Brick (2005)

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Sometimes, often films are windows. They hold up their glass lenses, capture the view(s) on celluloid or digital hard drives, and re-present that world up on a big screen for you. Your eyes watch the landscapes and the people or things put in front of it, and you get to see a filtered view of the world around you. But a window is something you look out of, and I don’t think you look out of Brick (2005, Dir. Rian Johnson) no, I think you look into Brick, you walk into and immerse yourself into Brick. In that case window is a bad choice of word.

A better one might be portal.


It’s difficult to put into words why Brick works so well, which is my favourite kind of feeling. It’s difficult, because to really understand it you have to see it and listen to it, film being an audiovisual medium not a written one. Try and write out Brick and you have a beautifully elaborate and winding detective story but with only a pale imitation of its deliriously crisp and sharp visuals. The Californian sun burns brightly over this world, hanging in a clear blue sky which overwhelms my eyes. Maybe Rian Johnson would’ve written something along those lines, but you get to see it instead.

So let’s use these words then, especially since the characters in Brick are so intent on using them. In fact, following along the purest noir fashions, the words flow like a torrent over everything. The words race through the air and through your mind, characters building and tearing down and outwitting each other within a few breaths. It was a bit of a revelation for me to be confronted with a script so dense, even most neo-noirs fail to capture that style of dialogue, much preferring to just regurgitate the 40/50s aesthetic style of the film noir. But that’s my starting point, a script which moves like a locomotion building steam, it’s furnaces getting hotter and hotter under that burning sun.

Unfortunately this is not a book, and a script only goes so far. So the camera picks itself up (with a little help from cinematographer Steve Yedlin I’m sure) and shovels coal into the train’s furnace, with reckless stylistic abandon. In fact all its stylistic elements, its dynamic and absorbing visual composition and it’s eclectic and wild sound design, are engrossing in a way I haven’t experienced in a long long time. The style of this debut is sheer visionary work, the deft handling of so many different elements of film was just a delight in my eyes, no doubt about it. It’s world is so cohesive that after recovering from the jarring shock of the film noir world transplanted onto a high school is gotten over, it descends into a daylight nightmare which captured me, spun me around and dropped me off at the end to some Velvet Underground. It’s a ride I would’ve paid good money to see, and to see again.

But why am I bringing this up now? I’m sure many other film lovers have put forward their views on what makes Brick exceptional, and many more on what makes Brick garbage to them. It’s a film with a bold and out there style, which is always confrontational for critics. But I think for me, it’s a film I really needed to see at this moment in my life. It has been sitting in an unwatched pile for many years of my life, and I can say it has managed to restore some of my faith in cinema. Almost like a state of the nation address, but to me and my obsessive film brain.

See a director or anyone making a film can never truly understand what impact the film will make on its audience, especially as time passes. All the production team can do is build the best film they can and hope it stands up to the winds of time and opinion pieces. But for me, who seems to be quite frustrated with the sometimes anemic and safe mainstream cinema environment, the film is a beacon of light for me. For a film site which was made to talk about films with some depth, especially films which weren’t just the modern slew of rehashes, reboots and relentless adaptations. And Brick is that for me. Brick holds many of the ideas I wanted to grow and explore in my time doing this. It’s vibrant, it’s bold and unafraid to commit to an aesthetic which many would like to declare dated or worse, dead.

Brick is not just a portal into the world of Brendan, underground heroin rings and fast talking smart mouthed criminals. Brick is a portal into the past, it lives in the history of film noir and couldn’t exist without it. And it also a portal into the best kind of future, one where filmmakers take the disparate elements of the world which interest them and mould them into films which breathe life into the real world, filling it with stories that entrance its audience members in a way beyond pure action spectacle.

In short, they make films which are good and cool. It’s a lot to ask apparently, so we all better get started.

-Alex

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Brick (2005)

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

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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…

-Alex

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

Magic in the Air: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

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“For all the fantastic beasts disrupting the city, the most dangerous one exists within. ‘A beast that has been created in ways which feel sadly familiar’.” – David Yates (Director) in Inside the Magic: The Making of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Christmas brings a sense of magic with it, so it is only appropriate that a film primarily concerned with magic would be released at this time. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016) is directed by David Yates, known for his work on the Harry Potter film series and The Legend of Tarzan (2016) and written and produced by J.K Rowling, who wrote the original book of this film, and the original Harry Potter books. If anyone could have thought of a more appropriate pair to helm this film, I’d be surprised.

The film mostly orbits around one Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne),  a magical beast enthusiast and magizoologist (their term, not mine) who comes to New York in the 1920s, a time rife with inner magical conflicts of dangerous wizards and pseudo-racial conflict between non-magics and magics.In the mix then are thrown Tina (played by one of my favourites, Katherine Waterston), a low-level admin person in the American Ministry of Magic, MACUSA, her sister who can read minds called Queenie (Alison Sudol),  a “No-Maj” (short for no-magic) who wants to open a bakery called Jacob (Dan Fogler), and they race across the city recovering many escaped “Fantastic Beasts” and much more, meanwhile machinations inside the MACUSA from Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), a higher up and a bunch of odd cult members who seem to invoke the Salem witch hunts but also the KKK, headed by the adoptive mother, Mary-Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) and the kids, Credence (Ezra Miller) and Modesty (Faith-Wood Blaregrove). Also Jon Voight is in it in a political side plot which is just there.

If that was slightly complex and difficult to wrap your head around, then you experienced some of the similar plot induced disorientation I found watching this. The film whips up a series of spinning plates, and it took me a hell of a lot of concentration to keep up with it, mainly due to its penchant for introducing brand new magic elements almost every five minutes, new beasts or potions or elements, honestly it was a dizzying array of fireworks at points which flew by so fast that key elements were completely forgotten by the time of their eventual use and reveal. The world building to this planned five film franchise was obviously key here, and it’s almost overwhelming amount of information certainly stretched me, so I’m not sure whether my brain is just getting rusty or whether the kid’s watching it are all completely confused. Perhaps both.

The film largely manages to pull off the plate spinning act due to its charm. A lot of children’s films now seem more geared towards a teenage market, and for all the obsession over superheroes, the general lack of magic surrounding these impossible superhumans has never been more apparent when held up against this film. The film certainly gets a lot of mileage out of the beautifully rendered magical beasts, but credit goes to the cast as well who manage to become inhabitants in the world, all with varying degrees of success. The core squad of Newt and co. really complement each other and the world around them, whereas Colin Farrell comes out of this more than a little clunky.  It really does exhibit that same spirit which managed to capture the entire globe in the Harry Potter series, which definitely surprised me.

However the film also becomes tonally wild during various points, themes of child abuse and segregation and environmentalism just all emerge and then retreat very quickly, only enhancing the already burgeoning disorientation. It’s not necessarily a giant failing, but the focus on world building forces the direction of the film to jump erratically around, from different themes and tones to such an extent that to this point I still can’t really tell you what the film is about. It’s just a chocolate box, filled to the brim with different treats and different choices, but without presenting anything particularly coherent. It’s texture is so rich and dense, but there are times where its hard to see what’s really important and what’s just set dressing. And the more complex ethical issues certainly become a little more morally confusing (wiping the memories of hundreds of thousands of people as a great thing which doesn’t get questioned at all doesn’t exactly sit well) as the film progresses. Just a kid’s film they will cry, but kids think about things, and kids become adults who think about things. Do we need to look any further than this?

 

I can’t really give it a hard time for simply having too much going on though, especially when it exhibits a Guillermo Del-Toro level of attention to detail in every aspect of its mise-en-scene. The costumes are extravagant and expertly designed, the sets ooze with atmosphere and an incredibly stylised art deco aesthetic that places it in the realm of the magical, because its far too gorgeous to be the real New York of the 1920s, but nevertheless it becomes a gorgeous visual feast.And its core lays a lot of heart and a clear driving psychological core. Nothing is vague or misunderstood, there’s just so much packed in that it’s difficult to take in one viewing.

Honestly I just have a lot of respect for it, even though it creaks and falls apart in places. They really brought the world to life, and its a great ride, a real creation of magic.It’s just brimming with life, with the power of cinema, strong performances in non-cliched and human characters, gorgeous scenery and a strong emotionally rooted story. It won’t ever put time into the pantheon of CINEMA, but I definitely got wrapped up in the magic in a way only cinema can pull off.

It aspires to a hell of a lot, and while it may not hit every part it wants to, if you shoot for the moon and miss, you’ll still be amongst the stars.

-Alex

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Magic in the Air: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them