Friday, 28 July 2017

Zootopia (2016)

Fig 1 - Zootopia Poster
Directed by Byron Howard, Rich Moore and Jared Bush, Zootopia (or Zootropolis depending on location) follows the story of a cunning rabbit and a sly fox who team up to investigate a missing persons case in a city populated entirely by animals. In the beginning, Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) travels to Zootopia to become the city's first rabbit police officer, only to find that among her brawnier co-workers she is designated as a meter maid. After leaving her post to pursue a robber, the chief of police Bogo (Idris Elba) gives Judy forty-eight hours to track down one of many in a missing persons case, or else hand in her resignation. Judy seeks the help of conman Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a fox with plentiful street-smarts who knows all too well about the true prejudice alive in Zootopia. Judy must put aside her preconceptions of stereotypical fox behaviour in order to use Nick's underground knowledge of the city and it's residents. But when they discover that outbreaks of "savagery" are at the route of the investigation, Nick and Judy are forced to delve deeper than expected to crack the case...

Zootopia won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature at the 89th Academy Awards, beating a strong list of critically acclaimed competition in 2016. The film was nominated among the likes of My Life as a Zucchini, The Red Turtle and Moana.

Fig 2 - Zootopia - Nick and Judy
For all the glamour and brightly rendered visuals of the film, there is a deliberate finger on the pulse of society from the outset. Zootopia opens with a school play that outlines the principal narrative - that predators and prey now co-exist after generations of brutality which saw only the strongest and fastest rise to the top. Though the dietary specifics of predators are never spoken of, it is assumed that some alternative eventually came to pass. Incidentally, there is an undercurrent of racial stereotyping among certain animals; chiefly foxes, who have a reputation for being untrustworthy. Above all other species inhabiting Zootopia, foxes appear to get the most negative press and are treated as second-class citizens (or at least a cause for concern). Late into the film, media propaganda begins to divide prey from predators once more, resembling obvious parallels to racial stigma in the news. This in conjunction with the fact that most of the police unit are "predators" means there's a lot that can be divulged from the metaphors on display and gives a gritty depth to something that appears so cute on the surface.

That aside, Zootopia appears to be the most expansive Disney universe ever and, what's more, the animation is beginning to rival the likes of their subsidiary company, Pixar. Rich with colour and wildlife, the city's interconnecting districts are designed to fit the purpose of all creatures great and small. With tiny train compartments for hamsters and ludicrously tall cars for giraffes, it's a lot of fun just to be observing the city in motion. If I didn't love the attention to detail so much I'd certainly be picking holes like "What happened to all the humans, birds and sea creatures?". But I'm sure this will all be covered in what I assume to be titled Twotopia.

With stunning animation and great voice acting from leads Bateman and Goodwin, Zootopia manages to be enjoyable for audiences of all ages. It's surprisingly on-the-nose references to The Godfather and Breaking Bad show that Disney are slap-bang in the 21st Century (not to mention the endless smartphone usage) proving that they too can be diverse in targeting demographics and poke fun at modern society.


Fig. 1 Zootopia Poster (2016) From: Zootopia (2016) - Directed by: Byron Howard, Rich Moore & Jared Bush

Fig. 2 Zootopia Screenshot (2016) From: Zootopia (2016) - Directed by: Byron Howard, Rich Moore & Jared Bush

Monday, 17 July 2017

On the Waterfront (1954)

Fig 1 - On the Waterfront Poster
Directed by Elia Kazan, On the Waterfront is the story of a mob-run harbor industry that runs the risk of exposure after the murder of a popular employee. Marlon Brando plays ex-prize fighter Terry Malloy, a low-level associate of crime boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). In the beginning, Malloy sets up a fellow employee, Joey, by coaxing him to the roof of his apartment building where the mob are waiting to ambush him. When Joey is thrown from the building, Malloy feels personally responsible, stating that he thought they would only "lean on him" to assure he wouldn't testify against Friendly. When the story makes headlines, local priest Father Barry (Karl Malden) declares his desire to track down Joey's murderer. However his attempts to coerce answers from the longshoremen are met with silence as the consequences of 'ratting out' the mob are far too great. Meanwhile, Malloy begins courting Joey's sister Edie, much to the dismay of his employer. Suspecting that he may be a threat to the business, Friendly's right-hand man, Malloy's brother Charley (Rod Steiger), is given the egregious task of either killing his own brother or sentencing himself to death. But who will come out on top in a battle between respect and justice?

The film dominated the 27th Academy Awards in 1955, taking home the Oscars for Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director, Writing, Cinematography, Art Direction and Editing. It achieved a further four nominations for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (three of which contended) and Best Music, making it's mark as the 10th most successful film to sweep the Academy Awards (as of 2017).

Fig 2 - On the Waterfront - Charley & Terry Malloy
Once again I find myself writing about a cinematic legend with little insight that hasn't already been expressed many times over. Essentially, I had a reasonably enjoyable time with it. Performances by Marlon Brando and Lee J. Cobb (or as I know him, the most belligerent juror in 12 Angry Men (1957)) stood out as the most captivating elements to me. Brando's Malloy is a conflicted and somewhat, let's call it "street-smart", kid who appears constantly pained by his position in society. The loss of his boxing career and guilt over the death of an innocent man absolutely weigh on Malloy's every word and expression, giving much dimension to a character with a knowing sadness about him. Roger Ebert put it best in saying that "the story is about conscience" and this rings true in just about every scene. In his attempts to correct all wrong-doings, Malloy only leads to more death and destruction, which ultimately gives him the courage to face the corrupt powers that run his life. Lee J. Cobb as "Friendly" is fierce and menacing as Malloy's opponent, appearing in short bursts to give momentum to the off-screen threat of his presence. I thought he was perfectly cast as the hot-headed crime boss and look forward to seeking out more of his work.

Despite a keen interest in the direction of the story, I felt that it was a tad shy of greatness for my liking. As much as I engaged with the performances, I found myself zoning out here and there only to be brought back up for an intensely satisfying finale. Therefore I have had to seriously deliberate over my final verdict on the film and now, having distanced myself from it by several days, I believe it to be deserving of all the acclaim it received. A truly terrific tale of adversity and internal conflict that proves once again how the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

Imagery and Quotes

Ebert, Roger (On the Waterfront Review) - 21/03/99 (Accessed 17/07/17)

Fig. 1 On the Waterfront Poster (1954) From: On the Waterfront (1954) - Directed by: Elia Kazan

Fig. 2 On the Waterfront Screenshot (1954) From: On the Waterfront (1954) - Directed by: Elia Kazan

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

Fig 1 - Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Poster
Directed by Michel Gondry (and co-written with Charlie Kaufman and Pierre Bismuth) comes Eternal Sunshine, the story of two individuals who undergo a procedure that erases the other from their memory. In the beginning we meet Joel (Jim Carrey), a solitary and anxious man whom, whilst writing in his journal, admits to "falling in love with any woman who gives him the slightest bit of attention". He decides to skip work and take the train to Montauk on a whim and on his journey home meets Clementine (Kate Winslet). Clementine is a confident, bright-haired young woman whom Joel feels instantly taken with, despite their entirely opposing personalities. At this point we witness the blossom of their burgeoning relationship, only for the film to jump forward in time to the grizzly aftermath. After finding out that Clementine had all memories of him professionally erased, Joel tracks down said company and demands to have the procedure done himself. The rest of the film occurs inside of Joel's mind, as we backtrack from the downfall of his relationship to the sweetness of it's initial stages. But as he lucidly journeys into the depths of his own memories, Joel decides he wants to call off the procedure - trapped within his own brain, can he wake up before Clementine is gone forever?

The film won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in 2005 and achieved a Best Actress nomination for Kate Winslet as Clementine.

Eternal Sunshine has been my all-time favourite film for almost ten years now and having watched it for the umpteenth time, I can confidently say it's unlike any other. It's a beautifully melancholic anti-love story about the decay of affection, that also hints at the possibility of 'soul-mates' and ultimately declares that "it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all". It boasts fascinating character studies, an exploration of cerebral visuals and is a celebration of our imperfections - I truly cannot praise it highly enough.

Fig 2 - Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - Clementine and Joel
The element of a film that I am usually last to speak about is it's use of music, which here is paramount to establishing the emotional tone of each scene as the film flits between good and bad memories. The film's composer, Jon Brion, uses a variety of instruments to achieve this soundscape, which often blends the melody of various scores throughout the film to demonstrate the process of change that the characters have experienced. It also highlights the sense of dreamlike unease and nostalgia that accompanies the visual landscape of our sleep. This is particularly effective in a scene in which Joel decides to hide Clementine in a buried memory and recalls a moment from his childhood in which the two begin to sing 'Row, Row, Row Your Boat'. A sudden downpour of rain fills their apartment and objects, such as Joel's childhood bike, begin appearing from the memory. A song entitled 'Row' can be heard over the top of this scene, which is perhaps my favourite instrumental piece of music. Something about this short, sweet piano piece perfectly encapsulates the innocence of childhood and manages to make a fleeting moment in the film so memorable.

With a star-studded cast including the likes of Elijah Wood, Mark Ruffalo, Kirsten Dunst and Tom Wilkinson, even the minor characters of the film are given a chance to shine as their intertwining narratives unfold. However, the central performances by Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet are truly the crowning jewels of Eternal Sunshine, with particular emphasis on Carrey's uncharacteristically dramatic choice in taking on the role of Joel Barish. Void of all eccentricity that Carrey had become known for in roles such as Ace Ventura (1994) and Liar Liar (1997), his interpretation of Joel is surely the most gutsy example of a comedic actor breaking typecast to deliver an unrecognisable performance of gravitas and subtlety. Winslet similarly diverts from the norm taking on Clementine Kruczynski, the impulsive and vivacious antithesis to her leading love interest. Their ultimately flawed relationship proves entirely believable as we watch them eat, play and argue together over the course of a reversed span of time. Along with the additional cast, there is no black and white to the choices these characters make, allowing the audience to decide exactly what to take away from the film.

Overall, I still find myself coming back to Eternal Sunshine as one of (if not the) greatest films of all-time. It's certainly not for everyone but with a stellar cast, surrealist premise and impeccable soundtrack, I cannot fault it and would urge anyone with an open mind and a broken heart to let the film shake up your senses on a journey into the unconscious.


Fig. 1 Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Poster (2004) From: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (1984) - Directed by: Michel Gondry

Fig. 2 Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Screenshot (2004) From: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (1984) - Directed by: Michel Gondry

Friday, 7 July 2017

The Terminator (1984)

Fig 1 - The Terminator Poster
Written and directed by James Cameron (alongside producer Gale Anne Hurd), The Terminator follows the story of two individuals sent back in time to change the course of history. In the midst of a freak electrical storm we first witness the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) return from the year 2029 curled up unclothed in the street with only one purpose - to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton). On the other side of the city, a human named Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) returns from the future in the same way, with the sole duty of tracking down Connor before she is executed. Sarah becomes increasingly paranoid as the Terminator begins picking off other Sarah Connor's by process of elimination. Once the story hits the news, Sarah soon realises she is the primary target of the Terminator's spree and sets off on a desperate fight for survival alongside Reese, a soldier from the future who knows her son, John - the only hope for humanity...

I had never seen a 'Terminator' film before and found it to be surprisingly approachable for such a behemoth franchise-opener. For one, I had no idea that Arnie's character was the antagonist of the piece, as future films appear to prove he is very capable of cooperating with humans. It was certainly the best Schwarzenegger performance I've yet to see, perhaps due to it being mainly physical and void of emotion. The practical effects are somewhat dated, but not to a laughable degree. There was clearly an extensive effort to perfecting Arnie's 'dead-eyed' dopple-face and the film relishes the ability to close in on shots of it. As for his skeletal structure, which appeared to move using a mix of puppetry and stop-animation, I was surprised at how convincingly the visual effects held up overall. I believed in the character and felt his looming presence in every scene, having witnessed just how unstoppable he is. For this, I cannot fault Schwarzenegger's performance at all (mainly out of fear that he'll return from the future to pull out the hearts of finicky critics).

Fig 2 - The Terminator - The Terminator returns to 1984
I thought the blend of 80's-style futurescape and present-day worked well as a further establishment of the stakes. Generally, films that mess with time travel are heavily scrutinised for dabbling with such a complex notion, but The Terminator seems to make sense of it and proposes it's rules early on. It is essentially their dual return that triggers the birth of John Connor and thus was always set in stone. The film then reaches a climax that clearly begs for the sequels that it got, though I have no doubt that 'Terminators en mass' are the next logical step since Cameron ruined all possible tension that Alien (1979) had with it's subsequent film. Nevertheless, what is most striking is the film's progressive narrative of female empowerment that allows Sarah Connor to ultimately come out on top and join the ranks of beloved cinematic heroes, a list which to this day severely lacks in the gender equality it ought to boast.

I found The Terminator to be a tense thrill-ride from start to finish that gives it's characters the necessary time for an audience to develop a bond with them. Though the music was slightly questionable in places, it manages to sustain a tone of utter suspense and unease throughout whilst handling what could have strayed into a convoluted plot reasonably smoothly in under two hours. With Terminator 2 on the horizon for this list, it's pretty safe to say that "I'll be back" with high expectations...


Fig. 1 The Terminator Poster (1984) From: The Terminator (1984) - Directed by: James Cameron

Fig. 2 The Terminator Screenshot (1984) From: The Terminator (1984) - Directed by: James Cameron

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998)

Fig 1 - Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels Poster
Written and directed by the cor-blimey boat-race of British entertainment himself Guy Ritchie, Lock Stock follows the story of a couple of cheeky lads tryina' get a bit of business done, y'know what I mean? When Eddy (Nick Moran) finds himself in debt to the fearsomely 'hard' Harry "The Hatchet" (P.H. Moriarty) at the climax of a back-door poker game, he calls upon the help of his friends "Bacon" (Jason Statham), "Soap" (Dexter Fletcher) and Tom (Jason Flemyng) to "sort out some dosh" before the week is up. Half a million pounds worth, to be precise. They decide to do this by stealing from another group of trigger-happy nutters who've already gone and racked up a staggering loot of drugs and money from yet another group of less-equipped stoner-types. Meanwhile, Big Chris (Vinnie Jones) is featured "doin' the rounds" as Harry's right-hand man on the streets, with his young son at his side to presumably get him involved in the criminal underworld as early as possible. Eventually, all of these mugs are brought together in a series of showdowns that intertwine their narrative threads and, wouldn't you know it, everything goes a bit pear-shaped along the way...

Fig 2 - Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels - Soap, Bacon, Eddy & Tom
If you can't already tell, I really struggle to take Guy Ritchie seriously as a filmmaker. Not to say that his films are supposed to be taken seriously, I don't think that at all. But for all the effort that I'm sure went into making Lock Stock, I just couldn't be further from my comfort zone watching it. What I didn't get with Ritchie's Snatch was an over-arching feeling of boredom and disillusionment, which this film seriously suffers from (particularly as a contender of the Top 250). It obviously tries to put a British spin on the tried-and-tested stylings of Tarantino, but in such an incomprehensible way. I find myself so irritated by the cockney linguistics of the dialogue that I'm completely distracted from the plot. Not to mention the homophobic slurs spilling out of characters mouths faster than the barrage of expletives that came before. The editing is nowhere near as creative or interesting as Snatch, which was a real disappointment. Hell, even the over-saturated yellows and browns that dominated it's palette were an eyesore. If it weren't for the soundtrack, I'd probably have nothing positive to say about this film.

Ritchie is a director known for emphasising the gritty street-wise nature of British culture, albeit during a period that is now utterly obsolete in it's anti-progressive mindset. As such, Lock Stock is no exception and it's jingoistic undertones don't appeal to me in the slightest. Cups of tea and stately homes, card games down the pub. It's a wonder Dick Van Dyke doesn't show up for a ditty on the old Joana. Sure, Ritchie makes fun of the rhyming slang in a 'subtitles' bit in which a character tells a story about setting someone on fire with the 'proper English' written alongside, but it didn't matter. It's been done before in numerous iterations and overall, the film was awash with the most basic of techniques. In terms of comparative ingenuity, Lock Stock makes Snatch look like bloody Pulp Fiction.

Although Lock Stock obviously has a dedicated following and attempts to reach the heights of Tarantino's abilities, it simply never grabbed my attention. The convoluted plot, rough acting, rougher gags and generally unpleasant mood of the film made it frankly unwatchable in my eyes.


Fig. 1 Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels Poster (1998) From: Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) - Directed by: Guy Ritchie

Fig. 1 Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels Screenshot (1998) From: Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) - Directed by: Guy Ritchie

Monday, 3 July 2017

Whiplash (2014)

Fig 1 - Whiplash Poster
Whiplash is the second film by writer/director Damien Chazelle, who shot to fame in 2016 as a result of the phenomenally successful La La Land. The film stars Miles Teller as Andrew, a talented young music student with little else on his mind than drumming. J.K. Simmons plays Fletcher, a notoriously brutal jazz conductor at his school, who sees great potential in Andrew's abilities and chooses to mentor him alongside the second-year players. Andrew is soon subjected to Fletcher's painstakingly precise standards and finds himself caught up in the quagmire of an abusive relationship that tests the boundaries of his mental and physical health. Ultimately, Andrew is forced to decide whether becoming "one of the greats" is worth risking his sanity at the hands of his sadistic teacher whilst fighting the impulse to give up on his dreams altogether...

The film won three Oscars at the 87th Academy Awards, including Best Sound Mixing, Best Editing and Best Supporting Actor by J.K. Simmons.

I remember first seeing Whiplash in my second year of university and have since reveled in the chance to show the film to others. Incidentally, if any sequence of moving images has the ability to motivate someone to reach their full potential, this is it. I can safely say that this film alone managed to awaken within me the drive to achieve the near-impossible tasks I set myself on an animation course, and for that reason it will always have a place in my heart. I say this as someone with next to no interest at all in drumming, which proves just how powerful a film Whiplash is.

Fig 2 - Whiplash - Fletcher and Andrew
It's quite literally blood, sweat and tears from the get-go and doesn't let up until the credits roll. Even having seen the film more times than I can count, I still watch today with my heart in my mouth - unable to breathe in fear that Andrew might slip up yet unable to look away from Teller's electric performance. The film exudes class with it's lively jazz soundtrack to the rhythm of New York's bustling cityscape, whilst maintaining a black and gold palette mixed with the occasional spatter of blood. Not a moment is spared in following the momentum of the narrative, which sees Andrew go from a regular, passionate musician to an ego-maniac isolated by his own desire for glory.

What I've found most interesting from repeat viewings of the film is just how much my perspective has shifted since the first watch. Initially, I hated Fletcher - but now, as inappropriate as his methods are, I have found myself empathising with his character a great deal more. He himself states that he is trying to "push people beyond what is expected of them" and models himself on the principal that it is a "necessity" to do so. Obviously it is wrong to slap kids and throw chairs at them, but his essential message is one of commitment that, I think, is clouded by the 'shock-factor' of first seeing him endlessly humiliating his students. On the whole, Simmons is captivating to watch and managed to reinvigorate his career with this performance which deliberately leaves you on the fence as to whether or not he is the film's true antagonist.

Ultimately, Whiplash is a near-perfect example of cinematic bliss that will leave you breathless right up to the final shot. With fantastic performances, cinematography, music and editing all rolled into one intense experience, the film stands as one of my all-time favourites and has me on tenterhooks awaiting whatever Chazelle has around the corner.


Fig. 1 Whiplash Poster (2014) From: Whiplash (2014) - Directed by: Damien Chazelle

Fig. 2 Whiplash Screenshot (2014) From: Whiplash (2014) - Directed by: Damien Chazelle

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Double Indemnity (1944)

Fig 1 - Double Indemnity Poster
Based on the James M. Cain novel of the same name, Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity is the story of an insurance salesman who becomes entangled in a plot with a married woman to claim the vast payout over her husband's "accidental" death. The salesman, Neff (Fred MacMurray), meets Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck) during an appointment to renew her husband's insurance. Mr. Dietrichson (Tom Powers) is nowhere to be found upon arrival, allowing Phyllis to coyly charm the salesman in his absence. She subtly dabbles with the idea of her husband's death and discusses the terms that would invalidate any financial reward, which Neff sees through instantly. Soon enough, the two meet again and eventually Phyllis convinces Neff to help her murder her husband in a carefully devised plot that the insurance company would not be able to fault. However, just as everything is going according to plan, suspicions arise that begin to unravel their devilish scheme...

The film was nominated for seven Oscars (Best Picture, Actress, Director, Writing, Cinematography, Sound and Music) but ultimately left the 17th Academy Awards empty-handed.

I was pleasantly surprised by the film since I tend to have some inherent problem with the 'noir' genre. Even more-so, I was surprised that Alfred Hitchcock hadn't snatched up the screenplay since it fits with the timeline of his career and felt completely accustomed to his taste - a midway murder plot, a fiendish femme-fatale and so on. But incidentally, Wilder manages to reconstruct the original novel into an incredibly watchable picture which, on paper, didn't have me intrigued at all. In fact, the synopsis had me quite ready to dislike the film and I'm happy to say it won me over almost instantly. I think it does this by not getting bogged-down in the technicalities of legal clauses or establishing Neff interacting with unnecessary clients, but by simply following the matter at hand. The structure reminded me of Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder (1954), in which the three acts coincide very similarly by first establishing the plan, then enacting the plan, and finally dealing with it's consequences. It's a tried and tested formula for sure, but it only works with a great tension at it's core - and boy, is that what you get.

Fig 2 - Double Indemnity - Phyllis, Neff and Keyes
One of my favourite scenes of the film, indicative of the overall tone, happens when Neff calls Phyllis over for a drink one night after the inciting incident. Meanwhile, Neff's superior Keyes (Edward G. Robinson - who is terrific) drops by to rattle off a few theories regarding Dietrichson's death, leaving the audience transfixed on the way in which Neff will deal with Phyllis' impending arrival. It is ultimately down to the viewer here whether or not the tension lies with the fear of Phyllis' arrival, and thus their undoing, or that Keyes might leave before she arrives, allowing Neff to continue as a guilty man. Either way, Phyllis arrives and shows that she is smart enough not to knock, but listen into the fact that multiple voices are coming from inside. She then hides behind the door as Keyes makes his way out, giving us a shot that indicates just how fragile the mystery of their relationship is becoming. Despite that her character is primarily the result of excellent writing, Phyllis is portrayed perfectly by Barbara Stanwyck in her every move and tops off her delivery with a haunting stare that exudes desperation and a lust to survive.

Overall, I thought Double Indemnity was pretty good for a noir. It manages not to exploit it's use of narration as a shorthand for needless exposition, but uses it in a way that works alongside the visuals. Though it doesn't do anything overtly experimental, the film is captivating in it's own right and allows the telling of a simple story to run it's course effortlessly in a way that many noirs fail to do.


Fig. 1 Double Indemnity Poster (1944) From: Double Indemnity (1944) - Directed by: Billy Wilder

Fig. 2 Double Indemnity Screenshot (1944) From: Double Indemnity (1944) - Directed by: Billy Wilder