The Shape of Water (2017)

The Shape of Water

This latest installment from Mexico’s Gothic master Guillermo Del Toro is a thing of true beauty. Del Toro has long stood in my mind as one of modern cinema’s great heroes, championing classic film storylines and longstanding traditions in a masterful way. He fuses fairy-tale wonder and brutal realism in a completely singular and brilliant way. Since his true breakout masterpiece Pans Labyrinth (2006) I have always looked forward to seeing what his macabre mind could create. With The Shape of Water I truly think he has come close to recapturing the magic and brilliance he mustered in Pans Labyrinth, a film which is at once childlike and brutally honest and mature.

The story follows Sally Hawkins as Elisa, a mute cleaner at a highly secret government facility who is perfectly happy with her routine. She lives above a cinema with her disgruntled neighbour come best friend Giles, a struggling advertisement artist and spends most of her days working and her nights eating and resting.

This intolerance is brought into stark relief for Elisa when an ‘asset’ is brought to the facility in which she works. This ‘asset’ is accompanied by a model of upstanding 50s republicanism embodied by the ever brilliant Michael Shannon as the heavy hand of the decades morality Richard Strickland. He is a man who is obsessed by the status quo, drenched in protestant reasoning and staunch conservative ideals. Shannon thunders into Elisa’s innocuous world and remains a towering force of aggression and conservatism that the film plays with beautifully. Elisa is immediately drawn to the ‘asset’ and soon discovers this is not some object, rather a form of aquatic life the like no human has ever seen. Strickland believes the thing to be an abomination whilst Elisa see’s the humanity and the parallels between her and it and soon becomes wrapped up in an obsession that can only escalate for her.

What this film really excels at is creating a world in which you are drawn completely into, within minutes of the opening scene I knew that I was going to enjoy myself in Elisa’s world. I feel that a huge part of this is the stellar turn by Sally Hawkins who once again proves herself as one of the most underrated actresses out there. With the character unable to talk Hawkins pulls on every trick in her arsenal and uses each second she is on-screen to talk through her motions, past just the sign language. Every smile or furrow of the brow you feel is completely heartfelt and emotionally relevant to the character. Hawkins and her portrayal of Elisa is the vital beating heart of the film, a quietly powerful anchor upon which the film hangs its story.

To return to the narrative of the film, there is a huge figure I have only hinted at briefly. The ‘asset’ itself. This creature cuts a similar figure to Abe Sapien from Del Toro’s Hellboy (2004) films if he didn’t have the wisecracks or a voice at all. Del Toro is clearly thinking back to this character, along with his love for HP Lovecraft’s similar creations. However Doug Jones as the creature is much more subtle than either of these influences suggest. In order for the audience to care for the creature as much as Elisa does we must believe in the humanity behind the scaly facade and the lightness of touch with which Del Toro demonstrates in the two outcasts interactions makes for a really beautiful sequence of encounters. This is a film of movement and feeling rather than straight ahead speech, the two main figures work in such a physical way you are reminded of silent film stars and the ways in which they would have to use their full body to express their own characters.

As is to be expected with such a high concept story and with Del Toro at the helm the production design is sure to sweep the technical awards categories at the Oscars with every scene clearly mapped out to perfectly reflect the fantastical tone of the film. Del Toro seems to take influence from a broad palate, however I was particularly reminded of the overlooked French curio Micmacs (2009, Dir. Jean Pierre Jeunet) which shares both thematic nods to The Shape of Water as well as visual echoes in it lighting and general imaginative sepia toned and expressionistic set design. Del Toro creates a film world which is full of nightmares and darkness but we as the audience are on board wholeheartedly due to the strength of the dreams he realises on-screen. The Shape of Water is his best since Pans Labyrinth by a country mile and is something I will treasure for a long time.


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The Shape of Water (2017)

Ain’t It Funny: The Producers (1967) and The Producers (2005)

The Producers

“Getting the audience to cry is easy, just kill the dog” – (Unknown, because I can’t remember)

Comedy, by its nature is something you should never take too seriously. To laugh and to cry, those are two of the oldest traditions in Western storytelling, with roots dating back to the Ancient Greek tragedians and comedians.  I spent some time last year doing university work on Ancient Greek theatre, and one thing I discovered has helped me greatly in understanding how to appreciate comedy. The thing I find endlessly fascinating about it is that it takes such considerable work and careful refinement to be funny, but you can never indulge in the big dramatics of emotional weight. Comedy is meant to appear easy, effortlessly done and at the end of the day, just a joke. And comedy depends so much closer on context, the jokes that split sides 50 years ago would be met with crickets today, but the enduring power of even the oldest tragedies still seems timeless. I’m sure there’s a few comedians out there who hate that word: timeless.

Comedy then, tragedy’s bastard younger brother, is seemingly condemned to not being taken seriously. Which always makes me smile in a sad way, because I honestly believe that to be a good comedian requires you to be a good tragedian. To really understand what’s funny, what’s a joke and what to take the piss out of, you’ve got to understand its opposite, what not necessarily can’t, but what doesn’t need to be laughed at the time.

And someone who seems to truly possess that skill, is Mel Brooks. Mel Brooks is one of my all time favourite directors, yet a lot of his work rests on the backs of ripping into the genre trappings and clichés of movie genres, rather than any pioneering complexity in acting or storytelling. To pioneer in the area of parody, is to sling well-aimed tomatoes at the faces of its’ more serious siblings.

But that doesn’t mean respect is not due. To craft comedy, to craft laughter (genuine not canned) is no easy task. So I’m gonna take a look at his story The Producers, the original 1967 version written and directed by him, and the 2005 musical film counterpart to the 2001 stage musical revival of the original film. How does the comedy come to life, and how does the comedy survive its passage through time?

Then (Now?) – The Producers (1967)

The Producers 1967.jpg

The Producers (1967, Dir. Mel Brooks) is a film which was made in one of the biggest crucibles in American history. One of Hollywood’s biggest jesters growing up in the same generation of those radical self serious New Hollywood auteurs. But this is a different type of molotov cocktail, one whose firebrand material relies on taking the piss out of the past, not trying to set fire to the present. Ripping into both the Hollywood establishment, and making a mockery of Germany’s Third Reich, The Producers was never a story designed to play it safe.

Approaching these films is interesting for me, since I watched them backwards (the musical first). It’s interesting how often the way a story (especially in film) can be fixed once its committed to celluloid. The Producers is one of those films that must have cast a long shadow over any potential later versions, or any film which carried characters found in this film. Zero Mostel as Max Bialystock and Gene Wilder as Leopold Bloom are performances which just ooze with life. In a film landscape where characters are often flattened out and made generic, both their performances are so profoundly idiosyncratic and deep that regardless of the rest of the film, it would still be worth visiting.

Luckily there is more to The Producers than its central pillars of Mostel and Wilder. Although it was Mel Brooks first film, a project he both wrote and directed it gets away with it through sheer force of will. The Producers managed to beat films by both Stanley Kubrick and John Cassavetes, as well as Gilles Pontecorvo’s Battle For Algiers to win the Best Screenplay Award at the Oscars, and listening to it is still a joy. Mel Brook’s eyes and ears for characters bursting with absurdity is incredible to this day, and the fun he has with them is a rollercoaster.

Comedy has a context though, and some of its edge has faded over time. That’s the thing with cutting edge, it’s very thin and very quick. The outrage over its objectionable content is lost on a modern audience. Making fun of the Nazi’s seems second nature in this environment of 2018, but its important to remember its shock value at the time. The jaws dropping in the screen would have mirrored those in the real audience. It’s hippie jokes as well, a character called Lorenzo StDubois or LSD (Dick Shawn) can only really reach an audience well versed in 60s culture (LSD wears a Campbell’s Soup can around his neck, an Andy Warhol joke) and its interesting to see how comedy can age.

It’s context is more than just the comedy though. It is by no means a cinematic marvel, not pushing the boundaries of fields like cinematography or editing. It’s opening credit sequence I find incredibly irritating for example. Or its ancillary characters can often take parody to extreme, so one-dimensional the joke sticks around longer than it needs to. It is a debut film to be honest, and to expect every piece to land and wow you is unreasonable.

Comedy is very easily wrapped up in only what’s funny and how funny it is, and it’s important to remember that a film is more than just comedy. What makes The Producers endure, at least in my opinion, is that it in a film filled with piss-taking and joy-riding the Third Reich, it asks you to jump on board earnestly with their hair brained scheme. Brooks puts you on board with characters you want to succeed, spectacularly. That’s a rare skill, rarer even than good comedy.

Now (Then?) – The Producers (2005)


The Producers 2005

Usually by the time of adapting old material comes along, it’s original creator is long since dead. What drew me then to this story, is that this version of The Producers (2005, Dir. Susan Stroman) was co written by Mel Brooks, alongside using his music and lyrics written for the original 2001 Broadway musical revival. Mel Brooks spirit and DNA is still running through this project like a spinal column. It’s very rare to see that in cinema, regardless of how this one turned out.

Mel Brooks’ films are always easy to love for cinema goers, because they’re often about cinema, consciously or not (mostly consciously). But The Producers is also about musical theatre, and for it to be turned into a musical seems remarkably and unsurprisingly natural, all at the same time. Things can often get lost in translation through adaptation, and it was interesting to chart those decisions backwards, not through the prejudice of it being immediately inferior to the version I already knew I liked. It’s fascinating how in a film which carries so much of the same characters, same plot points and even the same jokes, can still feel different. That’s the power of direction I guess.

If all the world’s a stage, then Susan Stroman takes that to its absolute limit in this version of The Producers. A lot of the popular criticism of the film at the time seemed to come from it feeling too “stage-y”, but I’d argue that in a film about a play revamped into a musical, it turning its environment into a stage would work in its benefit. Comedy has no issue bouncing between tones, and to not jump on-board with it is to miss the boat. When adaptations come out, it is very easy to look past the material and only judge what looks different to you from your first experience, but its important to remember that for some like me, this is the first exposure to the story of The Producers. Not everyone has seen Romeo and Juliet, yet.

It cuts and it fills when necessary. Ulla (Uma Thurman), the dumb Swedish secretary picks up more of a character in a romance with Leopold Bloom (Matthew Broderick). The tone is lighter, it’s characters more exuberant and joyous in their world, the world of musical theatre really is the brightest star it seems. It also is safer, sticking so close to a formula from over 50 years before will do that to any story. The Producers of 2005 doesn’t feel like a film that’s out to shock, it’s laughs are a lot cuter now. And it’s a trade-off that Mel Brooks was always ready to make, and rightfully so. If you’re not taking it super seriously, you might as well have a little fun with it. Especially when Nathan Lane is singing his bloody heart out, sweaty comb over and everything.

Now, Then…Who Cares? – The Producers (???)

One of my favourite stories of Mel Brooks is that he is the one who produced The Elephant Man (1980, Dir. David Lynch). For a man associated with comedy to produce a film about one of the most pitiable men who ever lived, I always find that story interesting and incredibly revealing. Mel Brooks is also the only director to win all four awards (Academy, Tony, Emmy and Grammy). For tragedy’s bastard brother, it’s not bad.

It’s easy to write off comedy, too easy. After all, it makes its mark off of the back of all those serious works. Especially The Producers, a story which is self-consciously in love with its medium. A film about producers on an odyssey through artistic lunacy is sure to attract the admiration of those artistic lunatics. It could also have very easily become a sycophantic ass-kissing ceremony, as the worst elements of art can sometimes produce (see: Andy Warhol, sometimes). It’s an amused romp through some of the insular elements of art, its crowd who make up the theatres and the musicals and the films. And to a lot of people, The Producers is unrelatable, boring and worst of all…not funny.

But then…who cares, honestly? Mel Brooks sure doesn’t, he’s dead. Everyone wants their work to do well, and I’m sure Mr. Brooks stayed up during the nights hoping it would do well, but if the joke doesn’t land you just keep going till the next one sticks. And Mel Brooks comedy might slowly get more and more defanged over time, as it looks safer and safer from a distance and people get more and more accustomed to a longer history of comedy. But who cares, someone’s still gonna sit down in front of these films for the first time for the next infinity until the human race has reached its end.

And as long as they keep finding it funny, it’ll keep working. And there’s nothing like seeing Leopold Bloom, be it Gene Wilder or Matthew Broderick or anyone else in the role, screaming in terror “You’re gonna jump on me!” while Max Bialystock, be it Zero Mostel or Nathan Lane or just an idea in Mel Brook’s head jumps up and down screaming in confusion.

Godamnit, it’s just funny. And it makes me wanna be a producer, and I hate producing.


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Ain’t It Funny: The Producers (1967) and The Producers (2005)

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

Three Billboards

This is a tough one. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2018, Dir. Martin McDonagh) is a film which has had a real hype following it in the run-up to Oscar season. It will be weird to see how this film looks in retrospect, after the Oscar buzz, but McDonagh’s place in cinema culture at the moment is a bit of a weird one anyway. People still trip over themselves to acclaim his debut work In Bruges (2008), but opinions split around Seven Psychopaths (2012). His move to America did not seem to resonate with universal acclaim, even though I’m a big fan of Seven Psychopaths. Furthermore, McDonagh’s trademark of black(est) comedy, of violence wrapped up in bone crunching and rib tickling detail simultaneously, is one he continues to nestle into. A tiger can’t change his stripes, the only thing he can do is move around. That move around has come in Three Billboards, a murky rage filled revenge tale.

It’s a move which pulls no punches, regarding its subject matter or its humour. You laugh but feel bad. Moments of darkness are confronted with lilting southern belle ballads, McDonagh continues juxtaposing the light with the very dark, creating this awkward space for the viewer to sit in and feel conflicted. Should I laugh? Should I feel bad? Why do I feel both? In a story so bleak and often brutal, as Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) puts up three billboards calling out the Chief of Ebbing Police (Woody Harrelson) for not doing enough to solve the case of her daughter who was raped and murdered 9 months prior, the audience finds itself laughing and enjoying themselves. It sounds dissonant, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Darkness isn’t only just dark, and the humour itself becomes a breath of fresh air, but also a way to see the pain lurking underneath from a different angle.

That said, the tone of Three Billboards is like a game of darts. Not every one hits the board. And there are real moments of what I can only describe as ‘wonky-ness’ in its script and its performances. Characters deliver completely unrelated monologues to deliver a point with the subtlety of a shotgun spread, the most particular egregious example of this is when Mildred is laying into the well-meaning but hypocritical priest of the town (Nick Searcy).  The writing screams at us, delivering its one-two punches of attention in a pretty obnoxious way. It’s bad because it shows off quite simply. McDonagh’s a human, and while the through line of Three Billboards is intense and powerful, it’s side areas show chinks in the armour. There are moments of levity that don’t feel comfortable not because of intentional dissonance, but because McDonagh seems to not be handling the issue with the required weight it needs (see: racial violence and its “humorous” implications). It’s not necessarily bad, it’s just that some of the humour seems incredibly low-hanging fruit and as a result comes off as unthinking.

There’s no point dragging McDonagh across the coals for this, in my honest opinion. The film’s very attempt at bringing the racial backdrop of American society into the filmic landscape in a more honest way, in the fact that most people aren’t even aware of its nuances, is doing justice to the reality of the world. It’s not an idealised version of the world, where good guys win and bad guys lose. Three Billboards real strength is setting up a seemingly morally easy conflict, of the avenging badass mother and the inefficient dunkin’ donuts cops, and goes through its regular beats before quickly evolving into something much more “real”. Mildred’s declaration of war brings real consequences to the characters of the town, not just in terms of physical pain and scarring, but emotional and psychological wounds as well. An eye for an eye never looked so bloody, or so sad. The desire of revenge only brings about more violence, anger “begets” (you’ll know) greater anger.

The film has a beautifully human track running through it. At its best, it forces its audience to consider the complexities of humans, how monsters are really people, how heroes are really people, and how time can change both of those titles into little more than hollow words. An audience loves to play judge, but its hard to play judge when everyone’s hands are bloody.  The violence may be embedded with a line of humour, but it’s also awful and lasting. Characters may talk sharp, but sooner or later every one of them cracks visibly onscreen. It’s the equivalent of medical treatment in the field, medics pulling bullets out of you while your allies hold you down and you scream through the pain. Healing can sometimes be painful too.

I think Three Billboards is a very good, sometimes even great film. It’s cinematography is often functional, though moments of subtle framing work very well, while its musical motifs and art design are interesting without being distracting. It’s filmic elements have had to take a backseat for its main star though, the story. It’s humanistic brutal beauty is what carries it, even if it stumbles like a wounded soldier at times. Ultimately the film’s greatest weapon, the one which gets you to think and feel beyond your immediate assumptions, is the one you least expect:

It’s empathy.


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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

Possession (1985)


When a film gets labelled as a cult movie it usually means that the film doesn’t have a great reception on its initial release. It could have been badly reviewed but actually misunderstood, just plain bad or even banned upon its release. The most famous example of banned cult filmmaking is represented most starkly in the list of ‘video nasties’ which were titles banned from release in the UK for their gratuitous violence or dark thematic content by the sensitive 70s and 80s BBFC. Some of these were trash with titles like Driller Killer (1979, Dir. Abel Ferrara) or Cannibal Holocaust (1980, Dir. Ruggero Deodato). However other titles have gained huge popularity partially helped by the infamy of the list, films like The Evil Dead (1981, Dir. Sam Raimi) or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974, Dir. Tobe Hooper) later being recognised as hugely competent and important examples of genre filmmaking.

Now, Possession (1985, Dir. Andzrej Zulawski) was one of these ‘video nasties’ and having seen it I can perhaps understand why it wasn’t received by a conservative ratings agency with open arms. Not an easily digestible 2 hours this one, but for sure a worthwhile one. The film has intrigued me for a long time and after finally watching it I have to say that this is one that if you enjoy extreme filmmaking, this is a must watch. Following the breakdown of his marriage Andrzej Zulawski embarked on a project that no doubt just added fire to the flames of his already messy divorce. Think Polanski and his response to the murder of his wife in through the violence of his Macbeth (1971, Dir. Roman Polanski). Zulawski is channeling similarly bleak feelings, screaming at the top of his lungs about his divorce.

Sam Neill plays Mark, a man sent back from a mysterious mission and it soon becomes clear that he has successfully and almost totally isolated himself from his wife Anna (Isabelle Adjani) who has been caring for their son in his absence. The details of his mission or his job are never fully explained and honestly I’m not sure it matters that much, what does matter is that Anna has cheated on Mark in his absence. This is news that neither of them seem very well equipped to deal with as soon the screaming starts. No sooner has Mark found out the infidelity than he is smashing up a café and holing up in a hotel room for 3 weeks on a crazy marital problem bender. The hysteria of the film really is both its strongest suit and also is its least palatable, what will turn off a huge amount of viewers. Watching Possession in light of having seen last year’s deeply divisive Mother! (2017, Dir. Darren Aronofsky) you really understand exactly where he was looking for inspiration. Aronofsky does in that film a pretty decent impression of the extremity of expression that Zulawski nails in Possession. Divorce and marital strife are examined by Zulawski in broad strokes with neither the husband nor the wife being without blame for the events of the film.

To describe exactly what happens past the set-up is mute as the film is not ultimately about plot in plain terms. The couple go nuts in the first 10 minutes and only become more unhinged and extreme as the runtime counts down to the explosive final act. This is not to say that the whirlwind of emotions that the film expresses are done in an amateur way, it may be the most overwrought apocalyptic vision of this kind of story that you may ever see but Zulawski handles it all in his stride. He and DOP Bruno Nuytten swirl the camera around the action of the film with deft Steadicam and handheld photography only adding to the disorientation. The film is almost never still with almost every conversation being done in frantic movement with the camera following or preempting each movement almost working as a supernatural third character in the story. The virtuosity of the camerawork comes to a head perhaps the most well-known scene in the film. Set in an underground station walkway Isabelle Adjani’s justifies her Cannes best actress award in spectacular form. Her characterisation of her sheer descent into complete madness is almost balletic, the camera creeps around her as she throws herself around the harsh artificially lit space. The power of her performance is really crystallised in this scene and her commitment to the role is extraordinary, she seems to completely sink into he madness of the film and is powerfully effective in remaining a figure of shuddering possession and brutality throughout. I may seem hyperbolic in my reading of her turn but it really can’t be understated, it is very rare you see an actor commit in the way Adjani here does.

Andrzej Zulawski here places himself amongst the best examples of extreme filmmaking with his nightmare of marital problems and cart-wheeling madness, a truly brilliant piece of underrated European filmmaking. See this if you can stomach it.


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Possession (1985)

Ghost In The Shell (1995)

Ghost In The Shell

At one time, Ghost in the Shell (1995, Dir. Mamoru Oshii) inspired the zeitgeist. It’s part of the genesis of both The Matrix series done by the Wachowski’s, and garnered great praise from Hollywood darling James Cameron. In its homeland, it was both a massive cultural project (it was the most expensive anime movie made in Japan at the time) and a high point in a long lineage of anime movies. It helped give birth to the more modern version of cyberpunk, and has inspired countless acolytes of its aesthetic of sleek machines made into flesh in industrial landscapes, and of its thematic centre of transhumanism. This is a very fancy paragraph trying to explain that Ghost in the Shell is tremendously important in the history of cinema.

But why?

This is a strange, strange film. Before everything that came after it, The Matrix and such, it must have been even stranger.  It’s a film which on its surface should be filled with conventional, easy to digest cinema. It’s got naked robots and guns and conspiracies and far out sci-fi and everything which seems perfectly marketed towards the male 13-17 age bracket. It’s style is that kind of techno-futuristic vibe that doesn’t play to more obvious, eye-catching design. I’m talking sci-fi’s like Tron (1982, Dir. Steven Lisberger) filled with vibrant and bright colours. The style of Ghost in the Shell is layered and dense and sometimes stark in its contrast and sometimes muted. Honestly the range of this film I think is what’s captured my imagination and that’s what I’m gonna end up coming back around to.

The range of its style to go on then, is not just in its design, but also in its tools. The merging of 2D and 3D animation tools really does bring the best of both worlds into the fold, and the animation itself is just exquisite. It’s not exact to deconstruct the cinematography of the film since it was not shot in front of a camera, but all films are viewed from a position, and the positioning of this film is often beautiful to behold. More must be said of its soundtrack, quite simply unlike anything I’ve heard in a long time. It’s main score is so at odds with the dark synthesizer sounds we have grown accustomed to after decades of sci-fi scores. Kenji Kawai’s score genuinely feels otherworldly, so unlike any modern sounds you might encounter that it’s a better way to transport you to this alternate cyberpunk future than any visuals.

All of these elements would make Ghost in the Shell more than worth your time. But what sends this film into a near blinding ascent is what it wants to show you. It’s an explosion of themes, stories and issues from start to finish. It’s characters are part of a complex nebula of imagined limits imposed by their world, cyberware enhancements and identity crisis’ caused by total biomechanical replacement. Human beings are robots and robot beings are human, or something along that line. And all of this trapped in an elusive search for the Puppet Master, a character who is as abstract and nebulous as the future world shown to the audience. Major Motoko Kusanagi is a robot who looks human, who isn’t sure if she/he/it(?) has any human left in them, and that seems both very human and profoundly inhuman.

This film is tying me in knots. It’s a work which blurs the boundaries which separate our world now, that is intentionally difficult to wrap your head around. It is an experience equivalent to floating down a river, looking for a rock or something to cling onto to anchor yourself, but everything keeps slipping through your grasp. I guess this comes in part to me having less of a grounding in Japanese and Asian culture through which to view the film, I definitely feel less comfortable talking about this film than others in the past. But it’s intentionally opaque, it delves into imagined subjects which seem to have no clear answer, no clear right and wrong and no clear justice.

Art never has one interpretation, no matter how much people try to limit it. Everything gains new meaning with time whether we like it or not and it’s easy to get wrapped up in viewing a film from where “you are now”, whether that’s 2007,2017 or 2077 and beyond. But the ideas Ghost in the Shell puts up are both very old and very new, they’re packaged in a fully realised and never fully explained breathing world but the quest for meaning, for survival and for evolution is a tale as old as time.

Ghost in the Shell asks something of you, it asks you to engage. It’s not a film that can sweep over you and wash away, it clings to you, grasping at the edges of your mind. It’s deeply stylised cyber aesthetic, it’s complicated social and sexual politics, it’s existentialist rumination and meditative qualities. It’s haunting score at least. It creates a world which asks questions, questions people are still trying to determine. It’s a film which seeks to elevate you, which bypasses the more primal instincts haunting the action genre, and asks you for more than just doing.

It asks you to think.


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Ghost In The Shell (1995)

Star Wars Episode VIII : The Last Jedi – It’s Time to Grow Up


What if this was the last Star Wars film they ever put out? What if some godforsaken anarchy ensued and Disney abandoned the entire franchise, consigning it to some eternal limbo where it was only alive in the memories of those who chose to carry it, or those who discover it some time in the future. If there was eight films in the main saga and never another? What if Star Wars : The Last Jedi (2017, Dir. Rian Johnson) was the last film?

We’ll never have to answer that question, barring some atomic mishap. The behemoth of Star Wars will continue to steamroll its way across our psyche for who knows how long, the way Disney Inc. operates. Star Wars as an idea has been in our collective consciousness since 1977, 40 years since its first reception. It very easily could be around for another 40, 400 if Disney has it their way. Although I don’t like to comment on the meta-context surrounding the film industry, I do find it ironic that Disney’s recent behaviour is something akin to the Empire, and yet their best weapon is selling you the idea that you (and they) are part of the Rebellion. Enough with that then, and lets unlock The Last Jedi.

You can never escape “Star Wars” in the modern world, and this blog is no stranger to it. We did The Force Awakens (2015, Dir. J.J. Abrams) and Rogue One (2016, Dir. Gareth Edwards) respectively, and both writers here hold a special place for this mystical franchise in our hearts. So although I did my best to keep myself out of the hype cycle, I couldn’t help being excited for this one. The Force Awakens held some of the best but also some of the very worst tendencies of the franchise. Star Wars is so big, so beyond any singular vision at this point that its’ really got the room to maneuver around in how different aspects of Star Wars come to the foreground depending on who’s at the helm. So knowing Rian Johnson was there made me excited, unashamedly so, because I’m a big fan of his previous work. If you can’t escape it, at the very least having someone I love to bring it together can definitely inspire hope in me. In short, it’s real cinema magic.

I think the general format I’ve come to work with is discussions of style and substance, and it fucking thrills me to say The Last Jedi is bursting through its seams with both. Quite simply, it’s probably the best Star Wars film to have been made since the original trilogy, and with someone who has less of a monolithic attachment to the those original classics, for me it might be the best Star Wars film ever made. A bold stance, and one that I’m sure any dissenters will be ready to rip to absolute shreds. But my heart says what it believes, and The Last Jedi is a shotgun blast at close range, absolutely overwhelming even if not all of it hits.

Star Wars benefits from no expense being spared, and it just shows in every possible way. It looks breathtaking, it sounds breathtaking. That’s what you get with deep pockets, and my god it’s just continually gorgeous. It’s set designs, character designs and costume are simply a sight to behold. The same can be said of its cinematography (by longtime Johnson collaborator Steve Yedlin) is at moments breathtaking in the sense it was so beautiful I forgot to breathe. It’s sound design absolutely fills your ears, vibrant, resonant and impactful. There’s such a brilliant moment where the noise of the lightsabers fills the space, Kylo’s on one side, a harsh and discordant warped version of the original, and Luke’s vintage sounding shimmer of the his lightsaber. It’s a moment which bridges the legacy of the entire series, all in two different sounds. That is good sound design.

Honestly though, and I mean the least possible disrespect when I say this, but quite simply there was too much riding on this film for it not to look this stylistically strong. By its nature, the behemoth will soak up some incredible talent, and it shines here. Johnson pulls out such aesthetic wizardry inside the Star Wars formula, with a box that can only ever be 12 rated (PG-13 if you’re American), that its impossible not to commend it. But as I said, it’s too big to fail in that department. But one area it really could have fallen apart was in its substance.

Now its no longer chained to its love/hate auteur George Lucas, a Star Wars  film can’t be anything less than dumb and entertaining. What Rian Johnson does then, and what I found to be the same thing in Rogue One was the irrepressible desire to do something more than just make unthinking popcorn entertainment. While I ultimately enjoy Abrams work, it always treads such safe, Spielberg-esque ground. Spielberg was always the safest of the 70s movie brats anyway, which explains why he was such a bankable filmmaker, but ultimately after 30-40 years of exposure to that wholesome American chic, it get unsatisfying. So Johnson flipped the formula on its head, turning The Last Jedi into one of the densest and most narratively complex stories to grace the Star Wars universe. If anything the best analogy to it is found in its games, in the rather clear-cut Knights of the Old Republic and its more morally complex and developed sequel, Knights of the Old Republic 2 : The Sith Lords. One of them lays the basic framework, and the next one chucks everything but the kitchen sink at it to push that framework to its absolute limit.

The Last Jedi’s story is a constant and dizzying juggling act, of fully fleshed out characters each with their own arc of reversals, tests of character and moments of failure. Failure is one of its biggest themes, taking the best lesson from Empire Strikes Back (1980, Dir. Irvin Kershner) and applying it tenfold to a series of characters all unbearably human. This is by far the most existential peak Star Wars has reached in a while, as its characters go up and down the spectrum of good and evil, courage and cowardice, justice and mercy. So much of this is beyond a classic good vs evil narrative, the very origins of what pulled people into the original film, and no character good or bad comes out unscathed. Everyone makes dangerous choices, and it circumvents so much of the “I love it when a plan comes together” brainwashing that mainstream cinema is reliant on.

Honestly there’s so much going on structurally here beyond modern mainstream filmmaking that its hard not to just focus on that. There’s collisions with the stories of the originals and the prequels, there’s hallucinogenic dream sequences, there’s the birth of characters from nothing rather descended from great lineages, it genuinely feels like magic. There’s just so much to watch here, so many stories without relying on overwhelming location changes. Although a fair amount of locations are seen, often they are there for long periods of time, allowing you to adjust and soak in the sense of place before changing tracks again. It’s just…I don’t know what more you could want from a Star Wars film that tried to do something new. It could have rested and coasted on the laurels of cheap nostalgia which infects so much of modern culture (looking at you Ready Player One) but it’s not that.

It’s a film that doesn’t give you easy answers, it’s a film which requires you to keep track of it. It’s a film which contains bold and dazzling aesthetic choices, but also ones which are brimming with thematic resonance and meaning. A cynical person would say its a far more pretentious Star Wars film, but what do you want from this series now? For many its a childhood love they carry into their adulthood, but your childhood doesn’t stay the same. You can’t ever go back. There’s a continual churning out of unchallenging, simple hero journeys, why should we not celebrate films which want to chart new ground? Lucas knew that when he ceded control of the series to Irvin Kershner for Empire and it was because it needed to grow. And not everyone likes growth, but The Last Jedi is an infinitely better and more entertaining film because of its growth, even if it’s not easy.

The Last Jedi is honest to god everything I had hoped for when they said Star Wars was going to be rebooted. It functions as dumb cinema entertainment and clever film art. It’s wearing a mask of crowd pleaser and serious artist at the same time, and thank god its got that because without either side to balance it might be too silly or too serious. But its more than that, it’s a film whose philosophy is one of hard truths and real balance, about how the stories we tell each other are really sometimes stories, no matter how much we want them to be true. And that makes way for the greater truth, the one that maybe we need to construct our own stories rather than rely unquestioningly on the legends of old. There’s a continual struggle between good and bad, that goes beyond any one victory.But the battle between hope and despair is a real one, and its one that takes more than any one hero, be it Luke Skywalker or Rey, to win. It’s the antithesis of The Force Awakens, and in my eyes that’s a very good thing.

Ultimately it comes down to, do you want films responding to A New Hope, or do you want films responding to Empire Strikes Back? That’ll show you where you stand, and it’s why I cannot wait to see it again.

And my love/hate saga with Star Wars continues…


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Star Wars Episode VIII : The Last Jedi – It’s Time to Grow Up

A Ghost Story : Phantom Mechanics

Ghost Story

A Ghost Story (2017, Dir. David Lowery) is a bizarre experience.It’s a film which does its best to wrestle itself away from any genre conventions you might associate with it on first glance. Seeing the supernatural draws your mind to horror, but there is very little to be scared of here. Seeing the hype quotes around it, with words like cosmic” and another one I saw describing it as “meditation on the passage of  timemight prepare you for a mind bending cerebral brain melter, and while part of that’s true, a lot of the film is concerned with tiny, minute and gentle human motions, all very easy to grasp hold of.

That’s not to say any one element is better than the other, but seeing them combined together in such an unusual package such as this one, one which starts A-list actors spending most of their time simply being present rather than “Acting” in any traditional sense of the word. Seeing these elements in a film which inhabits a space much closer to still life photography than the frenetic technical wizardry of modern-day cinematography. It works together to make a film which is constantly forcing you to adjust to its rhythms, and re-adjust almost immediately again. For only 92 minutes, the structural and poetic complexity is honestly quite impressive.

I’ll try to break it down through its most noticeable element, it’s play with time. Much has been made of film’s ability to compress or extend time, it’s ability to make years, centuries or even millennia pass from one frame to the next, or to drag a single moment in time, a second or even a fraction of that, and drag it out to last seconds, minutes, even hours if you were bold/mad enough. A Ghost Story manipulates time for all it’s worth. There’s a very bold choice as we watch M (played by melancholic Rooney Mara) consume a pie in real-time for nearly 4 minutes, Lowery choosing to focus his lens on time which many other films would gloss over to focus on more “dramatic moments”. Or from one second to the next, an entire life flashes before C’s eyes (played by melancholic Casey Affleck under a sheet for 90% of the time). That’s messing around with structure, making the audience get lost and disorient from their usual understanding of time.

It does all sound rather cosmic when you start to write it down, but again lots of the film is devoted to very small, intimate details. C spends a large amount of time scratching at a nook in the wall where M left a note.  A beginning scene just involves C & M gently and sleepily kissing each other, which goes on for a while. There’s a lot more of these tiny moments, and each one adds up like tiny fragments of a shattered glass. And since so much of the film is image driven, the lack of spoken words drives the film into a territory where things are much more unfocused, but much simpler. It puts you in territory which is usually reserved for experimental films (which I guess this is anyway?), the territory of experience rather than precise understanding. You have to use emotional reasoning rather than logical processing here.

On it’s more surface levels, it’s still unconventional and produces strange effects. The film is framed by an aspect ratio which is something akin to looking through your camera’s viewfinder or as Lowery says here, like old photographs. Cinema screens have always favoured horizontal compositions over vertical ones (since the screen is usually wider than it is tall), so on one hand there are portions of the screen on the left and right completely unused, while on the other hand this also allows for what’s onscreen to be more focused, less distracted by the environment around it. It’s dialogue is often sound mixed into the orchestra, creating an organic soundscape in the film where music and dialogue mesh to the point where both are just as important, but also at times making dialogue difficult to hear. Honestly at times the film moves into music video territory, underscored by a serene but powerful score from Daniel Hart.

So too is the performances, muted and subdued and minimal to the point of going no further. I mean Casey Affleck as the ghost essentially becomes a blank slate for you to project onto in the second half of the film. Prevented from facial expression, and with body movement limited to only the barest, slowest movements, it becomes an intriguing and simultaneously frustrating experience. I don’t necessarily think it’s bad, but just the common film diet gives you so much more to chew on, characters with clear motivations and conflict and interplay between a whole big cast of people working for and against each other. This is so much leaner, the only way to reduce C’s role without annihilating it completely would be to prevent the ghost from moving at all, an even extremer choice which would have harmed the film more than it helped. Just in every way it’s mechanics are those often forgotten by more conventional cinema, the film requiring you to extend towards it a greater depth of understanding, a greater allowance and tolerance to idiosyncrasy.

It is a film about a guy under a sheet. There are moments where you laugh, where you laugh when you probably shouldn’t (I did that), moments where you are bored and wish it would hurry up, moments which instill you with melancholia, moments which are really quite profound. Really there’s just hundreds of different moments, fragments you could say, and once the film finishes you finally have a shattered glass which has been put back together again. It’s not perfect, but it’s deeply personal, and anything it lacks in conventional grace is made up for its unusual and deeply cared for mechanics.


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A Ghost Story : Phantom Mechanics