Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Top 100 Favourite Films: #50-41

#50: The Shawshank Redemption – It pays to play the long game

A man is sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit. For the next ten years, he bides his time inside Shawshank Prison, making allies where he can and waiting for the moment when he can finally escape his confines. Frank Darabont, co-writer of the previously-discussed Nightmare On Elm Street 3, has a penchant for bringing the works of Stephen King to the big screen, but he tends to stick to the less recognisably-Kingian stories. From this to The Green Mile to his later work with The Mist, he not only chose decidedly different material but also showed a startingly amount of understanding of the text to bring it roaring to life on screen. This film, more so than anything else he has touched to date, accomplishes that goal.

The acting is fantastic, with Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman holding down the fort very nicely, and it makes for some very harrowing points about the American prison system and how much it affects those within it, but most importantly for me, this is a showing of how patience and playing the long game can yield amazing results. This applies to the production itself, since this is one of the few longer films that I can actively sit through in one sitting, but it also applies to the story at large. Andy Dufresne wins the day not through mass aggression or raging out at the system that wronged him. Instead, he wins by taking his time, leaving everyone around him unawares of his hidden planning, chipping away bit by bit and wading through shit (both figuratively and literally) until he hits fresh air for the first time in years. As someone who takes a rather slow and methodical approach to most things in life, feeling more than comfortable with a long wait so long as I have something to work towards, I take a lot of inspiration from this film and the trials and triumphs of its main character.

#49: Se7en – My favourite character in all of fiction

That descriptor doesn’t apply to any of the immediate suspects in this film. The acting is indeed phenomenal, with Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt making for one of my favourite buddy-cop duos in film, and Kevin Spacey is eerily effective as the psychopath behind it all, but the flesh-and-blood characters aren’t what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the character that you see and hear and feel the presence of in every single frame of this film. The character who is the most affected by the events of the narrative. The character who shows such distinct development that it actually warrants being called as such. The character that is the unnamed City that the story takes place in.

This is Andrew Kevin Walker’s talent with world-building at its absolute peak, making the setting of this film feel like it deserves equal billing alongside Pitt and Freeman. Throughout this story of a serial killer wanting to use the Seven Deadly Sins as a message for the sinners, we keep hearing little details about the City that give it agency in its own right. Like how Freeman’s Somerset mentions that women in the City are trained to shout “Fire!” if they are attacked… because no-one responds to calls of “Rape!”. Or how that very mindset and others aren’t ever questioned by the police force, who mainly remark that it’s just “always been this way”. Or how that same police force not only appears lethargic at the thought of actually solving crimes, but is also more than willing to give away police information to anyone with enough cash in hand.

Put all of this together with Spacey’s John Doe and his ultimate intent and, despite how vile his actions and aspects of his methodology are, I can’t help but see his point. Human depravity has poisoned the City, turning it into a wasteland where apathy is applauded and virtue is either ignored or punished. It isn’t given a name because it could happen anywhere, but because it is so isolated, it’s also a microcosm of urban America. Add to this David Fincher’s honed-to-perfection directing, adding suitable grunge and grime to the frame, and you have a depiction of human morality and its consequences unlike any other.

#48: The Butterfly Effect – Jesus undoes himself

Is there such a thing as a metaphysical guilty pleasure? If so, I think this film qualifies. This psycho-thriller about a man with the ability to travel back through his personal history, change events and alter his future, appeals to a very worrying part of my psyche. Part of my inherent sense of pacifism and altruism comes packaged with a raging martyr complex; I view my own existence as inherently worth less than anyone else’s, so I would willing give mine up so that someone else’s would be spared.

A bit grim, but then again, this film follows suit. The way it portrays how trauma affects people, particularly children, can often venture into the realms of tasteless, and some moments can be outright bizarre out-of-context, like when Ashton Kutcher’s Evan uses his powers to convince someone else that he has the stigmata. However, I ultimately have no problem with those aspects for two main reasons. One, it shows enough genuine understanding of the effects of trauma and how much seemingly-minor events can lead to bigger developments that it rings true through all the unpleasantness. And two, by the time it gets to the ending (the real ending attached to the Director’s Cut, not the theatrical version), it brings me to the point of heavy sobbing and it everything else into perspective. I have enough self-awareness to know that my own martyr complex and sacrificial mindset isn’t exactly healthy,

#47: Fight Club – Anarchy’s wrecking crew goes every step too far

Fight Club entered the public consciousness through its surface-level details: Two men decide to open an underground fighting ring that allows its members to let go of their societal expectations, return to a more primal existence and outlet their inner aggression. The idea is rather appealing and, when juxtaposed with the film’s finely-honed commentary on Western capitalism and the loss of identity it leads to, even advisable.

But then the rest of the film happens. What begins as an underhanded but still healthy return to far simpler practices, before buyable commodities dictated our worth and our existence, turns into a look at how unchecked anarchy can lead to a far greater evil than what it sets out to subvert. The word “snowflake”, now used to describe anyone a person deems as being too “soft”, in its modern context came out of this film, used in a speech from Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden to describe how little the individual ultimately matters in this society. I live in a world that keeps trying to insist that Tyler, the high-rise-bombing misanthropic figment of someone else’s imagination, is the guy whose rhetoric should be used. I shouldn’t need to be getting this defensive about a film I genuinely love, but it’s so surreal thinking that nowadays, the people most likely to quote one of my favourite movies are people I’ll most likely never get along with.

As for me, though, I see this as a case study in how a bit of anarchy can be cathartic… but if left unchecked, it does serious damage. All good things in moderation, even when it comes to reality-bending slices of grunge like this. Also, amazing direction, great performances from Pitt, Helena Bonham Carter and Edward Norton in my favourite role of his to date, and the soundtrack by the Dust Brothers of Paul’s Boutique fame is perfect.

#46: Beetlejuice – What kind of person would choose to live in a haunted house?

A common trope of the haunted house sub-genre, one that has been lampooned to the ends of the Earth, is why the main characters decide to stay in a house that they know contains elements of the supernatural. Most of us watch these stories and ask the natural question of “Why haven’t you moved house yet?”, and while some more recent efforts try to answer that question as best they can, the cliché still persists and continues to draw ire from many, myself included.

I bring this up because this film, the sophomore effort from Tim Burton, looks into answering that question. This story of a recently-dead couple, played brilliantly by Alex Baldwin and Geena Davis, who haunt their house while it is bought by a family of upstate yuppies, highlights that it would take someone so conceited, so hungry for attention, so not-having-qualms with manipulating the dead for their own amusement, to stick around in a house like this. To add to this, we have Michael Keaton’s iconic turn as the titular character, embodying all things chaotic and incapable-of-giving-a-shit with one of the most energetic performances I can recall. It’s a great comedy that shows one of the purest versions of the Burton aesthetic, but it also serves as a great satire of the sub-genre it sits in, giving the kind of in-depth genre examination that I have come to love in cinema as a whole.

#45: Romeo & Juliet (1968) – Romantic word erotica

One of the few things about my own psyche that I never managed to get a handle on is my fascination with figurative language. As much as I pride myself on being direct and to-the-point with whatever I have to say (even if I tend to say far more than is necessary in most cases), there’s something about figurative language that appeals to me. That mode of phrasing that relies on the ephemeral and the abstract to illustrate its point rather than direct and plain language.

It is because of this that I have a real love for William Shakespeare, the original scriptsploitator. While his stories occasionally leave a bit to be desired, it’s the man’s way with words and ability with wordplay and imagery that appeals to me the most, with this story in particular. Director/co-writer Franco Zeffirelli, through a strict adherence to period detail and a genuine understanding of the text, produces what I consider to be the definitive version of the story. This is the kind of film that I can just put on and let the utter poetry of the dialogue wash over my brain, detailing the sensation of first love in its purest form and showing it as a means to cut through age-old societal conflict. It’s an archetypal love story, but it more than deserves that place in history as I have as much love for this story as it does for the very concept of love.

#44: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – Meditation of blood and poison

For a film primarily about lovingly-framed sword fights and martial arts, this is one of the most soothing films I’ve come across. Rather than being a straight-up adrenaline rush like so many action films out there, this film emphasizes both the conflict and the quiet in-between to deliver near-literal meditations on the ideas of loyalty, courage, love and war. The fight scenes themselves are absolutely gorgeous, showing the most graceful wire-work ever put to film, but it's the conversations between the characters that earn a place in my heart.

From Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien reminiscing on the romance that could have been, to Lien and Jen Yu’s strained sistership, to Jen and Dark Cloud’s hopeless romantics, to Jen and Jade Fox’s toxic protégé/mentor relationship, it’s the context behind all the clanging of metal and ripping of cloth that makes this a mediation worth taking. Contemplating how much blood can be shed and how much poison can be administered before everything falls apart, as well as how the promise of the divine shouldn’t override the needs of the mortal soul, in a way that excites at times but mostly brings me into a true Zen state of mind. Between this and playing a lot of Dynasty Warriors growing up, I developed a real fascination with swordplay; I even taught myself swordplay with a wooden training sword, which I still have to this day. Not as a means of inflicting damage on others, but as a means of personal meditation, inspired by this very film.

#43: Princess Mononoke – Man, beast and god working as one

A grand, beautifully-animated epic courtesy of Japanese cinematic maestro Hayao Miyazaki, this film shows not only the most concentrated aspects of Miyazaki’s form of environmentalism, but also a sparkling clarity about what is required to fulfill it. Starting on a note of a young hunter being cursed by a poisoned boar god, the film’s narrative only grows from there into a complex spider’s web of conflicts and alliances between Billy Crudup’s nomadic hero Ashitaka, Claire Dane’s wolf-child princess San, the iron workers led by the opportunistic Lady Eboshi, voiced by Minnie Driver, and the divine forces of nature all around them.

The film shows the three forces of man (the iron workers, turning the ecosystem around them to their advantage), beast (the many animals and forest spirits, like San’s guardian Moro, voiced with utter feminine authority by Gillian Anderson) and gods (the animal personifications of the divine like the great Forest Spirit whose life, death and rebirth serves as the focal point of the larger narrative) and how they conflict and contrast each other. But as the film begins to resolve, we also see how those three forces are capable of working as one for a greater cause: Their shared survival, as their co-existence ties their fates together. I recognize that some conflicts will leave both sides permanently at war with each other, but thanks to films like this, I also see how working together can do great things.

#42: Sin City – Grit-covered sunlight

Whenever the film noir genre is brought up, this film is always the first thing to comes to my mind. The starkly literal black-and-white world of Basin City, the vivid imagery of the dialogue and voice-over narration, the distinct moments of colour to emphasizes people and actions, the amazing fight scenes that show Robert Rodriguez as a bona-fide master with framing and editing on a green screen, and the incredibly poignant characters who shine as beams of sunlight in a world covered in blood and gristle.

The disgraced detective who gave his freedom and his life for a girl he was sworn to protect. The ex-con who tears an entire city apart for the one woman who showed him affection. The psychotic boyfriend who fights the police and the mob in equal measure to atone for his crucial mistake. The women of Old Town who took control from the pimps and made a sanctuary for themselves. All of these figures are depicted with the kind of grittiness you would expect from the cross-section of maverick Robert Rodriguez, former king of sequential crime Frank Miller and a guest directing spot from aesthetics student Quentin Tarantino, but they are allowed the chance for their sheer virtue to ring through. Fighting tooth and nail for those you love, and those who love you in return, even if it means confronting the religious, political and judicial systems that seek to corrupt and distort that virtue.

A lot of people take issue with the Miller-brand sexism and gratuity of these stories, but I only see the raw and uncompromised good of the mains here. As far as comic book characters go, Bruce Willis’ John Hartigan, Mickey Rourke’s Marv and even Clive Owen’s Dwight each represent grim but holistic attributes that I took to heart when I first watched this movie, and have kept true to as best I can ever since.

#41: 20,000 Days On Earth – A sermon at the altar of performance

This is less of a film and more a religious sermon, one devoted to one of the most divine processes we humans have access to: The power of artistic creation. Musician Nick Cave influenced a lot of my childhood, as I spent many days listening to Murder Ballads on my mother’s stereo and marvelling at the manic glee of The Curse Of Millhaven and the heart-dropping coldness of Henry Lee, and this film shows the crystallization of that creative spark that I grew up recognizing.

Part documentary, part dramatization and all poetry, both visual and aural, this semi-fictional look at the making of Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds’ 2013 album Push The Sky Away gives Nick a lot of space to espouse on his views of humanity, reality, the creative process and how those three influence each other. It is a fascinating look at the creative process, with Nick giving some of the most bestial and primal imagery of his entire career in how he describes the way he makes art. What’s more, thanks to the visual chops of directors Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, the camera work by DOP Erik Wilson and the nimble editing of Jonathan Amos, those words are turned into a flurry of performative magic, showing that the act of artistic expression as a singularly powerful force, one that can transform a mortal man into a divine creature. When it gets to the final performance of Jubilee Street, and we see Nick Cave become so invigorated on stage, I feel a great fire come alive in myself to make that kind of transformation. To go from a withdrawn and socially-reclusive genius into a galvanizing performative force once the music kicks in; such is the divine power of art.

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