Saturday, 16 March 2019

300 Words on "Captain Marvel" (2019)

Perhaps more than any other Marvel movie, Captain Marvel knows who its target audience is. The film’s 1990s setting – filled to the brim with nostalgic references – make it clear that this movie is aiming for the older comic book crowd. And perhaps that is what makes Captain Marvel such a strong entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Unencumbered by a need to appeal to fans of all ages, the film emerges as one of quirkiest and most unique entries in the long-running series.

That is not to say that Captain Marvel doesn’t feature the usual hallmarks of a Marvel movie. Indeed, the movie may be chalk full of more fan service than the last few films combined, but it all manages to feel fresh and different. There is some genuinely exciting action - including an excellent car chase the likes of which haven’t been seen in a Marvel film in a long time - and the film’s script (penned by co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck alongside Geneva Robertson-Dworet) showcases an offbeat sense of humor reminiscent of the MCU’s other, boldly eccentric entries.

There is also a genuinely intriguing mystery at the heart of the film’s scenario which is enlivened from strong performances by Brie Larson as the eponymous hero, Samuel L. Jackson as a digitally de-aged Nick Fury, and Jude Law as Larson’s former mentor. It all makes for an engaging watch, made all the more sumptuous by Ben Davis’ evocative cinematography. Captain Marvel may very well be the best looking of the films in the MCU.

Captain Marvel plays out like fairly standard Marvel movie fare, but its presentation is so singularly done that – despite the film’s endless attempts to weave its story into the larger tapestry of Marvel’s labyrinth-like narrative – Captain Marvel feels very much like its own, independent entity. 

Friday, 1 March 2019

Finally Getting Around to "Bird Box"

By the time that I got around to watching Bird Box the phenomenon was very much over.

Released on December 21, 2018, the horror film became a sensation almost immediately. Internet memes parodying the film flooded the worldwide web, and then videos starting popping up on social media of the “Bird Box Challenge” in which participants attempted the most rudimentary of tasks while blindfolded.

Netflix, who seldom releases viewing figures, said that within the first four weeks of the release of Bird Box that the film reached 80 million viewers.

Yet, from the beginning, opinion was divided on the movie. Some said that it was a unique, enthralling apocalyptic thriller. Others claimed that it was little more than a cheap knockoff of 2018’s earlier horror success, A Quiet Place.

For my part, the parallels to A Quiet Place were tenuous at best, but Bird Box still proved to be a disappointment.

Perhaps the most upsetting aspect of the film is that its incredible potential feels squandered. The story finds Mallorie (Sandra Bullock), a young artist, fighting to stay alive amongst a small group of survivors as the world is ravaged by creatures whose might is enough to induce insanity and suicide.

Bullock is the obvious star of the film, but she is complemented by an ensemble cast made up of so many familiar faces including Trevante Rhodes (perhaps best known for his role in the 2017 Best Picture-winner Moonlight), John Malkovich, Lil Rel Howery and Sarah Paulson.

However, star power does not make a film, as this assembled horde of familiar faces feels wasted in their underwritten roles. Malkovich, in particular, chews scenery like never before, and Sarah Paulson is gone almost as soon as she had arrived.

Bullock, then, caries much of the film on her shoulders and, to her credit, she does an admirable job. The scenes she shares with young actors Julian Edwards and Vivien Lyra Blair as Boy and Girl respectively, are invested with real emotional weight due in no small part to Bullock’s playing of the distant and standoffish Mallorie.

The generally lackluster performances do not help to salvage what could have been an exciting concept for a horror film. The notion that the world has been taken over by unknown beasts who can will humanity into ending their lives is a tantalizing one for any viewer with a taste for the macabre. 

And to the film’s credit, its realization of such creatures – never once allowing us to get a glimpse of them – is well done and suggestive that the monsters are simply too horrendous to even visualize. As a rare example of H.P. Lovecraft’s cosmic horror on film, Bird Box is pretty much unmatched.

However, Bird Box is bogged down by a painfully slow narrative which seems to only be marking time in between gruesome set-pieces. Even the sequences which were obviously designed to create suspense and push audiences to the edges of their seats seldom follow through on their intentions.

As Bird Box felt as if it were entering its third hour, I paused the movie only to see that 45 minutes had gone by. To be boring is, I think, the worst crime that any film – let alone a horror film – can commit.

There are a few noteworthy things about the movie: the visual effects are excellently handled (especially for a film with a comparatively low budget) and cinematography by Salvatore Totino gives the film an appropriately cold, bleak tone. These aspects go little way towards rescuing Bird Box though.

Bird Box was not a total disaster, but I am inclined to think that the social media firestorm which greeted the film upon its release was quite unfounded. As a horror movie with a unique story to tell, I applaud Bird Box.

I just wish it had done it better.

Friday, 1 February 2019

"Suspiria": A Beautiful Nightmare

When you think of horror movies, what do you think?

Dark and stormy nights where long, creeping shadows threaten to overwhelm the screen? Characters wandering into impenetrable, inky blackness, doomed to never return?

These conventional images apply to so many horror films – new films and bona fide classics alike. They do not, however, apply to Dario Argento’s 1977 masterpiece, Suspiria.

Indeed, Suspiria may very well be one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen.

To simply try to describe its vibrant, bold use of color would be doing the film a disservice. Like an uncompromising artist, Argento uses the screen as his canvas and paints his film in striking reds, greens, yellows, and blues. Few movies – let alone horror movies – are so liberal in their use of color, but it is a daring directorial decision which once seen is not likely to be forgotten.

There was, however, some precedent to the way Suspiria looked.

Director Argento began his filmmaking career redefining a subgenre called giallo. Italian for yellow, giallo at first referred to a series of pulp crime novels published in Italy which were noted for their striking yellow covers. Film adaptations of these stories followed; all filled to the brim with murder, mystery and intrigue played out against vibrantly-colored settings.

Dario Argento’s giallo thrillers – most notably The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) and Deep Red (1975) – cemented him as a distinguished filmmaker dabbling in the macabre. Indeed, Argento soon was praised as “The Italian Hitchcock” as his films were comparable to the Master of Suspense working many miles away in Hollywood.

And like Hitchcock who continually pushed the boundaries of his thrillers to their extremes, Argento did much the same with Suspiria.

Suspiria tells the story of American dancer, Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) who arrives in Germany to begin studying at a prestigious dance academy. Suzy’s arrival coincides with the violent death of a fellow student which plunges Suzy into a real-life nightmare as she realizes not all is as it may seem at the academy.

Though the giallo films which proceeded Suspiria were all grounded in reality, the supernatural hangs oppressively over Suspiria and definitely marks the film as a horror movie and less of a murder mystery.

The freedom that came with this, I think, allowed Argento to create some of his most visceral set-pieces which still resonate over 40 years since the film’s release.

I have been fortunate to see Suspiria screened twice at independent movie theatres, and both times, the film still manages to surprise and unsettle viewers.

Perhaps the reason for this is the film’s incredible simplicity. Clocking in at just over 90-minutes, Suspiria is not bloated with in-depth characterizations, subplots, or extraneous dialogue or detail. Suspiria is a lean, mean machine whose only goal is to get under your skin and frighten.

As an exercise in frightening sound and visuals, I think it is unparalleled.

Beyond this, there is a timelessness to the film which adds to its continued relevance. The predominately female cast are all presented as autonomous human beings, and the film never lingers and leers in the exploitative way which was so common in the late ‘70s.

Additionally, the film leans upon the standards of Gothic horror which give the movie a unique fairy tale quality which is absent in so many horror movies.

I would also be remiss if I did not mention the music by the band, Goblin, which underscores so much of the movie. Memorable in its own right, the score would go on to influence several other filmmakers; most notably, John Carpenter who cited the group as a major influence to his revolutionary score to his film Halloween a year later.

Suspiria was recently remade by filmmaker Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name) and starring Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton and Chloë Grace Moretz. The film opened to divisive critical reviews, but I am unable to pass judgment on it as it is a film which has still eluded me. It’s recent arrival on DVD and Blu-ray, however, mean that that will change very soon.

Suspiria may have fallen into relative obscurity outside the horror movie community, but its recent revivals suggest that the film is poised for a resurgence and the time has finally come for it to take its rightful place alongside the hallowed classics like Halloween, The Exorcist and other pillars of the horror genre.

Until then, Suspiria remains a beautiful nightmare. And probably the greatest horror movie you have never seen.

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.