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Tuesday, 15 August 2017

300 Words on "Hush...Hush Sweet Charlotte" (1964)


What Ever Happened to Baby Jane and its follow-up, Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte are very similar films. Both were directed by Robert Aldrich. Both feature Bette Davis presiding over a large, creepy mansion. Both feature former starlets of Hollywood’s Golden Age either suffering or tormenting Ms. Davis – in Baby Jane it’s Joan Crawford on the receiving-end of the abuse and in Charlotte it’s Olivia de Havilland supplying it. Both movies feature character actor Victor Buono chewing the scenery like few others could in the 1960s, and both films feature extended prologues set many years in the past which set up the central mystery and conflict.

However, to say that Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte surpasses its predecessor would be a difficult statement to defend. Charlotte is a much slower paced film and, though it does supply a handful of gaudy moments of pure Grand Guignol horror, they are few and far between. And, while Bette Davis’ child-like act worked in Baby Jane, there are times when her performance as the titular Charlotte can become rather grating.

Criticisms aside, however, there is a good deal to like about Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte. It’s a more focused film than Baby Jane and feels less frantic in its story-telling. Its sense of foreboding doom-and-gloom is also stronger, and Davis and Buono are able to share the scenery-chewing duties with Joseph Cotten and Agnes Moorehead who both seem to be having a whale of a time.

Though Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte was conceived as the companion piece to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, its only when the two films are separated that it can be judged on its own merits. Its unique story – a cross between Streetcar Named Desire and Gaslight – is engaging and proves that Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte can easily stand on its own. 

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Back in the Water - The Appeal of "Jaws 2"

“There is a creature alive today who has survived millions of years of evolution. Without change. Without passion. And without logic. It lives to kill. A mindless, eating machine. It will attack and devour…anything. It is as if God created the Devil and gave him Jaws.” – Trailer narration for Jaws (1975)
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Jaws is my favorite film. It is, to me, the perfect movie: a tightly-wound, exciting thriller with great characters, memorable writing and expert direction which comes together to create a truly brilliant whole. It is one of those movies which as soon as it is over I feel like watching again and, as a result, I found myself watching Jaws once every few months. While some may wish to temper their exposure to their favorite films in an effort to prevent them from feeling stale and tired, I have never encountered this problem when watching Steven Spielberg’s masterwork.

About a month ago, I got to see Jaws screened at a local movie theater – my first time watching the film with a large group – and I can only describe it as an incredibly fun experience. The theater was bursting at the seams; the nearly 600-seat venue almost sold out. Parents were bringing their children for their first viewing; families huddled together with their popcorn as the old Universal logo faded into life on the big screen; the audience cheered – cheered – when Chief Brody uttered the famed “You’re going to need a bigger boat" line and there were audible shrieks when Ben Gardner’s disembodied head pops into view giving Matt Hooper the fright of his life. All of this proved that Jaws has reached a very special peak for movies – it is a truly timeless experience and should be considered just as much of a classic as Gone With the Wind and Casablanca.


Despite these accolades, the Jaws franchise very quickly went off the rails: the final sequel, Jaws: The Revenge has also achieved something of a mythic status but for very different reasons as it is routinely considered to be one of the worst movies of all time. However, the first Jaws sequel, Jaws 2, is a curious example of an interesting sequel. Jaws 2 is nowhere near as good a film as its predecessor and yet it still manages to stand on its own and doesn’t plumb the depths (no pun intended) that Jaws 3D and Jaws: The Revenge managed to reach. While I don’t find myself watching it as often as the first, every once in a while I will find myself overcome with an inexplicable desire to watch Jaws 2; a desire which is simply not satisfied until I have popped the DVD into the drive and had my fill of shlocky shark fun. What makes Jaws 2 somehow work?

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I do not remember the first time that I ever watched Jaws. There are a number of memories I have of watching the film as a kid, but no distinct time. However, I remember watching Jaws 2 for the first time very clearly. My Dad and I rented it from Blockbuster (I’m doing a pretty job of dating myself there) and watching it that night. And, honestly, as a kid I remember being scared. Jaws didn’t manage to freak me out and, to this day, though I am not one to venture far out into the ocean, I cannot say that I find Jaws a truly scary movie. Jaws 2, on the other hand, still manages to elicit a chill or two.


And, if I had to pinpoint what makes Jaws 2 succeed on some level, it would be its ability to scare. Whereas the original Jaws is the textbook definition of a capable thriller, Jaws 2 is a horror film. When I describe Jaws 2 to people I describe it as a slasher movie on the ocean, and I think the description is an apt one. Your run-of-the-mill slasher film is populated by a group of teenagers who are picked off one by one in increasingly devastating ways by a killer who seems to be an indestructible force of nature, and the killer is finally vanquished in the closing minutes by an older authority figure (who usually carries a title of some kind). Jaws 2 has all of these things: the cookie-cutter teens, the shark, and the heroic Chief Brody there to save the day.

I will say, to the film’s credit, that its story is a unique one and does not try to repeat the formula which worked so well in Jaws. (Jaws is, after all, a nearly perfect self-contained story and to repeat it beat-by-beat would be nearly ludicrous.) What is more, director Jeannot Szwarc (like Spielberg before him new to films at the time of his helming a Jaws film) is no Steven Spielberg, but he does manage to stage a number of effective sequences. The shark attack which claims the life of teenager, Eddie, is truly scary and later, the scene in which the shark devours the sympathetic Marge is powerful stuff too. So powerful in fact that many viewers to this day swear that they can recall seeing extended footage of the attack when the film first played on television, and while this hardly rivals the power of the imagination utilized to devastating effect in the original, it is a point worth noting nevertheless.

The rubber shark in all its glory (?)

Despite these merits, Jaws 2 is hardly a slasher film on par with the likes of John Carpenter’s Halloween which was released later the same year. The decision to show the shark more often works greatly to the film's detriment and there is hardly a scene that goes by where the great white doesn’t look fake and rubbery. Roy Scheider, who had great reservations about returning to the series and appeared in the film under some protest, looks visibly bored throughout, and there is a lack of internal logic which runs through the entire movie: while it is may be a visual spectacle, the scene in which the shark devours a helicopter sent to save the kids is so lacking in credibility that it becomes laughable.


But, as I said above, Jaws 2 knows what it is: a horror film and, on that level, it works. It does not – and will never – reach the heights which Jaws reached, but if one is hoping to satisfy the need for some shlock and not a few chills, then it is a movie which fits the bill admirably. And, certainly, Jaws 2 is leagues (water pun intended that time) superior to the films which followed it. Both Jaws 3D and Jaws: The Revenge are terrible movies and can only really be enjoyed if one is ready to watch some world-class bad cinema.

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Horror films thrive on sequels and milking the life from a worthy first installment has never been uncommon. Aside from a few exceptions (most notably The Bride of Frankenstein), few horror sequels surpass or even equal their original movies. Sequels to The Exorcist, The Omen, Halloween, and a plethora of others have failed to live up to the legacy of their origins and some are even embarrassments to the bona-fide classics. Jaws 2, however, manages to be a watchable and competent sequel. Sure, it is no Jaws, but its virtues are not hard to come by. It remains, after nearly 40 years, an affecting and scary movie and while I cannot imagine any audience in the world bursting into applause at it the way they do to Jaws, I think they would be easily glued to their seats; perhaps even white-knuckled as that dorsal fin breaks the ocean’s surface once more.

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water…the legend continues

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

300 Words on "Dunkirk" (2017)


(Spoiler Free)

I saw Dunkirk in 70mm IMAX which was a truly immersive experience. The screen occupied an entire wall of the theater, the walls and floor shook, and the audience members actually jumped in their seats. And yet, I can confidently say that if you did not see Christopher Nolan’s latest film in this manner, it would still have made just as great an impact.

With a filmography consisting of great films all vying for the title of his best, Dunkirk manages to rank near the top for Nolan. It is an incredibly tense experience from the beginning, the action never letting up for a single moment. The film’s utilization of a nonlinear storyline only heightens the suspense, and there are scenes where the intercutting between one tense moment to another is nearly dizzying. Because of this, Dunkirk plays out more like a thriller, but immerses its viewer in the conflict itself perhaps better than any other war movie.

The film is also short on dialogue which only further emphasizes the dramatic set-pieces which make up the heart of Dunkirk. Despite this, the cast is simply brilliant. Fionn Whitehead serves as the audience surrogate in the midst of all the mayhem, and Whitehead, as a newcomer to the screen, holds his own with a cast of luminaries including Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy, and Kenneth Branagh. Former boy band member Harry Styles may walk away with top honors simply stealing the show in some scenes. Who would have thought?

Dunkirk is a powerful movie not only in its breathless execution, but its resonant message. Once seen, it will linger long in the memory and while it may be hard to say that it eclipses other Nolan films like The Prestige or Inception in terms of imagination, it may very well be the director’s finest hour. 

Saturday, 15 July 2017

300 Words on "Death Proof" (2007)


Death Proof is a film which constantly subverted expectations. It’s a film, like Psycho, comprised of two distinct halves with two distinct casts of characters. Just when you think that you have foreseen where the plot is going to go, the movie throws you for a loop. And, like Psycho, Death Proof is ostensibly a horror movie. However, I’m not sure if I can rightfully say that it is all that scary. Even the climatic car chase wasn’t what I was expecting, feeling less like a great, kinetic set-piece and more like a game of tag…in cars…and where the loser dies.

Though director Quentin Tarantino has, himself, admitted that Death Proof is the weakest film in his filmography, it is not without its positive points. Death Proof’s very existence is worth applauding. It was created as the second-half of a double-bill with director Robert Rodriguez for their homage epic, Grindhouse, which saw their films screened back to back and accompanied by original trailers for fake coming attractions directed by the likes of Eli Roth and Edgar Wright. The lengths which Tarantino went to in order to give his film that authentic grindhouse look – right down to scratching the film negative itself – is nothing short of a masterly feat of style over substance.

As one expects of any Tarantino film, though, the dialogue and characters are excellent, even if this is, undoubtedly, his weakest screenplay. A viewer with a morbid sense of humor and tongue planted firmly in cheek shall have lots to chuckle at. And that car chase, despite its unconventional nature, is exciting, and Tarantino handles the action very well.

To some, Death Proof is the low point of Tarantino’s career. To others, it is an underrated gem. Either way, Death Proof promises its viewer one wild ride in the fast lane.

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For those who follow this blog and recall my ranking of the films of Quentin Tarantino (link here), I have included my revised list below. Though Death Proof doesn’t shake up the list any, for the sake of completion, I thought I would include it. As I consider none of Tarantino’s films bad per se, I have ordered the list from Best to Least Best:

Pulp Fiction (1994)
Inglorious Basterds (2009)
The Hateful Eight (2015)
Django Unchained (2012)
Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Jackie Brown (1997)
Kill Bill (2003, 2004)
Death Proof (2007)

Saturday, 8 July 2017

The Top 25

To a true movie fan, answering the question “What is your favorite movie” can feel like a Herculean feat. Responding to a single question may not be as tough a situation as vanquishing the Hydra, but I have always found myself stymied in the face of it. So, in an effort to finally come up with a list, I took a few hours – it really did take two hours – and came up with a list of what (currently) are my Top 25 Favorite Movies.

Those 25 films are listed below accompanied by a brief overview of my thoughts. I should acknowledge now that this list is destined to be very fluid and, chances are, this list will be different this time next year. Or perhaps next month. Maybe even tomorrow. In addition, I have chosen to organize this list in chronological order based on each film’s date-of-release.

Before plunging into the list proper, I have decided to include five Honorable Mentions: films which just missed the cut. These films include: Anatomy of a Murder (1959), Batman (1989), Cape Fear (1991), The King’s Speech (2010), and The Hateful Eight (2015). Each are brilliant films which I love. So, without further ado, let’s jump right in…

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1. The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) – The Golden Age of Hollywood produced many epics, but none have the same sense of fun and adventure that this, the definitive version of the Robin Hood myth, has. Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, and Basil Rathbone lead a stellar cast in this Technicolor spectacle which boasts the finest sword fight ever put to film.


2. 12 Angry Men (1957) – Another bona fide classic which truly needs no introduction, 12 Angry Men is truly the greatest character study ever put to film. Henry Fonda is enthralling as the forgiving juror, but Lee J. Cobb steals the show. This one is considered one of the finest court room dramas for a reason.


3. Witness for the Prosecution (1958) – Billy Wilder’s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s classic courtroom whodunit stage-play is an exciting and engaging watch. Few things are as they seem in this masterfully-acted thriller starring Charles Laughton, Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich, and Laughton’s real-life wife, Elsa Lanchester at her comedic best.


4. North by Northwest (1959) – Hitchcock’s epic cross-country adventure is a darkly comedic thriller featuring many edge-of-your-seat set-pieces. Cary Grant evades the police by train, runs for his life from a deadly crop duster, and scales the faces of Mount Rushmore with Eva Marie Saint at his side. James Mason and Martin Landau are at their creepy best as the sophisticated villains.


5. Psycho (1960) – Alfred Hitchcock’s follow-up to North by Northwest couldn’t be more different than predecessor, emerging as a dark, unnerving horror film. The infamous shower scene has, of course, become a cultural icon on its own, but the entire film is steeped in atmosphere, generated in no small part by Bernard Hermann’s haunting string score.


6. The Birds (1963) – The closest thing that the Master of Suspense made to a monster movie, The Birds subverts its genre conventions in favor of Hitchcock’s signature suspense. The scene set at the playground is truly one of the greatest set-pieces in Hitchcock’s filmography.


7. Wait Until Dark (1967) – Audrey Hepburn isn’t associated with thrillers, but the star has rarely been better on screen than here, playing a blind woman terrorized by a gang of ruthless criminals. The entirety of Wait Until Dark is a brilliant exercise in suspense, but it’s the film’s finale – more-or-less creating the jump scare – which brings the whole film to a horrifying fever pitch and leaves me – and audiences everywhere – no longer on the edge of their seats, but on the floor.


8. What’s Up Doc (1972) – This, an open love letter by Peter Bogdanovich to the screwball comedies of the ‘30s and ‘40s, is one of the funniest movies I have ever seen. From its delightful farce in Act One, to comedic car chase in Act Two, the Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal-starring comedy still feels as fresh and as fun as it did when it first premiered.


9. The Sting (1973) – The heist movie has become an institution in film today and, though The Sting does not purport to be the first heist film, few movies which share its genre can say that they told their story as charmingly. Paul Newman and Robert Redford simply scintillate as the wizened con and his protégé, and Robert Shaw is incredibly watchable (as always) as the gangster who their out to con. There are too many great moments to outline, but I have always found the poker game on the train to be a particular delight.


10. The Exorcist (1973) – Hands down one the scariest films ever made, William Friedkin’s no-holds-barred exercise in making audiences scream is, at times, liable to make your skin crawl. Its horrific set pieces have gone down in cinema history, but the film’s foreboding atmosphere is simply palpable. Once seen, The Exorcist is not easily forgotten.


11. Young Frankenstein (1974) – Like What’s Up Doc, Mel Brooks’ send-up of classic horror has aged well. Perhaps, even better. I defy anyone to think of a comedy which is more quotable than this one. One need only look to the classic exchange regarding “Abby someone…Abby normal” to prove my point. Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman, Madeline Kahn, and Peter Boyle (to name a few) effortlessly provide laugh after laugh after laugh…


12. Jaws (1975) – Steven Spielberg’s movie about a shark is so much more than a foreboding dorsal fin. It’s the story of an unlikely partnership formed by Roy Scheider’s police chief, Robert Shaw’s grizzled fisherman, and Richard Dreyfuss’ shark expert. It’s yet another brilliant example of suspenseful filmmaking, and character-driven storytelling. The famous U.S.S. Indianapolis speech is a chilling highlight. Launching the summer blockbuster, even after so many years, Jaws still makes us afraid to go in the water.


13. Halloween (1978) – I have already written at length about the merits of John Carpenter’s genre-defining slasher, so I will be brief in an effort not to repeat myself too much. Halloween still has the ability to scare: Michael Myers having, rightfully, become one of the most spine-chilling figures of horror cinema. Donald Pleasence as the determined doctor and Jamie Lee Curtis as the equally determined babysitter lead the cast in this cheaply-made but profoundly effective thriller.


14. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987) – It’s become a tradition to watch this movie every Thanksgiving, and John Hughes’ comedy warrants its revisiting. Steve Martin and John Candy have impeccable on-screen chemistry and line-after-line and scene-after-scene is memorable and quotable. Even after all these years, Martin’s tirade at the car rental agency can make me laugh until I cry.


15. Die Hard (1988) – It’s easy to call Die Hard the greatest action film ever made, but why? Perhaps it’s the incredible tension generated by having one man take on a group of terrorists in one building. Perhaps, it’s those terrorists: a group of villains led by Alan Rickman’s perversely likable Hans Gruber. For my money, though, it’s Bruce Willis’ John McClane: a hardened NYPD officer who finds himself in over his head very quickly. Willis’ McClane is such an identifiable hero, constantly wisecracking, and fun to watch, that we cannot help but cheer him on from the very start.


16. GoodFellas (1990) – As you begin to watch Martin Scorsese’s hands-down masterpiece, you can understand why you might want always want to be a gangster. GoodFellas is engaging on both a storytelling and technical level: its long-take through the Copacabana is rightfully lauded, as are the performances by Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, and, of course, Joe Pesci. But, as GoodFellas progresses, you become witness to a fascinating fall-from-grace all accompanied by what has to be the finest soundtrack ever assembled for one film. Honestly, I can take or leave The Godfather, but GoodFellas will capture my attention each and every time.


17. The Silence of the Lambs (1991) – Based on the Thomas Harris thriller, Silence of the Lambs was not the first film to feature Dr. Hannibal Lector, but it is certainly the most famous. Despite having only about 16 minutes of screen-time, Anthony Hopkins is simply mesmerizing. Jodi Foster also positively shines as the heroic Clarice Starling and her story of rising to prominence in a male-dominated industry is a poignant one to be found amidst the horror and thrills, but adds weight to the pulpy storyline. Lector’s escape is also one of the best scenes of suspense ever filmed.


18. JFK (1991) – As I have written elsewhere, Oliver Stone’s conspiracy thriller ceases to be a movie at one point and becomes an experience. The film is so well acted, and edited that the combination of news footage, recreation, and original material can become dizzying. Running more than three hours, JFK can feel daunting, but it is just as epic. The scene between Kevin Costner and Donald Sutherland’s unnamed informant is one of the most riveting pieces of film I have ever watched.


19. A Few Good Men (1992) – Aaron Sorkin’s courtroom drama features his usual hallmarks of wise-cracking characters and incredibly memorable dialogue. Elevated by performances from Tom Cruise, Demi Moore, and, of course, Jack Nicholson, A Few Good Men manages to pose fascinating questions as well. When it’s all said and done, one has to wonder if you can handle the truth.


20. Pulp Fiction (1994) – Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece is an engaging, quirky, and off-kilter crime thriller. John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, and Uma Thurman shine as they deliver Tarantino’s brilliant dialogue. Pulp Fiction is such a unique and one-of-a-kind film that even Tarantino’s other films cannot compare to it.


21. The Shawshank Redemption (1994) – Based on the short story by Stephen King, this behind-bars character study is the highest-rated film on IMDb and boasts critical praise on all fronts, so there is little new that I think I can add aside from saying that I too – like so many others – am always moved with each new viewing. And, it’s twist-ending of sorts, is truly brilliant. How it wasn’t spoiled for me, I’ll never know.


22. The Usual Suspects (1995) – Speaking of twist endings…I don’t want to say too much other than this one floored me too. The Usual Suspects is surely one of the most original crime thrillers ever put to film and its central performances are hard to match. The verbal game of cat-and-mouse between Kevin Spacey and Chazz Palminteri, which makes up the heart of the film, is truly an exhilarating watch.


23. Catch Me If You Can (2002) – In Steven Spielberg’s hands, this stranger-than-fiction but real-life account starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks warrants revisiting again and again. Spielberg manages to balance the frivolity of the story with its darker undertones, and the performances from the leads – including Christopher Walken, Martin Sheen, and Amy Adams – make their characters feel real and engaging. Catch Me If You Can is one of those movies which has the honor of being worthy of a re-watch almost as soon as it’s over.


24. Inglorious Basterds (2009) – Tarantino’s epic World War II film is just as much a movie about movies as it is about war. Despite its bleak subject matter – and grisly violence – Inglorious Basterds remains a fun, likable film. Christoph Waltz is the obvious highlight, but Brad Pitt’s ludicrous Nazi hunter is a comic highlight, and Mélanie Laurent’s vengeful cinema-owner is a fascinating study in obsession.


25. The Social Network (2010) – A brilliant collaboration between director David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin, the story of the creation of Facebook is both a treat for the eyes and the ears. Sorkin’s dialogue and Fincher’s aesthetic complement each other beautifully, and Jesse Eisenburg delivers a powerhouse performance as the cold Zuckerberg. It’s a film worthy of being called a modern classic.

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That is that, then. Generating a list of even 25 was not easy at all. I couldn’t imagine trying to cherry-pick these, narrowing the list down to 10…or heaven forbid, five…or one! I have included a few statistics which I found of interest below.

Including Honorable Mentions:

1 film prior to 1950, 4 films from the ‘50s, 3 films from the ‘60s, 6 films from the ‘70s, 3 films from the ‘80s, 8 films from the ‘90s, 5 films post 2000

3 films by Alfred Hitchcock, 3 films by Quentin Tarantino, 2 films by Steven Spielberg, and 2 films by Martin Scorsese

4 court-room dramas, 6 horror films, 4 comedies, 5 movies based on real-life events

Average run-time: 2 hours 6 minutes

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Way More Than 300 Words on "Baby Driver" (2017)


(Spoiler Free)

Anyone who is reviewing Baby Driver needs to address the car chases. They are, undoubtedly, some of the finest put to film. They’re fast-paced, exciting, and genuinely get the blood pumping. They feel real and intense, and rightly so. Director Edgar Wright ensured that all of the driving effects were practical and in-camera. This is not a CGI extravaganza and Baby Driver is made all the better because it feels so genuine.

Anyone who is reviewing Baby Driver needs to address its cast. Ansel Elgort is the eponymous criminal chauffeur. He’s an incredibly likable character; his geniality made all the more interesting when one takes notice of just how little Baby speaks throughout much of the film. Nowadays, the action film genre is dominated by loud and brassy heroes and Elgort’s Baby is the exact antithesis. In short, a wonderful breath of fresh air. Lily James is just as likable as the love interest, and her on-screen chemistry with Elgort too feel effortless and real. Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm, and Eiza González round out the handsome cast, though it is Jamie Foxx who walks away with top honors. His psychotic criminal truly steals the film.

So far I have written of the realism and all around genuine nature which Baby Driver generates, but as this is a film by Edgar Wright, it should be expected that the whole movie is stylized in the extreme. The film's script is exciting and incredibly witty but the style all starts with the soundtrack. Hardly a scene goes by without use of some music and, right from the start, the soundtrack becomes an integral part of the film. Set pieces and action scenes alike are virtually choreographed in time to the music: the action set to “Tequila” is one of the best things I have seen on the screen in a long time.

Wright’s penchant for fast-paced and stylized editing is also on full display, and while the editing is perhaps not as frenzied and in-your-face as some of Wright’s other films like Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, or The World’s End, it will not take a sharp-eyed viewer to pick up on the long takes and brilliant scene transitions which are utilized throughout.

Baby Driver may, on the surface, be light-weight summer entertainment, but its stylized nature speaks to a true master behind the camera, cementing Wright’s status as one of the most original and exciting filmmakers of the day. And, it got me thinking. Why, I wondered, do I go to the movies in the first place? Though the experience of being moved by a film is oftentimes the surest sign of a masterpiece, above all, I go to the movies to be entertained. To have fun.

Anyone who is reviewing Baby Driver needs to address its sense of fun. It is nearly impossible to walk away from this one-of-a-kind adventure without a smile on your face.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

300 Words on "Henry V" (1989)


This review comes as the first in an informal look back on the work of Sir Kenneth Branagh in preparation for the release of his Murder on the Orient Express. That’s not until November, but what’s the harm in starting early?

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Kenneth Branagh is one of my favorite directors. While he may not inhabit the inner-circle of greats, he is surely standing outside easily holding court with the likes of David Fincher, Oliver Stone, and even the much-loved Stanley Kubrick. Each of Branagh’s productions harkens back to a day of by-gone epic cinema, and while some may argue that his films are examples of style over substance, one need only look at brilliant acting in both Branagh’s Shakespeare adaptations and mainstream films to refute that statement.

And, it all started with Henry V, an adaptation of one of The Bard’s most popular historical plays. Done by that other master of Shakespearean film, Sir Laurence Olivier, in 1944, Branagh’s version of the story came four decades later, and put a darker, bleaker, and more modern sensibility to Shakespeare’s words. Even the moments in Shakespeare’s play which would have been traditionally played for laughs are somber and sincere under Branagh’s hand. Branagh, who made his directorial debut with the film, utilized the filmmaking techniques which had been perfected by other directors in their presentation of war films to give his Henry V a harder edge and, indeed, the climactic Battle of Agincourt pulls few punches and presents the violence and bloodshed with the utmost sincerity emphasizing the tragedy and grimness of war.

As is standard with a Kenneth Branagh film, the cast is filled with notable faces. Special mention must be made of Branagh’s frequent collaborator Sir Derek Jacobi, here who is simply mesmerizing as the Chorus, who acts as our guide and leads the viewer through the historical intricacies. Ian Holm, Robert Stephens, Judi Dench, Emma Thompson, and a plethora of others round out the ensemble.

Henry V may lack the opulence of Branagh’s other beloved Shakespeare adaptations, but its true-to-life presentation and fine performances make the film just as lofty as his others: each presenting the works of history’s greatest writer as they were intended to be seen.