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A BRIEF HISTORY OF META-TEXTUALITY WITHIN CINEMA

A BRIEF HISTORY OF META-TEXTUALITY WITHIN CINEMA 

**CONTAINS FILM & LITERARY SPOILERS**

With the multitude of means of telling stories from video-games, literature, television, plays, songs, poems and of course, cinema, we have collectively become very sophisticated and experienced in our ability to understand fictional representations. Indeed, storytellers have, for centuries, attempted to find more complex and interesting ways to structure a narrative. One such way is the “story within a story” framing device. This could be: a play within a play; play within a film; TV show within a TV show; book within a film; film within a film; and so on. Indeed, Christopher Nolan’s incredibly complex science-fiction heist thriller Inception (2010) blew the audience’s mind with a dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream concept; creating an array of stunning framing devices.

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The history of storytelling as illustrated by the Routledge Encyclopaedia of Narrative Theory shows that as far back as the likes of: Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, The Arabian Nights, Edgar Allan Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, narratives are framed from various narrator perspectives either through the devices of flashbacks and flash-forwards; stories within stories; or simply changing the narrator. In regard to stories within stories my first clear memory of such a framing device was in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In the drama the Danish Prince attempts to shock a confession from his Mother and Uncle by getting the players to re-enact his father’s murder within their own play. Conversely, films within films have been a staple too of Hollywood and non-Hollywood film productions. Examples include: the classic musical Singing in the Rain (1952); Truffaut’s Day for Night (1973), Altman’s The Player (1992) to name but a few, are examples of filmmaking actually being the subject of the movie. As storytelling has further evolved, Harold Pinter’s adaptation of The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981) shows both events of John Fowles original text, but at the same time, the author of the novel involved in a love affair thus reflecting events of the book. Lastly, postmodern films such as: The Purple Rose of Cairo (1984) and The Last Action Hero (1993) even have characters from the on-screen cinema world enter the “real” world and vice versa.

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Narrative, postmodern and semiotic theorists gather plays, stories and films which quote from other texts under the umbrella of meta-fiction. Indeed, many studies, including those by post-structuralists Julia Kristeva, Gerard Genette, and subsequently by academic Daniela Casellis, assert intertextuality or meta-textuality is a shaping of a text’s meaning by another text, as well as a production within texts. Meta-textuality often involves: allusion, quotation, pastiche, parody, homage and translation. It also enables the writer or director to differentiate their product and make it somehow fresh and contemporary. For example, Quentin Tarantino’s characters, while fictional, will make all kinds of references to: television shows, films, characters, hip-hop music and even fast food joints because that’s what real people talk about every-day. While his films themselves work on a meta-textual level within: War, Westerns, crime thrillers, Kung Fu and many other genres, his characters exist in the now with their strong knowledge of popular culture.

While meta-textuality is a complex cultural theory with many different strands, I have identified four interconnecting levels within texts such as films and television.  The first level of meta-textuality is structural. Incorporating flashbacks, dreams, imagination, narration and other textual framing devices, structural meta-textuality allows the filmmaker to play and bend linearity to create a fascinating means of telling a story. Moreover, it also asks the audience to question the very nature of storytelling itself. A simple example of structural meta-textuality is in The Princess Bride (1987) where the wonderful fairy-tale stories are based around a Grandfather telling his sick grandson tales of adventure and romance. More complex is Christopher Nolan’s structural representations. His early noir classic Memento (2000) is famously told in reverse chronological fashion, thus subverting the very nature of linear storytelling. His anti-hero, Leonard Shelby, has no means of making new memories thus via tattoos and Polaroid photos he constructs a present day movie of his own life in visual form. As the story unfolds we flash back and forth to a film within a film about a character called Sammy Jankis. Yet it turns out that Sammy is an imagined character used to suppress a terrible event in Leonard’s life and the film within a film is in fact the imagined vision of an unreliable narrator.

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This second level is diegetic meta-textuality. This, on a basic level, refers to texts within texts which while featured within the story do not really comment on the text. These could involve the characters visiting the cinema, reading a book or watching a television show. The third is thematic meta-textuality where the texts within the texts directly impact the narrative, characters and themes. For example, any number of films about filmmaking or film distribution process could be classed as thematically meta-textual. Cinema releases such as: the Scream (1996) franchise, Bowfinger (1999), Boogie Nights (1997), Ed Wood, Living In Oblivion (1995), State and Main (2000), Berberian Sound Studio (2012), The Disaster Artist (2017), to name but a few, are great examples of films about filmmaking which exhibit thematic meta-fictional tropes.

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The Disaster Artist (2017) takes great delight in paying homage to Tommy Wiseau’s The Room (2003); a film which is often hailed as one of the worst ever made. The film shows how Tommy Wiseau came to make The Room (2003) and the disaster he encounters. Meta-textually, comedically and entertainment-wise this film is a highly satisfying cinematic experience. Even as the credits roll the sequence which shows scenes from The Room and re-enactments from The Disaster Artist are a joy to behold. Also thematically strong is Scream. It is especially clever because the characters are aware of the fact they are under threat and attempt to avoid death by making reference to various horror film tropes. Likewise, Tarantino’s uber-meta war film Inglourious Basterds (2009) features the fictional film Nations Pride, which both satirizes the German propaganda machine and the violent nature of war films in general. Tarantino is so obsessed by cinema that his wish fulfilment bloodlust even sees the Nazi hordes burned and shot down in an actual cinema.

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The final level is emotional meta-textuality. This idea is slightly more open to interpretation because one could argue that all aspects of storytelling are intended to illicit emotion in the audience. However, I am referring to films where the meta-fictional aspects have a deep emotional or dramatic impact on the characters. Such examples include the intriguing Will Ferrell dramedy called Stranger Than Fiction (2006). Ferrell portrays Harold Strick who suddenly finds his life is being narrated by an omniscient storyteller, who turns out to be Emma Thompson’s author. Here the narrator is presented as a God-like power dictating what she thinks is a fictional character in Strick. Ultimately, fiction and the “real” world collide in an emotionally satisfying meta-textual story of discovery and mid-life crises. Similar, but even darker in its representation of emotional meta-textuality is Tom Ford’s adaptation Nocturnal Animals (2016), from a novel by Austin Wright. Here Amy Adams character, an Art gallery owner is sent a novel by her former husband, Jake Gyllenhaal. As she reads the manuscript a film within a film opens up which shows events that symbolise the wrongs he feels she has done to him. In the final revelatory scenes the emotional impact is damning to her life decisions and she is left alone, in the dark, with her own guilty thoughts.

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In keeping with historical and literary modes of storytelling many films will deliver their stories in a meta-textual fashion using structural, diegetic, extra-diegetic and emotional methods. Furthermore, some films will utilise these all at the same time. One such screenwriter and filmmaker is Charlie Kaufman. His works such as: Being John Malkovich (1999), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and Adaptation (2002) offer mind-blowing meta-textuality. Adaptation, starring Nicolas Cage, for example, features a screenwriter called Charlie Kaufmann trying to adapt a book called The Orchid Thief but suffering writer’s block. Instead he begins to write a screenplay about a screenwriter struggling to write an adaptation of The Orchid Thief. Did he I also mention he has a twin brother called Donald who is also a screenwriter. Now, I could begin to analyse Adaptation but that would be a whole different story within and story within a story. . .

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HEREDITARY (2018) – CINEMA REVIEW

HEREDITARY (2018) – CINEMA REVIEW

Directed by: Ari Aster

Produced by: Kevin Frakes, Ridley Scott, Buddy Patrick

Written by: Ari Aster

Starring: Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd, Gabriel Byrne

Music by: Colin Stetson

Cinematography: Pawel Pogorzelski

**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**

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I’m tempted to do two reviews of this movie. Because there’s a minority part of me that feels its bravura and beautifully crafted horror film; but the majority part just could not get over the illogical and surreal elements which unhinge the carefully plotted family tragedy it promised to be. Nonetheless, the writer and director Ari Aster is clearly an ultra-talented filmmaker who deserves much praise for creating a series of impressively creepy scenes throughout. Still, he does throw a lot of ideas at the wall hoping they stick so many critics will probably love Hereditary, unfortunately it lost me some way through due to a major plot and tonal turn which, while foreshadowed, did not really make any emotional sense.

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The story begins with the Graham family mourning the death of Annie Graham’s (Toni Collette) mother. From beginning to the end Collette’s portrayal is absolutely incredible and she deserves any awards that are coming to her. Indeed, Collette anchors the film with moving and incredibly dramatic performance. Her character is very empathetic suffering tragedy after tragedy and attempting to come to terms with the devastation life brings.  She is ably supported by Gabriel Byrne as her husband; while Alex Wolff and Milly Shapiro offer excellent support as their troubled kids. Shapiro especially is well cast as the unstable teenage girl who may or may not have some darker force within her.

The film begins slowly and creeps along for forty minutes or so building dread and atmosphere. Collette has some fine speeches about grief and family relationships and this is where the writing is very strong. These scenes showcase Collette’s acting ability before the action takes a vicious twist with one grandstanding horror moment half-way through. This is where, in my view, the film suddenly started to become lop-sided and full of debateable plot-holes. Don’t get me wrong, if you read the film as a supernatural fantasy full of surreal and dream logic like the cinema of Luis Bunuel and David Lynch, you can swallow much of what happens in the final act.  Moreover, symbolically and thematically Hereditary is very strong with issues relating to grief and dysfunctional family relationship very well explored. However, due to a ridiculous final act where the film moves away from this my empathy for the family was lost in a number of wildly over-the-top scenes, which while scary, made little sense in my humble opinion.

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Hereditary (2018) is a “Mother” of a horror film!!  Indeed, it has much in common with last year’s divisive work of cinema directed by Darren Aronofsky called Mother (2017). Like Mother (2017) it is a brilliantly directed horror story with great acting throughout, that alas, falls apart at the end with narrative illogic, plot-holes and a laughable denouement. It’s a shame because the first half of Hereditary is beautifully set up. The visual style involving miniatures, shadows, weird dolls’ head and bird decapitations is creepy and very impressive. However, the filmmaker’s fantastic work is destabilised by a narrative desire to twist the film into something pretty crazy. Yet, Ari Aster deserves much praise for taking risks in the horror genre and his and Collette’s craft are of the highest order; at least until the ending.

(Mark 7.5 out of 11)

CONTRASTING DREAMS: REVIEWING THE WORK OF AUTHOR – PHILIP K. DICK

CONTRASTING DREAMS ON PAGE AND SCREEN: REVIEWING THE WORK OF PHILIP K. DICK 

“Today we live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups… So I ask, in my writing, what is real? I do not distrust their motives; I distrust their power. They have a lot of it. And it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind. I ought to know. I do the same thing.”

― Philip K. Dick

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INTRODUCTION

For a writer who wrote extensively about artificial intelligence and technology, Philip K. Dick himself was in fact a certifiable writing machine, publishing over 44 novels, a further 120-odd short stories, plus a whole vision of manuscripts, essays and other literary paraphernalia. His death at the relatively young age of 53 took an incredible genius away from us; however, you’re never too far away from his work either on TV, computer or at the cinema.

The latest cinema release inspired by Dick’s vision was the beautifully directed space epic Blade Runner 2049 (2017). Here Denis Villeneuve picked up the baton from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982); an adaptation of K. Dick’s seminal novel Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep (1968). But of course his stories have also given us film adaptations including: Minority Report (2002), Total Recall (1990 & 2012), The Adjustment Bureau (2011), Next (2007), Paycheck (2003), A Scanner Darkly (2006) etc. Moreover, Amazon has recently adapted his classic 1962 alternate history novel The Man in the High Castle (2015) to positive acclaim.

With Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror jumping ship to Netflix, Channel Four UK (Sony / Amazon in the U.S.A) and various other production companies) must have felt there was a “futuristic anthology show” hole in their schedule. Thus, they obtained the rights to Philip K. Dick’s back catalogue and produced a show called Electric Dreams – shown in two halves in 2017 and 2018. The production values were very high and some extremely talented actors, producers, writers and directors were brought in to bring ten Dickian short stories to the TV screen. Such creative luminaries included: Janelle Monae, Dee Rees, Ronald Moore, Juno Temple, Bryan Cranston, David Farr, Matthew Graham, Timothy Spall, Jack Thorne, Steve Buscemi, Anna Paquin, Terrence Howard, Travis Beacham, Richard Madden, Vera Farmiga and many more.

I have immersed myself in the novels, cinema and TV work inspired by Philip K. Dick recently. I was fascinated by the themes and narratives represented and comparisons between the literary and screen works.  How did they compare to Dick’s original vision and how do they differ?

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NIGHTMARE THEMES IN ELECTRIC DREAMS

Of late I have read his novels Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep (1968), Ubik (1969) and the collection of short stories – collated in conjunction with the Channel 4 series – Electric Dreams. Moreover, I have seen most of his works adapted for cinema. His narratives are often hallucinatory and dream-like with simple yet devastating prose. They deal in reality, alternative reality and beyond reality. You’re often in a place where you are unsure as to what is occurring is in the real world or some imagined or manufactured nightmare. Technology, disease and war are more than often a threat.  The biggest threat though is humanity and its seeming endless proclivity for inventing weapons, machines and viruses with which to kill. Paranoia and doubt infect Dick’s work making you feel as trapped as his characters. Further, mutated strands of humanity are a staple trope where telepaths and empaths inhabit his oeuvre; along with classic science fiction aliens and monsters from outer space too.

The narratives, while possessing an otherworldly and futuristic feel, paradoxically feel realistic because his characters are everyday people. They are rarely action heroes or soldiers or scientists but rather administrators or office staff, factory or transport workers. They are family people trying to make their way through life and the horrors the world throws at them. Given Dick was writing during the 1950s onwards it’s not surprising that the threat of nuclear war hung heavy within his words. Furthermore, the rapid technological breakthroughs which, while offering hope for humanity, brought with it a movement to the loss of free will and a possible future governed by machines. Big corporations, banks, governments and computers all erode and destroy the very fabric of being in Dick’s world rendering human identity and existence obsolete. His universe is brimming with people under threat, humans desiring to escape and a questioning of what it means to be human.

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CONTEXTUALISING THE NIGHTMARES

**CONTAINS FILM AND LITERARY SPOILERS**

Adapting Dick’s work can be complex because what works on the page as a concept can be difficult to transfer to a visual medium. Conversely, his work is often altered beyond recognition with fragments of the initial idea remaining while others stay true to the original. The original and subsequent sequel of Bladerunner (1982) are very faithful to the structure and futuristic vision of Dick’s original novel; retaining the ‘hunting of replicants’ plot and the existential question of whether an android can be considered human. In Electric Dreams the adaptation of the short story Human Is. . . . poses a similar question. In this story a wife faces the choice as to whether her husband, whose body has been invaded by an alien, is in fact more human because he is an improvement and displaying idealised human traits such as kindness and love. The flipside of this occurs in the film adaptation of Imposter (2002), and the short story adaptation The Father Thing, where nefarious aliens hell-bent on invasion take over the humans in order to divide and conquer. Human Is…  both the short story and television adaptation are particularly convincing as many people have all been trapped in dying relationships where we wish we could change our partner.  Dick’s story takes this idea and makes it real and emotionally very powerful.

Certain filmmakers, when adapting Dick’s work, will mould their style to his vision. For example, in the Steven Spielberg directed thriller Minority Report (2002), Dick’s pre-crime conspiracy model was presented as an action pursuit film with Tom Cruise going on the run for a crime he may or may not have committed.  Spielberg retains the initial idea and concepts relating to pre-cognitive telepathy and empathic mutation but renders it a more fast-paced and spectacular cinematic experience. Similarly, telepathy and mutants feature heavily in Matthew Graham’s pretty faithful adaptation of The Hoodmaker. Like Minority Report telepaths are exploited by the government and law to do their bidding, only for the system to be corrupted and used for death by those in power.

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Dick’s story We Can Remember it For You Wholesale, has been adapted on two occasions as Total Recall (1990 and 2012). Paul Verhoeven’s earlier version about warring government agents and colonies on Mars is an absolute blast. Dick’s concepts relating to alternative realities and implanted memories are fused with an explosive Arnold Schwarzenegger action film. Yet, what is retained amidst the shoot-outs and spectacular set-pieces is the main protagonists’ life dissatisfaction and desire to escape their everyday existence for something more exciting. This is a common theme in Dick’s work and can also be found in the Electric Dreams’ stories Impossible Planet and The Commuter. In the latter a Station clerk finds a hitherto lost “town” which offers a means of escape from his seemingly humdrum life but it comes at a cost. While Total Recall raises the pace and stakes within an interplanetary setting, The Commuter is more ordinary and emotional in its cerebral representation.

Political, social and technological corruption is present in many of Dick’s other works too. In Richard Linklater’s adaptation of A Scanner Darkly (2006), an undercover cop battles to conceal his identity while struggling with drug addiction. While in Electric Dreams, Dee Rees’ rendition of Dick’s short story The Hanging Man, takes an allegorical story about social unrest and fascistic hangings, turning it into a thought-provoking, paranoiac nightmare scenario. Rees calls her story Kill All Others, where we find Mel Rodriguez’s factory worker driven by fake news and political manipulation during an election. This eerily reflects much of the social and media saturation seen during Donald Trump’s U.S. election win. Likewise the adaptation of Foster, Your Dead became the very impactful Safe and Sound; and examined the deadly possibilities of technology firms manipulating youth within the context of the war on terror.

Arguably not as successful, however, was the Tony Grisoni adaptation called Crazy Diamond. This episode completely altered Dick’s story Sales Pitch, which told of a relentless Sales-Bot who won’t take no for an answer. In fact I had no idea what Crazy Diamond was trying to say and perhaps the writer should have stuck to Dick’s intriguing techo-nightmare premise.  Indeed, threat of technology and the inevitable doom progress represents is also presented in the excellent episode called Autofac. Dick wrote this story in 1955 and set it after an apocalyptic world war has devastated Earth’s civilizations. All that remains is a network of hardened robot “Autofacs” supplying goods to the human survivors. However, these drones and bots are in fact hindering survival and the idea is incredibly prescient. Indeed with the rise of Amazon and Google and Apple industries our society is becoming more dependent on such technology to the extent we could be classed as helpless without it.    

Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams

CONCLUSION

Lastly, what Electric Dreams demonstrates, along with the many film adaptations of his work, is that Dick’s concepts are just as relevant, if not more so than at the time of writing. Moreover, what this thematic and genre contextualisation of Dick’s work illustrates is that universal themes such as: the desire to escape; what it means to be human; media manipulation; fear of technology and war; oppressive government regimes; and all round insidious paranoia about a very dark future are inescapable and will always be part of society and the human condition.

*Article originally appeared on http://www.sothetheorygoes.com*

 

SCREENWASH – WORLD CINEMA SPECIAL including reviews of: THE SQUARE (2017), ISLE OF DOGS (2018), JULIETA (2016) etc.

SCREENWASH – WORLD CINEMA REVIEW SPECIAL!

Technically speaking all films made can be labelled World Cinema because all films made were made on this Earth or World. As yet we know of no movies from other planets, so World Cinema has come to refer to films made in a foreign language or language other than English. I mean what do people from other countries call films made in English?  And does it matter. All this fluffing is really a means to introduce a selection of films from various countries other than the United Kingdom (another debatable term these days), that I have watched at the cinema, on DVD or streamed off the box. As usual I accompany my reviews with marks out of eleven.

**A SUGGESTION OF SPOILERS**

 

THE INNOCENTS (2016) – FRANCE / POLAND

Brace yourself for a truly heart-breaking and tragic WW2 narrative. This film inspired by true events finds a young French doctor assisting a nunnery and the various occupants who became victim to vicious rapist Soviet soldiers. This is a grim story that is shot and directed with great pathos and compassion. It brought a heavy heart and a tear to the eye as the heroic women battle against the dogs of war, while bringing new life into this retched world.

(Mark: 8.5 out of 11)

ISLE OF DOGS (2018) – JAPAN / USA

Put aside ridiculous millennial online accusations of cultural appropriation and submerge yourself within Wes Anderson’s rich narrative and stop-motion tapestry. I’m not always a fan of his story subjects but he is a master of style and form. Isle of Dogs is no different and was a wonderful cinematic experience. Set, obviously, in Japan we concentrate on, hence the title, a bunch of stray dogs dumped on a wasteland left to die. This is much darker than prior Anderson films but full of the imagination, wit, colour and brilliant technique, containing funny gags and twisting drama throughout.

(Mark: 8.5 out of 11)

JULIETA (2016) – SPAIN

I only really got into Pedro Almodovar’s cinema in the last few years and Julieta, while not as complex in terms of structure as other films, is just as emotionally effective.  It concerns our eponymous protagonist who on chancing an encounter with her estranged daughter’s former school mate finds her past colliding disastrously with her future. Emma Suarez and Adriana Ugarte portray the older and younger versions of Julieta as she reflects on the events which tore her life apart. Containing some beautiful filmmaking and one incredible cut halfway through, this is mournful, meditative and mature storytelling of the highest order.

(Mark: 8.5 out of 11)


L’AVVENTURA
(1960) – ITALY

Michelangelo Antonioni is rightly lauded as one of the great Italian auteurs. He has directed some incredible films including: Blow Up (1966), The Passenger (1975) and the film L’Notte (1961). I watched L’Avventura on a Sunday morning and perhaps I wasn’t in the mood but it did not connect with me. I found it slow and pretentious and while the mystery of a missing socialite had some element of suspense the rich, narcissistic characters bored me. The acting from Monica Vitti was especially impactful and the scenery was beautiful, however, Antonioni’s existential narrative was a let-down. It was especially surprising to find that historically the film had been voted one of the best films ever made.

Mark: 7 out of 11)

THE ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN (1967) – HONG KONG

I recorded this one on Film Four on a whim having been drawn in by the fact it was directed by the Shaw Brothers Studio. Their films were of course a massive influence on Tarantino’s Kill Bill (2003/4) duo of kung-Fu revenge films. The One-Armed Swordsman I found to be slightly cheesy due to the dubbing but overall an excellent wuxia epic with loads of great sword fights and a very effective narrative. Ultimately this is Great Expectations with weapons as a young servant child is adopted by a rich family only to grow up disrespected by his adopted siblings. Gang warfare rages in the rural territories and the young man grows up to be a fighter of some repute; even with only one arm. Both a tremendous action film and effective socialist critique of the ruling classes I found this an entertaining, funny and emotional wuxia classic.

(Mark: 8.5 out of 11)


THE SQUARE
(2017) – SWEDEN / FRANCE / GERMANY

The 2017 Cannes Palm D’Or winner is half brilliantly funny arthouse satire and half sub-Haneke allegorical mid-life crisis thriller. Written and directed by Ruben Ostlund this is bravura cinema of the highest order as we find Claes Bang’s museum curator bumbling through various work, romance and private disasters.  Throughout there are some wonderful digs at the nature of modern art and how essentially people will believe any old crap to be art if it is put in a gallery. There are a number of hilarious satirical set-pieces including the “Tourette’s” scene and the “performance ape-ist” scene. While a tad overlong and bogged down slightly in the lead protagonist’s personal life this is a wonderfully, funny film with some great commentary on modern art, mocking of the bourgeoisie and a warning re: the rise of social media.

(Mark: 9 out of 11)


SHIN GODZILLA
(2016) – JAPAN

Having seen Hollywood appropriate their Gojira creation for two films in 1998 and 2014, the Japanese released their own resurgent version in 2016. Part-disaster-part-monster-part-social-commentary this creature feature is actually pretty good. It is driven structurally at first by a flurry of government meetings where hundreds of officials spend their time in meetings rather than actually solve anything. Clearly, this is a critique of Japanese government bureaucracy and the movie works well on that level. The characters who later come to the fore are left behind somewhat and the romantic subplot is poorly done.  Yet, when the Godzilla monster brings Tokyo to the edge of destruction the effects, while a bit wonky in places, are a riotous mix of laser CGI and man-in-suit-green-screen shots.

(Mark: 7.5 out of 11)

 

SCREENWASH HORROR REVIEWS: A QUIET PLACE (2018) & UNSANE (2018)

SCREENWASH HORROR REVIEWS: UNSANE (2018) & A QUIET PLACE (2018)

Many of us like to be scared and thrilled and made tense, especially if it is in the darkened recesses of the cinema. Because as the adrenaline and stress levels rise we know, at the back of our minds, we’re safe. Nothing can actually harm us because it’s happening on a screen. Yet witnessing characters in danger of harm or death can be an exhilarating and cathartic experience for many. Indeed, watching films of the horror or thriller genres is subconsciously akin to a near-death experience; as facing the reaper from a position of relative safety is part of the excitement of going to the movies.

I do love a good horror or thriller – I really do! So was really pleased when two decent ones came out at the cinema last week. Thus, here are two reviews for the price of one of Unsane (2018) and A Quiet Place (2018); both with the usual mark out of eleven.

A QUIET PLACE (2018)

Directed By: John Krasinski

Produced by: Michael Bay, Andrew Form, Brad Fuller

Screenplay by: Bryan Woods/Scott Beck & John Krasinski

Starring: Emily Blunt, John Krasinski

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Without hardly any fanfare or major marketing campaign this superior monster film has crept up and, in a similar fashion to Get Out (2017), really got audiences flexing their “word-of-mouth” muscles. In fact, while it doesn’t have the socio-political dimension of Jordan Peele’s Oscar winner, I actually think it’s an even better horror film. Throughout A Quiet Place my heart was literally living in my mouth as my fingers and knuckles clenched and whitened during the whole tense escapade.

The story is quickly and economically established via a brilliant opening scene full of dread and silence. Emily Blunt and John Krasinski’s “every-couple” and their three children are surviving in a post-invasion period where monstrous creatures have wreaked havoc on Earth. Using sound to hunt humans must remain absolutely silent or: NO MORE HUMANS!!  This simple but ingenious premise drives the story and action as the lean and powerful script delivers some incredible moments of horror and suspense. The real-life husband and wife acting team bring a believable humanity to the characters and Blunt especially is phenomenal in her reaction and character work.

Mark: 9.5 out of 11

 

UNSANE (2018)

Directed by: Steven Soderbergh

Produced by: Joseph Malloch

Written by: Jonathan Bernstein/James Greer

Starring: Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Jay Pharoah, Juno Temple

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Unlike A Quiet Place this Steven Soderbergh directed thriller focusses on a different kind of monster; that which lives silently in the recesses of the mind. Claire Foy portrays, the unlikely named Sawyer Valentini, a financial analyst who after visiting a psychotherapist finds herself plunged into a horrific ordeal on a psychiatric ward which threatens her sanity.

This is a gripping story which, despite a few plot-holes, raises the tension and drama by making us unsure as to whether Foy’s character is a reliable or unreliable narrator. Soderbergh, who apparently shot much of the film on an IPhone 7, is an expert filmmaker as we feel trapped and claustrophobic during the lead protagonist’s hellish nightmare.

Like his previous film, the brilliant Side Effects (2013), the film also has important points to make about the Healthcare system in the United States, and overall I was drawn in by Foy’s excellent performance. I also liked the fact that she was kind of unlikeable too as the uncertainly whether to believe her paranoiac delusions propelled this fascinating low-budget-B-movie narrative.

Mark: 8 out of 11

 

THE NETFLIX PARADOX: RANDOM THOUGHTS, including reviews of: ANNIHILATION (2018), MUTE (2018), OZARK (2017) and more.

THE NETFLIX PARADOX: RANDOM THOUGHTS ON A MODEL including quick reviews of: ANNIHILATION (2018), BRIGHT (2018), MUTE (2018), OZARK (2017), and others etc.

I first subscribed to Netflix around four years ago when my Sky TV dish was out of action. Being a film and TV addict, Netflix was a godsend and easily fixed my desire for continuous viewing. It was cheap and had loads of older and not so older content including: drama box-sets, comedy, new film releases and classic cinema. Then, a couple of years ago Netflix decided to begin producing its own original content and many of the shows released have been excellent.

There’s SO many great shows to mention but programmes such as: It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Black Mirror, Mindhunter, Breaking Bad, Making a Murderer, Better Call Saul, American Horror Story, Doctor Who, Stranger Things, Fargo, American Crime Story; plus the back catalogue of: stand-up comedy specials, documentaries, BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and US cable shows I’ve re-watched all make Netflix a brilliant virtual online video shop. In fact, given the amount of output I have NOT seen one might say there are TOO MANY shows with not enough time to consume them all.

Of late they have released a number of, what one would class as, proper cinema films such as: Okja (2017), Beasts of No Nation (2015), Cloverfield Paradox (2018) and many more. But rather than being given the chance to watch them on the big screen they have gone direct to the streaming platform. I think this is a shame as experiencing a film in the cinema can enhance the enjoyment. It cannot save a poor story yet it would be great to have the choice to see these films on the silver screen. I wonder how sustainable it is though. Surely a big budget film makes its profits from cinema-goers as well as subsequent DVD and BLU-RAY sales. How do, aside from subscriptions, Netflix make their money back on big budget products? And should I care?  I probably shouldn’t worry at all. I’m just an ordinary Joe who at the moment is binge watching Mad Men and Star Trek (original series onwards) and only have to pay a tenner a month for the privilege.

Ultimately, the Netflix streaming model grows bigger and bigger and their model may prove revolutionary and make going to cinema a thing of the past. I doubt that but you never know. They once said sound wouldn’t take off and look what happened there. Anyway, enough of the random debate, during the last few months I’ve continued watching some of Netflix’ biggest releases and here’s a few quick reviews of said product with the usual marks out of eleven.

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ANNIHILATION (2018)

Alex Garland is a brilliant writer and his debut film Ex Machina (2014) was a stunning sci-fi character drama. His second film is an adaptation of a book by Jeff VanderMeer. In it a group of scientists venture into an apparent alien invasion in order to investigate a weird landscape called “The Shimmer”. Slow and meditative with flurries of monstrous action, Annihilation, was brilliantly made but Garland’s steady pace does the story no favours and I failed to connect with the characters or narrative. Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh stand out amidst an excellent cast but while beautiful to look at the film left me cold. (Mark: 7 out of 11)

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BETTER CALL SAUL (2017) – SEASON 3

We are now onto Season 3 of Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould’s legal prequel to Breaking Bad and once again it proves itself a brilliantly written character drama. Still working under his original name, Jimmy McGill continues subtle battle with his big-shot lawyer brother Chuck, portrayed superbly by Michael McKean. With Jonathan Banks and Rhea Seehorn again provide fantastic acting support, this is always an absorbing watch as Bob Odenkirk again steals the show as the cheeky ducker-and-diver-lawyer. (Mark: 9 out of 11)

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BRIGHT (2017)

David Ayer follows up the almighty mess that was Suicide Squad (2017) with a kind of remake of his early millennial classic Training Day (2001). But rather than Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke doing battle with gangs and crooked cops we get Will Smith and Joel Edgerton doing battle with orcs, dwarves, elves and crooked cops. It’s a bloody weird mix of magical fantasy and buddy cop drama but I was pretty entertained by it all and Smith and Edgerton were worth watching despite the meshing of two unlikely genres. (Mark: 6.5 out of 11)

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MUTE (2018)

Duncan Jones’ directorial follow up to the disappointing Warcraft (2017) is another massive fail all round. Everything about it fails to entertain despite a cast including the brilliant Paul Rudd and Justin Theroux. Alexander Skarsgaard portrays an Amish mute hunting down his missing girlfriend in a futuristic Berlin setting. Aside from the pristine Bladerunner style visuals there is no real reason for the futuristic setting and the noir story just does not add up to anything in terms of drama, proving ultimately to be both illogical and in poor taste.   (Mark: 4 out of 11)

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OZARK (2017) – SEASON 1

This is a fantastic crime drama featuring an enthralling narrative and brilliant acting from both Jason Bateman and Laura Linney. Bateman plays an accountant who has to go on the run with his family to Ozark, Missouri while working for a murderous Mexican drug cartel. I won’t give anything else but this is up there with Breaking Bad at times with its violence, twisting plots and dark humour. Bateman, who directs many episodes too, is like a metronome of perfect delivery as his Marty Byrde flies by the seat of his pants staying one step ahead of: the local gangsters, religious nuts, the FBI and the aforesaid Cartel. (Mark: 9 out of 11)

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THE PUNISHER (2017 – SEASON 1

Marvel’s latest TV offering in conjunction with Netflix suffers similarly to other shows in that it struggles to stretch the story over 13 episodes. Having said that, any show starring John Bernthal, literally bursts off the TV screen with machismo, crunching physicality and some sensitivity too. Set after the events of Daredevil (S2), Frank is off the grid trying to overcome the grief of losing his family but it’s not long before he’s battling military bad guys looking to finish him off. The script has some depth too as in delves into the horror of post-war stress disorder and those soldiers disregarded by society. Yet it’s Bernthal’s brutal performance that holds the interest through this very watchable series.

(Mark: 8 out of 11)

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THE SINNER (2017) – SEASON 1

Starring Jessica Biel and Bill Pullman this expertly crafted six-part crime drama begins with a cracking opening episode that pulls you right into its grasp. Biel portrays Cora Tannetti, a mother and wife, who suddenly finds herself in the midst of a criminal investigation that threatens to tear her life apart. Pullman, the sympathetic police detective with dark secrets of his own, investigates the crimes and attempts to uncover the truth. This is a twisted tale full of sexual tension, religious fervour and sudden violence; and aside from one gaping plot hole it had me gripped throughout. Biel and Pullman are especially committed to their roles as the script, based on Petra Hammesfahr’s novel, goes to some very dark places.  (Mark: 8.5 out of 11)

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CLASSIC MOVIE SCENES #4 – ZODIAC (2007) “The Basement Scene”

CLASSIC MOVIE SCENES #4 – ZODIAC (2007) “The Basement Scene”

Directed by: David Fincher

Produced by: Mike Medavoy, Arnold W. Messer, Bradley J. Fischer, Ceán Chaffin

Screenplay by: James Vanderbilt

Based on: Zodiac & Zodiac Unmasked by Robert Graysmith

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr., Anthony Edwards

 

Arguably, the finest thriller director around at the moment is David Fincher. His film Zodiac (2007) was a detailed analysis of the characters involved in the hunt for the eponymous serial killer. It’s a film full of brutal murders and obsessive characters, notably Jake Gyllenhaal’s cartoonist turned investigator, Robert Graysmith. His character almost goes insane discovering who the Zodiac killer; so much so he risks losing everything – including his mind!

Toward the end of the film, Graysmith interviews Bob Vaughn (Charles Fleischer), a film projectionist, and the suspense is created literally out of nothing. The total absence of a known nemesis creates an unlikely amount of tension, especially allied with the way Fincher shoots in shadows and frames his characters. Graysmith is not seemingly in any danger but his paranoia, claustrophobia and growing sense of unease petrifies him until he is forced to flee. In fact, the thriller genre convention of revealing the murderer is, like in the real-life case of the Zodiac, rejected; thus catharsis is denied to the audience throughout this nail-biting paranoiac thriller classic.

Jake Gyllenhaal’s sweaty, panicked performance is perfect here as is his counterpart Charles Fleischer, who seems scary without even trying. Moreover, while it seems obvious to state that a director is the one controlling the various creative aspects of a film, David Fincher is one of those filmmakers whose form and style is often remarkable. This scene is testament to his skills as a cinematic craftsman par excellence.

For an excellent analysis of the “basement scene” check this link out too: