Films! So. Many. Films! I have broken a record with this month, having seen more than a dozen films over the course of 31 days. I’m personally very chuffed with this achievement as it means I can talk about MORE films. Cinemas? Who needs em when you have streaming services, a television and a computer at your disposal?
- 28 Days Later
Danny Boyle’s highly influential and ultra-realistic take on a Britain shut down by a zombie infestation (well, they’re not the living dead but they are rabid and crazy infected people who don’t even flinch when being burnt so… zombies) is eerily relevant in today’s society but in any context, the haunting images of a deserted London and the bleak atmosphere that permeates every frame of the film is masterful filmmaking. The zombies are not the only threat here, as the survivors fight amongst themselves as the worst of humanity exposes themselves. The most compelling character in my opinion is Christopher Eccleston’s Sergeant West, who is simply doing what he believes is right for his men and for the survival of the soldiers but who is also clearly not a heroic figure. It’s a grim film yes, but I found it incredibly captivating. Also, just a couple of days ago some monkeys stole some coronavirus vaccines, so yes, 28 Days Later is about to happen.
- Crimson Peak
Guillermo del Toro is my favourite filmmaker and whilst I don’t think this is his best film, it’s still really really good. A gothic romance/horror, Crimson Peak is primarily about turning the house with which the characters reside in a character in its own right, a perfectly designed and wonderfully atmospheric setting. Like all of del Toro’s films, you don’t quite know what’s going on until the final act, where the gothic sensibilities arrive full circle and we get a tableau of colour and perfectly tuned melodrama fit for a film like this. If lead character Edith is perhaps a little bland then it’s more than made up for with Thomas Sharpe, one of del Toro’s all time great characters brought to life by a never better Tom Hiddleston. Turn off the lights, turn up the sound and immerse yourself in a rich environment of ghosts, murder and men in fancy suits arguing about money.
In 1997 Batman & Robin killed the superhero genre, and just a year later Wesley Snipes reignited it with Blade. The obscure Marvel character is a very underused and underappreciated superhero and whilst his first film is hardly a challenging work of art it is a highly stylised, highly entertaining and incredibly important blockbuster film. Blade is a daywalker, a half vampire who has dedicated his life to fighting “pure” vampires. That premise alone is enough to make you captivated but the film’s excellent blending of camp, drama, humour and action is proof that there was still blood left in the superhero movie genre that would be truly kickstarted by X-Men two years later. Blade demonstrates the importance of casting, as Wesley Snipes is Blade, to the extent where the comic book character was completely revamped to be more like his version. I am excited to see where Mahershala Ali takes the character though, and I’d encourage anyone interested in superhero films or the development of Marvel to check Blade out.
- The Raid
Essentially a two hour fight scene, and if you’re into that kinda stuff, there’s nothing wrong with that. This very famous Indonesian martial arts/generally nuts action film sees a group of highly trained policemen hunt down a drug lord by fighting their way up an apartment block where everyone has been given permission to kill them. What follows is a truly excellent set of action scenes that showcase fantastic hand to hand combat and incredibly tense suspense sequences that make you feel like you’re there in the building. On top of that, we get some good characters, from the rookie cop trying to find his brother, the close to retirement captain, to the insane drug lord they are trying to capture. At times the action can be quite exhausting but there is time in-between that allows the film to breath, take in the environment and set up the next round of action. It’s very well structured and I wish I saw this on a bigger screen than my computer screen.
- The Babadook
Talk about a film that somehow exceeded my incredibly high expectations! For years I’ve heard about this film and having finally seen it, I totally get the hype. Focusing on a widow trying to raise her son, the family is haunted by a mysterious and unseen entity known only as the Babadook. But the more Amelia tries to deny the Babadook’s existence, the more it taunts and mocks her and seizes control of her son. Far more than just a horror film, The Babadook is a fantastic, multi-layered exploration of grief and loss, reflected through the Babadook’s constant use of Amelia’s dead husband as a way to make her weaker and more susceptible to its will. Forgoing cheap jump-scares in favour for a constant sense of dread and foreboding, the action is confined almost entirely to one house but thanks to tight direction and production, scenes where seemingly nothing is happening are masterfully executed scenes of tension. Fantastic, fantastic stuff.
- Starship Troopers
Subtlety is not Paul Verhoven’s style, as this very clever anti-war and satire on American propaganda demonstrates. Here’s the thing with me and war films- I’m not interested in just seeing soldiers fight. I want to understand why they fight. Here, it’s because the Earth government has indoctrinated an entire generation of young people to want to go to war against a species that the film implies is not even a truly hostile force. Starship Troopers does not, as many people misinterpret it as, glamorise war or make it look awesome, rather it shows exactly what war does to people and how even perfectly normal and compassionate people can become essentially propaganda machines given time. It’s not subtle but it doesn’t need to be. Add to that the fact that the film’s tone is almost entirely tongue in cheek, it’s absurdly violent and over the top much like Robocop and we have a film that is very easy to understand with regards to what it is trying to say.
- Pom Poko
Do you want quite possibly the weirdest film ever made? Well, it’s here. It’s right here. This is the single strangest film I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen Okja and multiple Terry Gilliam films. How do I describe this one? Essentially, there’s a group of Japanese raccoon dogs who use magic and shapeshifting to scare industrial workers off their forest. Not weird enough? How about the fact that there’s a part where they randomly use samurai swords against each other? Or how about a sequence straight out of a horror film where the raccoon dogs turn into faceless people? Studio Ghibli usually tackles the fantastical with a heavy pinch of whimsy and that’s prevalent here but there’s a heavier does of corporate satire and underlying darkness, as the ending demonstrates. And of course, being Ghibli it’s wonderfully animated, composed and whilst the structure is downright bizarre, the ending and numerous imaginative set pieces makes this a worthy addition to Ghibli canon.
Even though I know everything about this film’s plot and surprise twists, actually watching it made me realise how well executed everything is. The dynamic between Morgan Freeman’s older, more cynical detective and Brad Pitt’s younger and more optimistic one is a wonderfully realised relationship that serves as the film’s heart and emotional centre point. The plot is unique and brilliant, with a mysterious serial killer hunting down and killing seemingly random people based on the seven deadly sins, with the two detectives none the wiser as to who it actually is. The film’s incredibly black sense of humour and macabre world view only makes the setting and story all the more gruesome, but it’s never truly unpleasant as Morgan Freeman is always there to remind the audience of the positive aspects of humans, his character being a wise sage to ground the film in reality.
- Jojo Rabbit
One of many 2019 films I missed last year, I was finally able to watch Taika Waititi’s Oscar winning black comedy about a boy living in Nazi Germany who idolises Hitler as his imaginary friend. How does Waititi not make this premise incredibly awkward? He plays Hitler, that’s how. I’ve always liked his films, but after Jojo Rabbit he’s firmly in my top five favourite directors ever. This film is an absolute masterpiece and the best film I have seen all year. It explores the loss of childhood innocence, about the power of love conquering hate and the way children are oblivious to the horrors of the real world in a powerful, funny but also gut wrenching manner. This film maintains a relatively lighthearted albeit satirical tone for the first hour then completely turns the tables for the final half an hour for an emotionally raw and poignant third act that turns the film from a charming comedy with some edgy humour into a bonafide masterpiece. And it’s all done through a quirky, child-oriented lens that demonstrates the true nature of war and violence from a juvenile perspective. Take a bow Taika, take a bow.
Before Spider-Man, before Doctor Strange, Sam Raimi’s first superhero film was this incredibly cheesy but endearing cult classic. Liam Neeson plays Liam Neeson, a scientist who is severly injured in an explosion and who decides to use his intelligence to create masks for himself to hide his scarred face, reconnect with his girlfriend and take revenge on those who wronged him. Taking in all sorts of inspiration from Phantom of the Opera to The Elephant Man to classic Marvel and DC comic books, Darkman may be a product of the 90’s but if you look beyond the camp there’s a tragically simple story about a man who goes too far into the cycle of violence and vengeance that drives his new life. The film is most effective when it focuses on the tragedy of Darkman being unable to continue living the life he had before. The influences this film had on Raimi’s superlative Spider-Man trilogy is clear so if you love his later superhero films, Darkman is essential viewing.
- The Black Cauldron
So, I’m not a Disney Animated Canon guy, but I am a fan of dark animation. And The Black Cauldron is incredibly dark by Disney animated standards. It’s not a musical and whilst it is whimsical in parts, it’s also very intense, with intelligent world building and one of the coolest animated villains of all time. The Horned King not only looks cool, but he is animated in a different style to the rest of the film and is voiced by John Hurt. He’s utterly fantastic, and the film drags when he’s not on screen in my opinion, not that it’s bad. The protagonists are not particularly complex but likeable enough and this film felt far more like a Miyazaki film than the standard Disney fare, with a focus on animated tableaus, music and abstract sequences that showcase the power of animation. THIS is a film that deserves to be remade, as a live action version of The Black Cauldron could fix the flaws the original has and considering its status as a dark horse film you can easily do the story again.
- The Blues Brothers
This is a film that would make a great stage musical… if the producers could figure out how to incorporate the insanely funny and over the top car chases on stage. Focusing on two blood brothers trying to bring their old band back together to raise funds for their orphanage, the film follows the Monty Python logic of “anything goes”. So we get an elaborate chase through a shopping centre involving multiple police cars, Carrie Fisher randomly turning up every once in a while and blowing up buildings the brothers are in, Nazis and random song and dance numbers that are not only suitable for the film’s tone but also very well put together. The film is incredibly funny and I can see the influence it had over later films like Baby Driver, and on top of that the cameos and guest roles from various musicians, singers and even Steven Spielberg are very fun to spot.
- Fear And Loathing in Las Vegas
I love Terry Gilliam films, and this utterly bizarre 1998 film is one of his strangest, and that’s saying a lot. A semi-autobiographical story about a travel writer named Raoul Duke, based off of writer Hunter S Thompson, Fear and Loathing is a very acquired taste, and even fans of Gilliam’s other works may struggle to get into it. The narrative is hard to follow at points and the leads are almost entirely unsympathetic, but what works are the performances, especially Johnny Depp as Duke. This is probably the best Johnny Depp performance I’ve seen, as he brings depth and energy into this chaotic and messy (intentionally so) character. By the film’s end, the journey undertaken is insane but also somewhat coherent, thanks to Gilliam’s talents. Through the eyes of Duke and his partner Dr Gonzo, the American perceptions of capitalism, commercialism and war are shifted and altered into opposing building blocks to Duke’s journey to nowhere, allowing Gilliam to explore the abstract nature of his characters.
- Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula
I love the Dracula story, so I’ve always meant to check out the countless film adaptations of the novel, starting with the confusingly titled Bram Stoker’s Dracula which is also Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula or “the one where Keanu Reeves goes on a linguistic tour of the British Isles before giving up and going back to Canada”. It’s a baaad attempt at an English accent, and I say this as a fan of his action films. Anyway, putting that aside, are there any other significant issues? Not really. The production design and visual style are gorgeous with countless practical effects and the score is so good I instantly listened to the entire soundtrack after watching the film. The rest of the cast, especially Gary Oldman as a very old man Dracula (OK, I’ll stop now) and Anthony Hopkins having way too much fun as van Helsing, are excellent, and whilst there are liberties with the source material, Coppola ultimately captures the novel’s themes of science vs superstition, gender roles in 19th century England, paranoia and faith. I’ll be checking out Messirs Lugosi and Lee in due course.