FILM DIARY #31: American Beauty (1998)

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To some extent, American Beauty is hard to classify or quantify. You can see it from numerous perspectives, as many critics, film theorists and just plain fans have done over the last almost two decades since it blew most of them away, going on to sweep up five Academy Awards. It’s an unusual fusion of jet black comedy, introspective sadness, spiritual elegy and satirical examination of the American Dream. Sam Mendes, before this only having existed in the spectrum of theatre, if highly respected, saw within the promise of not just drama but laughter, able to punch up and bring out Alan Ball’s truly remarkable screenplay. His film principally concerns the last few days of Lester Burnham, a middle-aged suburbanite who, on the face of it, has it all – a secure job, a beautiful house, a successful wife, a teenage daughter; his story concerns an awakening, in mind, body and soul, as he realises he has existed within a bubble of societal reinforcement. American Beauty is about seeing beyond the veil of life, peering into your own fears and anxieties, and the transformative process that comes from it.

Ball wrote a great about his own life and experiences, his own moments of realisation and understanding in a world we’re not quite meant to understand. Lester ‘gets it’ after he dies, which we know is coming (if not how) right from the first frame, a spectral voice over from the magnificent Kevin Spacey chirpily making us realise he’s never been more at peace. Ball instantly gives us hope, not that it was his design – he wrote this filled with deep cynicism and frustration at his life and the world, having been in Lester’s shoes, bored in life and unable to fulfil his passions.

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Mendes brings out a certain wish fulfilment in Lester that we all aspire to, and Spacey delights in – he blackmails his job to give him a year’s pay as they’re about to lay him off, he starts doing weed almost openly, rebels against his wife’s strictures & routines, and begins vividly fantasising about seducing his daughter’s best friend. Mendes edges this away from sleaze—as does Ball—by creating rather sumptuous, almost trippy imagery such as roses pouring from Mena Suvari’s body that serve to be romantic in a twisted, sexualised way. The film in many respects is defined by its approach to repressed sexuality, serving as a microcosm of the bigger satirical, sociological beats it covers.

Take Lester’s wife Carolyn, played equally wonderfully to the brink by Annette Bening—who Mendes fought to cast over more established and traditional leading ladies—who serves as the counterpoint to Lester’s own frustrations; she was once carefree, once alive, yet became entrapped by her own vision of what constitutes success. Infidelity with Peter Gallagher’s slick real estate agent is her only outlet, her escape, her passion, but it doesn’t solve the materialistic problem at the heart of her life. Ball’s writing seeps with anger at modern society’s constant obsession with “stuff” as Lester disparagingly calls it, and Carolyn typifies the mistaken, very American, belief that accumulation means satisfaction.

Their daughter Jane is caught in the middle – Thora Birch nicely plays a tricky role, a young girl battling with the typical insecurities and awkwardness of her age (Suvari’s best friend Angela the typical pretty, blonde but over-compensating normal girl), aware she could become her mother but drawn to Wes Bentley’s quiet, poised, unnerving ‘weirdo’ Ricky, her new next door neighbour who sees past ‘existence’ and captures the quiet beauty of ‘life’. If Mendes’ film is remembered for anything, it’s the shot of the paper bag flying in the wind on home video, as Ricky breaks down to Thomas Newman’s hauntingly tragic score. Normality, sex, repression and beauty all conspire into one tragic mix ultimately, with the screenplay never forgetting the smaller, crucial roles that make up the whole – Chris Cooper, in particular, is magnificent as Ricky’s violent, repressed military father.

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Something about American Beauty, on first viewing, made me cry. That hasn’t happened since but there’s a feeling the audience can glimpse a certain element of beauty by watching Sam Mendes’ film. Alan Ball’s writing often reaches into you and pulls at truth, personalising in what his wonderfully drawn characters say as Mendes compliments by what they see, what they make you feel. It’s an unusual fusion of high drama, moments of melodrama even, with haunting sobriety and laugh out loud comedy, at times even edging toward the goofy – but it’s a concoction you struggle to forget. It breathes whimsy from small moments, sadness and levity from others, and as a parable to living in a world where life sweeps us along, it’s frequently a masterpiece. Cinema rarely feels so beautiful.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Tony Black / @blackholemedia

This review first appeared on Letterboxd on August 16th, 2015.

FILM DIARY #30: The Fifth Element (1997)

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Ever since he was 16, Luc Besson had the idea for what became The Fifth Element in his head, crafting the fantasy world he eventually brought to the screen to escape reality. One of the reasons his sci-fi action adventure has remained, to a degree, in the minds eye of popular culture is likely because it’s so visually and aesthetically striking; Besson truly creates both an alien and recognisably human futuristic landscape, one of vibrant colour and gaudy stylistics–with, it has to be said–a distinctly eccentric ‘European’ flavour, that still makes it stand out from many such films of its ilk. Though actually, there aren’t really many films *like* The Fifth Element… and that’s not altogether a compliment. For while Besson’s passion project certainly has elements (excuse the pun) to enjoy, it’s also relentlessly hampered by its own jumpy, histrionic and frankly bi-polar need to lurch from hi-octane action to camp, OTT comedy every bloody scene.

The annoying thing is–and believe me, great swathes of The Fifth Element are extremely annoying–that Besson creates something here it’s desperately difficult to dislike… yet somehow in part you manage it. His narrative is relatively simple yet stoked with a sense of mythology, beginning with strange ‘good’ aliens turning up in early 20th century Egypt to stoke along the long held prophecy of ancient evil only a ‘perfect human’–the eponymous fifth element–can destroy, before throwing us into the 23rd century & what should have been quite a rip-roaring tale of Bruce Willis’ lovelorn, bitter ex-soldier cab driver Korben Dallas (the kind of role Brucey can essay in his sleep) shepherding Milla Jovovich’s little girl lost savior Leeloo to her destiny, with Ian Holm’s bookish, awkward priest in tow… but that never really happens.

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Besson makes some truly bizarre choices when it comes to said narrative & scripting – despite some well staged moments in a high rise, traffic strewn New York of the future (and one bombastic action beat on a space cruise ship that lets Willis do his classic John McClane thing), the plot often takes forever to go almost nowhere. You’ve got lurking in the background a terrifying primal force of evil making Gary Oldman’s camp Texan conglomerate villain Zorg doing his bidding, yet Oldman is often sidelined & reduced to a comic effect villain, while Besson takes every opportunity to run away from the enigma & potential excitement in his adventure story to fill the screen with dodgy sight gags, set to Eric Serra’s awfully intrusive Gallic score that permeates the whole film, and Heaven forbid subjects us often to Chris Tucker’s DJ Ruby Rhod who has to rank only one below Jar Jar Binks in the ‘so annoying you want to burn him with fire’ character scale. It’s an oddity of a movie anyway but these choices only serve to emphasize that, Besson never doing enough with character before trying desperately to crowbar in ‘meaning’ to the piece as Leeloo comments on the violent nature of man & whether we should be saved. Frankly, any race who allow Ruby Rhod to exist, the answer is surely no.

Doubtless many people love The Fifth Element precisely for all of these factors, and it’s fair to say Luc Besson made something here that remains strikingly eccentric & original in its approach; plus it often looks quite sumptuous, with some fantastically creative production design & typically garish, highly camp clothing designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier, that definitely give the film it’s own strange sense of identity. The ultimate problem, however, lies with a script that veers frequently into downright awful, a tonal approach from Besson that never sits right with the story he’s trying to tell, and a cast that are either wasted or foisted upon us in the extreme. It’s a hard film not to like, and chances are you will enjoy components, truth is you may completely fall in love with it… but The Fifth Element really is, ultimately, a very acquired taste.

★ ★ ★

Tony Black / @blackholemedia

This review first appeared on Letterboxd on August 8th, 2014.

FILM DIARY #29: The Usual Suspects (1995)

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From the very first moment of The Usual Suspects, as classical strains introduce an evocative confrontation between Gabriel Byrne’s disgraced cop and a mysterious, sinister figure in a long coat, you know this isn’t likely to be your average crime thriller. Bryan Singer’s second, breakout movie is, in fact, an absolute revelation – a modern crime story shot with the texture of a classic film noir, Christopher McQuarrie’s magnificent script delivering twists, turns and hard-boiled dialogue to die for. Quite possibly, this is the greatest screenplay never adapted from a better novel.

To me, Singer’s film is like a sublime jigsaw, a portrait on film made up of pieces that steadily fit together to make the picture – before, minutes before it all ends, said jigsaw is tossed up into the air to brilliant effect (this has to be one of the greatest twist endings in cinema, if not the very best, and will remain so). The movie touches on plenty of different themes and concepts but, chiefly, Singer & McQuarrie are playing with illusion; what we see through the deposition of Kevin Spacey’s venal cripple Verbal Kint may not, in truth, be the entire picture or, indeed, what happened at all.

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In a lesser film, one might feel betrayed or slighted by that fact but here it makes perfect sense and only serves to sweeten the punch once we reach the end. The whole thing is layered by Singer with an air of mystery; the standard crime thriller violence and street smarts are all in evidence, but there’s no gangsta rap soundtrack or cliched, hip-talking irritants – a classical soundtrack and Singer’s direction betray an elegance that only serves to add to the film’s atmosphere and the puzzle box of truths, facts and fictions that make up the narrative. It’s equally in turns mythic, the ‘backstory’ of legendary figure Keyser Soze mesmerizing and terrifying in equal measure, while the uses of in medias res and non-linear storytelling increase the level of enigma and the structure of the whole piece.

Credit has to go not just to the writer & director, but equally to the ensemble for Singer coaxes some majestic performances here. Spacey, as you might imagine, is as superbly focused and chameleonic as the aforementioned Verbal (retrospectively perhaps his defining role). Gabriel Byrne, by far one of cinema’s most underrated actors, neatly plays the central role of Dean Keaton – a crook trying to go straight yet being pulled back into the criminal world, yet Byrne uses his eyes and mannerisms just enough for us to buy the determined theories of Chazz Palminteri’s Agent Kulyan, the Javert to his Faljean, a tricky role that Palminteri plays with aplomb, crafting a dogged law enforcer out of a part that in lesser hands would have made him little more than an exposition factory or dot connector. Stephen Baldwin underplays nicely a vein of homoeroticism, as does Kevin Pollak, in their supporting roles; and if Benicio del Toro is a little too monosyllabic, leave it to the late Pete Postlethwaite to almost steal the picture as cool lawyer Kobayashi, equally tricky a role to nail given his visibly difficult to pinpoint origin. Superbly as Singer directs and great as McQuarrie writes, the whole thing would never have come alive as strongly without such superlative performances assuring it.

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No question, one of the best movies of the 1990’s and would deservedly earn a place high in any top-ranking lists of the greatest cinematic movies. The Usual Suspects is fascinating, funny, exciting, violent, dramatic and cool as hell in equal measure – frequently copied and homaged, not to mention entering the lexicon of popular culture where it remains to this day, it’s directed with the skill of a director far beyond his years, as brilliantly written a script as you’ll find, and acted to perfection. One of my favourite movies, bar none.

And like that… I’m gone.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Tony Black / @blackholemedia

This review first appeared on Letterboxd on October 23rd, 2012.

FILM DIARY #28: Star Wars Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015)

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A million voices suddenly cried out, not in terror, but rather jubilation, upon watching Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. The most hyped, anticipated and promoted motion picture probably in the history of cinema came with enormous expectation and pressure on JJ Abrams, an oft-divisive filmmaker (though heaven knows why), to equal the original Star Wars trilogy by George Lucas, which again are probably three of the most beloved, iconic movies in the history of the form. What people wanted perhaps even more, however, was the lingering stench of Lucas’ three prequels to be expunged, having disappointed an entire generation of fans with three stilted, lackluster additions to the Wars canon.

Upon Disney’s purchase of LucasFilm three years ago, and Lucas’ subsequent relinquishment of the reins to his creation–having long insisted he would never make sequels to his original trilogy, even claiming so much as no plans ever existed (a blatant lie)–the universe lay open once again, ripe for reinvention and reintroduction. In a world of Marvel cinematic universes and multi-film franchises, Star Wars returning to claim global cinematic dominance was an inevitability. Multiple generations now, from kids new to the world to grandfathers who saw the movies as children themselves, all asked one unified question… would the Force be with a new trilogy? The answer, resoundingly, is yes.

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While nobody should ever denigrate George Lucas for what he created in such a vibrant, beautiful and exciting world with Star Wars, he has never been a filmmaker capable of reconciling character development with style, production, and narrative. He can construct a world wonderfully, but his greater creative hand in the prequels proved his limitations in wielding the power of it. Abrams, conversely, is the modern Spielberg with that touch of Lucas magic; he has long been able to command spectacle, beautiful visuals and exciting set pieces with meaningful, emotional character work, and those aesthetics he brings wonderfully to The Force Awakens. More than anyone involved in what is all-round a glorious production, Abrams deserves the most praise; as the ringmaster, he’s commanded a brace and wealth of elements to deliver what was for me the most joyous cinematic experience since my days as a child watching James Bond or Star Trek or Indiana Jones films or action epics such as Independence Day and being overawed by their spectacle.

Too young to enjoy the original Star Wars at the cinema, the prequels were visually arresting but frustrating hollow experiences, and largely continue to depreciate with age. What Abrams gave me was a sense of awe, a sense of wonder and sheer open-mouthed joy at what was unfolding on screen, even when critically or creatively it’s not cinematic perfection. Joy is such a rare feeling to experience as an adult especially, and for a movie to deliver that should be massive appreciated. Abrams here made the Star Wars film he wanted to see, what the child in him would have been marveled by, and rarely has any filmmaker achieved so well such a mission statement. The reason, pure and simply, is that he’s not strayed very far from what Lucas marshaled three decades ago.

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When you break The Force Awakens down, in truth, it’s very much akin to A New Hope, the first Star Wars film from 1977. The first shot is an arresting, gigantic spacecraft, a representation of power and substance. The story begins on a desert planet (here Jakku rather than the legendary Tatooine). One of our main characters, Daisy Ridley’s Rey, looks up at the stars and dreams much like a young Luke Skywalker did, if for different reasons. Our villain, the malevolent Adam Driver as Kylo Ren, is a masked specter of darkness hunting for the MacGuffin here of a map rather than plans for a doomsday device. An evil empire–or rather the splintered vestiges of one in the Nazi-esque First Order–have a doomsday weapon in Starkiller Base which they intend to use to blow up planets, led partially by Domnhall Gleeson’s vicious General (replacing Peter Cushing).

Brave fighter pilots of the Resistance (rather than Rebellion) fly dangerous missions. Droids hold the key to messages and truths. Plus a myriad of young strangers from very different lives come together in pursuit of a greater purpose. Thematically, in its DNA, The Force Awakens and A New Hope are the same story, and that parallel is much more beautiful than you may expect. Abrams understands the elements of that original film that struck such a chord; the sense of hope, of wonder, of love, of humour and warmth and fun, and finally of pulpy adventure. He and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan throw a million ideas into the pot and, remarkably, almost all of them stick. Each one retains those joyful elements that made the original Star Wars so beloved by millions.

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Crucially, also, Abrams manages to create compelling new characters while not ignoring the older, legendary ones we all wanted to see. Indeed he spends the first hour almost exclusively allowing us to enjoy Rey’s spiky chutzpah, or Oscar Isaac’s flyboy charisma as pilot Poe Dameron, or John Boyega’s conflicted, morally decent Finn as he embarks upon an entirely new life – plus the film, and the franchise’s breakout star, new droid BB-8. He is a revelation, and immediately will likely inspire love and affection from multiple generations. By the time Harrison Ford grumbles his way back in as Han Solo with Peter Mayhew’s glorious Chewbacca by his side, you’re enjoying being with these new creations so much the elder statesmen only serve to add to the concoction rather than rescue it. The story

The story mythologizes them within the context of the world itself, almost, and that just makes their return and the events of the previous pictures even more tantalising. Granted, Ford gets much more to do than Carrie Fisher’s wizened now-General Leia and especially Mark Hamill’s Luke, but there are understandable and logical plot reasons as to why. Abrams drip feeds the magical, original characters back into the story and seamlessly fuses them alongside our new heroes, and that’s a remarkable feat in and of itself. All the while he keeps the wheels of narrative turning, rarely stopping for breath. Nothing is wasted. No character beat. No action moment. It’s engrossing while heartfelt, funny while moving, and it contains more than enough moments likely to be held up as classic Star Wars moments to rest alongside the original trilogy. Who can say that about any of the prequels?

The other captivating element is the production design, because Abrams brings Star Wars back as it was meant to. Gone is the copious reliance of green screen and CGI creations from the prequels, and back is the world on screen as Lucas delivered in 1977; desert markets, hives of scum & villainy, real world locations with genuine vistas, all tied up with action and spectacle that works in the context of character drama. The only primary CGI addition is Lupita Nyong’o’s Maz Kanata–positioned almost as a new age Yoda potentially–but she too isn’t overused. You feel immersed in the world once again and visually are captivated by the on-screen spectacle. Admittedly, there are one or two issues – perhaps a dash too much is left open for future successive ‘Episodes’ that might have benefited with some contextualization, while the mid-section has a touch of superfluousness in a Han & Chewie subplot, but these are nitpicks and you have to look very hard to find these elements. On the whole, it’s a truly thrilling and marveling ride, one which builds to an ending where you feel these characters have truly been transformed on a journey that will only continue across the sequels… for most of them at least.

One of the biggest plaudits The Force Awakens deserves is that with so many plot threads and characters and concepts and worlds and planets and aliens, it manages to remain a singular story you feel is told by the end credits. JJ Abrams without doubt tees up multiple movies with a myriad of threads that naturally spool out from this picture, and indeed there are more than a few cliffhangers to some extent but come the finale you feel satisfied that you’ve experienced a complete story, a beginning that feels like a construct in itself. That’s remarkable given what’s on screen. Blowing away any memories of the prequels, The Force Awakens, for once, lives up to and perhaps even betters the hype. It is, simply, the Star Wars movie you never knew you deserved, and I’ll be Bantha fodder if it doesn’t hold a special place in the hearts of generations of new and old fans. If the next two films are this good, we’ll end up with two classic trilogies instead of one. Bravo!

★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2

Tony Black / @blackholemedia

This review first appeared on Letterboxd on December 17th, 2015.

FILM DIARY #27: There Will Be Blood (2007)

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There Will Be Blood feels less like a title, more of a proclamation. The first frame it briefly hits you in the face then disappears, a statement by Paul Thomas Anderson – that’s what you’re going to get. Much like the film that follows it, you feel a sense of power from that image, a sense of strength. Anderson’s work here deserves to be regarded as his first true masterpiece in a career already glittering with jewels, a breathtakingly original adaptation (of Upton Sinclair’s ‘Oil!’) that you would be hard to describe or categorise to anyone, yet can be talked of as uncompromising, terrifying and hilarious all at once, brought together by a typically masterful performance by Daniel Day Lewis – and if you ever doubted he’s the Olivier of his generation, just watch him here. Nobody comes close.

Day-Lewis is mesmerising as Daniel Plainview, an early oil prospector with an egomania that knows no bounds, along with an immorality that seeps from him at every pore. Within the first few minutes he takes the infant of a deceased fellow prospector and raises him as his own, largely as a sympathy tool – that’s the kind of man he is. To Paul Dano’s highly religious and supremely naive Eli Sunday, he becomes a manifestation of the Devil and it’s a fascinating comparison – Anderson intentionally frames Plainview as representative of sin, yet Day-Lewis is a far better actor than to play him with one mere shade – he infuses Plainview with a jet black pantomime beyond his actions, a vein of melodrama that actually lies within Anderson’s entire movie.

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That’s not a slight either, it only serves to add to the atmosphere of the piece – you’ll find yourself laughing at moments that shouldn’t be funny, yet are played so overblown as to be comical. It’s a quite brilliant skill of script, direction and acting so difficult to make work. Anderson’s movie is sumptuous in every way – from stunning cinematography from Robert Elswit that brings alive the starch Californian landscape, all the way to Anderson’s narrative that despite the running time moves well with incident and magnetic performances, building all the way to a devastatingly memorable final moment ‘DRAIIIIIIINAGE’ and ‘I drink YOUR milkshake’ are rapidly becoming iconic movie phrases and rightly so. Anderson layers his movie with many themes and ideas beyond the primary story – greed, avarice, the meaning of fatherhood and of course religion, encapsulated in Dano’s Eli (too played quite brilliantly). Nothing is simple yet Anderson keeps everything elegant and subtle, holding back to just allow Day-Lewis to magnetise you for the running time, as he surely will – backed up too by Jonny Greenwood’s haunting, sinister yet quite beautiful score.

Masterpiece is not a word to use lightly, but There Will Be Blood is worthy of the term. Paul Thomas Anderson has delivered a wonderfully original, darkly comic period melodrama utterly soaked in atmosphere and style that makes you truly feel the world he’s trying to bring to life, and a potential career-best performance by Daniel Day-Lewis – and given he’s perhaps the greatest living actor of our time, that’s saying something. Destined to enter many lists of the greatest American movies, Anderson’s piece of art will be talked of in hallowed terms 50-100 years time as we do Citizen Kane now and, almost without doubt, is one of, if not the best movie of our century so far.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Tony Black / @blackholemedia

This review first appeared on Letterboxd on September 8th, 2012.

FILM DIARY #26: Star Wars Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983)

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Can you imagine Return of the Jedi being named ‘Revenge of the Jedi’? Directed by either David Lynch or David Cronenberg? No. Well, there’s probably an alternate universe where all of those things happened, as Episode VI very nearly took several different paths to the Star Wars cinematic conclusion we know so well, a conclusion in 1983 anyway. George Lucas obviously recognised the strengths in Empire and pulled away yet again from the directors chair and primary script duties, Lawrence Kasdan again taking up that mantle, but truthfully, objectively, Jedi is the weakest of the original – which admittedly is akin to pointing out the ‘worst’ of the Three Stooges, they are all fine in their constituent parts. Richard Marquand, taking the helm, crafts a piece which has much clearer DNA to the first movie, lightening the tone and the visual pallet after the relative gloom and edge of Empire, allowing for a rousing flourish of a finish in which, it’s no spoiler to reveal, good naturally triumphs over evil. In such an epic saga of derring do, you’d expect nothing less.

Jedi goes back to its roots right from the beginning though: a sand planet, the quirky droids on a mission squabbling, weird creatures a world away from the slick darkness of Empire, and Lucas is unafraid to indulge this for the first act as we meet the discussed Jabba the Hutt and crucially resolve Han Solo’s tricky fate; a necessary plot movement but arguably one that shilly-shallies a shade too much in casting a suspicion of darkness over Luke Skywalker’s motivations now. Mark Hamill plays him with a deeper shade of mystery, of ambiguity; not pushed too hard given the lightness of tone but he’s happy to cut through Jabba’s goons, all dressed comparatively in black against his previous white, the implication being temptation: his hand-severing encounter with Darth Vader, and the subsequent revelation of his parentage, could serve as the trigger to deliver almost a self-fulfilling prophecy – will Luke follow his father’s Dark Path, with Ian McDiarmid’s venomous Emperor egging him on?

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While this may form the spine of Jedi, Lucas & Marquand are at pains to ensure we’re not existing in the same tonal space as Empire throughout; Jabba’s palace is gaudy in its grime, filled with singing aliens and lurching beasts, while the counterpoint to Luke & Vader’s ultimate battle lies on the forest moon of Endor, home to the now legendary Ewoks – furry little creatures, played indeed by children, who would help the Rebel Alliance take down the shield generator for the second formative Death Star almost built. The Ewoks aren’t nearly as annoying as some might suggest, indeed they’re quite cute, but again despite some enjoyable forest battle sequences (and the memorable speeder bike chase through Endor, which still impresses), nothing here matches the spectacle of Hoth, and sadly having Han & Leia fully in love strips away the sexual tension between them which really buoyed their characterisation in Empire. And loveable as Lando is, Han doesn’t spend nearly enough time in the Millennium Falcon here!

Ultimately, the mythic strands of redemption drive Return of the Jedi to its natural conclusion, one in which Vader’s true self that Lucas would later explore comes to the fore, and Luke & his family save the day. It’s simplistic but filled with a sense of adventure, fun and joy that many other films simply can’t reach, and indeed as a conclusion, it’s perfectly satisfying. What Jedi lacks though, for the most part, are the truly iconic moments and memorable character beats which made the previous two films genuine cinematic greats. It’s well constructed, tonally in spirit, and hugely enjoyable, but the Force simply isn’t as strong in this one.

★ ★ ★ ★

Tony Black / @blackholemedia

This review first appeared on Letterboxd on May 4th, 2015.

FILM DIARY #25: Live by Night (2016)

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Originally earmarked as an starring role for Leonardo DiCaprio through his Appian Way production company, Ben Affleck ultimately took on the task of not just adapting and directing this adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s crime novel, Live by Night, but also taking the starring role as Joe Coughlin, a former WW1 soldier who returns home to America having lost faith in authority, becoming an outlaw in Boston who must then resist the temptation of being drawn into the life of the Prohibition-era Mob, circa 1920’s. That’s just the starting point of Lehane’s sprawling, ambitious novel which would have been a task for Affleck taking on just one of the roles he adopted to make this film a reality.

All three? Frankly, he overstretches himself; while this is an improvement on his dull theatrics in his modern Bostonian thriller The Town, it’s also not even close to being Argo. What Affleck delivers here is overlong, at times treads water, and not only does it lack the punch to be The Godfather, it also doesn’t have the charm & smarts to match The Untouchables. Indeed it’s much more meditative than you might imagine.

For a start, Coughlin is perhaps the most reluctant gangster ever committed to film; he’s no pacifist, and he’s not above crime, but his difficulty with authority–whether it’s Robert Glenister’s vicious Irish crime lord or Brendan Gleason as his weather-beaten police chief father–makes it hard for Coughlin to readily accept a role he ultimately must become in order to avenge someone he loved. This is where it gets messy, and in reality where Affleck should have taken a step back and made Live by Night into a rough, tough HBO series.

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Lehane’s novel is packed with ideas and themes Affleck tries to cram in – at times it’s about the Italians attempting to establish a foothold in the Cuban alcohol business, then it’s partly a revenge thriller, suddenly it becomes a beat on faith and the very essence of what being a gangster means in relation to sin, and it even wants to be a love story in the mix. It’s just too busy for Affleck to handle, and it’s perhaps why his direction of actors and its large amount of talky sequences can feel leaden. His direction only comes alive the moment guns fire, cars roar and Lehane’s story engages the classic gangster pulp.

Unfortunately, it’s the women who come off the worst for the stodgy pacing and erratic focus. Sienna Miller tries but struggles with an awkward Oirish accent and a mercurial character we’re meant to invest in, only to have her snatched away for the majority of the picture. Speaking of accents, Zoe Saldana really struggles with a sultry Cuban brogue as the sister of a rum trafficker, and even worse she has zero chemistry with Affleck despite the fact we’re meant to buy into them as the great love affair.

Then we get to Elle Fanning, who should stand out in a signature role of a young, Hollywood starlet to be washed up in sex & drugs who returns to Florida and preaches the gospel, but she grates and ultimately ends up as more of a story cipher to help land a final, maudlin punch – though admittedly she does afford Chris Cooper to walk in and, as usual, almost steal the picture as a repressed, devout police chief in the kind of all-American role few can do better. It’s just a shame Affleck’s women here fail to connect and his men often become caricatures – the only relationship that really clicks is the one between Affleck and Chris Messina as his fast-talking consigliere, providing much-needed quips and laughter in a film which takes itself often drearily seriously.

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This all sounds like it was a slog, but that’s not the case. Live by Night boasts excellent production design, truly landing you in the 20’s & 30’s, it’s Art Deco glamor and sinister underbelly of organized crime, while Harry Gregson-Williams delivers an unobtrusive, brooding and mournful score. Props to Ben Affleck for his reach here too, even if he does overextend; at times his direction pops with the kind of life that ran through Argo, which had crucially what this lacks: a strong script. Affleck tries to wrestle too many narrative beasts here when Dennis Lehane’s source material needed greater depth to breathe and live. No question, this has components to enjoy and it’s engaging frequently, but it simply takes too much on to be as classy or memorable an experience as it strives to be.

★ ★ ★ 

Tony Black / @blackholemedia

FILM DIARY #24: Star Wars Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

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Nobody anticipated the success of the first Star Wars movie. George Lucas’ paean to the adventure serials he grew up loving as a boy, daring tales of dashing heroes fighting evil empires in fantastical worlds, was to a cynical, gloomy late 1970’s anathema, certainly to studio heads reared by Godfather’s & French Connection’s, and indeed to many of Lucas’ illustrious luminaries, the American ‘New Wave’, making such legendary pictures. The people thought otherwise. A New Hope was an instant success, and triggered a new age, not just of science-fiction filmmaking but helped shape the modern blockbuster. A sequel was inevitable and by this point,

A sequel was inevitable and by this point, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, was being considered as the middle point of an epic trilogy telling the story not just of Luke Skywalker becoming a Jedi Knight, but his connection to Darth Vader. Such a decision helped shape the key iconic moment everyone remembers from Empire, helped fashion the second film into, many have come to agree, not just the best Star Wars film to date but one of the finest pieces of science-fiction, adventure cinema of all time.

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It would be easy to suggest a major factor why Empire works so well is Lucas was much less involved both from a directorial and screenwriting perspective, but that’s a tad unfair; A New Hope was perfectly strong and that was all Lucas. He chose here, while establishing ILM as a new visual effects powerhouse in the wake of the first film’s success, to hand direction duties over to Irvin Kershner, one of his old film school mentors and a seasoned veteran. While this proved to be a shrewd choice, with Kershner’s solid hand teasing out deeper and more nuanced performances from the leads than any other film in the saga, the real credit should be saved for both Leigh Brackett & Lawrence Kasdan. Brackett turned in the first draft before her untimely death to cancer and is oft-credited with laying down the sparky interplay between Han & Leia which works so well, but Kasdan really punches the piece to another level – in tandem with the direction, their combined—and Lucas’ in fairness—serve to expand Luke’s personal journey and put lots of flesh onto Vader’s bones, developing the hero & villain into less archetypes, much more characters with shades of grey.

What they do have to sacrifice is the sense of a narrative which fully has a sense of conclusion, but if anything that turns out to be a strength of Empire’s; not only can it build to a genuinely open-ended climax in which our heroes have been given something of a kicking, but it equally gives the whole picture and edge, a darkness, which the first and third films lack. Empire feels more rounded, more grounded, and deeper – Luke’s Jedi training on Dagobah both allows at first for an eccentric introduction to Frank Oz’s wonderful Yoda (arguably one of Star Wars’ most iconic figures, brilliantly portrayed via animatronics), and later lots of foreshadowing of Luke’s journey, personal revelation, and quasi-spiritual exploration of the Force; you have mature writing of both Han & Leia, with Harrison Ford & Carrie Fisher brimming with chemistry between one another that spills off the page (allowing for Ford’s wonderful “I love you!” “I know…” improvisation that has gone down in movie legend); and Vader goes from simply being a manifestation of fascist evil to a personalised father gone wrong, a tainted soul, with the revelation of being Luke’s father easily the first true WOW twist in blockbuster cinema. Imagine a reveal like that not being spoiled today. The Internet would shatter, let alone break.

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Of course, while it doesn’t build to a traditional climax, nor does it skimp on the action or the production values. The budget went up 50% after A New Hope’s success and it’s all on screen – right from the huge opening battle sequence on the ice world of Hoth, with giant dinosaur-esque AT-AT’s storming across the snowy landscape, to the Millennium Falcon flying through asteroid fields, all the way to the inventive location of the Cloud City of Bespin, allowing for doubtless the strongest lightsaber duel to date – Luke vs Vader in the gloomy city bowels, riven with tension and mythological scope. Kershner retains that sense of production scale, alongside superb performances from the cast, plus despite the darker texture yet again points of comedy – usually from Threepio & Artoo once again, but which Kasdan’s script gels neatly with moments such as Lando Calrissian’s betrayal or Luke’s hand being severed.

Several years ago, the aptly named Empire Magazine had a reader poll and they voted The Empire Strikes Back as the greatest film ever made. That does prove how the people shouldn’t be trusted with these kind of things, because of course, it isn’t, but there’s certainly a case for this making the top 100. Empire grows deeper, increasingly masterful and indeed beautiful as the years roll by, especially in the right format, and nothing will take away the wonderful symbiosis of script, direction, performance and production magnitude to continue making something mythic but yet beyond mere archetype. At the very least, Empire is a rare example, maybe the finest example, of a sequel greater than its predecessor. The Force is the strongest here.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

This review first appeared on Letterboxd on May 4th, 2014.

FILM DIARY #23: La La Land (2016)

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Before the success of Whiplash, nobody wanted to know about La La Land, which director Damien Chazelle wrote and developed with composer Justin Hurwitz years before their Oscar-winning breakout hit when they were studying at Harvard together. At least not without Chazelle, as an unknown, having to make significant compromises to the story he wanted to tell, compromises he quite rightly wasn’t prepared to make. We can only be thankful his vision for this delightfully charming paean to the Hollywood musical was left intact and allowed to flourish with awards and critical acclaim at his back. Chazelle’s film, much like Whiplash, utilizes music as a form of passion for its protagonists, to drive them toward success, but as the director himself has said, is “much less angry about it”. La La Land‘s lack of that fierceness makes it a less visceral experience than Chazelle & Hurwitz’s previous collaboration, but it’s no less engaging, telling one of the most compelling and charismatic love stories cinema has seen for a long time, framed with a luscious CinemaScope that evokes more of a golden age. In a way, they just don’t make ’em like this anymore.

That’s very much the point. Chazelle makes sure his picture is intentionally anachronistic in places; while he throws a buzzing iPhone at the end of a musical number or a YouTube video here & there, much of La La Land could easily be set in the 1950’s. Ryan Gosling, playing at first uptight jazz musician Seb, spends most of the picture looking every inch the matinee idol of old, while Emma Stone, as quirky barista & wannabe actress Mia, resembles a mix of a young Debbie Reynolds fused with a touch of Catherine Deneuve in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, one of Chazelle’s recognised touchstones. They are in a sense timeless and play their central roles as such.

What they also have, in absolute spades, is magnetic chemistry; it’s telling that there are almost no major supporting roles in this movie, save musician John Legend as a band leader who comes to Seb’s rescue, and it’s a testament that Gosling & Stone hold the centre perfectly without anyone flanking them. Gosling has the deadpan self-obsession to complement Stone’s self-deprecating sweetness perfectly, and you’ll be utterly sold by them as a romantic couple, with all of the ups and downs their characters experience. They’re equally good when they break into song.

Don’t forget, this is ultimately a musical. Admittedly toward the final third it veers more into drama as Seb & Mia’s lives grow more complicated together, and the tone naturally becomes a trifle more serious and somber than the perky opening hour as a result, but Chazelle & Hurwitz always bring things back to the music. After a bravura opening piece on an LA freeway involving traffic jam passengers, Gosling and Stone get a melee of solo numbers their own dance numbers, in the vein of Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers, to tap their way across Chazelle’s heightened reality frame to; it’s not just a musical but a romantic fantasy, one Chazelle is unashamed by – Seb at one point asks what’s wrong with being a romantic.

It’s a much a love letter to the dying art of free form jazz as the Hollywood dream, as Seb’s determination to ‘save’ jazz parallels Mia’s aspiration to make it as an actress. It’s a fantasy about dreams, about hopes and desires, all wrapped up in a romantic fantasy with a strong message: that it takes a partnership, and the love of someone who believes in you, to make life a success. All of which is conveyed through the music, and heavily via Hurwitz’s centre-point piece ‘City of Stars’, which repeats as a motif very much for emotional effect. If you’re not choked by the last ten minutes, even just a little, you may have been watching a different film.

La La Land is a throwback but one which utterly deserves the plaudits thrown its way, as it’s a picture very much self-aware of what it’s trying to do. Damien Chazelle’s love of this long dead genre shines through in a script which develops a beautiful modern, and yet timelessly old fashioned romance between Seb & Mia, coaxing a gorgeous set of performances from Ryan Gosling & Emma Stone, who radiate charm and easy going chemistry. His direction is slick, vivacious, knowing and with a twinkle in the eye, while Justin Hurwitz’s score and original songs, plus his use of jazz, is just sublime. For a point it conveniently forgets it’s a musical, and it lacks the bone shattering power of Whiplash, but La La Land is a pure, shining delight of a movie, and revels in harkening back to a timeless era of cinema. For that alone, we should be glad it exists.

★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2

Tony Black / @blackholemedia

FILM DIARY #22 – Star Wars Episode IV – A New Hope (1977)

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‘A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away’ are the first words we see before John Williams’ iconic leitmotif blasts theatrically and introduces Star Wars, later given the subtitle Episode IV: A New Hope, and immediately George Lucas sets out his stall: this is fantasy, a space-born piece of future history independent almost of time itself, existing in a place where gigantic spaceships and planet killing machines fuse with kidnapped Princesses, evil Empires, daring rebellions, heroic pilots and dashing troubadours. Much has long been written about the first of Lucas’ trilogy (later to become a trilogy and indeed a franchise), about its touchstones of mythology, of influences such as Joseph Campbell or Kurosawa, and indeed how it single-handedly created not just a sub-genre that has persisted across the last four decades, but the most recognisable piece of cinematic pop culture of the 20th century. The reason is simple: it’s about as charming and fun as motion pictures get.

George Lucas isn’t the greatest director in the world, and he certainly isn’t the greatest writer, but A New Hope is easily the finest picture he’s ever directed and written; it went through numerous drafts in which Lucas attempted to pin down the key themes and ideas he wanted to convey, having failed to get the rights to Flash Gordon & resolving to create his own version, he ultimately distills the core essence into a tale as pure as mythic storytelling can be – good vs evil, through the prism of Mark Hamill’s idealistic young farm boy Luke Skywalker; blonde haired, square jawed, naive yet filled with hope and excitement, he looks up at the galaxy in wonder as Fate in many respects draws him into the Rebel Alliance as they fight back against the Galactic Empire – he may be simplistic, but he’s human and relatable, as is his mythic quest to understand ‘the Force’, Lucas’ monotheistic approach to a retro-future religious concept, a binding ‘chi’ or ‘greater power’, unseen yet coursing not just literal power but an unseen hand that brings Luke into the orbit of his destiny. Lucas worked hard to simplify his thematic concepts and he never lets them intrude on the derring-do, the sense of adventure.

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It helps that around Luke are such enjoyable, equally relatable characters and in many respects archetypes; you have the plucky Princess, Carrie Fisher’s Leia—riven with chutzpah, able to hold her own and ultimately showing the men she’s a force to be reckoned with (while admittedly still needing rescuing once or twice); there’s the wise old mentor/surrogate father, Alec Guinness’ Ben ‘Obi-Wan’ Kenobi, the ageing legend often heaping scorn in later life on his involvement but nonetheless bringing needed gravitas to a role he imbues with wisdom, touched with an element of pain we would later come to greater understand; the rogue in Han Solo, with Harrison Ford perhaps stealing the show in places as the smuggler with a heart, tossing reluctant jibes and one-liners about the place & adding a crucial internal layer of tension (not to mention a great double act with the primal yet cuddly Chewbacca); and then of course the most iconic visage of the entire saga, Darth Vader – clad in reflective black metal, heavy breathing yet booming a terrifying, cold voice (brilliantly echoed by James Earl Jones) as he looms over everyone, crushing the throats of his own men and killing rebels with abandon; he strikes terror even when he’s not speaking; and this is without even mentioning the droids, C-3PO & R2-D2, a Greek chorus almost who are delightful whenever they’re on screen, bickering like an old married couple.

One must also point to the production design in discussing how important A New Hope is to the cinematic landscape, as Lucas really does present a sense of world building behind the visuals; with pioneering production designer, Ralph McQuarrie, he creates a galaxy that looks lived in, used, equipment hundreds of years more advanced than our own yet looking worn, adding to strangely a sense of in-world realism despite the silly alien prosthetics, outlandish names and alien planets – indeed Peter Cushing, almost as terrifying as Vader as Death Star commander Grand Moff Tarkin, once laughed his title sounds like “something that flew out of a cupboard”. Lucas never lets what could have hamstrung him get in his way – he totally believes in the world he’s presenting, and his script manages to get away with clunky lines and simplistic concepts thanks to how riven with natural charm the whole endeavour is; by the time we reach the climactic battle, you’ll be cheering on Luke & the rebellion exactly in the way you should.

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Star Wars changed cinema, forever. It blasted its way out of a sceptical decade, tainted by real-world conspiracy, paranoia and post-counter culture revolution darkness, as an antidote to the times, an escape into wonder and fantasy that—along with Jaws—created the modern day blockbuster. So many movies, TV series and other pieces of entertainment have been inspired by it, it has seeped so deeply into pop culture even to those who aren’t fans or have never seen it, as a piece of cinema it has transcended into a signature piece of not just Americana, but human endeavour. It’s far from the greatest movie ever made, but A New Hope—and its sequels—will be remembered, discussed and loved until we’re all living in a galaxy far, far away. The Force is with this one.

★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2

This review first appeared on Letterboxd on May 4th, 2014.