Sunday, 31 December 2017

300 Words on "The Shape of Water" (2017)

The man-fish hybrid of The Shape of Water looks quite a bit like the eponymous man-fish of Creature from the Back Lagoon, and knowing director Guillermo del Toro’s love for vintage cinema, the similarity was certainly intentional. In many respects, The Shape of Water is an homage to the monster movie of the ‘50s, but its tone and execution make it so much more than a run-of-the-mill B-movie.

Sally Hawkins shines in the lead role of Elisa, a mute custodian who befriends the amphibious creature, and she delivers a stunning performance while hardly speaking at all on screen. The Shape of Water is filled with striking performances like these; Richard Jenkins steals the movie as Giles, Elisa’s neighbor and closet friend, and Michael Shannon chews the scenery to spectacular, attention-grabbing effect as the sadistic colonel who has captured the creature. While Shannon’s performance borders at times on caricature, his villain is only further realizing the heightened, just-beyond-real world of Cold War America in which the film is set.

The world of The Shape of Water is the perfect one for a movie of this sort to inhabit and, in another time and another place, the story of a secret government laboratory, Russian spies, and a creature straight out of the Amazon would have been more than enough material for a B-movie, but The Shape of Water adds depth and weight to this time-tested scenario and character types who we have seen play out countless times on the silver screen of old. The Shape of Water is therefore a unique enough retelling of the Beauty and the Beast archetype to not only separate it from Creature from the Black Lagoon, but make it stand on its own as quite an accomplishment of fantastical movie-making. 

Thursday, 28 December 2017

300 Words on "All the Money in the World" (2017)

I approached All the Money in the World with an almost clinical view. As a film which gained more press in recent weeks for the unprecedented last-minute reshoots which director Ridley Scott had to perform in order to replace Kevin Spacey in the role of oil tycoon, J. Paul Getty, I freely admit that I was curious to view the movie as the outcome of an experiment.

However, within minutes my analytical approach to the film melted away as I was drawn into it completely – All the Money in the World emerges as a thoroughly engrossing historical thriller.

There is much in the film which is vying for a reviewer’s attention; everything from the lush cinematography which swaths the entire film in a cold, metallic haze, to the resonating orchestral score by Daniel Pemberton deserves attention, but it is the performances which truly stand out. Michelle Williams as Gail, the put-upon mother of the kidnapped John Paul Getty III is a marvel in each of her scenes as she fights for both the life of her son and – hounded at every turn by the paparazzi – her own sanity. The true star of the film is Christopher Plummer as Getty whose titanic presence in each of his scenes lends innumerable layers to the role of the miserly oil baron. The fact that Plummer turned in such a multi-faceted, complex performance in only a few weeks’ time, too, speaks volumes to Plummer’s talents as an actor.  

Running over two hours, All the Money in the World may overstay its welcome a bit, but it is an engaging experience nevertheless. Its pitch-perfect recreation of 1970s America and Europe is truly immersive, and if that doesn’t grab you, then the work of Michelle Williams and Christopher Plummer certainly will. 

In short, it is so much more than a multi-million-dollar experiment. 

Saturday, 16 December 2017

300 Words on "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" (2017)

(Spoiler Free)

I don’t necessarily envy Last Jedi director, Rian Johnson. It was his responsibility to carry on the Star Wars saga, a legacy which has garnered countless fans around the world and made the series the third highest-grossing film franchise of all time. Johnson and his creative team would be scrutinized endlessly by Star Wars fans as he put forward what many were calling the most unique chapter in the series’ now 40-year history.

Those who called The Last Jedi a unique installment were quite correct. The film is epic and big from its very first moments (arguably more so than any other Star Wars movie), and the pacing does not let up for one moment. The Last Jedi is constantly cutting between three distinct narratives and keeps its audience on their toes throughout. Johnson also handles the action beautifully - some of the cinematography during the action scenes was truly jaw-dropping.

But, for all its relentless pacing, The Last Jedi is, ultimately, about character. Mark Hamill, returning as Luke Skywalker, is nothing short of breath-taking and he commands every scene he’s in. Daisy Ridley continues to marvel as Rey, and Adam Driver adds new depth to the villainous Kylo Ren. Their combined efforts made The Last Jedi feel like the most personal Star Wars chapter thus far. And it was truly compelling stuff; each of the three central characters’ arcs was riveting to watch.

Simply put, I was captivated throughout the entirety of The Last Jedi and, unlike some of the other films in the series, it never felt workmanlike. It was clear to me that someone with an expert skillset and knowledge of film was working behind the camera and, as a result, The Last Jedi – despite being the eighth chapter in an ongoing story – felt like it could easily stand on its own.

So, having produced a final product like that, maybe I do envy Rian Johnson after all.  

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

300 Words on "Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri" (2017)

Martin McDonagh is an acquired taste for sure.

I am no expert, but his stories are nearly always filled with characters that inhabit the greyest zone of moral ambiguity, and though his stories touch upon the most taboo of topics, there is an alarming lightness in his tone. McDonagh’s writing is snappy, fast, and laced with profanity. And his hallmarks are in evidence yet again in Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri.

As both writer and director, McDonagh revels in his pitch-black piece of Americana; Three Billboards being a brilliant showcase of the kind of dark undercurrent which can run through even the smallest and most wayward of American towns. As such, when the film begins, all of the central characters are just out of reach of being likable, but we are given little choice but to follow them and, miraculously, by the end of the film, the hard shell which each had been encased in slowly begins to crack. Three Billboards is built on these performances – Frances McDormand rightfully getting Oscar buzz already for her performance as a vengeful, grieving mother. McDormand is captivating all the way through, and we feel her pain in each second that she is on screen. Sam Rockwell matches her note-for-note, however, and his redemptive arc – the much-needed light in the bleak world created by the movie – is beautifully played.

Narratively, there isn’t much to Three Billboards – in fact the story almost seems to lose its way by its second act – but by the finale, the end product has certainly justified the sum of its parts. Like the other Martin McDonagh work to which I have been exposed, Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri gets inside your head and lingers long after the final images have faded from the screen.

Yes, an acquired taste, but one which urges you to sample it again. 

Friday, 10 November 2017

Thoughts on "Murder on the Orient Express" (2017)

(Possible Spoilers)

I could not simply confine myself to a finite number of words for this review. Murder on the Orient Express was my most anticipated film of year and, therefore, required room. Lots of room…


I think the only way to properly set the stage when discussing Kenneth Branagh’s new adaptation of Agatha Christie’s game-changing mystery is to briefly discuss my relationship with the two most notable screen iterations of the tale. The 1974 adaptation starring Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, and a host of others under the direction of Sidney Lumet, is a brilliant film. It’s presentation of the central mystery is engaging; the film’s suspects are beautifully-characterized; and it feels lavish and opulent in the best way possible. The 2010 TV adaptation for Agatha Christie’s Poirot, on the other hand, is a grave disappointment. Despite featuring a moving performance from David Suchet as Hercule Poirot, the made-for-television movie feels incredibly rushed, and its focus on the moral implications of Christie’s mystery feels lackluster.

With all of these thoughts firmly in mind, I went into this latest outing perhaps more excited than I ought to have been. But, why shouldn’t I be excited? Kenneth Branagh is one of my favorite actors. He’s also one of my favorite directors. Agatha Christie is my favorite author and Murder on the Orient Express I consider one of her best. The assembled cast – Michelle Pfeiffer, Johnny Depp, Leslie Odom Jr., Judi Dench, et. al. – was the very definition of top-notch. Despite these things, the final product did not match my preconceived notions nor did it match the brilliance of the ’74 original. HOWEVER, Murder on the Orient Express still emerges as both an entertaining and engaging mystery and a finely-crafted film.

Arguably the weakest part of Murder on the Orient Express is its screenplay. While parts of it shine – which I’ll come back to in a minute – its handling of the mystery felt half-baked. I understand that a more swiftly-moving storyline is just the way movies are told nowadays, but the script gave few of the characters the chance to really shine. Whereas in the ’74 original, each suspect had the opportunity to tackle a scene themselves. There were characters in this version who we barely got to meet or interact with at all. Even the handful of pointless changes to the narrative did not bother me as much as the lack of connection the script had with its characters.

Conversely, the screenplay created a beautiful character arc for Branagh’s Poirot. At the outset of the film, Poirot tells us that he sees the world only in black and white; moral ambiguity simply does not exist to him. By the end of the film, however, Poirot is forced to reconsider his stringent worldview. The 2010 adaptation attempted something very similar but the writing herein feels much more genuine. And, as a result, Hercule Poirot feels much more like an actual human being.

The acting across the board was excellent. Michelle Pfeiffer was perfect as the loud American widow accused of husband-hunting abroad. Josh Gad blew me away as the alcoholic Macqueen, secretary to Johnny Depp’s former gangster. Depp himself turned in an intriguing performance making the most of his limited screen-time. Whenever Depp was on screen, I couldn’t help but have my eye drawn to him.

Without doubt, though, the finest performance in the film was delivered by Kenneth Branagh. While David Suchet had 13 seasons to flesh out his portrayal of the Belgian sleuth and I am endeared to Albert Finney from years of watching his performance in the 1974 original, I can objectively say that Branagh turned in one of his best performances, and certainly one of the best as Christie’s detective. Branagh was simply a powerhouse in the film – his Poirot starting out as little more than a caricature and slowing being endowed with more and more humility and depth. Poirot’s transformation, therefore, could perhaps be viewed as the real heart of the movie.

Branagh proved himself just as adept behind the camera too. Of course, confined to the train itself for much of the movie’s runtime called for innovative camerawork, and the use of overhead shots, POV shots, and long-takes made for an incredibly visually stimulating movie. Having chosen to shoot on 65mm and utilizing the most select tools from a cinematographer’s bag of tricks, Branagh made his claustrophobic story feel grand.

Despite what I may have hoped going in, Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express is not a perfect film. It did not usurp the hallowed 1974 version in my mind, but then again, I probably never thought it would. Branagh’s movie emerges as an engaging mystery/thriller of a kind which movie audiences probably have not seen much of in many years. In a movie market which is today flooded with cookie-cutter action films and superhero knock-offs, one can only hope that Murder on the Orient Express can prove that this type of storytelling is not dead: a movie which challenges its audience and encourages them to put their own little grey cells to work.

Monday, 2 October 2017

300 Words on "Kingsman: The Golden Circle" (2017)

(Possible Mild Spoilers)

I loved the first Kingsman. It’s loud, brassy, and irreverent tone made for a fun send-up of the spy movie genre while its over-the-top action made still made for an enthralling and spirited viewing experience. So, going into its sequel, The Golden Circle, I was cautiously optimistic. I so wanted it to be the follow-up that the first film deserved. In short, it proved to be a decent successor.

While Kingsman: The Golden Circle will probably not supersede the original in anyone’s opinion, judged on its own merits the sequel has a lot to offer.  The entire film seems to take the bigger-is-better approach to film sequels; the action set-pieces having been amped up considerably. In places, the action scenes bleed one right into the next leaving the viewing in a state of breathlessness. This does not apply to the movie as a whole, though. In fact, The Golden Circle is a slower, darker, and more cynical story than its predecessor.

And if there was just a single flaw with the movie than it would be its more serious nature. The original Kingsman never took itself too seriously allowing one to revel in each and every absurd detail. The Golden Circle doubles-down on the absurdity (see Elton John’s extended cameo), but it feels at odds with this film’s moments of darker introspection.

The cast – everyone from the returning Colin Firth and Taron Egerton to newcomers Halle Berry and Julianne Moore – were incredibly fun to watch. Moore is especially enjoyable as the film’s villain and there were a few moments where she was genuinely chilling as the deranged (and aptly named) Poppy.

If one is hoping to spend two and a half hours watching a fun film, than he or she could do a lot worse than choosing Kingsman: The Golden Circle. It is the very definition of an entertaining film, but it simply cannot top the even more unashamedly fun original. 

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

300 Words on "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." (2015)

As a movie reviewer, it feels wrong to simply call a movie cool. Yet, when it comes to Guy Ritchie’s adaptation of the cult ‘60s spy series, few words could be more apt. From its opening escape from East Berlin (showcasing the finest use of a zipline in film ever), to the witty banter exchanged at an Italian raceway, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. constantly leaves one with a twinkle in their eye and a smile on their face.

The film is one desperately in need of reevaluation. Upon its release, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. garnered only lukewarm notices, and while reviews which highlighted the film’s style-over-substance nature are correct, that is all part of the movie’s fun. The stylish costumes and 1960s aesthetic are part of what the movie so enjoyable and a veritable feast for the eyes. Performances from Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, and Elizabeth Debicki – as the film’s principal villain – are all slick and sophisticated, and each of their central characters feel authentic; as though they stepped from the filmstock of some ‘60s spy adventure.

It seems – from my experience, at least – that the reevaluation of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. has already begun; the movie attaining something of a cult status in the few years since its release. Put out the same year as Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation and Spectre (a fine film and a decent one respectively), The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is the one which most people seem to remember and talk about the most today. In short, its timeless feel gives it staying power, and the movie’s desire not to take itself too seriously leaves it open for new audiences to discover for years to come. No masterpiece, but a diamond in the rough all-the-same: an exciting, fun, immensely entertaining film. 

In other words, a really cool movie

Sunday, 10 September 2017

602 Words on "IT" (2017)

(Possible Mild Spoilers)

Going to the movie theater to see a film can be something of a gamble, especially with a film garnering such a following as IT, the adaptation of Stephen King’s 1986 horror novel. The theater I was in was sold out; attendants having to direct people to available seats as they filed in. As the movie began, my fears were soon realized as I had to contend with the hushed murmurs from the row behind me, the occasional blinding light from a cell phone screen, or the man on the other side of the aisle who checked twice to watch a football game on his own phone. And yet, there were moments when the movie managed to grab everyone’s attention and, for a few moments, the sound of a pin dropping in that darkened theater would have sounded like a rumble of thunder.

Putting King’s titanic 1,138-page novel on the screen was no simple task and, I think it would be safe to say that IT proves to be more of a reinterpretation of the book than a straight adaptation. There are a number of scenes which play out just as they were written in the novel, but this film proves very much to be an IT movie for the twenty-first century. While it may have been fun to read about Pennywise assuming the personas of Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, and the Wolf Man in the book, seeing the B-movie monsters of old on screen today would have been laughable. IT employs physiological horror beautifully and emerges as a scarier product because of it. And, let it be known: this can be scary movie. While I seldom felt scared per se while watching, from the very beginning the movie put me on edge and unnerved me to no end. IT gets under your skin and never relents.

While the scares themselves worked on a technical level, the real lifeblood of the film is its acting. The ensemble of kids who dub themselves The Losers Club and who vow to destroy It were cast and acted to perfection. Jaeden Lieberher, as the group’s leader Bill, was excellent handling the dark, grown-up material perfectly, but it was Sophia Lillis as Bev, the only female member of the Losers Club, who perhaps walked away with top honors amongst the child stars. Finn Wolfhard, one of the stars of Netflix’s King-inspired Stranger Things, provided some hilarious (and much needed) comic relief as the group’s resident clown, Richie.

But, any discussion of IT would be incomplete without mention of Bill Skarsgard as Pennywise, the evil entity and titular creature. Skarsgard was brilliant in the monstrous role and, added with some truly frightening makeup, managed to be a truly creepy Pennywise. I feared that audiences might laugh at the frankly absurd notion of a child-eating, evil clown, but no laughs met this Pennywise when he appeared on screen. In fact, on the few occasions when I can say that IT scared me, it was Skarsgard’s Pennywise doing the scaring. In particular, the scene with the kids and a slide projector had me jumping in my seat.

IT is not a perfect film, but it emerges as not only an excellent adaptation of Stephen King, but as a good horror movie. Today, as the market is flooded with sub-par horror films, IT proves that Hollywood can still do horror right. There, in that darkened movie theater, IT held me and so many others collectively in its grasp; the outside world forgotten for a while; our knuckles white against the seats until only a scream could break us from our trance. 

Thursday, 24 August 2017

The Other Fella - "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" (1969)

There is a moment in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the sixth James Bond film, released in 1969, which is by now quite infamous. After saving Diana Rigg from a suicide attempt and fighting off two attackers on an unpopulated beach, George Lazenby’s Bond breaks the fourth wall, looks into camera and says that “this never happened to the other fella” referring to Sean Connery’s Bond. It’s true, Connery’s Bond never found himself in a similar scenario, but Lazenby’s 007 would never find himself facing a similar trial – or any other situation – ever again.

Bond fans the world over know the series of circumstances which lead up to Lazenby’s casting as Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (henceforth abbreviated to OHMSS for the sake of brevity), but for the sake of catching-up the less-informed, things played out something like this. Sean Connery, who rose to international fame after taking on the role of Ian Fleming’s James Bond, became disenfranchised with the part and the behind-the-scenes tribulations which went into making each installment of the series. Following the fifth Bond film, You Only Live Twice, Connery announced that he was stepping away from the part. The hunt was on for an actor to fill the secret agent’s shoulder holster and actors such as Michael Gambon, Jeremy Brett, and John Gavin were all considered for the role. The ultimate successor to Connery was Australian-native George Lazenby, a former car salesman turned male model. Lazenby won over Bond producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman and joined Diana Rigg and Telly Savalas to headline the latest Bond film. He had international fame and fortune almost overnight.

And then he gave it all up.

To this day, OHMSS is something of an oddity in the Bond franchise and, for many years, oftentimes languished towards the bottom of lists ranking the Bond films. It has begun to gain renewed recognition, however, and some hold that it is in fact one of the best of the franchise. Some fans are even willing to say that OHMSS is the pinnacle of the series’ run. I, for one, fall into the former camp, and the film sits very comfortably in my top five Bond films. It is one which I have returned to many times and I tend to find something new whenever I do. So, today, I wish to dig a little deeper in what is probably the most sidelined film in the James Bond franchise.

I think it is safe to say that the weakest part of OHMSS is George Lazenby. Very simply, he lacks charisma. When the script calls for Lazenby’s Bond to be suave and debonair, Lazenby instead comes off as wooden and unconvincing. He may look good in a tailored suit, but he’s simply just a guy in a nice suit. He never feels like James Bond. However, in the more humane moments, Lazenby does succeed. His tender scene with Diana Rigg’s Tracy in which he proposes marriage is thoroughly convincing. Lazenby also fares well in the action department. The fight scene in his hotel room early in the film (not to mention the cold open described above) both display a true physical prowess. Later, during the assault on Ernst Stravro Blofeld’s lair, Lazenby’s Bond slides down an icy walkway on his stomach whilst firing a machine gun. Again, the effect is thoroughly convincing.

To be perfectly fair, George Lazenby was not an actor. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was, in fact, his first feature film (a few commercial appearances not withstanding). For that, he should certainly be applauded, because I think few first-time actors could step in front of a camera and be James Bond. Lazenby gave the role his best shot, consciously never mirroring Sean Connery too much and giving his own interpretation, and that too is commendable. And, surely, the task of following in the footsteps of Sean Connery was an unenviable and daunting task to say the least; the specter of legions of Bond fans hanging over Lazenby could have helped matters any. Contemporary reviewers naturally compared Lazenby to Connery and the comparison was an unfavorable one. Like Bond in the film, Lazenby didn’t emerge totally unscathed.

Mrs. Peel turned Mrs. Bond
Of course, a weak Bond is a big strike against any Bond film, but OHMSS is not mired by this fact. In fact, it seems to compensate in almost every other respect. The cast is one of the strongest in any Bond film starting with Diana Rigg’s “Bond girl” Tracy di Vicenzo who, by the end of the film, has become Bond’s wife. Dame Diana was by 1969 already internationally famous for her role in the endearing spy television series, The Avengers, starring as leather-cat-suit-wearing Emma Peel opposite Patrick Macnee’s bowler-wearing, umbrella-toting John Steed. Rigg brings some of the same feistiness and charisma which marked Mrs. Peel to Tracy. She’s a free-spirited, independent woman and still remains one of the best – if not the very best – “Bond girl” in the entire series. Her tragic end is genuinely moving.

Then, there’s Telly Savalas as Blofeld, Bond’s arch-nemesis and mastermind behind the criminal empire SPECTRE. Throughout the early Connery films, Blofeld was only hinted at (appearing as a mysterious figure seen only as a pair of hands stroking a white cat) and finally appeared in the flesh played by Donald Pleasance in You Only Live Twice. Yet, Savalas manages to make more of an impact than both the creepy Pleasance and the campy Charles Gray who turned up as Blofeld in OHMSS’s follow-up Diamonds Are Forever. Savalas may come off more as a thug than a real criminal mastermind, but he is so watchable and convincing as someone who loves to be on the wrong side of the law.

Gabriele Ferzetti as Tracy’s father, Draco, and Ilse Steppat as Blofeld’s right-hand woman, Irma Bunt, round out the central players, and Lois Maxwell, Bernard Lee, and Desmond Llewellyn reprise their usual roles as Miss Moneypenny, M, and Q respectively. Lee’s M, more brusque and curmudgeonly than usual, is especially memorable in this outing.

Bond and the "Angels of Death"
(A word should also be said about Blofeld’s “Angels of Death”; the assembled young women who will unwittingly carry out his plan for world domination. Beyond adding a little eye-candy and modeling some perfectly ridiculous outfits to ‘60s audiences, a number deliver good performances especially Angela Scoular as Ruby. Eagle-eyed fans will also notice famed English starlet Joanna Lumley amongst the group as well.)

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service features one of the better scripts in the Bond series as well. Adapted by Richard Maibaum from Ian Fleming’s novel, the screenplay stays remarkably faithful to the source material; something of an oddity for the time as it was at this point in the Bond series’ history that fidelity to Fleming was going by the wayside and in some cases, nothing was retained from the originals but a title.

The screenplay also allows for some fine action set-pieces. The attack on Blofeld’s lair, Piz Gloria, was probably meant to be the real standout, but the skiing scenes are where OHMSS really shines. James Bond would return to the slopes a few more times over the years (including the pretty much unmatchable ski jump stunt from The Spy Who Loved Me), but the ski scenes in OHMSS, choreographed and photographed by Willy Bogner, are truly remarkable. The skiing set-pieces are fluid and beautiful to watch. It’s worth mentioning that the Blu ray release of OHMSS showcases these scenes beautifully. Truly, of all the Bond films restored to higher definition Blu ray, OHMSS is surely one of the best-looking of the lot.

Lastly, any discussion of OHMSS is incomplete without mention of John Barry’s remarkable score. The instrumental piece-of-music used as the film’s main theme has become just as synonymous with the series as the Bond theme, and it is just as exciting a piece to listen to as well. To those who say that the score is Barry’s best truly are not far off the mark.

So, even if OHMSS may lack a charismatic James Bond, it manages to make up for it in so many other ways. The constituent parts which make up the film, when analyzed, are excellent on their own and, when added up, are very nearly perfect. As I mentioned above, OHMSS resides near the very top of my list of favorite Bond films and, if I may be so bold (and with apologies to From Russia with Love, Thunderball, and even Goldfinger) I think it is the best Bond film of the 1960s.

As mentioned above, OHMSS opened to lukewarm reviews upon its initial release; critics invariably comparing George Lazenby to Sean Connery. Even as the film went into release, Lazenby had already declared that he was not going to pursue the role of Bond further. Having become just as disenfranchised with the Bond franchise as Connery before him, Lazenby left the movies behind, only later in life suggesting that he regretted not doing another film thus forever becoming known as the guy who was only Bond once. Of course, what came next is well known: with the relative flop of OHMSS, producers Broccoli and Saltzman scrambled to restore the franchise to its former glory. They approached Connery to return to the series and, enticing him with a then astronomical $1.25 million paycheck, Connery was lured back for Diamonds Are Forever (1971). Tonally, the campy, bouncy Diamonds could not be further from the downbeat OHMSS and, if watched back-to-back, the viewer is liable to suffer from whiplash.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service may still be considered the oddball Bond film, but its status is not necessarily a negative moniker. In a franchise which has lasted over fifty years, its unique presentation makes it a really one-of-a-kind Bond movie.

And, for all of the other accolades and praise which one can heap onto many of the other Bond films, none of the other fellas to have played James Bond can say that they appeared, like George Lazenby, in a film has enduringly unique as On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

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)

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?


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.


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.


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…


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.


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