Saturday, 21 April 2018

Top 100 Favourite Films: #40-31

#40: Terminator 2: Judgment Day – Grabbing the metallic throat of destiny

Watching “classic” films for me has always come with a certain amount of baggage. I feel like, because a given feature has garnered legendary status since its initial release, I’m under some obligation to at least understand why, let alone agree with the masses. This film is one of the major exceptions to that, as not only was it instantly clear why this film has held up as well as it has, I also fell in love with the thing pretty damn quickly.

As an action flick, James Cameron is at his absolute peak here, using both outstanding practical effects and CGI that still looks amazing today to bring tightly-constructed carnage to the frame. As eve-of-destruction sci-fi, it carries some very vivid and haunting imagery about the potential future where machines have turned humans into an endangered species. As a character piece, it shows a finely-tuned approach to misdirection initially considering Schwarzenegger’s Terminator and Robert Patrick’s T-1000, but then goes on to flesh out the OG Terminator alongside the increasingly badass Sarah Connor and even the occasionally-annoying John Connor.

But the big highlight here for me is that this sequel represents the crystallization of the original film’s biggest themes: Fate, destiny, and how humanity must take control of its own. While this particular message is one that the following instalment Rise Of The Machines would outright defy, resulting in a complete betrayal of both this and the first film, here, we are given a story about knowing of the cybernetic horrors of the future and going “NO! We will not let this happen! We will not let our future be dictated by others! We will take it back!”. This film already has major bragging rights as an impeccable sequel, an incredible sci-fi/action flick and as a surprisingly solid piece of feminist cinema through Linda Hamilton’s mesmerizing turn as Sarah Connor, but it’s also a look at how we need to take control of our own fate. I don’t pay much mind to the idea of things being pre-determined and completely outside of our control, and if I ever get asked why, I’ll just point to this film and go “Did they just shut up and take it?”

#39: Saw III – The heart of a serial killer

A lot of genre fans have that one film series that they cherish above all others. The one that makes their true inner fan burst straight up to the surface whenever it gets mentioned in conversation. A Nightmare On Elm Street definitely ranks high-up with me, but more than any other film series, horror or otherwise, no one franchise appeals to me more than the Saw movies. It appeals to a lot of what I look for when it comes to longer-running film series: An evolving but always-maintained continuity between films, a central character worth highlighting with Tobin Bell’s iconic turn as the Jigsaw Killer, and an approach to ideas of morality and the human survival instinct that scratch quite a few of my philosophical itches.

And this is the film that started it all for me. What began as a last-minute tagging along when my uncle went to go see this threequel at the cinema turned into a day out that I would never forget. Part of me is somewhat enticed by the rather bloody, gross and otherwise grotesqueness of how graphic this film can get, from a man nearly drowning in putrefied pig guts to another man in danger of having every one of his limb twisted to the literal breaking point. But mostly, I like this because of how it looks at the very idea of a “legacy serial killer”, with the relationship between Bell’s murderous mentor and Shawnee Smith’s vengeful protégé Amanda. It grabs onto the moral murkiness of the premise with both hands and look at how the Jigsaw traps not only have a real potential for changing a person’s appreciation for their life, but also a potential to be warped into the very thing that John Kramer despises.

Add to this the trap gauntlet run by Angus Macfadyen’s Jeff, who is given a series of opportunities to take revenge on those who stopped his son’s killer from getting what Jeff sees as his rightful punishment, and there’s an interesting contrast in regards to the notion of what it takes to save a life. To preserve a life. To make that life one worth living again. The moral dubiousness of Jigsaw’s ultimate intentions actually ring true here as, between Jeff’s trial by fire and Amanda’s conflicts with Jigsaw, we are shown that there is a line between the more traditional serial killer and the kind that John Kramer and his students represent. The direction by Darren Lynn Bousmann and the characteristically human writing courtesy of Aussie scribe Leigh Whannell merge with the performances to deliver the kind of unsettling but thought-provoking ride that I will willingly take over and over again.

#38: The Matrix – The ideal vehicle for sci-fi spirituality

Anything I said about Fight Club and its subsequent following can be applied here and then some. Except here, the decidedly conservative reading of this film will never cease to not make sense with me. The idea that this feature, one with many nuances relating to personal identity and even transgenderism, made by two transgender sisters, would go on to inspire a legion of condescending right-wingers looking to “show people the truth” is insane to me. The people who most frequently use the term “red pill” to describe their own words and actions are the people least likely to actually agree with either the film’s true conceit or the intentions of the people who made it. I love being able to discuss films I love with others, so you can imagine my chagrin at the prospect of talking about this one with that class of people.

Removed from the more collective reaction to this, my own reaction is quite simple: As a means of using science-fiction tropes to explore notions of spirituality and philosophy, this might be the single most ideal example of that process. The production takes elements from dimly-lit social sci-fi, Hong Kong action flicks and even a few touches of Gnosticism and mashes them all together in a way that allows each individual piece to both flourish on its own and strengthen the whole. The acting is solid, with Keanu Reeves giving one of his patented “love it or be bored by it” performances (personally, I think Keanu is an incredibly underrated actor) and Hugo Weaving’s instantly-recognizable turn as Agent Smith. The action beats are phenomenal and would go on to inspire a lot of what would come after it (for better and for worse) and while the writing carries quite a few logical gaps as to the logistics of the Matrix itself, it still carries a sense of understanding about its own ponderings to be able to flesh out the headier ideas. The way this looks at the core concept of societal control, showing varying degrees by which those within the Matrix wish to be free from it, is quite gripping and results in a film that engages me on both visceral and cerebral terms.

#37: Secretary – BDSM really isn’t that scary

With the Fifty Shades series finally coming to a close this year, it kind of hurts that knowing those three films are the most mainstream depiction of the bondage-discipline sadomasochistic lifestyle. It doesn’t even come close to being accurate, and the idea of that being taken at face value as the real deal is worrying. I say this as someone who knows how much media can influence people and as someone with a certain degree of personal experience when it comes to BDSM practices.

This is also why I hold this particular film in such high regard, as this gives not only an accurate depiction of a dominant/submissive relationship, it translates it so well that it fits into the usually light-hearted tone of most romantic comedies. Brought to life with irresistible sexiness by Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader, this serves as a very sweet and at-times cute look at an area of sexuality that has been and continues to be dangerously misunderstood. It highlights not only the arrangements such a relationship entails but also looks into the psychological benefits that the right kind of sexuality can bring, shown here through Gyllenhaal’s Lee and her history of mental illness. It even manages to bypass the usual “people who do BDSM are mentally damaged” horseshit by showing the genuine good that can come out of such an arrangement. It’s not as scary as the exploits of Douchebag Triumphant Christian Grey; in fact, it can be rather fun for the right person.

#36: The Incredibles – What makes superhero teams work made obvious

There’s a golden rule when it comes to stories about teams of superheroes: They have to be shown as a cohesive whole, treating each other just as much like family as work colleagues. In the modern age of Marvel, where both films and comic books seem to be focusing far more on heroes fighting other heroes than heroes fighting villains, this seems to have fallen by the wayside and resulted in quite a few damaged-on-arrival offerings. I mean, do I even need to bring up the utter shambles that was Fant4stic?

This film, a genuine turning point in a lot of ways for Disney/Pixar, holds up in a number of regards. It presented the next evolution in CGI technology as far as rendering realistic-ish humans, it showed that one man could helm both writing and directing and come out with a winner (one of many for family filmmaker extraordinaire Brad Bird) and it took that golden rule for superhero teams and made it as glaringly obvious as possible: He gave us a literal family of superheroes. The family dynamics are incredibly tight, the acting is beautiful and all of the Incredibles are perfectly cast, the action is captivating, the humour is solid, and even the smaller moments manage to illustrate a lot about the characters. This did such a good job at the Fantastic Four’s formula that, when it came time for Tim Story’s quite misguided 2005 interpretation, it had to be significantly altered from the original script to avoid direct comparisons with this. While the mission for a genuinely good Fantastic Four movie continues to elude most audiences, maybe we don’t need to keep looking. It may not be one by name, but we certainly have one; a gloriously amazing one at that.

#35: Cloud Atlas – A puzzle with multiple solutions

With my very one-and-done approach to most films I review on here, I often find myself having vastly different reactions to certain films on subsequent viewings. Some of the films I have praised to high heaven on this blog in the past can end up being far less enthralling the second time around, while others show vast improvement when given a second chance.

I bring all this up because this film, another effort by the Wachowskis, represents a unique specimen with that in mind. I have seen this film a number of times at this point, and each time I watch it, my brain ends up with a different interpretation each time. It’s not an active effort on my part; it just… happens. Looking into the production aspects of this film end up shedding some light on that, considering both the novel this film is based on and the adaptation itself. The original story stays true here, allowing the twisting and winding genre collage to land with every occasionally-jarring beat. Something about my severe need for stimuli likes how I can sit down, put this film on, and feel like I just sat through six separate films all at the same time.

But it’s the adaptation efforts by the Wachowskis and Tom Twyker that push this into the realms of varyingly brilliant. Between their relative fidelity to the original story and their own unique touches, like casting a series of actors in multiple roles and the re-arrangement of the narrative timeline, I can watch this twice and come away with it with a different interpretation. Sometimes, I can focus in on the original story about a singular soul being reincarnated through the years and influencing itself with each cycle. Other times, I can focus in on the casting, letting my brain go wild at piecing together whose soul is in whose body and tracking their personal narratives. It really says something that these filmmakers could take the original book and, through the simple idea of casting a single actor multiple times, create a brand-new character arc out of the pieces. One that even manages to hold up to scrutiny, like the surprisingly complex arc made by Tom Hanks’ numerous appearances. This is basically my own little narrative puzzle that I can delve into and solve in whichever way I please; the film is that versatile.

#34: X-Men 2 – Prejudice from all angles

The X-Men films, outside of the appearance of the ever-popular Wolverine, made their mark by basically embodying every iteration of “The Outsider”. Whether it’s race, religion, sexuality, social class, political class, mental state, even how a person looks, the X-Men films took such an all-encompassing approach that it’s possible to read the story in a number of ways.

Indeed, elements of the film directly exist to appeal to that wide spectrum of Outsiders, from Alan Cumming’s Nightcrawler representing religious ideals to Anna Paquin’s Rogue representing the fear of one’s own power to Ian McKellen’s Magneto and Patrick Stewart’s Professor X serving as the Malcolm X and Martin Luther King of the mutant world, even to Brian Cox’s genocidal colonel who echoes some very real prejudicial thought patterns. This easily could’ve fallen into the realms of either aimless pandering or just empty idealism, but between the tight direction, the expansion of themes introduced in the first film, and the stellar acting across the board, it stay true and resonates at every point.

This is the crystallization of everything that Outsider narratives aspire to represent, summed up beautifully in this one exchange between Nightcrawler and Rebecca Romijn as Mystique:

As someone who, for various reasons, has found himself on the fringes of what is considered “normal”, that one quip means the world to me.

#33: Spaceballs – My desert island film

Some of my readers may be familiar with the Desert Island Discs thought experiment: If you were stranded on a desert island and only allowed to X number of music CDs with you, which ones would you pick? While I never really paid much mind to that specific example of the idea (I tend to listen to as much fresh music as I can, so I don’t end up replaying entire albums that much), I do have a pick for my own Desert Island Film. If I was stranded on a desert island and only allowed a single film to watch during my isolation (along with whatever technology would be required to view it), Spaceballs would undoubtedly be it.
Similar to my previously-mentioned experience with Married With Children, I can remember a months-long stretch of time where this film on VHS was the only thing I watched. I rarely love something enough to give that much constant attention to, but that’s just how special this film is. For a direct spoof movie, the sense of humour here has aged remarkably well, aided by Mel Brooks’ excellent approach to satire and terrific casting, particularly with Rick Moranis as the ever-bumbling Dark Helmet and Bill Pullman as the all-things-Harrison-Ford Lone Star. Hell, I can actively point to a single joke from this film as being the instant that I realized what “comedy” actually was. It’s when the character of Barf (played superbly by the late, great John Candy) reveals his full name at the end, a moment that was this almost-divine revelation about what comedy was capable of when done right. Add to that the nice bits of political commentary concerning the titular Spaceballs and their President Scroob, the lean pacing and the rapid-fire nature of the jokes, and you have a film worth watching and re-watching and re-watching until the tape snaps… and then you get another copy.

#32: The Neverending Story – The importance of the audience

I tend to refer to most films as “stories” because that’s how I view the medium of cinema: A means of telling and sharing stories that I consider to be more potent than most. However, with that perspective comes a certain understanding of the two sides of the storytelling process: The storyteller and the audience. Both are just as important as each other, and one cannot rightfully exist without the other.

As far as emphasizing how important the audience is in that equation, this film might be the single greatest depiction of how much power the simple act of engaging with a story can do for the human soul. On the surface, this film already wins points because, even though it only operates with the first half of the original book, it imbues the details with such reverence that most if not all of the characters end up leaving a major impact by film’s end. We are shown next to nothing about Atreyu’s noble steed Artax, never given that vivid a look into its character beyond its connection to the main character… and yet everyone who was seen this film, myself included, remembers the infamous swamp scene with startling clarity. Because that is what happens with characters we attach to in stories: Even if they are fictional, we care about what happens to them as if they were real. With acting this solid, particularly Alan Oppenheimer who did the voices for the luck dragon Falkor, the dark messenger of the Nothing Gmork, the Rock Biter who lost his family to the Nothing, and the Narrator who leaves the film on a fulfilling yet open-ended note.
But beneath the surface, when the narrative of Fantasia itself connects with the narrative of Bastian, the unassuming boy who decides to read about Atreyu’s quest to save Fantasia, we are shown quite blatantly how important it is for there to be an audience to experience these stories. Stories only continue to exist when there are people to tell them and re-tell them; we are the ones that keep these beautiful creations alive. It’s one thing to create a sharp piece of high fantasy fiction, something that is in far shorter supply nowadays; it’s quite another to make the very act of experiencing that fiction into an adventure all on its own. I tend to show a lot of respect for films that show equal respect towards their audience, and no film I’ve come across put more faith and trust in its audience than this.

#31: Watchmen – My first comic book

When Alan Moore’s influential graphic novel was first being optioned for a cinematic adaptation, it was met with a lot of resistance. It actually got to the point where filmmaking visionaries like Terry Gilliam and Darren Aronofsky had to step away from the production because the source material was “unfilmable”. And then along came Zack Snyder, now the architect of the increasingly-troubled DC Extended Universe, and through a reasonable degree of fidelity to that source material and some of the best casting choices I’ve ever seen, he proved them both wrong. The man who helped give us Granny’s Peach Tea showed up not one but two legendary filmmakers in one fell swoop. This is why I continue to be disheartened by the DCEU’s diminishing returns: Because I know that he can pull off a high-calibre superhero story dealing in morality and human instincts. I’ve seen it with my own eyes.
Jackie Earle Haley is the perfect Rorschach, Patrick Wilson is an ideal Nite Owl, Billy Crudup imbues the nuclear marvel Dr. Manhattan with just the right emotional nuances to make his loftier declarations hit like an atom bomb, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan managed to take a fundamentally broken and vile soldier of fortune and make his character arc ring true at every point. Beyond that, we have David “Yes, the guy who used to voice Solid Snake” Hayter and Alex Tse maintaining all of the major points of the original comic while making some very appropriate adaptations where needed (I personally love the source material, but even I think that leaving out the psychic bomb octopus was a good move). The story remains stable, even through the changes, and Moore’s incredibly poignant statements about the nature of superhero work and the socio-political implications thereupon echo through with all the clarity required.

This also marks a major development in my media diet as, after watching this film in the cinemas, I immediately wanted to start checking out comic books properly. I’ve always had a thing for superhero yarns but this film, one representing the kind of intricate storytelling that helped define comic books as a legitimate form of art, made me want to explore that affinity. The original Watchmen graphic novel is the first comic book I ever bought, and it started a journey that would lead me to a whole library worth of adventures on the printed page.
For the record, this is how hard a film has to go in order to make up for the single worst use of licensed music of any film on this list. Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah? For a sex scene? Really, Snyder?

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