Category Archives: Film

La La Land-Cynicism & Joy in the Modern Musical

Despite reports to the contrary, the cinematic musical never truly died. Even looking past the obvious examples of the yearly Disney instalment, we can see examples from recent years like Les Misérables, Rock of Ages, Annie, and of course, Mamma Mia. Cinema will always have an unbreakable bond with the love of song and dance, but there really hasn’t been an attempt to bring back the classic style of the musical, back from the golden-age of Hollywood, since Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You, all the way back in 1996. Maybe, twenty years later, we have finally been handed another genuine attempt to bring back the ‘joie de vivre’ of those classic movies, with Damien Chazelle’s La La Land. A strikingly modern homage to the golden-age, this is a staggering re-evaluation of the musical, a bold and grounded attempt to bring the genre back into its original style. It perhaps doesn’t get every beat completely perfect, but its ambition and audacity is totally striking, resulting in a cinematic experience that, by today’s standards, is totally unique. It is a homage that feels grounded in its influences, while also totally radical and innovative at the same time.

The narrative follows the central partnership of Mia and Sebastian, played by Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, who strive to succeed in the cut-throat industries of Los Angeles. Mia is an aspiring actress who is repeatedly demoralised by typically nasty and disengaged interviewees. She becomes involved with Sebastian, a struggling and lonely musician who is convinced he is going to “save Jazz”, but repeatedly has to consider abandoning his traditionalist dreams in order to fit into the modern scene. There is a terrific scene where Mia goes to see Sebastian’s new Jazz band play in a packed arena, only to discover this new band are a strange mix of old Jazz sounds and new electro-pop, which is what Sebastian has been trying to escape from the entire time. As the music plays and Mia gets pushed away by the crowd, Sebastian has a strange smile on his face, suggesting he has sold-out on his dreams and isn’t even aware of it. The protagonists of La La Land are doomed to constantly have to choose between two worlds, and, in the movie’s most traditional moral, the search for fame is shown to come at a price. Still, there is a magic to be found all the way through the narrative, even in the most tragic of moments; there is a late fantasy sequence that is inventive, surreal and astoundingly beautiful, but the implications and emotions it raises are heartbreaking. La La Land is constantly torn between hope and cynicism, and admirably uses the format of the musical to tackle modern realism.

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This admirable blend of bounciness and tragedy isn’t always to the film’s credit. There is a certain feeling of conflict and disarray in the attempt to add such pessimism into the musical, as if these two worlds can’t meet without complications. Sometimes, this conflict works terrifically, especially in the audition scenes of Emma Stone, where the camera captures lingering heartbreak in her eyes with every failure. Where it works less well is in the latter stages of the film, where although there are musical interludes through instruments, the earlier songs vanish for a time, as the tone of the narrative evokes more serious implications. Although the inventiveness of the film’s final sequence performs the perfect combination of joy and heartbreak, there are moments where the difficulty of this task strains cracks at the seams.

Despite the occasional confusion over its conflicting themes and style, and even though the film can’t quite sustain the lofty standards it sets itself throughout the entire running, La La Land is perhaps the best example of ‘movie magic’ I have seen in years and years of cinema viewing. The opening number, of aspiring talent jumping up and singing in the middle of a traffic jam, is a miraculous opening: the camera sways and bounces through a (supposedly) single-take, all while colour and joy explode out of the screen towards you. What a fabulous opening scene, an innovative and beautifully choreographed sequence that leaves the rest of the film trying to keep up to its pace. Other highlights involve the equally bouncy number ‘Someone in the Crowd’ (which involves a fabulous circular shot from the middle of a swimming pool), and the toe-tapping ‘A Lovely Night’, which invokes familiar memories of Singin’ in the Rain, where Gosling and Stone dance and tap around the empty streets of Los Angeles. There is repeated innovation and bravery here, unashamed attachment to the magic moments of the classics. Thanks to the screenplay and the songs, this feels like a worthy homage and a potential classic in its own right, a film that cannot exist without its influences but reaches for the stars in trying to eclipse them.

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What a strange, beautiful film La La Land proves to be. There is little you can say about it that hasn’t already been said, but every piece of praise and acclaim is worth repeating. It flows and behaves like a dream, where reality and fantasy explode in a singular example of magic in modern cinema. It captures the imagination and admirably attempts to introduce the golden-age of Hollywood musicals to a new age, all straight from the directing and writing talents of the 32 year old Damien Chazelle. While his earlier hit Whiplash from 2014 was a punchy and violent exploration of musical obsession, this is a grand and well-meaning to homage a genre Chazelle clearly has a great love for, a love-letter that is as ambitious as it is genuine. For a film this far-reaching and affecting to have come from such a young director (this is only his third film) is absolutely staggering, and is hopefully an exciting indication of what we have to come. La La Land is a remarkable achievement, a unique addition to the modern world of cinema, and all the awards and acclaim it has and will receive are totally deserved. It was an absolute thrill to watch and will be a delight to revisit; cinema of the most essential and innovative kind.

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Silence – Scorsese’s Tortuous Epic

It is not very often that one encounters a film that is such hard work. Scorsese’s passion project Silence takes us on an excruciating journey of questioned faith and personal uncertainty, a path that leads our characters and the audience to find anything but clear answers. Does the title ‘Silence’ refer to the tortuous silence of God that these priests struggle with, or does it refer to the silent suppression of faith one must take in order to stay safe, to not be persecuted against? This epic journey of self-doubt, which Scorsese has been attempting to make since he finished 1988’s The Last Temptation of Christ, questions everything and answers nothing, brutally taking us on a spiritually charged narrative of anguish and uncertainty. What a frustrating and potentially painful experience this could be for the viewer, especially with the rather intimidating length of two hours and forty minutes, but Scorsese has created a film of rare intelligence and inquiry, a film that wishes to question the very hardest debates aimed at Christianity and the concept of religion itself. It is a brave, profoundly personal piece of art, unquestionably the most fascinating project Scorsese has completed in decades and a unique look into the anguishes and doubts of one of the most famous directors working today.

The premise is simple, and lifted straight from Shūsaku Endō’s book of the same name; two Portuguese priests (played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) smuggle themselves into Japan to find their old mentor Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who has been apostatised of Catholicism through torture and is now living life as a Buddha. In Japan, the two Priests discover the horrifying acts of anti-Christian torture being performed around the land, such as crucifixion, being burned at the stake and a gruesome invention named simply ‘the pit’. The eventual finding of Ferreira reveals a man who has been beaten to the point of believing in nothing anymore; a grovelling and obedient tool for the Japanese inquisitors to now use at their will. Although Scorsese does not hesitate to show us the true horror of these acts of torture, the surprisingly charming Inquisitors (brilliantly played by Tadanobu Asano and Issey Ogata) refer to more daring psychological tricks to torture the priests, instead torturing innocent civilians and blaming their eventual deaths on the pride of the priests and their God. This is where the length and punishing nature of Silence really comes into the foreground; some moments are arguably unnecessarily long, and some have even gone so far as to label Scorsese’s lingering on such pain ‘torture porn’.

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It is understandable to be overwhelmed by the film’s grief and anguish, which manifests itself not only through acts of violence but, as the title suggests, acts of silence as well. The priests, in the face of unimaginable cruelty, naturally start to become conflicted and confused as to the silence of their God, and there are no easy answers to explain such an absence. Is this silence on account of a lack of a God at all? Or is there a God but, more disturbingly,  he refuses to even speak in the face of such cruelty? Briefly in the narrative, such a silence is broken for one of the priests, but it is a voice in his head imparting advice we have already seen him give farmers earlier in the story; can we take anything from such a moment? The silence of the film’s title becomes a horrible form of torture in its own right, with one of the characters asking “I pray but I’m lost…am I just praying to silence?” Whatever the audiences personal beliefs, Scorsese makes us feel the power and weight of that question, the personal pain of doubting what you have known to be true for so long, that you may be completely alone after all.

What to make of Scorsese’s repeated use of Christian imagery, and clear parallels between this and the story of Christ? Andrew Garfield may have appeared an odd choice for some, but his resemblance to the classical interpretation of Christ only draws stronger as the film continues, leading other characters to be clearly compared with Judas the Betrayer and Peter the Denier. Garfield’s priest continually sees the image of a portrait of Jesus as the film wears on, at one point seeing it in himself as he gazes into a pool of water. Can we trust these visions, or is this the fear of losing faith expressing itself in the form of madness? There is such monumental power in the final image of the film as well; for one it will reinforce the overwhelming power of faith, but for another it would signify the highest form of self-betrayal and delusion.

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Although it may not be quite as flawless as these films, there are undeniable comparisons with the works of Coppola and Kurosawa. Coppola’s Apocalypse Now is an obvious but deserved comparison, as both show a heroes journey through an unknown land to track down one of their own who has been lost to the culture (although the circumstances are wildly different). Kurosawa’s Ran is a more interesting comparison; Ran is a King Lear adaptation consistently obsessed with the cruelty and absence of the Gods, a world where man kills for sport and the Gods weep silently from above. Ran and Silence are interested in the same themes, but Ran is a much angrier piece of work, with its final shot showing an innocent victim of war alone and in peril, but being seemingly ignored by God.

Silence is more ambiguous in its anger then either of those previous works; this is a film that is blatantly tormented by the very questions it raises, and is fascinating just as a piece of work made by a man of religious faith willingly questioning everything they know. This is what I got out of Silence, a film of endless questions and few answers, but a film that invites discussion in an intelligent, thoughtful way, a film that overwhelms its flaws with the reading and debates that it inspires. It may not be the best movie that Scorsese has ever made, but it is certainly one of the most fascinating things he has ever released; I am unlikely to think so much and discover so little about a film for the rest of 2017. It is fascinating and yet frustrating by its very nature.

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Nausicaä and Laputa: Revisiting Miyazaki’s Early Masterpieces

When rediscovering the early films of Hayao Miyazaki’s career, it is important to constantly notice and appreciate just how assured and expertly crafted they are. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) and Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986) are two of Miyazaki’s very earliest works as a director of animation, but what sweeping and glorious efforts they prove to be; less rough efforts of a director learning his trade, more an already accomplished miracle-worker of his craft. Although Nausicaä has slightly rougher animation then most Ghibli movies, and Miyazaki’s use of slow pans outwards are occasionally jarring, both of these early films are stunningly complete, strikingly accomplished for a director so early in his career. It is time to revisit them, to refresh our memories and remind ourselves that Miyazaki has barely given us time to watch him grow as a filmmaker; he has been in a constant state of near-perfection for almost thirty three years.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is unarguably the rawest of what we now consider to be the library of Studio Ghibli (although released before the formation of the studio, it is now considered to be the very first of that team’s work). The smooth animation that would be introduced only two years later in Laputa is not to be found in the rougher edges of Nausicaä, a factor which will date the film for some. However, the peaks of the animation in Nausicaä still soar, especially in its breathtaking moments of aerial combat. A particularly brilliant scene, where our heroine Nausicaä must escape from an enemy ship, is a thrilling and tense disguise routine, until the climatic moments where she is literally kicked off of the ship and into the swirling clouds behind her. There are more moments in this scene alone then I can describe with justice here, but it is a masterwork on what is possible with animation.

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Forget about what this film helped influence outside of Studio Ghibli, the ramifications of this film inside its very own company is very clear to see. Look no further then fifteen years later and the release of Princess Mononoke (1999), a similarly serious, poignant look at the human condition and the effect we have on the world around us. Western critics flocked to that film in droves, and it became the first Studio Ghibli film to make real inroads in countries outside of its own. Perhaps we should have been looking at Nausicaä instead; a film that on its own is a wonderful example of animation, but as a director’s second effort at his craft, is truly extraordinary.

Watching Laputa: Castle in the Sky is akin to discovering the moment where all the dreams and wonders of Studio Ghibli truly began. Although not quite as thoughtful and spiritual as Nausicaä, Miyazaki’s first official film within the newly formed studio feels like the beginning of the journey; the animation is smoother and crisper, the characters wilder and the action funny and thrilling in equal measure. Its musical score has undertones of the glorious memories of My Neighbour Totoro (made only two years later in 1988) and the action spins from deep underground to railway tracks and then finally to the aforementioned Castle in the Sky. There is a certain joy in Laputa that only springs up occasionally in Nausicaä, and has become a staple-mark of later Ghibli efforts. The improvement in animation quality came at just the right time, as the opening moments of our heroine, Sheeta, floating from the heavens into the arms of the young Pazu, simply wouldn’t work as well without the beautiful visuals, which simply shimmer off the screen.

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There is so much to learn from Laputa, so much to admire and enjoy. As in all the best Studio Ghibli films, the narrative has real emotion but doesn’t take itself too seriously. The love story of Pazu and Sheeta is genuinely beautiful (romance isn’t always Ghibli’s strongest suit) and the film wisely balances these moments out with slapstick and humour. An extended chase scene near the beginning of the film is interrupted by a pirate and a miner taking turns at punching each other, while the women visibly roll their eyes in the background. It subverts expectations, turning early villains into later heroes, and the narrative keeps rolling at the same pace, resembling the kind of caper that Hitchcock perfected in 1959’s North by Northwest. What a treat it is to revisit Laputa, as it teaches and shows us so much in regards to the later films of the studio and of Miyazaki’s career. It introduces us to the infectious tone and imagination of the famous works of Miyazaki; Spirited AwayMy Neighbour Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service and Howl’s Moving Castle can all be traced back to this moment, to name only a few. More so then before, Laputa shows us the roots and beginnings of one the greatest animation studios of all time.

With Hayao Miyazaki briefly coming out of retirement next year for a new feature film, it is undoubtedly true that the heights and wonders of Studio Ghibli are now behind us. What better time then to revisit the beginnings of this beautiful saga of animation history, to appreciate not that Studio Ghibli became what it is over a period of time, but that it began extraordinary and never stopped throughout its lengthy run. Take notice also, of the now rising-star of Japanese animation, Makoto Shinkai, who has been garnering steady attention as ‘the new Miyazaki’ for a number of years, cultivating in the hugely successful release of his rather extraordinary recent film Your Name (2016). Stand up and take notice now while you can, check out Shinkai’s earlier films, keep a close eye on him. If Miyazaki’s career is anything to go by, this is only the beginning.

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Taking Delight in Depravity: ‘The Neon Demon’

After 2013’s Only God Forgives, I thought that the Danish film director, Nicholas Winding Refn, had entirely lost me as a fan. Unlike his earlier, more accessible films, Only God Forgives was an extreme: a mean-spirited, pandering film about nothing, a movie which thought of itself as very interesting and very smart when it was absolutely neither of those things. I found myself in the presence of somebody else’s dream; beautiful and weird, but entirely slow and uninteresting to me personally. When Refn does indulge in these beautiful, slow, violent fantasies, the key to enjoying it is whether you are prepared toaccept his vision and his style or not. With Only God Forgives, my mind and body fundamentally rejected the vision he set out, as I just couldn’t allow myself to indulge such an, in my view, ugly film.

My surprise was complete and utter when, after seeing his new film, The Neon Demon, I found myself utterly and completely entranced by it. It has all the same problems as Only God Forgives, and yet I found myself swaying onto the other side of the scale. It too is mean-spirited and some would say pandering, but with this experience I found myself totally immersed into the world Refn had created. The sharp angles of his vision, the red colours, the sinister beauty; I was totally in awe of all of it. Suddenly, all of the problems I had associated with Refn had become insignificant; this was a new level of self-awareness from the director, a winking, tongue-in-cheek approach to exploitation and violence which, instead of reminding me of Only God Forgives, had me thinking back to the riotous eyeball gouging, eyeball stomping absurdity of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill. The violence in The Neon Demon is absolutely disgusting. It is vile. If I there had been more than a couple of people in my screening, I’m sure I would have witnessed a mass walk out. The final thirty minutes of the film are just an extended sequence of sexualised, cruel violence, mainly inflicted on the heroine of the film. Just when you think Refn has gone as far as he possibly could, the very final sequence tops everything he has ever done; a sequence so absolutely outrageous and disgusting the only thing you can do is either run out of the room or stand up and applaud. I immediately decided that this was brilliant, this was just superb; I was watching with a huge grin and widening eyes, watching a director push his vision to the very limit of sadism. However, as I pondered the film later, this enjoyment raised questions. Is it wrong to enjoy this manner of fictional violence? I have long been a huge critic of ‘torture porn’ filmmakers, who make films simply for the sake of extremity and push their audiences without the benefit of a narrative drive or even a particularly well-directed movie. This is where the problems lie in my enjoyment of The Neon Demon. I have to ask myself; what is the difference between The Neon Demon and the torture-porn films that I have been lambasting for so long? Is there a difference?

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I decided that there is a very tangible difference, although admittedly it is a very thin line that Refn is skating on. He can be a hard director to defend; you can’t blame any viewer for being offended by this particular film’s final scene, and there is weight to the argument that the film is all style and no substance (a criticism which is levelled at every Refn movie). On the contrary, that’s what I find so delightful about much of The Neon Demon – how it relishes being entirely based around style and violence, and instead of shying away from that flaw it layers on more and more of it as the film continues. Refn’s film takes a metaphor and stretches it to breaking point, and crucially, uses it as the foundation for the violence it portrays. The well-known saying is that if an industry or profession is difficult or challenging, some people would say it will ‘eat you alive’. Refn takes this one simple line, which is used in the movie, and makes it a reality (yes, our heroine gets eaten. Really). It isn’t a particularly clever way to introduce violence into your movie, and it definitely isn’t a subtle way to do it either, but it edges just the right side of nasty, depraved fun for it to work.

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Again, it can simply boil down to whether you initially accept Refn’s vision and world or whether you reject it outright. I fully rejected the vision set-out by Only God Forgives, and therefore rejected the nasty violence in that movie, which I felt entirely uninvolved, and almost bored to an extent. The Neon Demon is tongue-in-cheek; I felt like Refn was winking right at me in that final sequence. I knew what was going to happen, he knew that I had already guessed what was about to happen, and he was enjoying watching me squirm in the simple anticipation of the violence to come. This is the complete opposite of the feeling I had when watching violence in Only God Forgives, where I felt Refn was telling me how insightful his vision was, how bold, how fresh, as a policeman stuck some hairpins into a drug-dealers ears. At least with Neon Demon I felt like he was being somewhat playful with his own outrageousness, that he seeing how far breaking point was instead of attempting to pretend there was an incredibly deep, subversive meaning to his own nastiness. Not that The Neon Demon is without its narrative complexities; the script is Refn’s best yet, crackling and whispering out of the actresses with a consistently sinister edge to every word, every line. This is of course helped by a breathtakingly good performance from Elle Fanning, who delivers some of the film’s punchiest, and softest moments. The difference with Only God Forgives lies in its accessibility, as The Neon Demon manages to be both a hellish look at fashion industry, but also a stylish and exploitative horror film. Its ability to be two things at once stands it above Only God Forgives, which fell apart entirely if you didn’t accept its original, and only, vision.

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Further emphasis on the difference between this extreme violence and another type of extreme violence is the new Eli Roth film The Green Inferno, which serves as a good reminder for the total crassness of torture-porn film making. Roth’s insistence to make his films as terrible and unbearable as possible continued with his new homage to Cannibal Holocaust, where a group of people who wish to protect the Amazonian rainforest crash-land in the jungle and, ironically, get captured and brutally murdered by the tribe they were trying to save. The violence is mostly as nasty as you’d expect; there are sacrifice scenes aplenty, cannibalism, typical of a Cannibal Holocaust homage. The problem is that Roth, in his typical eye-rolling crassness, decides to intercut the violence with moments of what he (presumably) intends to be humour. In a bizarre scene, the imprisoned group watch one of their friends get brutally murdered in front of their eyes, which is then preceded by a female member having a bout of diarrhoea , complete with comical fart noises (this lasts for almost a full minute of screen time). This is the very limit of Roth’s capacity for humour, resorting to levels of crudeness typically reserved only for Adam Sandler, in Roth’s persistently puerile attempt to shock and outrage.

In contrast I feel that when watching Refn’s work, he at least attempts to earn his use of violence by attempting to give it some semblance of narrative thrust. As disgusting as The Neon Demon can be, its nastiness is at least partially enlightened and driven by its story, however extreme the violence may be. Simple torture porn is used as a means to simply be as gross and as crass as possible; to sink so deep into depravity that neither the film nor the audience benefits from it. Through The Neon Demon, it feels as if Refn has managed to achieve a very difficult balance of depravity and self-awareness, where the nastiness is justified by the world it inhabits, and the director’s insistence to push the boundaries comes off as bold, rather than entirely provocative. Lots of viewers will react very differently to the film, but I felt thrilled watching it, as I was entirely on board with Refn’s ideas and motives and backing them to succeed the entire time. It has the same flaws as his other work but The Neon Demon gripped me and pulled me in, and kept a hold of me even when it started to enjoy its own nastiness. In doing that, I enjoyed its violence too; it felt bold, it felt fresh and it felt new, even when somebody could very easily argue it was none of those things. Refn made me think, in those final moments, that he was the most outrageous, daring, innovative and sadistic director working in the business today. That is quite an achievement.

Fear, Paranoia and ‘The Witch’

The most impressive thing a horror movie can do for me is to involve me personally, as a viewer. To bring me into the story, to get under my skin and immerse me so deeply that I am the unseen character, the watching camera who is just as threatened as all of the characters, is a terrifying and impressive experience in equal measure. Remind yourself of John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982): the audience is invited to become the detective, to work out who the monster is posing as, for their own safety as well as for the characters too. Audience participation is something which most horror movies don’t even attempt, let alone actually execute, so when a film does it as perfectly and as maliciously as Robert Eggers’ The Witch does, you have to sit up and take notice. Not only is it a meticulously crafted example of psychological horror, it is also an absolutely brilliant, textbook example of audience participation in the genre.

The Witch is a film without a Witch in it. The story follows a 17th century Puritan family, who have been cast out of their community and are attempting to set up a farm when their youngest son mysteriously vanishes.  The father claims it was a hungry wolf, the wife believes God has punished them, and yet their youngest twins seem to know what the audience has been shown: that the baby was stolen and killed by a witch. Soon, more family members disappear and fingers start getting pointed at Thomasin, the eldest daughter, in fear that she is the dreaded Witch. The family has spiralled out of control in desperation and paranoia, but what of the audience? The setting of The Witch is crucial to this discussion: this 17th century, deeply religious family have no means to deal with grief, and their paranoid ideas about sin and judgement take over when they are confronted with a loss in the family. Eggers immerses the audience in these fears; he shoots every frame and every moment as if it were directly from the eyes of a member of the family, with confusion and fear seeping into every shot.

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Can we trust what the director shows us? Animals are framed as if they are the devil’s accomplices; an immobile rabbit keeps reappearing in the woods, while Black Philip, the new family goat, seems to have a strange relationship with the young twins of the family. Eggers frames them as if they were strange and unnatural, and the audience is not given a minute to doubt whether or not they are actually evil. Without knowing it, the audience has been immerses and transported into the setting of the movie, and has also taken on the myths and paranoia that the family hold. We, the viewer, are shown the monster very early on, in the flesh, and we therefore explicitly believe what the filmmaker has shown us. It is easy then for the director to make us believe other things through suggestion, and even make us doubt the main character of the film, and whether or not we can trust her innocence. The audience has become the scared and paranoid seventh member of the family; hiding in the corner, pointing fingers and latching on to impossible truths, just like the rest of the group. We believe the children when they say that Black Philip has talked to them. We believe the mother when she exclaims that their young son, Caleb, has been possessed through witchcraft. Most of all, we believe Robert Eggers when he tells us that Witches are real.

 

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The Witch is a masterful example of audience participation. The viewer is projected into a world where grief is bestowed upon you as a punishment, your eldest daughter could be a witch, and your black goat could be Satan in disguise. The key to the true terror of The Witch is that we believe these fears completely and utterly, that we indulge in this paranoia and join the family in collapsing into the terror and confusion. Robert Eggers manages to pull off an amazing trick; he gets you to believe in the devil without you even realising.

The Unique Aesthetic of Alien 3

Firstly : this is not a defence of Alien 3

I’m not going to discuss the commendations and criticisms of David Fincher’s often maligned third instalment of the Alien franchise. I could easily write about the amazing opening, compared to the extraordinarily awful ending. There are debates to be had over the different versions of the film and the varying differences between the two, for good or for bad. You can talk about the early (and now fan favourite) script of the film written by Vincent Ward, or a basic discussion as whether it was fair for Fincher to actually disown and discredit his involvement in the film entirely. The question has been asked for a while now; is Alien 3 actually any good?

I’m not going to answer that question. 

The major, underlying interest I have with Alien 3 is that it has absolutely no respect or reverence for the films that have preceded it. David Fincher, even with studio interference, managed to create a film that now stands out entirely as a singular point of intrigue, which is extremely impressive for a film that was the third of an already successful franchise. Fans like to discuss (and bemoan) the narrative decision to kill off Ripley’s fellow survivors from Aliens, including the ten-year old girl Newt, who was at the emotional centre of the second film in the franchise. This is often seen as a misjudged narrative decision and many find it disrespectful towards Cameron’s film, but it highlights a crucial point, which is that Alien 3 is not concerned with being part of the franchise and is instead desperate to establish itself as its own beast. It doesn’t want be shackled down with the characters of a previous movie, so what does it do? It kills them immediately. Harsh, but understandable. However, after ditching Vincent Ward’s ambitious script, Alien 3 had a troubled writing process and actually ended up proving to be slightly generic in its narrative; Ripley crash lands on a ship populated by prison-inmates, the Alien kills people, Ripley has to save the day on her own. This follows the same narrative beats as pretty much every other Alien film, and will probably be copied for the inevitable modern sequel too. To leave his own mark on the film, Fincher clearly decided to create a completely new visual aesthetic for Alien 3, and it is in this creative decision where this third instalment truly stands itself out from the rest of the franchise.

To cut a long story short, Alien 3 looks absolutely amazing. Fincher, in his rejection to conform to a simple sequel, completely changed the aesthetic, the setting and the colour palette of the Alien franchise, to the point where you can scarcely believe its an Alien film. Both Ridley Scott’s Alien and James Cameron’s Aliens are beautiful films, with their dark colours being illuminated by bright, but often brief, moments of light. The visual sense of Alien is often darkness, where the cinematography showcases the flashing interior lights and mechanics of the future world that the viewer is spectating. These films are clearly science-fiction; the audience is aware of the concepts of a spaceship and an alien in their most basic forms, but these films created a new aesthetic, a completely new version of the future. The interiors and designs of these environments in Alien and Aliens are completely new and completely unique.

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Alien (1979) had a perfect aesthetic: dimly lit, narrow hallways that created the monstrous tension of the films final chase scenes.

What is important though, is that these two movies aren’t unique when compared to each other. Aliens is a completely different type of movie to Scott’s original; Alien is a slow, meticulous slasher film, whereas Cameron’s sequel increases the stakes and the enemies and turns into a military action-shooter. Cameron twisted the genre to his own vision, but he kept the same visual style, lifting Scott’s original vision right off the screen and placing it into his own reel. The shot below, from Aliens, features a new character, but the visual aesthetic is identical to Scott’s original. Cameron didn’t create a new vision with Aliens, he just refined (and some would say perfected) Ridley Scott’s original work.

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Aliens (1986) saw James Cameron pay respectful tribute to Ridley Scott’s original, perhaps at the cost of originality. 

Alien 3 refuses to even seriously acknowledge Scott and Cameron’s films. The dark hallways of Alien, with their shafts of light cutting through the air, are completely gone. Fincher re-imagined the aesthetic of the Alien franchise to be one that invoked ideas of Hell, of blood and suffering, and most important of all, fire; a place where Ripley was truly alone, and a place where those who died were cast straight down into hell. Fincher takes the concept of the station full of male prisoners, many of who are self-confessed murderers and rapists, as a literal metaphor for hell, and he showcases this through consistent and stunning visual lighting that evoke the punishment of the underworld. The darkness of the previous movies occasionally remains, but Alien 3 is a much brighter film, with an often orange/fiery tinge, that often shows you everything in plain sight. The film often has a sinister menace to its interiors; although there is nothing to leap out of the looming dark, there is nowhere to hide either. Ripley’s vulnerability is often shown by her being bathed in the bright light of fire; she not only has no dark corners to hide away in but also nobody to protect her either; she is alone in hell with the devil.

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Ripley has a consistent look in all the Alien films, apart from Fincher’s Alien 3. 

Whether you take issue with the narrative and pacing of Alien 3, which often lends itself to criticism in both versions of the film, it is hard to exaggerate how totally admirable Fincher’s visual stance is when tackling this series. Looking at other franchises, like The TerminatorStar WarsLord of the Rings, each individual film in each series is recognisably part of its shared universe. Each sequel builds on the previous instalment, both in story and in visual flair, with the vast majority of sequels sharing the previous films ideas and examples of visual style, in order to create a consistent universe. Even Alien: Resurrection, the film after Fincher’s Alien 3, decides to go back to basics and once again copy the same aesthetic that Ridley Scott introduced; the dark corridors of spaceships is reproduced to the point where it loses all sense of true identity, of true worth. I won’t make any true judgements as to the true, cinematic quality of Alien 3 (it’s a very long discussion to have), but I will say that it is a far more interesting and engaging film when compared to Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Resurrection. The fourth in the series combines dull visuals and a conventionally silly narrative, which is baffling considering that Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s masterpiece, Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain (or simply Amélie), excels in both of those aspects. You may think that neither are particularly good movies, but at least Alien 3 really tried to do something different, to add something into the franchise’s universe. In doing that, it has now taken on a life of its own, away from the franchise.

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There is so much light in Alien 3; the creature and the victims are often in plain sight, and the terror comes from what you can see rather then what you can’t.

 

There is always something to be said for a film that strives to be totally different from those around it, especially when already part of a successful franchise. Alien 3 deserves to be remembered as its own, bizarre project, which suffered at the hands of the studio who made it and from the criticisms of fans, who (understandably) couldn’t accept it as a sequel to its two beloved predecessors. However, I can’t help but truly admire the film for its boldness and brashness; its unwillingness to conform to the films that preceded it and a determination to stand out from the crowd. It may not be the best Alien film, but I definitely think it’s the most interesting; while the other films have a cold reality to their style, Alien 3 plays out like a fiery, beautiful nightmare.

 

The Extraordinary Achievement of ‘The Tale of the Princess Kaguya’

To witness Takahata’s decade old project seems almost like a blessing unto itself. The charcoal strokes and painted brushes of The Tale of the Princess Kaguya wash over you and immerse you into a startlingly different world where the magic of fantasy is sharply balanced by the difficulties and sufferings of a life on earth, where the wondrous is often undercut by stark, cold reality. It is a strangely harsh film, where the title character of Kaguya is a miracle on earth that has to deal with her own, very human problems, which turn her from an excited child to a world weary adult. As opposed to his Studio Ghibli counterpart, Hayao Miyazaki, Takahata has a history of using the brilliant and often hopeful world of animation to create a bleaker world, as shown in his previous films like Only Yesterday and most famously, Grave of the Fireflies. The end result is no different here, as a simple fable about a girl born from a bamboo shoot quickly turns into a thought-provoking and moving drama about the cold reality of growing up as part of royalty.

However, she doesn’t begin as royalty. Born out of a bamboo shoot and falling into the hands of an amazed bamboo cutter, Kaguya quickly grows up around the beautiful nature of the countryside, making friends and singing songs around the idyllic surroundings of her childhood. Soon however, her father begins to receive new gifts through the bamboo stalks, such as clothes of silk and piles of gold, leading him to believe (correctly or incorrectly) that she needs, deserves, to grow up as royalty, or otherwise she will not be truly happy. So begins a sad and memorable warning of royal life, as Kaguya finds her beauty hidden and her passions denied in order to become the quiet, reserved idea of the Japanese royal woman. It is just as adult and serious theme that any Studio Ghibli film has ever tackled, up there with the horrors of war in Grave of the Fireflies and the means to create weapons in the name of beauty as shown in The Wind Rises. With the unusual but absolutely engrossing style of animation on display, charcoal paints and bright colours, along with juxtaposition between soft and jagged environments makes it a truly unique film on a visual level, totally unlike anything that Studio Ghibli has attempted before. Although it does, to an extent, unfairly romanticise the life of living in the countryside, the beautiful pink strokes of the cherry blossom and the waves of green trees stretching around Kaguya’s house makes it easy to understand why she loves it so much, and how the transition of that to an empty, grey mansion would bring her into a state of near-depression. The two worlds’ are best contrasted in an absolutely extraordinary sequence in which Kaguya, having over-heard horrific remarks about her by guests at a ceremony, runs out into the night, tossing her bright clothes of royalty behind her as she goes. The style of animation immediately becomes rushed and jagged, with a shaky moon hovering above her figure as she races through the ragged, pitch black shapes of the woods, back home to where it all began. It is, potentially, one of the most powerful and jaw-dropping moments of animated cinema I have ever seen; an unprecedented burst of violent emotion, where Kaguya’s sadness and anger is projected onto the world around her, turning it sour and sharp.

Although The Tale of the Princess Kaguya excels in these kind of moments, where the world becomes violent around Kaguya, the film also shines in its quiet, thoughtful moments too. Early on there is a moment much talked about by critics, where Kaguya learns how to crawl, and then to walk, by mimicking frogs around her house. It is a beautiful, serenely joyous few minutes as she imitates their sound, and then their motions before finally discovering how to use her own legs properly, and is a scene rightly admired and beloved by anybody who watches it. However, the scene that sticks in my mind as being both quiet and powerful is much later on, where Kaguya’s mother allows her to escape the mansion for an afternoon to visit a cherry blossom tree in the countryside. Kaguya runs up to the tree, once again at one with nature, and we get a lovely and colourful moment of her dancing amidst the falling petals and around the luscious green grass of the hill. This is interrupted by country folk who accidentally bump into her oblivious dancing form, and treat her like the princess she hates to be, apologising for their mere presence and quickly move away, leaving her alone again on the hill. As she watches them go she sees the children playing along the path and through the trees, just like she used to do, and what was a moment of pure ecstacy soon turns into a deeply personal, important, and sad moment in her life. Despite coming back to the beauty and wonder of the countryside once again, it is clear that her now royal figure is completely out of sorts with the world that she loves. She is part of the rich elite that is now trying to reconnect with the poor surroundings that shaped and sharpened her looks and personality, and in that one moment of apology, she has to face up to the idea that she is no longer part of it. It’s a heartbreaking scene, one which changes emotions like flipping a coin, and gives a real insight into this tragic character in a way that words never could.

This will be Takahata’s last film, and after Miyazaki officially retired last year, the end of Studio Ghibli is looking scarily like a very real possibility. Although The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is now at least two years old, I felt completely compelled to write about it in its entirely, as I fear I may not get a real chance to do so again. I was taught and embraced by the world of Studio Ghibli when I first started loving cinema; they taught me about the possibilities of animation, the beauty of imagination and the pure joy that can come from simple images. It saddens me that this education may have finally ended with The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, but it is as good a farewell as anything I could have hoped for. Like Miyazaki’s emotional farewell, The Wind Rises, this is a deeply personal, more adult endeavour, which still manages to highlight everything that I have loved about their time working in the medium. It is beautiful and heartbreaking, and in true Studio Ghibli fashion it is not only a true and heartfelt story of growing up and facing reality, but it is also a magical dip into the genre of real fantasy. It shouldn’t mean much for me to say that I loved The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, or even that I adored it; I pretty much profess my love for any Studio Ghibli effort, even missteps like Pom Poko and From Up on Poppy Hill. I think it means a lot more for me to suggest, or even predict, that in time this will be seen as one of the greatest achievements in the history of animation, a fitting masterpiece to potentially pull the curtain down on the best animation studio that has ever worked in cinema. This is a once in a lifetime kind of film; unbelievably, Studio Ghibli have given us a lifetime full of them.