Monday, 7 January 2019

300 Words on "The Black Dahlia" (2006)

With the films out now that I could be writing about – Vice, Roma, The Favourite – surely you are asking yourself why I am talking about this one.

Some movies need to be saved.

Time will be good to the titles listed above (one need not gaze into a crystal ball to tell you that), but the years have done nothing to help Brian De Palma’s 2006 neo-noir thriller. Released to disparaging reviews upon its release, the film has been put down as one of De Palma’s late-game misfires, and though The Black Dahlia cannot compete on the same playing field (let alone be in the same arena) as the director’s other thrillers like Blow Out or Dressed to Kill, it is still an engaging and evocative film.

Based on the novel by James Ellroy which itself is inspired by the real-life unsolved murder of Elizabeth Short, The Black Dahlia flaunts its gritty hardboiled whodunit tropes: Josh Harnett and Aaron Eckhart play homicide detectives willing to sacrifice it all – even their sanity – to solve the case; Scarlett Johansson plays the woman they both love; and Hilary Swank is the alluring femme fatale who knows more than she lets on. Despite her very limited screen time, the finest performance in the film may very well come from Mia Kirshner as the doomed Elizabeth, whose Hollywood screentest scenes are the kind of haunting images films of this ilk wish they could create.

Elevated in no small measure by its excellent production design and De Palma’s characteristic, assertive cinematography, The Black Dahlia is – at the very least – a triumph of style over substance. Rest assured, the film is not peak De Palma, but it is hardly the cinematic train wreck which so many hyperbolic reviews have made it out to be.

These 300 words may not have changed your mind, but at least I have done my part to save an unjustly maligned film from one of the all-time great directors.


Brian De Palma’s The Black Dahlia was originally a three-hour epic which would have faithfully adapted James Ellroy’s sprawling crime novel. Ellroy himself praised the finished product, but in the face of studio intervention, De Palma cut the film down to two hours. It was this heavily truncated version which reached movies screens in 2006 and has garnered a lackluster reputation ever since. Rumors persist that that lost footage is still out there somewhere, just waiting to be restored.

I, for one, would be thrilled if it was. 

Sunday, 18 November 2018

300 Words on "Overlord" (2018)

In today’s media market which is more competitive than ever, the role of movies has changed. We are still living in the age of the blockbuster, when pure escapism reigns supreme at the box office. In many respects, this pervading trend feels like an extension of the days of the Hollywood B-movie. Overlord is the perfect example.

From its black-and-white opening and vintage graphics, Overlord knows precisely what kind of film it is. The potent result of the unholy concoction of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Saving Private Ryan, Overlord is a loud, brassy, and confident exploitation film which has no pretentions to be anything other than what it is. The film revels in its brightly-colored violence of the kind most often supplied in Hollywood by Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez. In fact, Overlord recalls those directors’ collaborative effort, From Dusk till Dawn, in more ways than one.

Interestingly, Overlord manages to be surprisingly reverent to its dark subject matter. Its opening paratrooper sequence is made of powerful stuff and sets the stage for the rawness which is to follow close behind.

Despite this, Overlord is ultimately a silly movie. Its characters for all pretty flat (despite half-hearted efforts to build them up as people), the story is built on clichés, and there are passages which are liable to drag as we wait for the next scare. However, Overlord knows these things and has no issue with them. If Overlord had sneaked into a gritty Grindhouse theater in 1974, we would already be calling it a cult classic and film fans the world over would be singing its praises. And, to be prophetic for a moment, I see Overlord attaining cult status in time. Its unpretentious blend of action, horror, and thrills is absolutely entertaining from start to end.

Friday, 9 November 2018

Thoughts on "The Other Side of the Wind"

To a modern viewer, the making of The Other Side of the Wind may be more interesting than the film itself.

Directed by Orson Welles, star of the silver screen and director of such undisputed classics as Citizen Kane (routinely called the greatest film ever made) and Touch of Evil, The Other Side of the Wind was Welles’ final motion picture. As was his prerogative during the latter part of his life, Welles produced the film independently, and shot it over the span of five years; filming as much as he could at a time with his assembled cast and crew and then breaking for an even longer period of time in order to finance its completion.

Welles successfully produced a handful of movies in this unorthodox but ultimately effective manner. 

The Other Side of the Wind was not one of them.

Running into financial and legal challenges before the film could be edited and distributed, Welles lost the rights to his own movie and was forced to abandon the project. The film that was to be his final masterpiece went unseen for generations.

That is until now.

Reassembled after more than 40 years, film buffs the world over can finally view Orson Welles’ mythic final project on Netflix.

The Other Side of the Wind tells the story of Jake Hannaford (John Huston), an aging, boundary-pushing film director (obviously modeled on Welles himself) who is in the midst of completing his experimental opus. Screening what footage he has shot for friends and industry professionals at his 70th birthday party, Hannaford quickly begins to make more enemies than allies, and it appears as if he will never finish the film.

The biggest question which goes annoying unanswered in the film is: what is this movie about? It appears that in his lifetime, even Welles was uncertain. Some have suggested that Welles’ vision metamorphosized time and time again in the five years that he was working on the project. And this is certainly reflected in the film. The Other Side of the Wind comes off as scatterbrained and incoherent in places with plot threads being picked up and dropped at random.

Yet, through all of this, The Other Side of the Wind manages to hold a hypnotic quality over its audience. Even if one does not fully comprehend what the meaning is behind the images playing out on screen, the pictures which Welles and his longtime cinematographer, Gary Graver, have painted with the camera are fascinating and haunting nevertheless.

In many respects, The Other Side of the Wind can be regarded as a primary document, providing a unique perspective into the changing cultural landscape of 1970s Hollywood. The days of the big studios and even bigger movie stars had faded quickly and Welles – who had returned to America from self-imposed exile in Europe to complete the movie – must have felt lost. That changing tide is reflected beautifully in the film, and Welles satirizes the key players of this cultural revolution within the film.

Just as Huston’s Hannaford is a stand-in for Welles, Peter Bogdanovich – who in 1975 was a young, up-and-coming director and close friend of Welles’ – plays Brooks Otterlake, a young, up-and-coming director and close friend of Hannaford’s.

What else is the film about? Welles manages to comment on toxic masculinity, points out the futility of the muse in an artist’s life, critiques new-wave experimentalism, and still finds time for a shoot-out and brawl which makes The Other Side of the Wind a densely-packed two hours.

Orson Welles was always on the cutting edge of moviemaking, and his last film reinforces that sentiment, showcasing techniques which would not become standard for several more decades. The Other Side of the Wind is no Citizen Kane but it is a strange, haunting film which even after 40 years is not ready to give up all its secrets. 

Friday, 2 November 2018

Thoughts on "Bohemian Rhapsody" (2018)

I liked Queen a lot before Bohemian Rhapsody but I like them even more now.

The biopic of Freddie Mercury and the band which catapulted him to international superstardom is a moving, powerful portrayal of their collaboration but also the story behind their music.

What makes Bohemian Rhapsody both a good film and important one?

Perhaps it’s summed up best in the words of Queen themselves – they’re a band of misfits playing for a band of misfits. A former baggage handler at Heathrow Airport, a dentist, an astrophysicist and an electrical engineer join forces to create some of the most eccentric – but wildly popular – music of the 1970s and ‘80s.

Bohemian Rhapsody in essence proves that (as cliché as it may sound) anything is possible.
At the heart of the film, just as he was at the heart of the band, is Freddie Mercury played to pitch-perfect perfection by Rami Malek. Malek simply disappeared into his role, and supplied with recordings of Mercury’s voice to lip sync along with, often it was difficult to find the point at which Malek ended and Mercury began.

Though Mercury’s story was the beating heart of the narrative, Bohemian Rhapsody never overlooked the other members of the band or their important contributions to their legacy. Gwilym Lee’s guitarist Brian May, Ben Hardy’s drummer Roger Taylor and Joseph Mazzello’s bassist John Deacon are all given moments to shine just as much as Malek’s Oscar-worthy turn as the Queen front man.

Behind the camera is director Bryan Singer who was infamously fired from the film during production.

Singer throws every visual storytelling technique at the film, employing split-screen, flying colorful text and montage after montage to name but a few. The result can be dizzying and distracting at times, however they remain exciting and engaging visuals nonetheless which liven the film even in its darkest moments.

It is clear that the creative team behind the film are ardent Queen fans as so much attention to detail was taken in their recreation. Music videos and live performances are restaged with an incredible eye for detail right down to the costumes the members wore.

And truly nothing can top the emotional, climatic performance at Wembley Stadium as part of the 1985 Live Aid concert which was presented in such remarkable detail that one is likely to feel as if he or she is there among the more than 70,000 people seeing Queen perform live.

Bohemian Rhapsody is a powerful and poignant film which gives voice to the marginalized and overlooked – a band of misfits.

In doing so, the film not only reaffirmed my love for Queen but for all artists who dare to tell their stories through music.

Friday, 19 October 2018

300 Words on "Halloween" (2018)

The incandescence of the original Halloween has burned brightly for 40 years. Through every sequel, reboot, remake, and countless imitators, the brilliance of John Carpenter’s original masterpiece has not been eclipsed. David Gordon Green’s first foray into the horror genre seeks not to extinguish that flame but preserve it and let it burn.

Jettisoning every franchise convolution of the last four decades, Green and co-writers Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley restore their film to the eerily effective, simplistic nature of the original. In tone, Halloween 2018 is the closest that any have come to utilizing suspense and tension to manipulate the audience since the first. There are plenty of scenes in the movie where Michael Meyers lurks just out of focus in the corner of the screen while we wait for him to strike again. It is an intense and visceral kind of horror which has become a lost art in modern movie-making.

But, Halloween knows that its monster is only as good as those fighting it, and to combat evil once more is Jamie Lee Curtis reprising her role as Laurie Strode. Curtis is the highlight of the film and she delivers a nuanced, carefully-crafted performance, and through her delicate portrayal the audience – like never before – gets to witness the consequences of the terror which horror movie protagonists must endure.

What Halloween does choose to pull from the original’s follow-ups is an increased body count and heavy reliance on blood and gore, but it is hardly a major blight to the film. And, as all the film’s action is underscored by music composed by a returning John Carpenter, even if the squeamish must avert their eyes, the film will still be a treat for the ears.

Halloween 2018 is at once an affectionate homage to its illustrious predecessor and a film which stands on its own. Today in a market which is (happily) flooded with horror, Halloween is unique: a slasher film which feels just as rooted in today as it does in an age which is long gone. 

Thursday, 11 October 2018

300 Words on "Bad Times at the El Royale" (2018)

It’s cliché to say that a movie is like a rollercoaster ride. But there are few descriptions which would be more fitting for Drew Goddard’s darkly comedic noir thriller. Few times in recent memory have I been pushed to the literal edge of my seat while watching a film, and even when I have been, being pushed there has never been so exciting.

Bad Times at the El Royale begins intimately but grows ever bigger and grander. What may have on the surface appeared to be a tautly-wound, claustrophobic thriller quickly turned into something else entirely. Some have called the film derivative of Tarantino, the Coen Brothers, or Wes Anderson, but Bad Times at the El Royale is its own breed entirely. And it is confident in that.

Aside from contributing one of the most original screenplays I have seen in a long time, Goddard directs an ensemble cast with no weak links. Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Ervio, Jon Hamm, Lewis Pullman, Dakota Johnson, and Chris Hemsworth turn in absolutely stunning performances, and each is given an opportunity to shine. Their collective screen presence lends weight to some truly phenomenal sequences. The ones which still leap to mind play out almost entirely without dialogue, each ratcheting up the film’s tension until the El Royale seems less like a picturesque, swanky ‘60s hotel and more like a pressure cooker about to burst.

Bad Times at the El Royale is an extremely clever, riveting movie experience. I found myself immediately swept up in each surprising twist and bending turn, gasping as each new revelation was dropped on us, and at the end of the film’s epic 140-minute runtime, I admit to feeling a little breathless. Perhaps not too unlike a rollercoaster ride after all. 

Thursday, 4 October 2018

300 Words on "A Star is Born" (2018)

It isn’t hard to forget that this marks the fourth time that A Star is Born has gone before the cameras and going into it, I confess to wondering whether another go-round was necessary.

I was proven that it absolutely was.

The movie firmly grasped the general ideas of its previous iterations and impeccably updated them to the modern day. Never once while watching was I looking for the seams; the story woven by screenwriters Bradley Cooper, Eric Roth, and Will Fetters never felt like it was tired or overdone, leaning on the prestige of its predecessors to survive.

Watching A Star is Born felt like attending a concert. The precise camerawork and choreography of cinematographer Matthew Libatique and first-time director Cooper devised for the film’s rock concert centerpieces placed the viewer directly on the stage in a way which made the music resonate more loudly and the stage lights flash more brightly than one could imagine them on a projector screen.

But for all the glitz and glamor of A Star is Born, it never lost sight of its focus: the relationship between boozing musician Jack (Cooper), and his protégé-turned-love-interest, Ally (Lady Gaga). In their central performances, Cooper and Gaga were simply stellar, assuming their parts fully and totally disappearing into them. I can heap much praise on A Star is Born, but perhaps the greatest testament to its sheer power as a film is in its central performances. Cooper and Gaga may be internationally-known superstars but there were times while watching when I totally forget their existence as performers.

A Star is Born is a poignant look behind the shiny veneer of the music industry and it was absolutely engaging throughout. To put it simply, the film is honestly one of the most powerful movie-going experiences I have had in quite some time.