Friday, 2 October 2015

My Top Ten James Bond Themes

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A major aspect of the James Bond tradition is the theme song. Over the past 50 odd years artists such as Paul McCartney, Madonna, Shirley Bassey, Tina Turner, and- for the previous film, Skyfall- Adele, have contributed to this tradition. The latest artist to perform the theme tune for a Bond film- this November's Spectre- is Sam Smith. Last week, Smith's song- entitled "Writing's on the Wall"- was released to a mixed reception. I've only listened to the song once and I feel it doesn't have the invigorating power as "Skyfall". I hope over time it does grow on me; hearing it in a theatre over the main titles will likely add a much needed component.

But now I want to take a look back at the previous theme tunes and discuss my top ten favourite amongst them. This is purely a personal preference list rather than an attempt at objectively ranking the songs. Warning: spoilers for certain films will follow.

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10. "The World is Not Enough"- Garbage

An easy joke to make about The World is Not Enough's theme song- sung by Garbage lead singer Shirley Manson- is it's garbage. For me, I enjoy this song's ominous passion- particularly when coupled with it's sci-fi/almost-apocalyptic music video. In the video a robot- played by Manson- kills the real Manson, takes her place at a concert and  kills everyone with a bomb concealed in its body. Also of note: the song appears to be from he perspective of Elektra King (Sophie Marceau)- making this the only theme song to be told from the villain's perspective. 

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9. "A View to a Kill"- Duran Duran

The story goes that at a party Duran Duran bassist John Taylor came up to Bond producer Albert R. "Cubby" Broccoli and drunkenly asked him when they'd get someone good again to sing a Bond theme. This eventually led to the band and  long time Bond composer John Barry writing the theme song together. At the time "A View to a Kill" was the most high energy Bond theme since "The Man With the Golden Gun." It has a certain goofy appeal- talking about dancing in to a fire- and some vivid imagery- "crystal tears, fall as snowflakes on your body." The song would have been a great way to usher in a new actor as Bond but A View to a Kill has a 58 year old Roger Moore (actually, a stunt double) surf-boarding to the Beach Boys' "California Girls." Still, this is one of the most fun Bond themes in my opinion.

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8. "Goldeneye"- Tina Turner

To begin the Pierce Brosnan era of the Bond franchise- and the return of the franchise after a six year hiatus- the Bond producers enlisted the vocals of a legend for Goldeneye's theme song- Tina Turner. Turner is only a couple of years younger than Shirley Bassey (the only artist to perform more than one Bond theme) and the spirit of Bassey is felt throughout the song. Written by U2's Bono and the Edge, the song is one of several Bond songs about Bond himself- or at least about one woman's perspective of him. Turner is the woman in the shadows, feeling betrayed by Bond and wanting revenge. The song feels classic yet works as an introduction to a new age of Bond.

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7. "On Her Majesty's Secret Service"- John Barry

The only Bond theme to be purely instrumental- aside from Monty Norman's "James Bond Theme"- John Barry's theme for On Her Majesty's Secret Service encompasses the epic sweep and dramatic energy of the film that redefined the Bond mythology (Bond gets married and then his wife is murdered by his arch-nemesis Blofeld). It's dark, exciting and quintessentially Bond. Moreover, Barry's overall score is arguably his best work in the entire series. And Barry's theme is posed to make to a comeback-a version of the theme is heard in the latter part of the second Spectre trailer. Also of note: David Arnold (composer of Casino Royale and several other Bond films) did a fantastic remix of the theme with the Propellerheads.

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6. "Diamonds Are Forever"- Shirley Bassey

Along with the return of Sean Connery to the franchise (after George Lazenby's single outing as Bond in On Her Majesty's Secret Service), Shirley Bassey came back after seven years to record her second Bond theme (her first being "Goldfinger.") This song has an undertone of tragedy- it's about a woman who's been spurned by love and finds solace in diamonds- they "won't leave in the night." "I don't need love,/ For what good will love do me?" she asks; "Diamonds never lie to me." Love is finite but diamonds are truly forever. It's tragic, with a tinge of anger and defiance. The song doesn't fit Diamonds are Forever's campy tone but on its own terms it's the most emotionally haunting of all Bond songs.

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5. "Skyfall"- Adele

After Casino Royale's rock-infused "You Know My Name" and Quantum of Solace's Alicia Keys/Jack White sing-off "Another Way to Die," the series went down a more classical route with it's theme for Skyfall. "Skyfall" begins with "This is the end," seemingly commenting on Bond's (Daniel Craig) death in the pre-title sequence; It even mentions drowning (which is what almost happens to Bond). In the film Skyfall is the name of Bond's childhood home; but in the song the sky is literally falling- with two people having to face it together- which ties in to Bond and M (Judi Dench) making a final stand at Skyfall. This is one of the best examples of tying the film's themes in to the main song. The song is also just plain excellent: moody, soulful, and ultimately triumphant.

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4. "The Man with the Golden Gun"- Lulu

What I love about this song is how upbeat it is considering Lulu (who was in 1967's To Sir, With Love with Sidney Poitier and also sang the film's theme song) is singing about a ruthless hitman- Francisco Scaramanga (the late Christopher Lee). My favourite part of the song is how Lulu digs in the word "kill," especially in the second-last verse. Like "A View to a Kill," there's not much depth to the song but I find this song giddy fun.

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3. Live and Let Die- Paul McCartney and Wings

I think "Live and Let Die" is the most musically ambitious and unique of the Bond themes. It begins softly- with Paul McCartney telling someone that "When you were young/ And your heart was an open book/ You used to say, Live and yet live." McCartney then says if the world gets too much for you, say "Live and let die," a much more sinister proverb. The song then shifts in to an almost satanic guitar riff (which matches the supernatural theme of the story). And in the actual film, the head of the woman in the title sequence turns in to a flaming skull. "Live and Let Die" was the first Bond theme to be nominated for an academy award, to be followed several years later by Carly Simon's "Nobody it Better" from The Spy Who Loved Me. "Live and Let Die" was a new sound for a new era of Bond (this was Roger Moore's debut in the role). While the Bond songs would become ballad-y in the late 70s/early 80s, "Live and Let Die" was an energy charged message that Bond was here to stay.    

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2. "Goldfinger"- Shirley Bassey

The gold-standard for all Bond songs to come. Like most everything in Goldfinger, it's theme defined what a Bond theme. This was Bassey's first time recording a theme (she'd come back for the aforementioned Diamonds are Forever and finally for Moonraker), and her vocals are brassy (matching Barry's score), seductive and overpowering. The song serves as a warning about the film's villain: "Pretty girl, beware of his heart of gold/ This heart is cold." The song has a wonderfully sinister vibe and reaches an almost epic climax with Bassey's drawn out final note. Also of note: singer/actor Anthony Newley (who co-wrote the song with Barry and Leslie Bricusse) recorded a demo of the song before Bassey did her version. It's an interesting and creepy take on the iconic song:

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1. "You Know My Name"- Chris Cornell

"You Know My Name" is a perfect song title for the film that reinvented of the character of James Bond. Chris Cornell's gnarled and forceful vocals ushered in Daniel Craig's tenure as Bond. We had a new Bond and a new continuity but we still knew who this guy was- we knew his name. The song is told from Bond's perspective- we're asked "If you take a life do you know what you'll give?"- which reflects the pre-title sequence in which Bond earns his 00 status by killing two men. "The coldest blood runs through my veins," we're told, reminding us how brutal the character of Bond can be. The song establishes the arc of the film- Bond in his first mission, having to be willing to die to do this job, the odds (the poker game, Vesper Lynd) will betray him. The song's grit and slight tinge of melancholy sets the stage for what is my favourite Bond film. 

Those are my top ten Bond themes. Tell me, what are your favourites and what are your thoughts on Sam Smith's addition to the Bond theme canon.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Some Thoughts on "The Man From U.N.C.L.E."

Note: To anyone who reads this blog regularly- and many thanks if you do- I apologize for not writing recently. I wish I could say it was due to family troubles or poor health- but it really comes down to procrastination. But now it's time to get back in the swing of writing about what I love- movies.


While many lament the amount of the superhero/comic book movies coming out, 2015 is less another  year of the superhero than it is the year of the spy film. So far this year we've gotten several films that have their own take on the genre- the stylized ultra-violence of Matthew Vaughn's Kingsman: The Secret Service, the subversiveness of Paul Feig's Spy and the old fashioned craftsmanship of Christopher McQuarrie's Mission: Impossible- Rogue Nation. This fall we're getting the 24th James Bond adventure with Sam Mendes' Spectre, which may be the most serious-minded of this year's espionage offerings. And for those who want a more classic Bond film, Guy Ritchie's The Man From U.N.C.L.E. fits the retro 1960s bill.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.- based on the series of the same name which ran from 1964 to 1968 and spawned both a one-season spinoff (The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.) and a 1983 TV movie (Return of the Man From U.N.C.L.E.)-is the latest film adaptations of a 1960s spy show (Get Smart, I Spy, The Avengers, and of course Mission: Impossible have all gotten the big screen treatment, with only Mission going on to become a film franchise). It came out in 1964 just around the time the third Bond film, Goldfinger was about to be released. I feel the '60s is what defined our cultural image of the spy franchise, particulalry since the US and Russia was right in the middle of the Cold War.

And the Cold War is when the film's story takes place, in 1963- the year before the series debuted, and the film operates as a quasi-prequel to the series. For me, I think it a was wise decision to not to update the story to modern day; there's something more appealing and fun about setting in this time period then 2015, especially in when most spy films are modernized.

We're introduced to Napoleon Solo (current Superman Henry Cavill), a C.I.A agent who's in East Berlin to extract Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), the daughter of a scientist (Christian Berkel) who may have been a Nazi during WWII. They are tailed by a KGB agent Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) but escape. However, Solo and Kuryakin have to work together when it's revealed Gabby's uncle Rudi (Sylvester Groth) is connected to a shipping company owned by Alexander and Victoria Vinciguerra (Luca Calvanni and Elizabeth Debicki). The Vinciguerras plan to use Gabby's father to build a nuclear bomb.

What I like most about the film is it's low-key tone. While it does have the requisite action set-pieces, there's no Marvel-movie third act climax or huge Mission: Impossible-style stunts. The film allows the characters to interact and despite Ritchie flashy visual style, the film is uncommonly laid back. Unlike the two Sherlock Holmes films, where the Ritche-isms often felt forced, his sensibilities feel more attuned to this type of material. And instead of the greasy/grimy aesthetic of those films, cinematographer John Mathieson provides The Man From U.N.C.L.E. with the same sleek and warm look he gave to Matthew Vaughn's X-Men: First Class- another film that was set in the 60s and riffed on classic Bond films.

Cavill's smooth Americaness and Hammer's rugged Russian-ness are a good match. One thing I picked up on about both these men is they both have dark backstories but while Solo has smoothed the edges off, becoming the perfect tool for the C.I.A, Kuryakin wears his roughness like a coat and is quick to lose his temper. There is one scene when Kuraykin has to allow himself to be robbed to keep his cover as an architect but he assaults the robbers instead. Kuraykin then tells Solo, "A Russian architect would have fought them, a Russia agent would have killed them."

Vikander (who was very good earlier this year in Alex Garland's sci-fi tale, Ex Machina), gets a slightly more interesting part then to be expected from a male-centric spy film. There's one scene (which you may have seen in the film's trailer) where Gabby does a dance behind Kuraykin in her pyjamas. This leads to them dancing and her slapping him; and then ending with her wrestling him Kurayakin to the ground despite her being tinier then him. This sequence has this wonderful blend of adorability and sexiness that's the most authentic scene in the film- and a real star moment for Vikander.

The other female role in the film- Victoria- is a little thinly sketch but I do like the idea of a female being the lead villain instead of being subservient to a man; and Debicki is clearly relishing playing the kind of femme fatale that wouldn't be out of place in a Connery-era Bond film. And rounding out the cast is Hugh Grant, who plays Alexander Waverly,  one of the section chiefs in U.N.C.L.E. (the role originated by Leo G. Carroll in the original series). Grant is on the sidelines for most of the film but becomes a bigger player in the third act, when his and Gabby's roles in the story become clearer. Grant is fun in his brief role and appears to be entering the character-actor stage of his career.

One major difficulty in reviewing a movie like The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is- like the previously mentioned Kingsman- by the time the movie was over, I wanted to see the next chapter. This is both a positive thing- since I liked the characters enough to see where they go from here- but it's also a indicator of a problem in modern blockbuster filmmaking- the need to set-up a franchise right off the bat. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. isn't at all as bad an offender as The Amazing Spider-Man films in this regard but it does feel a little like a big budget T.V. pilot- establishing characters but saving deeper exploration for later. This works for T.V. but I wished we had learned more about the characters this time around.

However, despite my reservations about the set-up-esque nature of the film, I think the film is genuinely likeable film and it's own low-key charms and game cast make it a worthwhile tribute to what I would say is the golden age of the spy genre.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

20 Years of "Forever": A Look Back at "Batman Forever"

June 16 marked the 20th anniversary of Batman Forever's North American release. I was six at the time and Batman Forever was the Batman film for me growing up- a film I watched a lot on VHS. Which isn't a surprise since the film's main goal was to be a more kid friendly film than the previous two films in the franchise, Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992)- both directed by Tim Burton. After Batman Returns was criticized for being too dark and grotesque, Warner Bros. felt uneasy about another Burton-directed Bat film. Burton almost did direct the third installment  but eventually dropped out ( I wrote about what that film might've been like here: Joel Schumacher- known for films such as The Lost Boys, St. Elmo's Fire, and Falling Down- was hired to make a more light, less depressing take on the Batman mythos.

Batman Forever is often lumped in beside Schumacher's follow-up, 1997's Batman & Robin as the low-points of the franchise. But we have to remember that before Batman & Robin put the franchise on ice until Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins in 2005 Batman Forever was received fairly well by audiences. It was more accessible and mainstream than Batman Returns, which is more Burton than Batman film and not really a superhero action film either. Moreover, Forever also out-grossed Returns at the box-office. 

The last time I watched Batman Forever before revisiting it for this retrospective was after seeing Batman Begins. Due to being older and having just seen Nolan's darker take on the character, I found myself appreciating Burton's vision more and being disappointed we never got a third film from him; though I still enjoyed Batman Forever. However, seeing the film just recently, I can see it's flaws more clearly.

For one, it's a very tonally awkward film. The scenes featuring Edward Nygma/Riddler (Jim Carrey) and Harvey Dent/Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones) are very broad and comedic, whereas the scenes with Bruce Wayne/ Batman (Val Kilmer) and Dick Grayson (Chris O'Donnell) are more realistic. I wish Jones had played Two-Face more subtly, particularly since Carrey's performance is flamboyant and over the top enough for ten movies. You needed a straight man in the scenes with Carrey and we never get that with Jones hamming it up like he's playing the Joker.

I also feel Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman), the psychiatrist Commissioner Gordon (Pat Hingle) brings in to analyze Two-Face, is a little too shallow. To be fair, that's part of her character arc as she's first attracted to Batman but then  falls for the man behind the mask, telling Batman a girl eventually has to grow up. The idea of a psychiatrist being Bruce Wayne's love interest, with Bruce's own alter ego being his romantic rival is a great idea that I wished the filmmakers had unpacked more. This plotline highlights the duality of Batman and the superhero archetype in general. Batman isn't just Bruce in a suit but a different persona- both literally and metaphorically. The love triangle between Bruce/Batman/Chase is also reminiscent of the Clark Kent/Superman/Lois Lane relationship in the Christopher Reeve Superman films.

At the film's climax, Riddler (having found out that Bruce is Batman) makes Batman choose between Chase and Dick (now having taken on the mantle of Robin). Nygma was a Wayne Enterprises employee who felt betrayed when Bruce rejected his idea for a box that enables Television signals to beam directly in to a person's brain. "It just raises too many questions," Bruce told him. Riddler wants to make Bruce suffer but he's also fascinated in the riddle of who will eventually win over- Batman or Bruce? Which persona wins out? Batman saves both Robin and Chase, which you can argue is a little too neat. But it pays off when Batman tells Riddler, "I had to save them both. You see, I'm both Bruce Wayne and Batman not because I have to be, now, because I choose to be." Batman is no longer a psychological burden for Bruce but someone he chooses to be. He'll go out and fight crime but he'll be more psychologically and emotionally well rounded.

I do like Val Kilmer's performance. I won't say he's better than Michael Keaton or Christian Bale but I feel he's probably the most underrated of the four actors who've played the character in live action. Supposedly Schumacher wanted to do a adaption of Frank Miller's seminal Batman: Year One, which was an influence on Batman Begins. I've would've liked to have seen Kilmer in a film between that was cross a between Burton's gothic sensibilities and Begins' exploration of Bruce's psyche.

More so than Burton's films, Schumacher does attempt to explore the motivation behind his crusade as Batman. There is a deleted scene where Bruce remembers reading his father's diary after his parents' murder. On the night they were murdered, Bruce's father wrote his in diary he and his wife went out that night because Bruce really wanted to go see a movie. Thus guilt was a large incentive for him to dawn that suit and battle crime. I feel this deleted scene should never have been cut, since it adds more depth to Bruce's character and makes his becoming Batman more understandable. The flashback to young Bruce encountering the bat in the cave is a striking scene, nightmarish but Bruce's narration also reflects how terror can also inspire us to do great things.

Another character revealing moment- this one in the film- is when Bruce and Dick are talking about the nature of revenge. Dick is dead set on killing Two-Face for the murder of his parents. Dick  is taken in by Bruce and eventually discovers  that Bruce is Batman. Bruce tells Dick that after he kills Two-Face, the pain won't go away. He'll keep going out to find another "face" each night until revenge becomes his entire life. Dick says Bruce couldn't understand because his parents weren't killed by a maniac, to which Bruce replies, "They were."

This exchange reads to me like the most direction connection- aside from Gordon and Alfred (Michael Gough) reprising their roles from the Burton films- that this film is still connected to the previous films. In Burton's Batman, Bruce's parents were killed by Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson) years before he became the Joker (a maniac). And Batman did kill Joker at the end of that film. So, Bruce does get revenge but he still has to go out each night. Revenge hasn't changed anything.

Despite having these connections to Burton's films, in other ways Batman Forever was a reboot before the word became a staple in Hollywood. Gotham City looks and feels completely different from Burton's, we have a distinctly different tone and direction for the franchise. This film  isn't a hard reboot like Batman Begins but it's closer then other franchise installments got to a full on revamp until Nolan's film. Batman Forever came out the same year as Gdeneye, Pierce Brosnan's first outing as James Bond. Goldeneye-like Batman Forever- isn't a complete reset but it did set out to shift the direction of the franchise. Furthermore, Bond got his own Batman Begins the following year in 2006- Casino Royale.

Coming back to the Bruce/Dick relationship, I think the problem with his arc is he gets everything he wants. He's persistent in wanting to be Bruce's partner and despite Bruce being adamant about working alone and wanting Dick to lead a normal life, He eventually has to put aside those reservations and team up with Dick. It feels like Bruce isn't really given a choice, rather then reaching his acceptance of Dick as a partner organically. And while Dick doesn't kill Two Face personally, he gets the satisfaction of seeing him die when Batman causes Two- Face falls to his death.   

While I've grown to prefer Burton and Nolan's film to Schumacher's take, Batman Forever gave me cinematic Batman I highly enjoyed and that's what matters. And in an age where superhero films can feel very "assembly line" Schumacher crafts a flamboyant mixture of comic book, camp, darkness and sex, a film that owes something to Adam West and Frank Miller. It doesn't completely work but it- and Batman & Robin- remain fascinating pop culture products of their time.

Monday, 6 April 2015

Something Wicked This Way Comes: "It Follows"

Warning: Some Spoilers Ahead 

From the beginning of writer/director David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows- which opens with a tracking shot following a frightened teenage girl as she’s running from an unseen...someone?...something?- you know you’re in very capable hands. I was genuinely hooked from the beginning; and while I wish the film explored its concept a further and threw a few more narrative curveballs, as a piece of filmmaking It Follows is well worth any discerning horror movie fan’s time.

Our main character is 19-year old Jay (The Guest’s Maika Monroe). She has been dating Hugh (Jake Weary). After they have sex one night, Hugh chloroforms Jay. Hugh then reveals he has passed on to her a curse: an entity that can take the form of anyone- whether it’s someone you know or a complete stranger- which only someone with the curse can see. The entity will keep following you until it kills you. Jay eventually enlists the help of her sister- Kelly (Lili Sepe)- and her friends- Paul (Keir Gilchrist), Yara (Olivia Luccardi), and Greg (Daniel Zovatto)- to help her defeat the entity before it kills her.

This is pretty much all you need to know about the premise of the film. It’s the type of basic set up which burrows in to your psyche. If Psycho and Jaws made you afraid of having a shower and going in to the water, respectively, then It Follows will make you paranoid of the people around you. In other horror movies revealing what the evil force looks like early on ruins a film's mystery; but since the entity takes a different form each time out (many very grotesque) there’s an inherent suspense of not knowing what it’ll look like next. Mitchell plays on this un-surety, notably in a later scene with Hugh- whose real name turns out to be Jeff Redmond-which sets up the potential of the entity being there (Jake still isn’t rid of it) - but it’s just a false alarm.

By giving the entity a different form each time out enhances the mystery of what it actually is. In another film we would get more of a back-story concerning the history of what this creature/demon/etc. is. But Mitchell isn't interested in exploring a dense mythology for this entity. He’s more concerned with how the entity works on a metaphorical level. The fact that the curse is passed on sexually makes the entity something like a sexually transmitted disease. And like a STD, passing it on doesn’t mean you’re free of it. The film can be read as a darkly comic cautionary tale for safe sex.

Besides the STD metaphor, I feel the film both reinforces and subverts the teen horror tropes- explained by Jamie Kennedy’s character in the original Scream- of the girl who has sex getting killed and the “final girl” or heroine typically being the pure virgin. In It Follows having sex can get you killed but Jay isn’t a secondary character who gets killed after having sex she’s the main character. Moreover Jay isn’t demonized for having sex nor portrayed stereotypically as a “dirty girl.” For Mitchell, Jay is no less “pure” for having sex.  
Monroe was good in The Guest but I think she was overshadowed by Dan Stevens’ performance. In It Follows, allowed to take centre stage, Monroe really shines. It’s not a flashy performance but she has a laid back and natural charisma which endears Jay to us. And Mitchell’s camera loves her. On a side note, during an early scene I thought to myself that all she needed was head band and she’d be a great Gwen Stacy for the next Spider-Man series.
I think old-school horror fans will take a certain amount of pleasure from It Follows, particularly admirers of legendary director John Carpenter’s aesthetic. While it’s risky for an up and coming filmmaker to homage an iconic director’s work (“You’re no John Carpenter”), I think Mitchell is able to pay tribute to Carpenter’s (and other filmmakers' work) while still crafting something that’s distinctly his own. Despite this only being Mitchell’s sophomore effort he’s an extremely confident filmmaker, with a firm grasp of pacing, camera movement and atmosphere. While he does provide some jump moments, he doesn’t rely on them too much; instead he focuses on images that are truly and deeply frightening. There are moments in this film that I think will unsettle even the most seasoned horror fan.

While It Follows is very stylish film, it’s never so stylish that it overalls the film. In fact, the mood of the film is often very subdued. Mitchell allows character moments to breathe. While I feel the characters needed to be developed a little more Mitchell's characters are still distinctly human and not merely fodder for the entity. Even Jay isn’t completely vilified- he’s as much a victim as anyone. The heart of the film- character-wise- is the relationship between Jay and Paul. He clearly likes her and we learn they shared a kiss when they were younger. They have a few nice scenes together, particularly the conversation they have before the horror really kicks in to gear.

I do wish the film travelled a different narrative path as it headed towards its climax. Instead it settles in to a more conventional type of climax. I also wish the film’s ending had a little more punch- though I understand that Mitchell likely wanted a subdued final note. Despite these few disappointments, on its own terms, It Follows is an absorbing and effectively spooky horror film, full of unsettling and beautiful images- as well as a star-making performance by Monroe. If you’re a horror fan, seek this one out.

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

My 11 Favourite Films of 2014

I don't believe there's such a thing as a bad year for movies. As easy as it is to be cynical with the modern movie landscape I feel each year does bring us films of originality, wonder and genuine vision. For me, every year is defined by the movies that were released. It's hard for me not to associate a given year with certain films. And it's a treat to look back at what films made up my year watching movies.

This list of my favourite films of 2014 is coming a little later than I planned and there are still several films from the past year I haven't seen; as well as films I did see but haven't revisited. But here are the films of 2014 that I either loved, deeply affected by, or just really enjoyed and admired. I don't use the word "best" because I don't know what I would objectively call the best. While I would certainly name several of these films as the best, this list is to be taken merely and
humbly as my own preferences. As always, I'll start with my number one favourite film and then proceed alphabetically.


1. The Grand Budapest Hotel

I saw Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel about this time last year and no other film from 2014 has taken its place. The Grand Budapest Hotel is a film I'll still be watching in 20 years, a film that already feels like a classic. It sort of falls in to the category of film Quentin Tarantino called "hangout movies," a movie you watch just to spend time with the characters. Even though the film has a fast pace (in many ways its a screwball comedy), it does give us enough slower scenes and moments that allow to fall in love with the characters.

The film's main storyline focuses on the adventures of  a hotel concierge- M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes)- and his new lobby boy Zero Moustafa (Tony Revlori)- which revolve around a stolen painting and a vast family fortune. All of this is taking place against the backdrop of 1930s Europe. But the plot mechanics don't really matter. Anderson is more interested in the idea of storytelling and the way in which stories are passed down through the generations.

The theme of "passing down of stories" is reflected in he the film's layered structure. We begin with a young girl reading a book by an unnamed writer (Tom Wilkinson). The book is a recount of a trip he made to the Grand Budapest Hotel in 1968. During this time he met the older Zero (F.Murray Abraham), who now owns the hotel  and who tells the young writer (Jude Law) about his relationship and adventure with M. Gustave.  

I view The Grand Budapest Hotel as a film largely about nostalgia. Zero believes  Gustave epitomized and represented a world which was a already a thing of the past. And the heart of the film is Zero looking back at the pivotal era of his life. I have a particular fondness for films about someone looking back at their past. I find something poignant about the concept; and when we learn why Zero never shut down the hotel, it encapsulates how even the briefest amount of time being happy defines the rest of our lives.


Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Birdman is an example of how drastically a film's reputation can change in less than a year. After receiving rave reviews from critics it eventually became the film to hate. And when it won Best Picture at the Oscars in February its victory was compared to another acclaimed but then reviled film which won Best Picture, Paul Haggis' 2005 Crash. I understand why many dislike this film. It's self-conscious and it's script is largely unsubtle, it may not have as much depth as it purports to be-  and it's "one take" conceit is seen as just a cheap gimmick.

But for me, Birdman was one of the most enjoyable film experiences I had last year. While I have wondered whether it's mostly a surface level film I can't help but admire it as a high wire act of directing and acting.  Being comprised of numerous long takes- instead of merely being a gimmick- feels organic to the narrative largely taking place backstage at a theatre. Here, former movie star Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) is attempting a comeback by directing, writing and starring in an adaptation of Raymond Carver's "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." The continuously moving camera puts us backstage and part of this hectic environment, where arrogance and pent-up aggression abound. 

Moreover, the long takes result in the film taking on play-like elements- with actors having to hit their marks and not mess up their lines- while still feeling cinematic. The meta-ness of the film is accentuated by Michael Keaton- known for his performances as Batman- in the role of an actor famous for playing a superhero. While it's reductive to say Riggan is a reflection of Keaton I do feel Keaton's performance  is a personal exploration of how fame and an iconic role can become like an albatross- as well as the difficulty of shedding that past existence and being born anew as an artist.


While admittedly I don't have the same amount of passion for Boyhood as other critics but I can't deny the authenticity and beauty of director Richard Linklater's 12 years in the making vision of one boy- Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from 6 to 18. With this film and the Before Trilogy, Linklater confirms his place as the utmost chronicler of life as it unfolds (white middle class life- but still). While the broad strokes of the story aren't particularly original, it's the small details- the interactions between characters and the non-showy way in which Linklater portrays the passage of time- that make up Boyhood's artistry.   

I see the film as asking after whom Mason will model himself since his step fathers weren't exactly ideal role models. Even his biological father, Mason, Sr. (Ethan Hawke)- a decent guy at heart- has his own flaws. Even at the end, Mason is still forming his identity.  But maybe all he needs to do let the moment seize him.


I enjoyed John Michael McDonagh's The Guard but I feel his more profound work is his follow-up, Calvary. In the film Brendan Gleeson (who also starred in The Guard) plays an Irish  priest named Father James. While listening to a confession the parishioner tells James he plans to kill him in a week. The parishioner was sexually abused as a child and since the priest who committed the crime is dead, the parishioner chooses to murder James instead; this is largely because James is a good man and a good priest. The parishioner was an innocent child so an innocent man but be punished in return.  

The film then follows James as he interacts with  other parishioners as well as repairing his relationship with his estranged daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly). The takes on a somewhat episodic structure, creating a lived in world that is both humorous but also incredibly dark. McDonagh's script and director create an cohesive balance between the humour and drama, the warmth and the bleakness of the story. McDonagh also has the benefit of Gleeson in the lead role, who's the anchor of the story; his understated performance grounds the film in an emotional reality.

We don't know who the would-be murderer is until the end but the film isn't really about this mystery. Calvary is- at it's core- a film that asks how you would face your own imminent death, especially when you're being punished for someone else's crime. The film's climax on a beach, stunningly photographed by cinematographer Larry Smith, stands as one of my favourite denouements of any film from last year.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes and last year's sequel Dawn of the Planet of the Apes are prime examples of how franchise films based on pre-existing and previously adapted material can be just as vital and artistic as original blockbusters. If Rise was a reimagining of 1972's Conquest of the Planet of the Apes then Dawn is this new series version of 1973's Battle for the Planet of the Apes. 15 years after the simian flu has killed off most of humanity, the ape leader

Caesar (Andy Serkis) and Malcolm (Jason Clarke) attempt to make peace between apes and humans- whom Caesar still distrusts from his time in captivity. But Caesar's general Koba (Toby Kebbel) wants war between the two species.

Dawn explores how even a great leader cannot control the path of his people. Via motion-capture, Serkis further cements his legacy as an actor. His performance as Caesar in these two films is an even deeper and more impressive feat than his role as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies.

Director Matt Reeves- taking over the reigns from Rupert Wyatt- crafts some amazing set pieces while also allowing the film to breathe, telling a thoughtful and ultimately tragic story about coming close to peace and it being torn apart. "I thought we had a chance" says Malcolm at the film's conclusion. "I did too," responds Caesar. Rarely does a blockbuster laments violence in such a devastating fashion.

Gone Girl

David Fincher is maybe the most precise of contemporary American film directors, which is why he's perfect for films based around investigation and painstaking details. And it's his often deeply cynical view of human nature which makes him unafraid to confront the themes of Gillian Flynn's adaptation of her best-selling novel.

While some will dismiss the film as merely an adaptation of an "airport novel," Gone Girl isn't just an entertaining amd involving mystery about whether Nick Dunne murdered his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike). The film is largely a funny and uncomforting satire about the America media and how it can reinforce paranoia and distrust. Fincher also explores the nature of identity in relation to being in a marriage- the "cool girl" persona  Amy creates to win over Nick and- after it's revealed Amy staged her own disappearance out of revenge- the persona Nick takes on to win her back. "The only time you liked yourself was when you were trying to be someone this cunt might like," Amy tells him after her reappearance.    

Fincher takes Affleck's limitations as an actor and coasts out Affleck his best performance yet. Affleck plays Nick neither too sympathetically or wholly unlikable. He's not a clear-cut protagonist but rather a flawed and potentially violent human being. Nick has to win people over and Affleck- as much as any actor in Hollywood- knows how easy it is for people to turn against you.  When Nick says "They hated me, and now they love," it sounds like Affleck summing up the arc of his career."    


I've never subscribed to the theory that Christopher Nolan is an unemotional filmmaker but I do feel Interstellar- while very divisive-  is arguably his most purely emotional film to date. Nolan takes what was mostly symbolic in Inception- Cobb's (Leonardo DiCaprio) children- and makes it more tangible via Cooper's (Matthew McConaughey) relationship to his daughter (Mackenzie Foy). Akin to Inception, Interstellar is about the protagonist's desire to return home. Due to the Earth dying, Cooper has to leave in order to find a planet for humanity to inhabit. 

The idea of having to leave your home, not knowing when you can come back, is universal and it's at the heart of Interstellar grand vistas and huge big ideas. Nolan- with his Batman trilogy and Inception- has always attempted to make films that are in the spirit of large-scale epics of David Lean and Stanley Kubrick. I always admire Nolan's use of practical effects instead of over-reliance on CGI. It's what gives his films a sense of reality and texture we don't always get with many modern blockbusters. But's what most surprising about the film is how intimate the film's climax is, intercutting between father and daughter- and eventually tying the themes of the emotions together in a sequence that people either scoff at or embrace. I think it's a wonderful set piece. And while not make complete sense on a pure logic level, but I think dramatically and emotionally it achieves its goals.

The film also asks the question of whether true altruism can exist or whether Cooper's journey is based more on saving his daughter's future rather than everyone else's future. It's eventually revealed that instead of Plan A- which will bring humans from Earth to the new planet- Plan B- embryos being used to restart the human race- is the ultimate game plan. The question of altruism then extends to the people who helped build Cooper's ship. If they knew they would be left behind, would they have helped? The question is a challenging one. The fact Nolan doesn't give us a reassuring answer makes Interstellar the most morally dark blockbuster in years.     


The Lego Movie

The Lego Movie is one of the funniest, joyful and inventive comedies I've seen in quite some time. What struck people as merely a toy commercial before it was released, another unoriginal cash grab, turned out be a testament to creativity, originality and individuality. Directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller  have created careers out of taking material that sounds on the surface like Hollywood cynicism (a remake of 21 Jump Street? a movie based on Lego?) and subverting our expectations Even when it goes down conventional routes in its storytelling The Lego Movie always manages to surprise and entertain.

The Rover

David Michod's follow up to his 2010 film Animal Kingdom is a bleak but empathetic story set in the Australia outback a decade after the world suffered a global economic collapse. Michod isn't concerned with explaining every detail of what lead to the state of the world. He instead focuses in on Eric (the always underrated Guy Pearce), a drifter whose car is stolen by a gang of thieves after a robbery. Henry (Scoot McNairy) leaves behind his injured brother Rey (Robert Pattinson), whom Eric uses to find Henry and the car.

Michod's creates one of the most realistic visions of a dystopia I've seen in a film. And it suits the subtlety of the narrative as the characters wander through the remains of the old world. This is a film many will call boring. But for me, I found Michod's filmmaking, his sense of composition and deliberate pacing, very absorbing. This is a film which places you firmly in its world, lets you breathe it in and understand what life is it like in the remnants of the world.

We only get hints of Eric's backstory- including the final reveal- but Pearce's face and his demeanor create a lived in performance. Pearce is always reliable but the biggest surprise is Pattinson's performance. He's as far away from Edward and Twilight as he's ever been. With a thick and drawly southern accent Pattinson's performance is a fascinating display of an actor forging a new identity for himself on screen.

I admire how Michod develops Eric and Rey's relationship throughout the film. They never become buddy-buddies but they do reach an unspoken peace and understanding. And with the film being so restrained, the emotions in the climax feel like some kind of catharsis.     



Darren Aronofsky's adaptation of the story of Noah's arc got lost in the shuffle of 2014 but I think it's the most visionary blockbuster to come out this year (even more so than Interstellar and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes). Instead of making a sanitized version of this tale, Aronofsky creates a dark fantasy that's full of grit and moral ambiguity as Russell Crowe''s Noah leaves people to their deaths and almost kills a baby as to prevent further reproduction (he wants humanity to end with his family). Many purists will take issue with Aronofsky's vision. Personally I feel Aronofsky brings us the non-religious audience much closer to the character of Noah and this story than ever before


I don't think there's any horror movie villain which has frightened me in the same way Terence Fletcher has. Watching Damien Chazelle's Whiplash, J.K. Simmons' Oscar-winning performance as a tyrannical and merciless music teacher felt like it was pulled out from my subconscious and put on screen. I'm an easily intimidated person and Fletcher represents the kind of man who would absolutely petrify me in real life. Fletcher is a man whom- no matter how much I hated him- I would still strive to please.

But Fletcher isn't the main character of the film. That's Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) an ambitious young drummer at the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory in New York who'll do anything to become the next jazz great. Fletcher pushes his students beyond what's acceptable. Whiplash asks troubling questions about the line between passion and obsession, between stern- and occasionally unorthodox- teaching and straight up mental abuse. How can true greatness be unlocked and how far would push yourself to achieve true mastery- and possibly legendary stasis.

Fletcher believes there's no more harmful phrase than "Good job." We can understand where Fletcher is coming from- how coddling isn't always healthy; but it's also important to acknowledge Fletcher goes too far in the opposite direction, treating his students with cruelty and disrespect. Simmons is amazing but Teller's performance is also crucial to the film. Teller finds a way to make Andrew both sympathetic but also capable of his own coldness and cruelty, even breaking up with his girlfriend Nicole (Melissa Benoist) because he views her as someone who will get in the way of his ascension to greatness. And Teller's drum playing makes you feel Andrew's "blood, sweat and tears." 

The psychological warfare between Andrew and Fletcher culminates in a stunning final sequence which may be the best ending to any film from 2014. .It'd be one thing if the film was just a vehicle for great performances but Chazelle's direction and Tom Cross Oscar- winning' editing are stellar, making the film its own kind musical performance. The aforementioned final sequence isn't just the culmination of Andrew and Fletcher's relationship, but it also represents Chazelle reaching transcendence as a filmmaker.

The Davies Awards

Favourite Actors (Female)

Emily Browning- God Help The Girl

Emily Blunt- Edge of Tomorrow
Jessica Chastain- The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby
Marion Cotiillard- The Immigrant
Karen Gillan- Oculus
Keira Knightley- Begin Again
Felicity Jones- The Theory of Everything
Rosamund Pike- Gone Girl
Aubrey Plaza- About Alex
Zoe Kazan- The F Word

Favourite Actors (Male)

Jake Gyllenhaal- Nightcrawler

Ben Affleck- Gone Girl
Tom Cruise- Edge of Tomorrow
Chris Evans- Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Ralph Fiennes- The Grand Budapest Hotel
Michael Keaton- Birdman
James MacAvoy- X-Men: Days of Future Past
Matthew McConaughey- Interstellar
David Oyelowo- Selma
Eddie Redmayne- The Theory of Everything
Andy Serkis- Dawn of the Planet of the Apes 
Dan Stevens- The Guest
Channing Tatum- Foxcatcher
Miles Teller- Whiplash

Favourite Supporting Actors (Female)

Katherine Waterston- Inherent Vice

Patricia Arquette- Boyhood
Melissa Benoist- Whiplash
Jessica Chastain- Interstellar
Carrie Coon- Gone Girl
Kim Dickens- Gone Girl
Scarlett Johansson- Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Jane Levy- About Alex
Jena Malone- Inherent Vice
Hannah Murray- God Help The Girl
Saorise Ronan- The Grand Budapest Hotel

Favourite Supporting Actors (Male)

J.K. Simmons- Whiplash

Dave Batista- Guardians of the Galaxy
Josh Brolin- Inherent Vice
Bradley Cooper- Guardians of the Galaxy
Bryan Cranston- Godzilla
Ethan Hawke- Boyhood
Edward Norton- Birdman
Robert Pattinson- The Rover
Tyler Perry- Gone Girl
Mark Ruffalo- Foxcatcher

Favourite Directors

Wes Anderson- The Grand Budapest Hotel

Paul Thomas Anderson- Inherent Vice
Darren Aronofsky- Noah
Damian Chazelle- Whiplash
Scott Derrickson- Deliver Us From Evil
Gareth Evans- The Raid 2
David Fincher- Gone Girl
James Grey- The Immigrant
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu- Birdman 
Richard Linklater- Boyhood
John Michael McDonagh- Calvary
David Michod- The Rover
Christopher Nolan- Interstellar
Phil Lord, Christopher Miller- The Lego Movie 
Matt Reeves- Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
David Leitch, Chad Stahelski- John Wick

Favourite Screenplays

Wes Anderson- The Grand Budapest Hotel
Damien Chazelle- Whiplash
Gillian Flynn- Gone Girl
Phil Lord, Chris Miller- The Lego Movie

Favourite Action Sequences-  

Hammer Girl train fight- The Raid 2
Car chase- The Raid 2
Final fight- The Raid 2
Boat sequence- Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Highway sequence- Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Quicksilver set-piece- X-Men: Days of Future Past
Boarding the arc- Noah 
Shootout in John Wick's house- John Wick
Red Circle shootout- John Wick

Favourite Cinematographers

Jeff Cronenweth- Gone Girl

Hoyte van Hoytema- Interstellar
Darius Khondji- The Immigrant
Matthew Libatique- Noah
Emmanuel Lubeski- Birdman
Sharone Meir- Whiplash
Jonathan Sela- John Wick
Larry Smith- Calvary
Robert Yeoman- The Grand Budapest Hotel