American Animals (2018)

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I have always loved heist films. I find it tough not to get wrapped up in them, a story which is an intricate puzzle, a crossroads of crime and justice and  an adrenaline filled real time (usually) injection as the theoretical heist becomes a real one. Each heist film, good or bad, is an act of chinese spinning plates, never fully comfortable and requiring constant focus and attention. If it’s not the outside forces, it’s the inside forces of the participants and their minds which may cause things to unravel. And usually, the unravelling seems almost inevitable, as time after time we watch heist movie after heist movie where ultimately the robbers meet their comeuppance, the long arm of the law putting them in handcuffs. In fact if cinematic history is anything to go by, a heist is something almost always doomed inevitably to failure.

That doesn’t stop people from trying though.


 

Bart Layton seems like a shrewd filmmaker. He seems like a man whose vision for the film is one of complexity, both technically and artistically. For American Animals is not a straightforward film. A fictional recreation of the events of the narrative intertwine and bleed through into documentary interviews with the subjects of the film. Four men, in their college years of 2004, planned and executed a heist of some priceless books from Transylvania University, Kentucky. Among them a copy of The Birds of America, a work by James Audubon which contained elaborate prints of America’s wildlife. The symbolism already rife in the story, Layton uses and blends film techniques together to not just show an unknowing audience what happened, but also why it happened from the source themselves. But to hold a story up like this under the magnifying glass, you can see the complexities and multiple stories vying for control underneath the surface.

Memories can change over time. Memories can be misremembered. They can be distorted, flipped, shifted or even confused with others. And that’s right before you get to any sort of conscious denials or lies. Through sometimes nauseatingly intense testimonials, we can see the real life players of the events do their best to remember why and how they did the things they did over 10+ years ago. We can see them do their best to explain, confront, justify and explore the things they did, how they came to solidify their past into a path which pushed them to pull off a heist. Layton and his collaborator, Ole Bratt Birkland, push an unflinching camera and cinematography into your world, one which sees many sides to these robbers. We explore their perspectives, their ambitions, their defenses. All the big and little traits which make up a personality really.

And alongside this, we see a filmic re-enactment of the events in question, as they are explained in real time to us. And to have both the real life people and actors share the same space on the screen (sometimes literally, as stories overlap and fight each other), creates a viewing where you have to acknowledge the film as a fake, after all it isn’t real documentary footage of the actual heist from 2004, but also a film which feels more real as the real life Warren Lipka, Spencer Reinhard, Chas Allen and Eric Borsuk explain the actions and behaviours and mental states of what you’ve just seen, and what you’re about to see happen. It’s a really fascinating and unconventional way to watch a film, half aware of its construction but also feeling more connected and involved because of it. It’s a bold and refreshing technical choice to see for sure.

The fictional half of the film has no slack either, it is arresting and gripping. The performances/performers are very open, very easy to hang onto. You watch them with the same amount of close inspection you apply to their real life counterparts, and it’s hard to convey the range on show here. It’s soundtrack is carefully sculpted from a broad spectrum, it’s use of movement in space is frenetic and at times genuinely nail-biting. The performances I mentioned earlier build to a compounded finish of intensity, as events spiral. Of course one tool Layton has on his side is the truth, as the real life oddities of their heist make the story more unexpected than any written and telegraphed script.

Look, a lot of what makes this film really good is just the river it flows down, the journey it takes you on. And while there’s so much to love about this film, it also offers only a coda of reckoning, as the silence of guilt and trauma hangs over them, as the damage they’ve done to themselves and the people in their lives is brought up. And it is hard for me to come to a conclusion on this heist, other than what it is. And I think the symbolism of the film collapses to the real life narrative as well, the final battle of the stories. And any technical flamboyancy evenutally has to quiet down to the plain, unpleasant truths. They tried to make and execute a successful heist, they failed and paid a heavy price for it. Their ambition got cut down. Nothing melodramatic about it, only the true weight of their consequences crashing down on their lives. And so it goes on.

And maybe someone else down the line will see this, and think it might be their turn. That maybe they can do it right.

-Alex

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American Animals (2018)

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

Blade Runner 2049

Blade Runner 2049

Blade Runner (1982, Dir. Ridley Scott), a dystopian vision of a bleak, inhuman future is one of the most acclaimed science fiction films of the last 50 years. Its influence on science-fiction after its release has made it become a totemic text for many film buffs and just general fans of the genre. I must admit that I am a huge Blade Runner fan, or should I say Blade Runner: The Final Cut (2007) fan. For me it stands alongside other Sci-Fi masterpieces as an example of what can truly be achieved through genre cinema. It may contain schlocky violence and far out concepts, but it also fuses genres seamlessly whilst delivering a visual marvel at the same time. It has long been a film I have held onto and watched time and again an embarrassingly large number of times, I just love it that much.

It is understandable then, why I was so hesitant to even think about the possibility of a sequel to what could possibly be my favourite film. When you watch the Final Cut  it is clear that it wasn’t made in a way which would gesture towards a sequel. The ending is so iconic and untouchable in my mind, that the notion of a sequel filled me with a real sense of dread. I felt that a new director and continuation of the world would only result in something embarrassingly wrong-footed. Denis Villeneuve however has done something so rarely achieved, he’s actually nailed a sequel so convincingly that many fans of the original are now feeling conflicted about which is better.

This is certainly close to the predicament that I find myself in, whilst I know the original will always be the one which I hold dearest to me, Blade Runner 2049 (2017, Dir. Denis Villeneuve) has expanded the world perfectly and brought a new story to match if not surpass Scott’s original effort. Villeneuve continues on the world of the original. But 30 years after the death of Roy Batty and the disappearance of Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard, the world has moved on from the dense chaotic Los Angeles of 2019. Things are sparser now, bleaker, and less human. The original is so often remembered as a philosophical navel gazing piece of neo-noir, which it certainly is. However this sequel doesn’t just ape the questions on humanity and what it means to be a sentient being in this dystopian future. Instead Villeneuve and Hampton Fancher in partnership with Michael Green use this opportunity to further these ideas.

What I mean by this is that Villeneuve shows himself to be completely aware that by doing this sequel he has to enter into the questions on what it means to be a mortal being in the world the film creates. The nature of replicants as being manufactured life has to be expanded upon and through the use of both plot and character this is achieved to an even deeper level to the first film.

It is here that I feel I have to shout out Roger Deakins, who once again dazzles the audience with a compositional eye for detail which is rarely matched in modern Hollywood filmmaking. The use of light in so much of this film draws you into this harsh, brutal America of 2049, a world where nothing is natural and pure anymore, and is so saturated by human influence that even the natural light of the world is shrouded in fog and dark tones. Deakins and Villeneuve’s implementation of expressionistic shadows gives the interiors of the film a tight control and a coldness. This contrasted with the queasy oranges or bleak frosty grey and white panoramas gives the film an aesthetic palate that truly draws the viewer in. Blade Runner 2049 will be seen in years to come to have some of the most experimental and best cinematography to be seen in a movie in a mainstream blockbuster this decade. Excuse me for becoming breathless here, but the film really just does look that good and I would be very surprised if it didn’t win at least one Oscar for its aesthetic input in either Cinematography or CGI.

The further I get into this review the more I realise just how pleased I am with the fact that they made this film, and this is something I didn’t expect. I thought that even if it was good that I would still find things to nit-pick about it but as a die-hard Blade Runner fan it was just so perfectly spot on in so many ways. For me it will be near or if not at the top of my end of year list. It managed to take a story that I know inside and out, in a world that I am obsessed with, and pay homage in a completely respectful and yet innovative way. When leaving the cinema I was stunned by it and as I get further away from my initial viewing, I am only more impressed. Thank you Mr Villeneuve for giving me a new film in my favourite cinematic universe to watch again, and again, and again.

-Ed

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Blade Runner 2049