Friday, 17 March 2017

Some Bonus Features

Not every movie I watch gets the 300-word review treatment. Time – but more often than not – drive dictates when I’m able/when I feel like drawing up a few thoughts about a recently-watched flick. However, today I thought I would share some thoughts on an assortment of movies ranging from old favorites to fascinating first-time viewings:

American Psycho (2000)
This is the very definition of a niche movie. It’ statement about ‘80s yuppie culture is interestingly contrasted by its depiction of over-the-top violence. Christian Bale shines in the lead role and his performance brings out some of the most amusing aspects of this pitch-black comedy. The now infamous murder scene set to Huey Lewis and the News’ “Hip to be Square” is genuinely funny. Not a movie for all palates, but to those with a taste for the bizarre, American Psycho is likely to linger long in the memory.

Black Swan (2010)
Managing to combine elements which are both beautiful and disturbing, Black Swan is a truly impressive psychological drama. Natalie Portman won a deserved Oscar for Best Actress for her role as a ballerina slowly being consumed by her dark side, and her performance is central to this story. Black Swan is the story of a transformation and the film is also; going from straight drama, to psychological thriller, to all-out horror. A spellbinding achievement, a descent into madness is worth the price of admission.

The Prestige (2006)
It’s not easy to admit when you’re wrong. Especially for me when I’m talking about movies. For years, I said that I was not a fan of Christopher Nolan’s film about at-war magicians. But, upon a recent re-watch, I was forced to eat my words. Truly, The Prestige is an exciting, taut, complex thriller, that explores the world of magic and the depths of obsession with skill and intelligence. The movie is surely one of the most well-cast films in recent memory too with an ensemble headed by Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Scarlett Johansson, Michael Caine, and David Bowie as the eccentric inventor Nikola Tesla. The front of the DVD box for The Prestige boasts a glowing review by Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers saying, “You want to see it again the second it’s over” and, you know, I couldn’t agree more.

Memento (2000)
I have always been a little skeptical of Christopher Nolan. The reasons are uncertain, even to me, but I am beginning to recant any and all negatives thoughts I may have had for the director. If he didn’t sell me with (what I think to be his masterpiece) The Prestige, then he’s certainly won me over with Memento. Memento is a film so incredibly original and unique; it is difficult to liken it to any other movie. Its story is fascinating. Its performances are excellent, and it is surely one of the most cleverly structured movies I have ever watched. Just as much of a puzzle for its audience as it is for Guy Pearce’s central character, Memento is a movie which warrants revisiting sooner rather than later.

Whiplash (2014)
There are some movies which I know that I love the instant they are over, and Whiplash is a prime example. Watching it again after a long time, I was left with the same intense, emotional response I had when I watched the film for the very first time. Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons deliver powerhouse performances in a movie which is so well told and edited. Destined to become a modern day classic, Whiplash is a fitting moniker for a movie of this kind: a breathless, intense thrill ride from beginning to end.

JFK (1991)
You’d think that it would be easy to talk about one of your all-time favorite movies. It isn’t. Suffice it to say that upon revisiting Oliver Stone’s epic masterpiece, I was left in the same breathless state as I was with Whiplash. From the first time that I watched it, JFK has been able to pull me into its twisting and turning narrative, presented in some of most brilliantly-edited together series of montages I have ever beheld. JFK really transcends being a simple conspiracy thriller. It really is an experience and a one-of-a-kind one at that.

Gone Girl (2014)
Opinion seems to be divided on David Fincher’s adaption of Gillian Flynn’s thriller, but I am of the mind that the film is a stylish, gripping character study. While the story may have more than a handful of unplugged plot-holes to its detriment, Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike lead an impressive cast (which includes Neil Patrick Harris and Tyler Perry both acting against type and truly succeeding in doing so) and, as usual, Fincher’s style is a feast for the eyes. Gone Girl is, at its heart, a domestic drama and a talented production team is able to elevate that to new heights. Come for the interesting story and stay for the fantastic performances and direction.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
Another from director David Fincher, this adaptation of the best-selling thriller once more shows off what a unique artistic vision Fincher is behind the camera. Swathed in chilling, grey tones (matching the setting of an almost tangibly frigid Swedish winter); The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was deservedly nominated for Best Cinematography. A truly disturbing story which manages to be equal parts Agatha Christie mystery and an episode of Law and Order: SVU, the film boasts a remarkable central performance by Rooney Mara as the title character and an equally fine turn by Daniel Craig as a determined investigator. Dark and gritty wouldn’t do this film’s tone justice and once seen is likely to haunt long after. 

Sunday, 12 March 2017

300 Words on "The Devil's Advocate" (1997)

Genre. Genre certainly comes in handy when you’re scrolling through Netflix, but sometimes it is difficult to classify a movie. If it includes a number of ingredients, it could automatically be classified as something it is not. And then, there are the instances when a film simply cannot be classified at all. Or, its ingredients categorize it as something quite unique. The Devil’s Advocate, from 1997, is just such an example. How many other movies can you think of that could be described as psychological, supernatural, legal thrillers?

Perhaps that’s why the film wasn’t well received upon its initial release; Roger Ebert, for one, claimed that the whole thing felt disjointed; “the John Grisham stuff clashed with the Exorcist stuff,” and that’s certainly a pit-fall of a movie which tries to do a lot. And, while I think it is fair to say that The Devil’s Advocate is not the perfect film, its uniqueness alone is enough to applaud.

For what it’s worth, the movie has a lot more in common with that other seminal horror film, Rosemary’s Baby than it does The Exorcist; it’s a slow-burn kind of horror, perpetually putting the viewer on guard with the feeling that something isn’t quite right. When the truth is finally revealed, it’s fairly unexpected, but hardly off-putting and feels justified in its craziness. Along the way, Keanu Reeves, Al Pacino, and Charlize Theron turn in excellent performances which elevate the film to another degree turning this thriller into a fascinating morality play.

Come the end of this two-hour twenty minute film with The Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black” playing under the credits, you are left with the distinct impression that you have seen something one-of-a-kind. While not the ideal example of trailblazing in the film industry, it remains an interesting and engaging experiment nevertheless. The Devil’s Advocate is surely a movie which dares you to classify it so easily.

Monday, 6 March 2017

300 Words on "Steve Jobs" (2015)

Good writing is noticeable. It usually has a pattern too; you can spot it easily. The writing of Aaron Sorkin certainly has a pattern. His scripted movies are filled with fast-talking, quip-creating characters. Watching one of his movies is like watching a tennis match in which the players are playing with three tennis balls; each one a different idea or strand of the conversation which is verbally batted around and eventually strung together. As one who is an appreciator of great dialogue, Sorkin’s movies are always enjoyed and what is so special about Steve Jobs is that it brings his dialogue to the front.

Broken into three nearly identical segments, Steve Jobs is all about the characters and all about their interactions. It’s a simple premise and it should be reiterated that this film is not a biopic. It is about Steve Jobs, but it would be difficult to call Steve Jobs the story of the man’s life. This is a deconstruction of the man. This is a look into three (fictionalized) moments which showcased who Steve Jobs really was, presenting all of the facets of one of the most divisive characters from the twentieth century.  

To do the premise of this movie justice takes a skilled cast, and the ensemble gathered together by director Danny Boyle is brilliant. Michael Fassbender really does shine in the title role and, while I wasn’t convinced he was Jobs, I was lost in his performance. Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen and Jeff Daniels compliment him in no small measure.

The ultimate compliment I can pay a film is when it becomes something other than a film: an experience. Steve Jobs is such an example. A masterfully written character piece which is brought to life by a truly talented group of actors drew me into the story and made it an ordeal to hit that pause button.

That’s what good writing can do.

Saturday, 21 January 2017

300 Words on "Speed" (1994)

Die Hard set the gold standard for action films of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Its fusion of action, suspense, and wit would inspire a myriad of followers and gave birth to the phrase “Die Hard on a ___.” Speed, described as “Die Hard on a bus” is surely one of those followers, but it is so much more than that.

Speed subverts the usual pitfalls of the standard action film by placing importance not on the set-pieces, but the suspense. Sure, the action is there (and I love watching Keanu Reeves jump from a moving car onto a bus as much as the next guy), but it’s all about the central idea behind it all: a bomb wired to blow up a bus if it goes under 50 mph. Speed plays out more like a thriller, and it’s tension is nail-bitingly palpable at times.

Speed challenges the genre expectations of other Die Hard imitators by wrong-footing the audience time and time again. A scene involving the out-of-control bus and a baby carriage is a prime example. Just when you think that Speed is falling back on action movie clichés, it pulls the rug out from underneath of you and forces you to be drawn right back into the action.

In this way, Speed feels like an action film with a bit more substance than the usual genre fare. Some of the film’s finest moments are the times when it slows down and showcases the morality struggle going on within the doomed bus and a fine cast supported by Sandra Bullock, Dennis Hopper, and Jeff Daniels go some way towards elevating the film even.

Yes, there are moments of undeniable ‘90s cheese, but to those willing to look at the big picture, Speed is more than just Die Hard on a bus. It’s a classic in its own.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

300 Words on "The Living Daylights" (1987)

The simplest reason that I love The Living Daylights is Timothy Dalton’s James Bond. Lending a darker and more serious edge to the secret agent, Dalton’s Bond feels like the rough-around-the-edges Ian Fleming original. But, the excellent script never lets Bond become too unlikable. In short, he’s the perfect medium between the suave, debonair super spy, and the hardened contract killer.

Yet another reason is Maryam d’Abo’s Kara Milovy who is more intelligent and independent than the typical James Bond movie heroine.

There is the action. From its stunning pre-title sequence on the Rock of Gibraltar, to a beautiful car chase which finds Bond and Kara escaping in the Bond franchise’s most unique mode of transportation, to a foot chase on the rooftops of Tangier, to an aerial battle aboard a plane, The Living Daylights boasts some of the series’ best set-pieces.

There is the intrigue. The Living Daylights is surely one of the most complex Bond films ever made and puts the viewer in the same position as Bond as he accumulates clues to put together the pieces of a very intricate puzzle.

There’s the music. The title song by a-Ha is incredibly catchy and John Barry’s score is stunning.

There’s the car – the Aston Martin V8 Vantage.

Above all, however, The Living Daylights feels like a return to form. After, perhaps, one too many (admittedly fun) world domination plots, The Living Daylights feels like an intelligent Cold War thriller. While it may be heresy to say so, the earliest Sean Connery Bond films do feel a bit dated today. The Living Daylights feels like the closest thing to those originals, combining their suspenseful sensibility with the modern aesthetic. Though it’s clearly a piece from the ‘80s, The Living Daylights may be one of the most timeless Bond films of them all.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

300 Words on "The Accountant" (2016)

I love movies with great casts. The Accountant, by all standards, looked to be one of those films featuring performances from some of the best – and surely most popular – actors of the twenty-first century. Ben Affleck. Anna Kendrick. J.K. Simmons. Jeffrey Tambor. John Lithgow. But, movies with great casts always run the risk of under-utilizing their talented performers and, sadly, The Accountant turns out to be one of those movies. While Affleck turns in an excellent performance in the central role, and J.K. Simmons positively captivates in every scene – especially elevating one sequence which is essentially one long exposition dump dramatically – Jeffrey Tambor and John Lithgow are given far too little to do. And Anna Kendrick isn’t very believable as an accountant either.

But, even if reduced to marginalized roles, the cast turn in good performances complimenting a fine, original script. For much of the plot’s runtime, The Accountant is able to not only keep the audience’s full attention, but at times subvert their expectations. But, just when one is thinking that he or she has found an original, intelligent crime thriller, The Accountant falls back on age-old, worn-out clichés, sadly making a lot of what has just transpired seem quite anticlimactic. And then, when one applies a little more thought to what they have seen, they realize that the film’s non-linear story-telling actually presented a fairly simple story in a needlessly complicated manner.

That is not to say that The Accountant fails, however. It’s a good movie, to be sure, and, even in its underwhelming final act, is able to introduce a twist or two which is able to show that the smarter edge which persisted so long in the film is not entirely gone. The Accountant certainly aimed to thrill, but seems to have just missed its mark.  

Thursday, 5 January 2017

300 Words on "The Lodger" (1944)

A few words about film antagonists. They say that a movie is only as good as its villain. Oftentimes, villains can be easily categorized into different types: the cold, calculating force of evil like Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lector; an unstoppable killing machine with a blank countenance like Michael Myers in Halloween; or a force of nature like the shark in Jaws. And then, there is Jack the Ripper as played by Laird Cregar who very well might be an amalgamation of all three.

The 1944 remake of Marie Belloc Lowndes’ novel holds an interesting distinction in the history of film: it is a remake of an Alfred Hitchcock original which actually surpasses the work of The Master. Skillfully directed with emphasis on a film noir aesthetic by John Braham, The Lodger is one of the most sumptuous-looking horror films of the 1940s. But, what truly makes The Lodger so unforgettable is the central performance by Cregar. His performance as the killer is one of the most haunting in the history of horror films. Cregar’s performance as the Ripper predates Psycho by sixteen years, but the parallels to the knife-wielding Norman Bates are obvious. And, at once, Cregar manages to create a character that is eerily like the unholy combination of both the soft-spoken intellectual Hannibal Lector and the crazed, maniac Buffalo Bill.

Afforded the budget of an A-level picture, The Lodger is in a class all of its own. Its supporting players from Merle Oberon’s music hall dancer to George Sanders’s stiff-upper-lipped police inspector to Sir Cedric Hardwicke’s dottery old man make The Lodger an absolute treat.

But, The Lodger is a study in evil; a showcase for one of the most original and devilish performances to ever emerge from 1940s Hollywood. It’s a movie still liable to give goosebumps.