extensive lack of cuts and a literal fog-engulfed atmosphere: one extended sequence depicting a young boy and his father stumbling upon the bus of inmates is as effective as Myers’s escape scene from the original picture.

However, for every chilling depiction of Myers, there exists a pointless sequence of gruesome carnage that feels like it belongs in a cheap knock-off picture. These sequences are particularly egregious when they are serving the film’s clumsy attempt at keeping the mystery of the Shape alive.

In the wake of Dr Samuel Loomis’s death (Myers’s longstanding psychiatrist in the first film), Dr Ranbir Sartain (Haluk Bilginer) takes over. While Loomis was obsessed with the idea that his patient was the epitome of evil, Sartain is fixated with finding out the impulses that drive Myers’s desire for killing. Before his death, Sartain is trying to get Michael to speak and asks him to say something. This is met with a boot to the head and a squashed bloody head.

The character made me feel as though I was watching a performance from a latter-day Boris Karloff- slumming it as a sleazy, mad capped eighties parody of a psychiatrist. His death is the film’s way of wearing the sadistic clothes of its subgenre brethren in an attempt to desperately keep the motiveless Myers alive. As much as the original picture had an undeniable belief in the supernatural figure that could exist in the corner of your eye, Halloween (2018) emphatically bludgeons anyone who asks for meaning.  

In other instances, this tendency plays like a post-modern response to the original film’s tamer (by modern standards) death count.  At one point, a teen character says “A couple of people getting killed by one guy with a knife is not that big of a deal.”

Elsewhere, the film has the promise of a fulfilling dramatic story involving the effect that the traumatic Myers’s Halloween incident has had on Laurie’s life. However, the screenplay never reconciles the disparate (fragile, paranoid and eventual resilient) qualities of the character. It’s a credit to Curtis’s touching and tough performance that some semblance of humanity is wrung out of what feels like an interesting series of sketches for an aged Laurie Strode.

In spite of all this, the film has some clear merits. There is some fun to be had from the playful cinematic callbacks to the original film that usually frames Laurie in the places that Michael was. The score: Composed by Carpenter in collaboration with Cody Carpenter and Daniel Davies wonderfully adds an element of time to the established themes. The music also excellently blurs the line between sound design and symphonic score. And there are a few instances in which some of the secondary characters are written with a rare authenticity that reminds you of director David Gordon Green’s independent roots.

Ultimately, the 2018 film has the most in common with Halloween II (1981), insofar as its virtues exist in the small and quiet moments that are deeply embedded within the main narrative. Crucially, they both indulge in the worse instincts of the slasher genre. Whereas Rick Rosenthal’s picture was a clear embracing of the trend for commercialism, Halloween’s (2018) swim in the subgenre pool is an unnecessary anachronism.
















 

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