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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.

Monday, 19 June 2017

300 Words on "Bullitt" (1968)


Some movies are so linked to one particular scene or set-piece that it’s nearly impossible to separate the two. For Pulp Fiction, it’s the dance scene. In The Empire Strikes Back, it’s Luke learning that Darth Vader is his father. And for Bullitt, it’s the car chase.

Oftentimes lauded as the finest car chase ever put to film, the one in Bullitt is impressive, to say the very least. Filmed in a kinetic, frantic style, the camera oftentimes very nearly approximates Steve McQueen’s view from behind the wheel making the viewer feel as if he or she is in the driver’s seat bouncing along the streets of San Francisco. The car chase in Bullitt is exciting and tense. Everything that a good car chase should be.  

Due no doubt to the chase’s sheer brilliance, the remainder of the film has a lot of work to do to live up to a high standard. It does this with mixed results. Performances are good from McQueen, Robert Vaughan, Jacqueline Bisset, and others, and the entire movie is steeped in a realistic, grim and gritty tone which lends weight to the by-the-book police procedurals on display. Despite these positives, the film is rather slow and – unfortunately – at times, lacking in tension; an always necessary component of a good action film.

Those criticisms aside, however, Bullitt still manages to be an engaging film; a motion picture certainly ahead of its time. Its single set piece would give rise to entire films structured around brilliant car chases, but few have pulled them off with the conviction and forthrightness that Bullitt does. While the sum of its parts may not equal a total breathless, heart-pounding success, when those components are looked at individually, then there is much good to be found in Bullitt.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

300 Words on "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" (1962)


What Ever Happened to Baby Jane is a strange, strange film. Its storyline is at times meandering and repetitive. The characters – even the normal ones – seem just a bit off. Its camera setups can be peculiar, and its musical score is frenzied, hurtling between scary melodious. It’s a film where the opening credits don’t start until the twelve-minute mark and the stars, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, don’t show up for another eight.

However, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane is a fascinating film to watch. Davis and Crawford, who were real-life rivals, give performances filled with so much latent hate that it’s almost palpable. In fact, Davis’ Oscar-nominated performance as Jane is nothing short of brilliant. Once seen her song-and-dance performance as she tries to recapture her youth is haunting. Crawford, as the invalided Blanche may have less to do but she is nevertheless excellent as the sympathetic sister.

Much like the old house in which the two sisters reside, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane feels dirty and old. It’s the kind of movie where its unrelentingly grim atmosphere gets under your skin and is liable to make the viewer feel uncomfortable. It’s a film which was ahead of its time, and you’re left wondering if all of those strange choices enumerated above might have been deliberate; an effort to make the movie feel even more otherworldly and intangible. Though classified today as a horror film, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane might not elicit the kind of shocks that its contemporary horror films did, but it is a evocative, creepy picture nevertheless.

Today, one may recoil at the out-and-out over-acting from both Davis and Crawford, and the sheer weirdness of character actor Victor Buono is a curiosity in itself, but What Ever Happened to Baby Jane succeeds wonderfully in the end. It’s a film that – despite its downbeat nature – you end up enjoying.

And that may be the strangest part of all. 

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Slightly More Than 300 Words on "Wonder Woman" (2017)


(Possible, Mild Spoilers)

I think my biggest complaint with superhero movies today is despite the fact that they are marketed as action-adventure movies, superhero films give us not exciting, gritty set-pieces (the like that you’d find in your standard Bond film or Die Hard), but elect instead to present a CGI extravaganza robbing the film of any inherent reality. It’s become the norm for the genre today, so I found myself much surprised when, following just such a computer-generated battle early on in Wonder Woman, the film slow itself down, took itself a little more seriously, and presented an interesting story instead of one fake-looking scene one after the other.

What surprised me even further was that Wonder Woman – though the latest installment in DC’s extended universe franchise – is for all intents and purposes a superhero film; the movie is, at its core, a World War I spy thriller. Its narrative, which played out like one part All Quiet on the Western Front and one part 1940s serial, was really interesting and, at times, quite poignant. The film’s characters were unique and relatable, and the film’s period setting made Wonder Woman’s fish-out-of-water story feel understandable, and further justified the typical presentation of Edwardian British men’s flabbergasted reactions towards liberated women.

For much its runtime, Wonder Woman presented itself as a very well-made action-adventure film. While the film was compared to The Dark Knight (2008) in early reviews as DC’s finest movie, I don’t think I would go so far as to say that. The film’s final act sadly brought the whole down; introducing a neatly-executed but unnecessary twist which made the final half hour feel as generic and standard as every other superhero film out there.

But, Wonder Woman is nevertheless a very important film. It proves what so many people already knew: that a female-centric superhero film can be a great success. While far from flawless, Wonder Woman should hopefully herald in an entirely new breed of superhero flicks to add new life to male-dominated and – by now – tired genre.