Thursday, 24 August 2017

"That's a name I've not heard in a long time..." Some thoughts on the Obi Wan Movie



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I find it a little odd how many Star Wars films we've gotten that take place before the original trilogy- the prequel trilogy, last year's Rogue One, and next year's Han Solo film. The original Star Wars doesn't feel to me like part four of an ongoing saga, even though it begins in the middle of a chase sequence. While the film establishes a larger mythology and backstory the film stands on its own.  This isn't to say I don't appreciate expanding the mythology- the mythology is I love most about Star Wars, even though I have issues with how the prequels dealt with certain events. I liked that Rogue One gave a reason for the Death Star's design flaw. This was an example of ret-conning I felt actually improved the original film's story. 

It was recently announced we will be getting an anthology film centred around Obi Wan Kenobi, with Oscar nominated filmmaker Stephen Daldry in talks to direct. It hasn't been revealed what will be the film's story but Lucasfilm and Disney are somewhat limited with what they can do with Obi Wan. The film can't really be an origin story since the prequel trilogy- even though its main focus was Anakin Skywalker's turn to the dark side and his transformation in to Darth Vader-  was about Obi Wan's relationship with Anakin and his journey from apprentice to Jedi Master. In The Phantom Menace we're introduced to Obi Wan as a padawan learner; he meets 9 year old Anakin, loses his master Qui-Gon Jinn at the hands of Sith Lord Darth Maul and kills Maul, becoming a Jedi Knight and taking on Anakin as an apprentice. In the subsequent prequels Obi Wan becomes a Jedi Master and a general in the Clone Wars. Ultimately Obi Wan and Anakin duel, leading to Anakin becoming horrifically burned  and being placed in the iconic Darth Vader suit. The prequel trilogy even ends with Obi Wan walking off in to the Tatooine desert, book-ending the trilogy, as he was in the first scene of the trilogy. 

The only other way to do an Obi Wan origin is to go back pre-The Phantom Menace, with Obi Wan as a teen. For me there's not really a story there; Obi Wan's story begins with The Phantom Menace and ends with him reunited in death with his friends at the end of Return of the Jedi. The Clone Wars have already been covered pretty much by the animated series. To me- and I always presumed this would be the case- the story of the Obi Wan film would be his time on Tatooine looking over Luke Skywalker and living as a hermit. I know some people will wonder how you could make a movie out of that time period. I envision it as western/samurai film, with Obi-Wan helping people- going by the name "Ben" of course. George Lucas was heavily inspired by the films of Akira Kurosawa so I think it's appropriate to return to those works for inspiration- think Yojimbo and Sanjuro. 

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The film would largely be a character study, exploring the psychology of a man who's lost everything. The Republic he fought for has become an authoritarian Empire, the Clones who fought alongside him betrayed him and the other Jedi Knights, his friend and brother has become an agent of evil, for which he's partly responsible, and the Lars family- who are raising Luke- don't want a thing to do with him. It's a pretty bleak story, even though, as with the other prequel films, we know there will eventually be hope. The fact that the filmmakers behind Rogue One were allowed to kill off the entire principal cast gives me hope we could get a film that shows Obi Wan in a really dark place. 

Of course, Ewan McGregor would return. McGregor has expressed interest in the past regarding a possible solo film. For people who grew up with the prequels there would be a definite nostalgic reaction to McGregor's return. And even though I have my issues with the prequels I do like McGregor's performance- particularly his final moments with Anakin. Joel Edgerton- who played Luke's Uncle Owen Lars in the prequels could also return. I'd like to see the conflict between Owen and Obi Wan. Owen would blame Obi Wan for Anakin's turn to the dark side and wouldn't want leading Luke down the path of becoming a Jedi. 
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I do hope we eventually move past the original trilogy's characters and events but I hold that there's real potential for a compelling and beautiful drama about Obi Wan during his life on Tatooine, a film that isn't merely another franchise movie.

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Some Thoughts on the Future of the Terminator Franchise

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Spoilers for The Terminator series


When James Cameron directed The Terminator back in 1984, it was only his second film- after Piranha Part Two: The Spawning (1981), and it ultimately changed his entire career, giving him the clout and respect to eventually direct the sequel to Alien- Aliens. He would eventually return to the Terminator universe with Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), a film that revolutionized special effects. And of course, he directed the two box office champs, Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009), the latter of which was also revolutionary in regards to its special effects. 

While Cameron is still very much focused on doing more Avatar films, this week he brought up the possibility of doing more Terminator films. Apparently he and producer David Ellison- who owns the rights to the franchise- have had discussions about a possible three movie story-line. Cameron hasn't been involved with the three previous Terminator films- Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003), Terminator Salvation (2009) and Terminator: Genisys (2015) Cameron says was supportive of the Arnold Schwarzenegger led 3rd and 5th films- since him and Schwarzenegger have remained friends throughout the years- but adds they didn't work for him, "for various reasons."    

For me I believe it's been difficult to make further Terminator films post the second film, arguably even the first film. This is because everything that occurs is on a loop- Kyle Reese will always be John Connor's father, Skynet can only ever be created because the Terminator came back. But coming back to T2, that's the saga's end. Sarah Connor and John prevented Judgement Day, Miles Dyson is dead. There was even an alternate ending set in the altered future where John had become a senator. In T3 all that was undone- Judgement Day is unavoidable. It was a bold way to end the film but the rest of the film- while decent- felt to similar to the previous films. Salvation was set in the future only briefly glimpsed in the first two films. It had potential but didn't capture the oppressive dread of that world. I admired the ideas explored in Genisys but it was too convoluted and fell in to the trap of having the plot revolve around preventing Judgement Day again.

The Terminator was never really designed to set up a franchise. As I mentioned before, the first film is a closed loop. And since time travel is a major factor in the franchise, things keep getting more confusing with each new film. If Cameron wants to direct or produce further Terminator films I think the best approach is to start with a new continuity. It makes things cleaner and less confusing. 

I would also suggest not focusing on Sarah or John; create new human characters we can get invested in. I think you can still keep the basic premise: a machine comes back to kill a human and prevent the machines' defeat in the future. Bob "MovieBob" Chipman proposed ignoring the post-T2 films; the film would be set in a post-labour future where machines haven't turned against us. However, the machines have made certain people obsolete since they're not need for labour anymore. Someone would go back to prevent this, targeting Dyson's now grown daughter who has a prototype terminator who can protect her. Chipman also recommended going for a smaller scale, with which I strongly agree. I like the idea of the franchise going back its horror/sci-fi roots rather than attempting to repeat T2 again.

I don't know if Cameron will ever get around to doing these hypothetical Terminator films or when we'll see another film in the franchise. I'm always open-minded about reinventing a franchise- look at the new Planet of the Apes films. Until then- well, we'll always have the first two films. 

Friday, 21 July 2017

Some Thoughts on the Latest Remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers

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When it was announced this past week that Warner Bros. will be producing another remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (the fourth to date) it reminded me none of these remakes are sequels to Don Siegel's 1956 original (all these films are based on Jack Finney's 1955 novel Body Snatchers) or Philip Kaufman's 1978 version. This makes this series of films singular in the annals of horror. However, I find it apt there's never been an Body Snatchers sequel. There's something absolute about its premise, making it difficult to move beyond the initial concept- aliens who can replicate human bodies and plan to take over the planet. 

Whenever this story is retold the body snatchers are always a metaphor for the fears of the time, whether it be the red scare and McCarthyism or post-Watergate paranoia; every era offers an analogy. There's also something timelessly terrifying about this premise; You the know the person you love isn't the same but the changes are subtle, which is more unsettling. What if we had our humanity completely taken away? For me, Kaufman's film is one of the bleakest horror films ever made. It's ending captures has a hopeless dread that reverberates to this day.

I haven't seen the last remake- 2007's The Invasion, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel- so I can't comment on that film but I admire how each of these films' directors have a distinct take on this story. When Abel Ferrara did his version in 1993, it was set on an army base rather than in small town or city- the previous versions' settings. The new version will be written by David Leslie Johnson, who wrote The Conjuring 2. I liked that film despite it being slightly overlong. Producer John Davis (1987's Predator) is also on board. I'm curious to see who will direct. I'd like to see Duncan Jones get a shot, whose Moon and Source Code are two of the better sci-fi films of the last decade. I'd like to see what Patty Jenkins could do with the material; I think Wonder Woman is among the strongest recent superhero films both in theme and character. Jenkins can absolutely make an intelligent and emotional genre film.

So, what do you think of another Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake? And who would you like to direct?

 

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

"Was he slow?" Baby Driver

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Warning: Major Spoilers Follow

Edgar Wright is someone who's in love with his job as a filmmaker, which has shown in every film he's made thus far. This love affair continues with his latest film Baby Driver. The film's story involves familiar genre archetypes: a getaway driver (Ansel Elgort) who wants to quit the life of crime, the crime boss (Kevin Spacey) who reels him in for another job, the waitress with whom our hero wants to run away (Lily James) and the assortment of criminals along for the ride (Jon Hamm, Eiza Gonzalez, and Jamie Foxx). It's an old song but performed with genuine style, charm and heart.

Speaking of songs, Baby Driver can be best described as a film noir musical. This is because our hero-Baby- listens to music while heists are being pulled off and when he's out-driving the police. He also records conversations and makes songs out of them. The film as an extension of Baby's mindset; Wright shot and edited the action sequences to the music, creating a unique synthesis of sound and visuals that's organic to the film's universe. 

We learn Baby listens to music constantly due to a childhood car accident which left with him a constant humming in his right ear. The same accident also killed both his musician mother (Sky Ferreira) and father (Lance Palmer). When he was still a kid, Baby stole from Spacey's Doc. Doc was so impressed that he's used Baby for every heist. Baby is in debt to Doc and is due to retire after one more heist. Like Ryan Gosling's unnamed character in Drive Baby is great at his job but still strikes others as odd. Griff (Jon Bernthal) and Foxx's Bats are antagonistic towards him. However, due to his youth several of the criminals treat him as a surrogate son or little brother. 

Hamm and Gonzalez's Bonnie and Clyde married couple Buddy and Darling treat him with a kind of bemusement- not quite affection but a certain level of respect. Baby has a complicated relationship with Doc, who is part extorter/part father figure to Baby. Spacey is one of the best actors at doing quiet menace while being darkly funny. When he brings Baby back in to the fold after debts had supposedly been settled Doc casually remarks that he could cripple Baby and kill everyone he loves if Baby doesn't keep working for him; it's this scene where Baby realizes how much he's still in Doc's grip- and desperately needs a way out. 
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While James Debora and the whole love story between her and Baby is somewhat underwritten, she and Elgort's chemistry makes the relationship very pleasurable to watch unfold. Wright understands that there's a inherent romanticism inherent in noir- wanting to drive away with a beautiful woman, turning your back on the world of violence and greed- and he portrays the romance in an idealized fashion. The movie believes two people can be brought together by music. I get the impression that Baby sees something of his mother in Debora- a memory of a happier time when he felt protected. Debora and Darling are notably the two major female characters in the film and they are deliberately contrasted. Darling isn't quite a femme fatale but she's certainly a more dangerous and sexual figure than Debora- who projects a virginal innocence. And while Gonzalez is younger than James, Darling does come across as older and seasoned woman.

While Baby may see his mother in Debora, fatherhood an important aspect of this film. I mentioned that Doc is a twisted version of a father figure; but the man Baby views as a father in the film is foster father, Joe (C.J. Jones), who is deaf and whom Baby looks after, being a father of sorts to Joe. This relationship is perhaps the most touching in the film and helps make Baby a more sympathetic character. 

While the movie is using well-worn genre tropes, it also manages to subvert expectations- particularly regarding certain characters. Bats is killed before the third act even though he was being built up as possibly the major antagonist of the film. It's actually Buddy who becomes the villain in the finale of the film. We understand Buddy's motivations- Darling is killed by the police after Baby intentionally ruining the heist. We see that Buddy and  Darling's love was as or even more genuine than Baby and Debora's. Unlike other noir heroes- Baby lives at the end of the film- but the film doesn't escape tragedy if you look at the film from Buddy's point of view. This makes ending's romanticized reunion of Baby and Debora- after Baby gets out of prison- ironic considering the fact Baby is partly responsible the death of a man's wife.

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Hamm- who became famous for his portrayal of Don Draper on the TV show Mad Men- has in his film roles avoided Draper-esque characters. Instead he's played the good-looking doofus (Bridesmaids), rugged detective (The Town), and a doctor who specializes in lobotomies (Sucker Punch). Hamm's smooth grizzled-ness makes Buddy a distinct personality and a character who could likely carry his own movie.

I do want to talk about Elgort's casting in the role of Baby. Elgort first came to audiences' attention with his role in the teen romance The Fault in Our Stars alongside Shailene Woodley, whom he also co-starred with in the Divergent franchise. His casting as a slick getaway driver would appear to be a case of miscasting. But it ends up working due to how Elgort's image as an actor in Young Adult-orientated films offers a humorous contrast to the noir archetype he's playing; at the same Elgort's offbeat stoicism makes him believable as this odd but cool getaway driver. The opening scene establishes the relationship between Baby and his music, how he grooves to it even as a dangerous heist is occurring. 

I don't know where I'd rank Baby Driver in the Wright Pantheon, particularly since I still need to re-watch most of his work- but it clearly shows a director high on the joy of making movies and pushing himself as an artist, which makes what he'll do next always very exciting. 

Thursday, 25 May 2017

The Essential Films: Looking back on "Star Wars" 40 Years Later

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A Series of Writings on Films that I feel are essential viewings for film lovers, coupled with films that are personal to me

Spoilers Below

In May of 1977, pop culture and cinema was forever changed by the release of director George Lucas' Star Wars. Before it was Episode IV, before it was A New Hope, before people argued about who shot first- it was just that: Star Wars, as pure and simple as the story which it told. Star Wars- and the subsequent episodes of the Original Trilogy, The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi- have become so ingrained in the popular imagination, so influential and obsessed over, that's it hard to look at it as just a movie. Like the stories of Superman and Batman- and even the work of J.R.R Tolkien, it's become something like a modern myth, almost a religion. This isn't to say Star Wars is above criticism or that it can't be analysed; just that it's so much bigger than just a really popular movie. 

Star Wars is  one of the biggest franchises in history but when Lucas was making the original film there was no guarantee it would be a success. We've become so accustomed the world of Star Wars but all this stuff about Jedi, the Force, Wookiees, and a big guy in a black suit with a breathing problem would have struck the people involved in the film's production as weird. Lucas' vision was of the pulpy/fairy tale sort rather than the cerebral nature of Stanley Kubrick's 2001 or the original Star Trek series. I don't even think 20th Century Fox had much faith in the film. Harrison Ford had worked with Lucas on Lucas' sophomore feature American Graffiti and would become a star with his performance as Han Solo. He's notorious for telling Lucas that the dialogue could be written but couldn't be spoken. In many ways I would argue Star Wars is the most mainstream and successful cult movie of all time.
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In crafting the story for Star Wars, Lucas drew inspiration from various genres- samurai film, fantasy, pulp sci-fi, swashbuckling adventure, war epic, western, and coming of age/hero's journey tale. In regards to the specific films which influenced Lucas, Akira Kurosawa's 1958 film Hidden Fortress inspired Star Wars' narrative structure. Lucas begins the film with the droids C-3P0 (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker). Kurosawa tells the story of his film from the perspective of two peasants who accompany a general and a princess across enemy lines. Fritz Lang's groundbreaking 1927 film Metropolis inspired the design of C-3P0. The homestead burning on Tatooine comes from a similar scene is John Ford's The Searchers (1956). Leni Riefenstahl's Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will (1935) was the basis for the medal ceremony which closes the film. 

What's impressive is how Lucas blends diverse genre tropes in to a cohesive whole where the archetypes and iconography compliment each other. The result is a film which feels familiar yet boldly new. I think a big reason for Star Wars' success is how its story already felt old-fashioned back in 1977- and accessible to general audiences- while expanding their idea of what could be accomplished cinematically. More on that later.


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When talking about genre archetypes in relation to Star Wars, the character that stands out most to me is Obi-Wan "Ben" Kenobi (Alec Guinness). Ben represents both a samurai and an old wizard- like Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings. He begins to mentor Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) while still carrying the weight of his failure with his last apprentice, Darth Vader; Vader turned to the dark side and helped the Empire eliminate the Jedi Order. I feel Guinness is underrated in the part- maybe due to the fact we don't think of it as a performance, to many he just is Obi-Wan Kenobi. Guinness convinces me he is this old Jedi master, the Force exists and there was once Jedi Knights who protected the galaxy for thousands of years. And when Luke mentions the Clone Wars- which became a huge part of Star Wars media- it provides a sense of history to this universe. 

Along with Guinness, Peter Cushing- who played Grand Moff Tarkin- was the other veteran actor with a major role in the film. Guinness represents the mythological side of this universe while Cushing is the face of the totalitarian and fascist Empire. I would argue he's the true villain of this film, not Vader. Tarkin orders Princess Leia's (Carrie Fisher) home planet of Alderaan destroyed by the Death Star just to prove a point. What's great about Cushing's performance is he doesn't over play Tarkin's evilness, which makes Tarkin's actions and demeanour all the more believable and unsettling.

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But when it comes to villainy in the Star Wars saga, people will always think about Vader. If Vader isn't the greatest screen villain of all time then he's certainly up there. Even in the original film, before it's revealed he is Luke's father, Vader is a commanding and compelling presence. Vader represents the bygone time of the Jedi; He is more connected to the mystic side of the universe rather than the technical. He's contrasted with the technological and brute-force based Empire. During a meeting about the Death Star with the Imperials Vader states the station's power is meaningless next to the Force. General Motti (Richard LeParmentier) tells Vader not to attempt intimidation with his "sorcerer's ways." Motti sees Vader as something of a relic- calling the Force an "ancient religion." Vader displays his power by choking Motti via-the Force. Tarkin orders Vader to stop, further emphasising he's in charge, not Vader. Later Tarkin disregards Vader's sensing of Obi-Wan aboard the Death Star. Vader is an outsider among the Imperials, though we later learn the Emperor is a Sith like Vader.
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Luke, Han and Leia come from different backgrounds. Luke is the farm boy who's never been off Tatooine, Han is the smuggler who never stays in one place, and Leia is a princess who's the only one of the three who has her mind on defeating the Empire. The film is largely about these three people coming together for a single purpose. It's part of why the series is so enduring- it believes regardless of background people can work together and accomplish great things.

Luke longs for a better life, one of adventure and purpose. His uncle Owen (Phil Brown) doesn't allow him to leave because he needs Luke's help on the farm. Owen is also afraid Luke will follow in his father's footsteps and become a Jedi Knight (in the context of this film Luke's father Anakin was murdered), We understand Luke's frustration but we can also see Owen sincerely cares about Luke and is reasonable. The tragedy of Owen and Beru's (Shelagh Fraser) murder is Luke never got to reconcile with Owen. Moreover, now Luke has no choice but to leave Tatooine. Obi-Wan becomes a father figure to Luke. When Obi-Wan dies Luke truly has to grow up. Hamill was already in his mid-20s when he played 19 year old Luke but he conveys Luke's immaturity, genuine decency and infectious energy perfectly.

Leia isn't afraid of Vader nor Tarkin. She's confident but we see her fear and desperation when Tarkin forces her to disclose the location of the rebel base or he'll destroy Alderaan. Her confident and arrogant exterior slips away; we see how powerless she- and the whole idea of royalty-is in this situation. She's snobbish in how she treats Luke and Han but comforts Luke after Obi-Wan's death. Despite losing her planet she shows compassion to the man who rescued her. The late Fisher plays these different sides of Leia's personality with grace, making them all feel part of the same person.

Han is the scoundrel with the heart of gold. The key to Ford's performance is you believe he's really out for himself while at the same time you buy that he comes back to help the rebellion at the film's conclusion. Ford is arguably the closest thing we have to a modern day Humphrey Bogart. His performance is charming, sly, ruthless and funny. The scene where he's talking over the intercom display Ford's ability to convincingly play the tough guy who's occasionally ill-equipped in certain situations.
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I mentioned earlier that Star Wars expanded people's idea about what could be achieved cinematically. This is due to how groundbreaking and influential its visual effects (by John Dykstra and his team at ILM (Industrial Lights & Magic)) were. Star Wars is a film that embraces its goofy pulp sci-fi roots; while being more technically sophisticated then that sub-genre had been before  The opening shot of the Star Destroyer chasing the Tantive IV is still an incredible visual marvel. It automatically establishes the rebels as the underdogs and the Empire as oppressive and all-encompassing. Ben Burtt's sound design also deserves credit. The sound design of Star Wars is so iconic all you have to do is hear the sound of a TIE fighter and you know what you're listening to.

For me, Star Wars isn't quite Star Wars without John Williams' music. The fanfare- accompanying the title as it recedes in to space and the opening scrawl is romantic, epic, poignant and thrilling to this day. The force theme, which plays over Luke looking at the twin sunset, invokes longing and the hope for a better future. It became such an indelible combination of visual and sound that Lucas ended the Prequel Trilogy Owen and Beru looking at the twin suns.

In 40 years, I think this film- and the Original Trilogy as a whole- will still be classic. It's world and its characters feel timeless- appealing to multiple generations and people of different backgrounds. It inspires the imagination and has a purity to it that's often missing in the modern blockbuster landscape. So, what is your favourite aspect of the original film, and what does it mean to you? Comment below and let me know.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Some thoughts on Luke Skywalker and "The Last Jedi"




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Spoilers for The Force Awakens below

Darth Vader is my favourite Star Wars character but it's his son Luke Skywalker's story that for best epitomizes the mythic nature of the Star Wars saga. The original trilogy is about Luke's journey from a Tatootine farm-boy who doesn't know the legacy of his namesake to a Jedi who redeems his father and helps save the galaxy. When we get to The Force Awakens Luke has become a figure of legend. Rey believes he's just a myth. One can imagine that children in the post-Return of the Jedi galaxy have grown up with stories of Luke, Han Solo and Princess Leia. This is appropriate considering the fairy tale nature of the saga.



What intrigues me most about the The Last Jedi trailer is Luke saying the Jedi must come to an end. It appears that Luke is a more cynical character 30 years since Return of the Jedi's ending. I can't help but think of Luke telling Obi-Wan Kenobi he wanted to about the Force and become a Jedi like his father; and later, telling the Emperor he'll never turn to the dark side, that he is a Jedi, like his father before him. Now, what he once strove to become may not have any positive meaning for him anymore. 




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The ending of Return of Jedi left Luke as the person who would rebuild the Jedi Order, albeit likely different in certain ways from what became before. In The Force Awakens we know that Luke has attempted to train new Jedi but Ben Solo- Han's son and Luke's nephew- and the Knights of Ren killed Luke's pupils. This sent Luke in to exile like Obi-Wan and Yoda- and likely led to a new outlook on the relevancy and purpose of the Jedi, thinking beyond the dogma of both the Jedi and the Sith. With the Jedi being eliminated twice perhaps Luke is taking that as a sign from the Force. Maybe the galaxy would be better without dogmatic religions. What I'm curious about is that will affect the role of force users in the saga post this new trilogy. 

Also: Supreme Leader Snoke and Ben (now calling himself Kylo Ren) aren't Sith, so they themselves represent a different type of dark side user. However, Ren still worships his grandfather who was a Sith.

I'm also wondering what Luke is going to be teaching Rey specifically and how her arc will proceed People have theorized that she will go to the dark side, which would be a bold choice. I enjoyed The Force Awakens but I feel this film will explore new mythological territory in regards to the Star Wars universe; like The Empire Strikes Back, this middle chapter will deepen and redefine what came before, leading us in to the conclusion of this trilogy.

So, what are your theories on Luke's possible story in The Last Jedi. Comment below and let me know.

Monday, 10 April 2017

Some brief thoughts on Joss Whedon and Batgirl

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It was announced this recently that Joss Whedon was in talks to write and direct a Batgirl movie for DC/Warner Bros, presumably to be part of the DCEU (DC Extended Universe that began with Man of Steel. It's a major coup for DC/Warner Bros. Whedon helped make the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) what it is today, successfully bringing together its disparate heroes in the game-changing The Avengers. Having Whedon on-board the DCEU adds some good will considering the controversial reaction to their film output thus far.

Whedon's sensibilities do line up with writer Cameron Stewart's run on Batgirl several years ago, which was more lighthearted compared to Gail Simone's serious take on the character. Just imagine Buffy the Vampire Slayer but with Batgirl and I think you have something akin to the actual film.

When the DC universe was rebooted for the New 52, Simone re-imagined Barbara Gordon as having gained the ability to walk again. Barbara had being paralyzed by the Joker shooting her. This event occured in Alan Moore's The Killing Joke. In the previous continuity, Barbara took on the role of Oracle, a computer expert working alongside the DC heroes. With the DCEU reportedly moving towards a lighter tone, a Whedon Batgirl wouldn't feel as out of place as it would immediately post Batman v. Superman.

Whedon's Batgirl film is said to be taking inspiration from the New 52 so the question is whether The Killing Joke will be part of Barbara's backstory. The Killing Joke is a controversial, with some considering it sexist and misogynistic. Critics of the story view Barbara's role in the story as essentially a plot device to psychologically torture her father Commissioner James Gordon. I believe there is a way to incorporate Barbara's paralysis in to the story without her being a plot-device, which is to have her in costume and in action when she is paralyzed. 


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Another important question is who will play Barbara. Many have suggested Emma Stone, who's fresh off her Oscar win for La La Land. Admittedly, I'm not a huge fan of Stone and feel Jane Levy- who's name has also been bandied about for the role- is actually a more versatile actress and deserves a star-making role of this caliber. British actress Imogen Poots is also another actress who always feels like she's on the cusp stardom. 

I'm looking forward to seeing more of the Bat-family as the DCEU progresses, particularly with Ben Affleck's Batman in BvS seemingly cut-off from everyone except Jeremy Irons' Alfred Pennyworth. So, let me know- is Whedon a good pick? And who do you want to play Batgirl in the DCEU? 



Monday, 20 February 2017

"If you're going to lead people, you have to have somewhere to go:" "Rumble Fish"


Warning: Spoilers for the film below

In 1983 director Francis Ford Coppola released two films based on the work of young adult novelist S.E. Hinton. These films were The Outsiders- released in March of that year- and Rumble Fish- released seven months later in October. The films were shot back-to-back in the same location and Coppola even used several of the same actors in both films, most notably Matt Dillon and Diane Lane. Dillon had a supporting role in The Outsiders and became the lead in Rumble Fish

When viewing Rumble Fish I gather Coppola didn't want to repeat himself and make The Outsiders again. The Outsiders is mostly straightforward in regards to its style but in Rumble Fish Coppola is experimenting with cinematic form and meshes the story's subject matter with a different ambience than what was expected from a 80s teen film. It's atmosphere is more film-noir than teenage coming of age drama. Others have also noted the influence of German Expressionism and the films of Orson Welles. This film divides me. I don't think it works as drama; it's narrative isn't satisfying- several plot and story strands do feel underdeveloped and without strong payoffs- but it's worth viewing as a turning point for Coppola; this film points forward toward his later 21st century work. 

Rusty James (Dillon) is told he has to fight Biff Wilcox, the leader of a rival gang. Rusty James' brother, the Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke) prior, had instigated a truce between the gangs just prior to his leaving without explanation; but Rusty James goes to fight Wilcox that night anyway. The Motorcycle Boy shows  up and Rusty James is wounded by Wilcox stabbing him with a shard of glass. The Motorcycle Boy ends the fight and takes Rusty James home to tend his wound.

The Motorcycle Boy is the most captivating and seductive character in the film, largely due to his mysterious nature. There's a James Dean quality to Rourke's performance, and it's no wonder Rourke was pegged as the next Brando/Pacino/De Niro. I get the impression that the Motorcycle Boy that Rusty James looks up to and wishes to emulate is the not the same man we see throughout the film. The Motorcycle Boy has matured and isn't interested in being in a gang or engaging in any wars. However, Officer Paterson (William Smith) still hates the Motorcycle Boy due to the kids idolozing him. The Motorcycle Boy is killed by Paterson while attempting the free the titular rumble fish from a pet store. It's only through the Motorcycle Boy's death that Rusty James can be free to his own man.


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Rusty James' relationship with Patty (Diane Lane) falls apart when Rusty James cheats on her with another girl. I wish Patty had more of a inner life but Lane does give Patty an angelic quality. She's the embodiment of every teenage boy's fantasy, which is visualized in Rusty James' day dream sequences where he sees her in lingerie on top of a classroom bookcase and at work. 

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For me, Stephen H. Burum's cinematography (this was Coppola's first film in black and white) invokes the 1950s, even while the film is set later in time. By providing the film the aura of a period piece rather than a contemporary drama, there's an almost nostalgic nature to the events, as if we're seeing them from the perspective of Rusty James looking back at this time in his life.

Rumble Fish is more of an impressionistic fever dream than a involving emotional experience. Still, as I mentioned before, the film is worth viewing to see what would personify Coppola's later career work; and as a piece of visual art, it's gorgeous.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Looking back at Steve McQueen's "Hunger"

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Warning: Spoiler for one particular scene 

Steve McQueen's debut film, Hunger chronicles the 1981 hunger strike of IRA member Bobby Sands in Northern Ireland's Maze prison. Sands wanted he and his fellow IRA inmates to be recognized as political prisoners by the British Government. Michael Fassbender plays Sands, who doesn't appear until 26 minutes in to the film. A more conventional film would've started with Sands. Hunger begins with Raymond Lohan (Steve Graham) as he goes about his day as a prison guard. We see him check his car for bombs, wash his bloodied knuckles, smoke and eat lunch. The film then introduces Davey Gillen (Brian Milligan), a new IRA prisoner, and his cellmate Gerry Campbell (Liam McMahon). Campbell has smeared his cell wall with his own feces as part of the "no wash" protest. It's through these characters the film establishes its world and the feeling of being a guards and prisoners in the Maze. 

Coming back to the beginning of the film, McQueen- by showing the bottom of Lohan's car- makes us think there is a bomb. When Lohan checks underneath the car we understand this is something he checks every day. This small detail already tells us something about this man's life and the political climate. McQueen is a director who's also interested in the banal details of these peoples' lives. In a wide-shot we see Lohan smoking outside in the snow. There's a feeling of peace, that this most Lohan gets during the day; it's also the most peaceful the film gets. Then there's the scene where Gillen plays with the fly in his cell. These are the kind of details some would consider boring but they are the small things that make up every day life. The film doesn't follow a traditional act structure. Rather, it is comprised of vignettes and moments.  It's sometimes easy to forget we're watching a film, so vivid is its portrayal of these events. And it's the film's often slow pace which makes the sudden outbursts of violence- most notably Lohan being killed while visiting his mother in a nursing home- all the more visceral.

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What struck me about Hunger is it's almost a completely visual experience. Aside from one extended dialogue sequence McQueen and Enda Walsh's screenplay only sparsely uses dialogue. McQueen is less interested in discourse about politics or terrorism than he is in creating a specific mood and sense of realism through visuals and sound design. As described by the Criterion Collection, McQueen's is experiential and abstract.

The center-piece of the film is the aforementioned conversation between Sands and Father Dominic Moran (Liam Cunningham), which is filmed in one unbroken long take. Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt- who would photograph McQueen's other two films, Shame and 12 Years a Slave- casts Sands and Moran in silhouette. The smoke from their cigarettes is bright, somewhat blueish. The scene has the look of a film noir. It's a simple set-up but it's that simplicity which gives the scene its absorbing power. We're so accustomed to dialogue scenes being cut in a particular way. There are usually close-ups that punctuate certain lines; this scene- by not cutting- invites us to pay attention to these men's words and their body language. Cunningham actually moved in with Fassbender and they rehearsed the scene during the day. When McQueen finally cuts to a close-up of Sands the close-up has more impact because we haven't already been given a dozen of them already. 

Sands tells Moran he and other IRA inmates plan to go on a hunger strike. Moran doesn't agree with Sands' stance but you can tell these two men have a mutual respect for one another. What's striking about this conversation is that it's not about the IRA being right or wrong so much as its about how far Sands is willing to go to achieve better treatment for prisoners as well as proper acknowledgement as a political prisoner. We also hear snippets of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher discussing the prisoners but the film isn't concerned with being anti or pro Thatcher either. Her voice is there to remind us of that time and her views on these prisoners.

Fassbender lost weight to play Sands during the hunger strike and it its disturbing see someone so gaunt. McQueen doesn't attempt to lionize Sands or the IRA, though Sands seeing himself as a young boy as he's dying does verge too close to sentiment. It simply shows what he endured to be heard. 

McQueen began his career in art installations before making the transition to short films and eventually feature films. McQueen's three films thus far have all been about physical and emotional violence people have been subjected to or to which they subjected themselves. McQueen's goal is to make the audience experience, with all their senses, the world of his films and the pain of his characters.


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Hunger eschews conventions and winds up being one of the most unique depictions of prison life and protest committed to film. It's not a easy film to watch but its film-making and performances make it one of the vital films of the century thus far. 

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Am I Just Praying To Silence?: "Silence"

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Warning: Spoilers Will Follow

Martin Scorsese's Silence is a film one has to give themselves over to completely. It's a somber, meditative, quiet, slow, and challenging experience. It's refreshingly uncompromised and never feels like it was made for all audiences- or even one audience in particular.  It feels very specific, not just to Scorsese's relationship with faith, but to a particular feeling of guilt and what it means to wrestle with one own's faith. It's my favourite film of 2016 and while watching it I was amazed this was a film coming out of a Hollywood studio in 2016. It feels very European and something that belongs to an earlier era. For me, I think it's up there with Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal in regards to films about the nature of faith and wanting an answer from God. I think To Scorsese the cinema is like a religion, and a cinema is a church; and Silence is a film that calls out to be seen in a on a huge screen, similar to 2001 or the epics of David Lean.

The film takes place in the 17th century. Sebastiao Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver) are Portuguese Jesuit priests who learn their mentor and fellow priest Cristovao Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has committed apostasy while in Japan. Rodrigues and Garupe have doubts as to the truth of this story so they travel to Japan in search of Ferreira. In Japan Japanese Christians are being prosecuted and forced to renounce Christianity. Rodrigues and Garupe help the Christians who have been driven underground by the Shoguns's Grand Inquisitor Inoue (Issei Ogata). Rodrigues and Garupe eventually split up and Rodrigues is captured by the Inquisitor's men. Rodrigues is told to apostatise or others will be tortured until he does.

The film is based on Shusaku Endo's 1966 novel of the same name, which was made in to a previous film in 1971 by Masahiro Shinoda. The screenplay for Scorsese's adaptation was co-written by Scorsese with Jay Cocks, who co-wrote Scorsese's Gangs of New York. Scorsese has been wanting to direct a film of Endo's novel for years. Having finally made the film, Silence does feel like something Scorsese has been working towards for years, largely because it doesn't move, sound or look like our collective image of a Scorsese film. It's almost like Scorsese has been living with this novel for so long that his passion for it become bigger than his own stylistic sensibilities. The story couldn't be boxed in by an established style.

Scorsese's films are known for their quick-fire editing, which can largely be credited to Scorsese's long time collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker, whose has edited Scorsese's every non-documentary film since Raging Bull. Here, the editing isn't as frantic, the shots last longer, and with one exception there's no sweeping camera moves. Scorsese wants you to soak in the film's atmosphere and feel it in your bones and soul. The film is largely set outdoors and Rodrigo Prieto's cinematography makes you feel the nature of Japan in all its beauty and mystery. 

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As with the the search for Marlon Brando's Colonel Kurtz in Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now we're kept in the dark as to Ferreira's fate until the final act. But as with Coppola's film, Silence is more than just the story about searching for some. The film becomes a spiritual search- a search for meaning amongst unbearable suffering and an answer from God. Throughout the film Rodrigues struggles with his faith and is given a choice between watching others suffer and committing apostasy. The question Rodrigues faces is whether renouncing God is the most Christian thing he can do- if it does stop people from torment. 

But forcing someone to apostatise doesn't prevent that person from still believing in God. However, if you do apostatise, psychologically, you may feel you truly have turned your back on God and can't be redeemed, that what you've said reflects what you feel. But thoughts and words are always in an ambiguous intertwined relationship. Throughout the film Rodrigues thoughts are filled with doubt but what he says never betrays those thoughts. It's only near the end of the film that he verbalizes these doubts. When spreading religion, a man like Rodrigues cannot verbally express doubt. He has to be a figure of zero ambiguity.

As the film goes along we come to understand- to an extent- Inoue's perspective on Christianity in Japan. It is arrogant for people to enter another country and telling people what to believe. Rodrigues exemplifies this arrogance when he says there is one universal truth the Jesuits are spreading. 

One of the best scenes in the film is between Rodrigues and Inoue, discussing religion's place in Japan. It's in this scene where we truly see the point of view of the Japanese. Inoue uses the analogy of a daimyo who had four concubines and were jealous. Eventually the daimyo and was at peace. In the analogy the daimyo is Japan and the concubines are the different countries which are attempting to win Japan over to their side. Rodrigues proposes that Japan take one wife, to which Inoue says Rodrigues means Japan should pick Portugal. Rodrigues says he means the Holy Church but one feels Inoue is right. It's not just about one universal truth, it's about Portugal and having power over Japan. Rodrigues presumes he knows more than Inoue and can convince him that he is right. But Inoue is arguably the more intelligent of the two. Though in many ways Rodrigues and Inoue are to each other the most formidable foe either has encountered. And ultimately, both are stuck in a way of thinking that will either be vindicated or will lead to their destruction.
   
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Garfield's performance is truly transformative. I haven't seen his Oscar-nominated work in Mel Gibson's Hacksaw Ridge but I feel he should have been nominated for this. With Garfield, Scorsese is doing what he did with Leonardo DiCaprio, in that he's really pushing Garfield and allowing us to see a different side of the actor. It's amazing this is the same actor that played Spider-Man. Ogata' performance is exaggerated but subdued, he plays Inoue almost but not quite a parody. We're left a little off balance by him, which gives him the advantage. It's kind of a brilliant performance. Driver, whose been building up an impressive performance since appearing on HBO's Girls. I wish he had a little more screentime as Garupe but like Garfield he truly embodies his character. We don't Adam from Girls or Kylo Ren from Star Wars. 

Neeson doesn't reappear until the third act but through his performance we see the culmination of many of the film's thematic threads. As was told, Ferreira has taken a Japanese name and has renounced God. He tells Rodrigues that Japan only believes in their distortion of the Bible and they can't conceive of anything beyond nature, of the Christian God. Ultimately, one religion cannot fit every culture, which is why there must be doubt of a universal truth.  

Viewing Ferreira through Rodrigues' point of view, he's the mentor figure who has drastically changed and can offer no comfort. Rodrigues has found his former master but Ferreira now wants Rodrigues to renounce God. By having Rodrigues renounce God, Ferreira will eliminate the last part of his previous life as a Jesuit priest. Rodrigues' view Ferreira reflects how we can imagine Inoue views Japanese Christians- they are no longer who they were before. Maybe after finally finding Ferreira Rodrigues can finally understand Inoue on some level.

Ferreira tells Rodrigues he can't compare his suffering to Jesus. Rodrigues can't place his suffering above other peoples' which is a difference between Jesus and Rodrigues. Rodrigues is made to look like  Jesus- his facial hair and wardrobe; and there's a great shot where he sees his reflection it changes in to an image of Jesus. But despite these deliberate aesthetic parallels, Ferreira's point of view subverts our expectations that Rodrigues is supposed to be a literal Jesus figure; ultimately Rodrigues' path and destiny is different than Jesus.
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Rodrigues' journey doesn't end the way he thought it would, but no one's ever does, another reason we can't really be like Jesus. Our fates are not foretold to us. Rodrigues does not die for anyone's sins and fades in to obscurity. Is Rodrigues' fate our own?  We are left with the question of whether Rodrigues was lost to God, which only God can answer. Hypothetically if there was a God only that God can speak or him/her/itself. I feel this question asks us not to attempt an answer but to be compassionate and not dole out judgement. 

Unfortunately the film has not fared well at the box office. This is really a shame because it's so deserving of an audience and feels like it would have garnered more of an audience decades ago. But it's understandable a mainstream film, religious or otherwise. But I hope it gains more of an audience in the coming years. It's a brutal but I think rewarding film that almost feels like a miracle. 

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Favourite Films of the 1950s


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Warning: Spoilers for many of the films listed below


I consider the 1950s the greatest decade in film history. It was the decade in which Hitchcock made several of this greatest films- including the film many regard as his masterpiece, Vertigo. Akira Kurosawa made Rashomon, Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood. Ingmar Bergman would have Smiles of a Summer's Night and The Seventh Seal. Marlon Brando would come on the scene deliver one of the greatest screen performances of all time- as Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront. Fellini would give us Nights of Cabiria and La Strada. James Dean became of the great screen icons with all only three films. Billy Wilder made what is considered the funniest film of all time with Some Like It Hot, as well maybe the best film about Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard.

I wanted to discuss my favourite films of the decade. They include multiple appearances by a few directors, especially Mr. Hitchcock. So, here they are, my favourite films of this wonderful decade of cinema. Again, there will be spoilers. 


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Rear Window (1954) 

Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window is one of the rare films that I would argue is perfect.  L.B. "Jeff" Jeffries (Jimmy Stewart) is a photographer who- after breaking his leg photographing a racetrack accident- is confined to a wheelchair and passes the time spying on his neighbours in the courtyard where he lives. He soon starts to suspect that Lars Thorwold (Raymond Burr)  has murdered his invalid wife.

Hitchcock takes what sounds like an uncinematic concept and crafts it in to a commentary on cinema, voyeurism and the how the two are intrinsically connected. Hitchcock always believed in what he called "pure cinema," meaning the story should should be told using the specific tools of cinema. We see most everything from Jeff's perspective as he's looking in to the other apartments. We as the audience are also voyeurs and accomplices in Jeff's preoccupation. Even when there's dialogue- Jeff interacts with and involves in his investigation his girlfriend Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) and police friend Tom Doyle (Wendell Corey). But even in dialogue scenes Hitchcock still tells the story visually: who can forget Lisa's introduction- seen through Jeff's blurred vision as she comes in to kiss him.

Rear Window is also a commentary on our relationship to our neighbours and how we perceive people and their actions. And overall it's just an incredibly entertaining film. More than 60 years on, it's still an exemplary example of its genre and Hitchcock's filmography.

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 12 Angry Men (1957)

Sidney Lumet's debut film only has one scene set in a courtroom but it ranks amongst the greatest films about the justice system. It also remains an relevant examination about racial prejudice in America.

On a hot summer day 12 jurors must decide the fate of a 18 year old Hispanic boy charged with murdering his father. For most of the jurors it's an open-and-shut case that the boy guilty. Juror 8 (Henry Fonda) wants to discuss the details of the case to make certain they're not sending an innocent person to their death. Throughout the afternoon the other jurors will confront their own biases and preconceptions. Juror 3 (Lee J. Cobb, one of the great character actors) has the most powerful and significant transformation. His decision is the culmination of the whole drama.

Fonda is perfectly cast as Juror 8. Fonda almost always portrayed noble character and here represents what a juror should be: open-minded and desiring a fair verdict. Aside from Fonda and Cobb, the superb ensemble cast also includes a who's who of character actors: Jack Klugman, E.G. Marshall, Martin Balsam, and Jack Warden.

As I've gotten older the film has become more ambiguous and complex. When I was younger I thought it was clear the boy was innocent. I now think there's a possibility the boy could be guilty. The larger point is he got a second chance at life and the possibility of redemption.  


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 Singin' in the Rain (1952)

The late Debbie Reynolds made her screen debut in Singin' in the Rain, which is my absolute favourite movie musical. Energetic, sweet, and with a humourous commentary on how Hollywood switched from silent films to "talkies," this may be the happiest film ever made, or at least among the most happiest. Taking place in the late 1920s, Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) is a silent film star who's paired in films with Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen).  Don and Lina's latest film The Dueling Cavalier is  to be turned in to talking picture after the success of The Jazz Singer but Lina's shrill voice wasn't made for talkies. Don meets Kathy Selden (Reynolds) and the two fall in love. Kathy is eventually employed to dub Lina's voice when Don, Don's best friend Cosmo Brown (Donald O'Connor) and Kathy get the idea to turn The Dueling Cavalier in to a musical

The film is famous for the scene of Hollywood star Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) singing the title song but the film is full of other memorable musical set pieces, including "Good Morning, Good Morning," "Moses Supposes" and O'Connor's "Make 'Em Laugh." It's a shame this film was only nominated for two Oscars- Best Scoring of a Musical Film and Best Supporting Actress for Hegan's performance. In a better world, the film, Kelly, Don O'Connor, Director Stanley Donen and Reynolds would all have been nominated.



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 Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Sunset Boulevard is one of Billy Wilder's essential masterpieces, a darkly funny, biting and ultimately tragic story about the way Hollywood both gives and takes away- and the obsession with maintaining one's fame and the audience's love. Joe Gillis (William Holden) is a struggling screenwriter who- while escaping from men attempting to repossess his car- finds himself at the mansion of former film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). When Joe recognizes her and comments she used to be a big star she says "I am big. It's the pictures that got small."  She's written a screenplay for her "return" (she hates the word comeback) and Joe persuades her to let him rewrite it.

Norma Desmond is one of the great film characters- sad, scary, funny, incredibly confident and yet vulnerable to the core. Swanson- who was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar- plays Norma just broadly enough to make her outlandish but not cartoonish. Her tragedy is of someone who had everything and can't live without being a star. She eventually brings Joe down with her, their two fates intertwined.

While Joe can physically leave the mansion, he is still a prisoner of Norma's and his own desires. Casting a handsome movie star like Holden as a down on his luck screenwriter is actually a great joke. And casting actor-director Eric von Stroheim as Norma's former husband and director, now butler Max von Mayerling also functions as meta-joke.  

Wilder and Charles Brackett, whom had co-written several previous films with Wilder, won Oscars for writing Sunset Boulevard but it was to be their final collaboration. Wilder- hailing from Germany- always looked at America from an outsider's perspective. I think he was both cynical of American society was still compassionate, never looking down on his characters- and even finding hope for them in The Apartment and Some Like It Hot. And even Norma finds happiness in her delusions.



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 Vertigo

Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo is a prime example of film that wasn't well liked at the time of its release but was later on re-valuated. Vertigo is now seen as Hitchcock's supreme masterpiece. In 2012 it dethroned Citizen Kane in Sight and Sound's greatest films poll. Whether Hitchcock intended it or not, Vertigo is the revealing of his own psychology, his obsession with a particular kind of woman and manipulation of women.

John "Scottie" Ferguson is a retired police officer who realized he had acrophobia during a rooftop chase of a suspect, which led to the death of another officer. Scottie is hired by an old college friend Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) to follow his wife Madeline, whom Elster believes has been possessed by the ghost of her great-grandmother Carlotta Valdes. Scottie Madeline and subsequently saves her life after she throws herself in to the bay under the Golden Gate Bridge. He soon becomes romantically involved with Madeline but he is unable to stop her from committing suicide by throwing herself off the top of a bell tower. Scottie is found not responsible for Madeline's suicide and spends some time in a sanitarium. Plagued with guilt, Scottie eventually meets a woman named Judy who looks remarkably like Madeline, whom he then begins to make in to the image of his dead love.

Vertigo is like a maze and Hitchcock is leading you through it. I think when one first sees the film his or her focus will mostly be on the plot.  But on re-watch once you know where the story is going, one is able to focus on the film-making and the psychological complexity of the story. The plot is a red herring. Like Scottie we are led down multiple paths, not realizing the grand design until it's too late.

On re-watch, one is also able focus on character study of Scottie. Even from the beginning of the film Hitchcock establishes Scottie's fragile mental state and how Scottie will eventually blame his vertigo for mot being able to save Madeline. As Scottie begins to trail Madeline, this is where is obsession begins, and he's the one who ultimately becomes possessed- not by a ghost but by romantic obsession.

The casting of Stewart is brilliant due to his relatability and image as the every man. In him audiences saw who they could be at their best. In Vertigo we see ourselves at our worst. If Stewart can be consumed by a twisted obsession, we all can  

A trope of Hitchock's filmography is the "Hitchcock Blonde," cold, cool, mysterious women. Just as Scottie is obsessed with an image that doesn't really exist- the "Madeline" he knows is just Judy, an actress playing a part- Hitchcock was obsessed with a particular image of a woman. Vertigo is largely about the extent someone will hurt another as part of their art. Hitchcock is known for his cruelty towards Tippi Hendren and his obsession with her and several other actresses with whom he worked. Vertigo is Hitchcock as his most self-reflective even while imbuing the film with a hypnotic mystery and elusiveness. 
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The Seventh Seal

Endlessly homaged and parodied, The Seventh Seal-  was many North American audiences' introduction to director Ingmar Bergman.  As with Woody Allen- who was heavily inspired by Bergman- and Annie Hall, this was a transitional film for Bergman, forging the way for his later masterpieces. The film chronicles the journey of knight Antonius Block (Max von Sydow, in his first of many films for the director), who has returned from fighting in the crusades, along with his squire Jons (Gunnar Bjornstrand). Sweden has been struck by the Black Plague. Block comes face to face with Death  (Bengt Ekerot), whom has come for Block. Block then challenges Death to a chess match for his very soul.

At the film's core is Block's crisis of faith, his feeling of God's absence. The existential crisis that can plague one's life is universal- regardless of one's faith. I think The Seventh Seal is maybe Bergman's accessible film due to the literalness in which Bergman approaches this subject. But while Bergman arguably made more complex films later on, this doesn't diminish the visual and thematic impact of the film.

The Seventh Seal's personification of Death is definitive He's drily funny-  in one scene he is sawing down a tree, killing an actor. But he's also very ominous and matter of fact. When he reappears at the end of the film it's a harrowing climax.

It's easy to parody Bergman due to his earnestness but its that very earnestness that makes The Seventh Seal such a haunting experience 60 years on.


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The Night of the Hunter

Harry Powell ranks as one of the terrifying villains in film history, a boogieman that feels he's been ripped right out of your nightmatre Powell is a "preacher" who is sentenced to prison due to driving a stolen car. Powell shares a cell with Ben Harper (Peter Graves). Harper had robbed a bank and killed two police officers in the process. Powell learns enough from Harper to know infer Harper's children, John and Pearl, know where the money is. Harper is executed and when Powell is released he locates Harper's widow, Willa (Shelly Winters). Powell marries her so he can get closer to the money. He eventually murders Willa and the children have to escape, with Powell coming after them.

Powell is portrayed by Robert Mitchum, whose screen image was defined by a laconic and laid back quality. He didn't seem to care about being a movie star, which made him cool. Powell, in contrast, isn't very cool. Mitchum's other characters didn't care and if they did, they didn't show it. Powell cares too much. He'll terrorize children if it'll help him get rich. Mitchum's characters usually were upfront about who they were but Powell is deceptive and slick. He cons the naive town in to thinking he's a good man. And even when he's showing his true self, it doesn't feel like we're seeing a real person. Rather, Powell is a personification of evil rather than a flesh and blood man. This contrast between Mitchum's typical screen persona and the characterization of Powell is what makes him the character so terrifying. Mitchum is an actor with whom the audience is usually so comfortable. Here he takes the form of a monster. Powell's monstrosity is countered by Lillian Gish's Rachel Cooper, who looks after stray children. Powell is a man who wears the mask of a good Christian man but Rachel is the true light in the darkness.

The Night of the Hunter is the only film directed by actor Charles Laughton. That is was Laughton's sole film is a significant part of this film's mystique and power. In this one film we glimpse Laughton's mastery as a filmmaker. Laughton crafted a film that can't be boiled down to a one genre or description. It's a surreal horror film, a southern noir, a gothic fairytale, and a commentary on organized religion in America. It feels like a nightmare, which eventually turns in to a peaceful dream. The film wasn't a critical or commercial success. This disappointed Laughton greatly, which led him to never direct another film.

Stanley Cortez's cinematography provides the film with much of its unsettling atmosphere. Cortez had previously photographed Orson Welles' The Magnificient Ambersons and Fritz Lang's Beyond the Door. Cortez would later photograph Samuel Fuller's Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss, as well as Roman Polanski's Chinatown

The Night of the Hunter is another film that was not appreciated in its time. In many ways it was ahead of its time. It would inspire future filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee. But while ahead of its time it also tells a timeless story of good and evil. It ends with the hope that goodness and love can win in the end.


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The Quiet Man

The Quiet Man is John Ford's most personal film and one of his warmest as well. Ford would win his fourth and final Best Director Oscar for this film. Frequent Ford collaborator John Wayne plays Sean Thornton, a former boxer and Irish-born American. Sean returns to Ireland to reclaim his family's farm. While there is he falls in love with Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O'Hara). The two eventually marry and several complications arise including Mary Kate's brother Will (Victor McLaglen), a landowner who has a beef with Sean.

Ford, whose parents were Irish Immigrants, is one of the quintessential American filmmakers. Before making Citizen Kane Orson Welles watched Stagecoach numerous times in preparation. He defined the image of the American Western and made Wayne a movie star. But while was Ford is associated with classic Western, he would never win an Oscar for any of his Westerns. He won for The Informer, The Grapes of Wrath, How Green is My Valley and as mentioned before, this film.

When I was writing for WhatCulture! a few years back, I included The Quiet Man on the list of 10 great "Hang-out movies," a term made popular by Quentin Tarantino. I included the film because of its roster of colorful characters, and it's charming and funny atmosphere. In four years Ford would make one of the darkest westerns with The Searchers but The Quiet Man sees Ford at his most nostalgic and gentle. And Ford's nostalgia for this world is passed on to the audience through this film, whatever one's individual background 



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Throne of Blood

Throne of Blood is the first of Akira Kurosawa's Shakespeare adaptations. It would be followed by The Bad Sleep Well (1960, a variation on Hamlet) and his late career masterpiece Ran (1985, a film whose story through the writing process became more like King Lear). Throne of Blood is a re-telling of Macbeth and follows the basic story of the play closely. In this version Macbeth is Taketoti Washizu (Toshiro Mifune) and Banquo is Yoshiyaki Miki. Isuzu Yamada plays Asaji, this film's version of Lady Macbeth. Instead of encountering three witches Washizu and Miki come upon  a spirit in the forest who tells them their future. The scene where they encounter the spirit is one of the spookiest sequences ever captured on film and displays Kurosawa's gift for bizarre yet entrancing imagery.

The ending, where Washizu is swarmed by arrows, is one of Kurosawa's greatest set pieces. And while I'm a huge Shakespeare fan I prefer this film's ending to the play.

While the film doesn't employ any of Shakespeare's language, it's atmosphere and performances invoke the feeling of the play. But the film also works as its own piece of art. Shakespeare took inspiration from other works and actual history to craft his art. Kurosawa does the same with Shakespeare. Kurosawa is one of those directors I would put on a Mount Rushmore of film directors.

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North by Northwest

The first Hitchcock film I ever saw is also the proto-James Bond movie. From Russia With Love's (1963) helicopter showdown is known to be inspired by North by Northwest's iconic crop-duster sequence. North by Northwest's star Cary Grant  was also considered for Bond in Dr No. Grant's performance in Notorious is probably the best example of what he could've brought to Bond if he was younger when they made Dr. No. The film's ending even has a naughty visual gag that rivals that of the Bond films.

Hitchcock constantly returned to the theme of the wrong man in his films, inspired by an incident in his childhood when his father sent him to the police station with a note. Young Alfred was put in a jail cell for several minutes and was told this was what happened to bad little boys. 

Roger Thornhill (Grant), is a New York ad executive who is mistaken for a spy named George Kaplan by Philip Vandamm (James Mason). Vandamm's plan to kill Thornhill fails. Vandamm's thugs try again and accidentally kill a U.N. Diplomat. Thornhill is mistaken as the assassin he has to go on the run. On a train he meets Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), who isn't what she seems. 

North by Northwest can best be described as a comic thriller but falls in to camp or becomes too serious. It's light not overly slight and it's still superior entertainment to many modern blockbusters. It's also the one that made me a Hitchcock fan.


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 Witness For The Prosecution

Billy Wilder, like his contemporary Howard Hawks, made films in various genres and styles during his career, sometimes within the same film. Sunset Boulevard is both a film noir and a Hollywood satire. The Apartment is a romantic comedy but also a drama about isolation. Some Like It Hot, another romantic comedy, is also a period piece, buddy comedy and gangster film.

Witness For The Prosecution is Wilder's take on the courtroom drama, with a dose of film noir. Charles Laughton plays Sir Wilfrid Robarts, a barrister in ill health who takes on the defence of Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power). Vole is accused of murdering an elderly woman named Emily French. He had met French and she became very infatuated with him. She named him the main beneficiary in her will. Things become complicated when Vole's German wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich) is called as a witness for the prosecution.

The film is based on short story- and later a play- by mystery writer Agatha Christie. It's twisty plot and denouement have the Christie touch. She was always ahead of her time in regards to subverting reader expectations.

Laughton and Elsa Lanchester (Laughton and Lanchester were married in real life) as Robarts' nurse provide much of the film's humour. Power is great casting because his matinee idol image contrasts with the possibility he could be a cold-blooded murderer.




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 The Searchers

The Searchers wasn't John Ford's final western but it sfeels like a definitive statement on Ford's part on the genre he both came to define and which defined him. In this film Ford is looking back at the racism inherent to the genre and which was found in his own westerns.

Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) is an civil war veteran who has returned to his brother Aaron's (Walter Coy) homestead after a long absence. Soon after, his nieces Debbie (Lana Wood) and Lucy (Pippa Scott) are kidnapped by Comanches led by a man named Scar (Henry Brandon). The homstead is burned down, with Aaron and his wife Martha (Dorothy Jordan) dead. Ethan, Lucy's finance Brad Jorgensen (Harry Carey Jr.) and Debbie's adopted brother Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) go after in pursuit. When Lucy is found dead Brad rides in to the Indian camp and is killed.

In Ethan's mind, Debbie has become one of them and needs to be killed. Throughout the film and even at the film's conclusion, Ethan is an unapologetic racist. While he ultimately doesn't kill Debbie (whose is played by Natalie Wood in later scenes), this isn't a complete justification for his attitudes nor does it mean his attitudes have completely changed. The final shot of Ethan framed in the doorway of the Jorgensten homestead as the door closes on him symbolizes how Ethan is a man of the past. He has not place in the changing world.
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 Sweet Smell of Success

Alexander Mackendrick's Sweet Smell of Success is a wry blend of cynicism and entertainment. Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman's brilliant script spares no one in its examination of a New York gossip columnist J.J. Hundsecker (Burt Lancaster) and press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), whom Hundsecker enlists to help him smear the jazz musician that is romancing his sister. If it was made today Falco would be the hero who becomes bad but then makes the right choice and is redeemed. But here Falco is just as bad- and probably even worst than Hundsecker.

Sweet Smell of Success is a dialogue driven film that also manages to be cinematic. The film is a time capsule of New York in the 1950s James Wong Howe's cinematography makes New York the most noirish is has ever looked in a film. 

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 All About Eve

Released the same year as Sunset Boulevard, All About Eve is another film about being woman in an industry that sees 40 as being old. Bette Davis gives one of her greatest performances as Margo Channing, a famous stage actress, Margo meets aspiring actress Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), whom has followed Margo's play across the country. She tells Margo and her friends a sad story about being poor and losing her husband in the war. Margo takes to the girl and makes Eve her personal assistant. But Eve is a manipulative schemer and she becomes a big star in the theatrical world, upstaging Margo at every turn. 

Writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz would win his second consecutive Best Screenplay and Best Director Oscars for All About Eve (He won both the previous year for A Letter to Three Wives) and the film would win Best Picture. It was nominated for 14 Oscars, a record only matched by Titanic. George Sanders would win Best Supporting Actor for his sardonic turn as theatre critic Addison DeWitt. In a case of life imitating art, Davis and Baxter would both be nominated for Best Actress. They would cancel each other out and the Oscar went to Judy Holliday for Born Yesterday.

Mankiewicz's script is one of the best ever written, balancing humour and drama flawlessly. The film would also mark an early appearance of an actress by the name of Marilyn Monroe.

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Ace in the Hole

I think this Billy Wilder's most cynical and angry film. Kirk Douglas is brilliant as Chuck Tatum, a disgraced reporter who after his car breaks down in New Mexico, talks his way in to a job at an Albuquerque newspaper. When a man named Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) becomes stuck in a cave collapse while digging for artifacts Tatum sees an opportunity for a story. He manages to prolong Leo's rescue the story eventually becomes a circus sideshow.

While the film wasn't a commercial or critical success upon release it's stature grew over the years. It has become only more relevant in our age of 24/7 news and the ability of the media to make anyone a celebrity. It's ultimately a tragic film about how the human element can be forgotten amongst media coverage. Tatum is a real bastard but Douglas is magnetic in the role, creating one of the great cinematic anti-heroes.    
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 In A Lonely Place

In Nicholas Ray's In a Lonely Place, Humphrey Bogart gives perhaps his greatest performance, a haunted and visceral depiction of rage and heartbreak. Bogart plays screenwriter Dixon "Dix" Steele who is assigned to adapt a novel. At a nightclub the coat check girl Mildred (Martha Stewart) is reading the novel. Dix takes her home so she can explain the book to him. Dix's new neighbour Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame) sees him and Mildred coming home. Dix gives Mildred cab fare home after she explains the novel. The next morning Mildred is found dead. Dix is taken in to the police station. He gets Laurel to explain that Mildred left Dix's alive. Dix and Laurel- an actress- soon fall in love and Dix begins to write more.

However, Dix has severe anger problems and Laurel begins to suspect that Dix actually did kill Mildred. But at its core the film isn't really a whodunit. It's about a man who can't escape his own violent impulses and how he ultimately pushes away the woman he loves. It remains one of the darkest films about Hollywood ever made. I mentioned Bogart's performance but credit also has to be given to Grahame. She gives Laurel plenty of confidence and allure but then shows her vulnerability as Dix becomes more violent. Grahame and Ray were married at the time of the film's making.

Ray was a filmmaker who blended sensitivity with brutality. Like Elia Kazan, Ray was interested in the realistic psychology of human beings, particularly men. Rebel Without a Cause, Bigger Than Life, On Dangerous Ground and In a Lonely Place are all startling explorations of mentally unbalanced me. For me, In a Lonely Place is Ray's finest achievement as a director in this regard.

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 Strangers on a Train

Yes, I'm a really big Hitchcock fan. Strangers on a Train was adapted from Patricia Highsmith's novel of the same name. Highsmith of course was the creator of Tom Ripley, the brilliant psychopath of The Talented Mr. Ripley and subsequent novels. Strangers on a Train another film that explored Hitchcock's favourite theme of the wrong man. Guy Haines is a tennis player who meets a man named Bruno Antony on a train. Bruno recognises Guy and knows about his troubled marriage to Miriam (Laura Elliott). Bruno hates his own father and proposes to Guy the idea of a murder swap. Two people murder someone for each other, thus there's no motive for the crimes. Guy thinks Bruno is joking and plays along but Bruno thinks Guy is agreeing the plan. Bruno kills Miriam, which makes Guy a suspect. Now Bruno wants Guy to murder Bruno's father.

Bruno is one of Hitchcock's great villains, someone that is both to be pitied but who is also frightening. What makes Bruno so sinister how sincere and friendly he seems. Walker never plays Bruno as a villain. Sadly Walker would die shortly after the film was released at the age of 32- this was due to an adverse reaction to prescription drugs.

Granger, whom Hitchcock had previously cast in Rope (1948) brings both sensitivity and darkness to his portrayal of Guy. While Guy is innocent of murder we see he's not too far from being pushed over the edge.

The film is full of vintage Hitchcock visuals. The most famous is the murder of Miriam seen through her glasses on the ground. Then there's the shot of Bruno amongst the audience watching the tennis match. Everyone's heads are going back and forth but Bruno is staring at Guy. Hitchcock made it all look effortless which is why I think he was often unfortunately seen as merely an entertainer but not an artist.





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The Wrong Man

Oh my God, I know, another Hitchcock. The 50s was a great period Hitchcock. It makes sense that Hitchcock would eventually make a film entitled The Wrong Man. As I've mentioned before it was a theme he returned to frequently. In the case of this film Hitchcock was inspired by a true story. Christopher "Manny" Balestero (Henry Fonda) is a New York club jazz player. He and his wife Rose (Vera Miles) are having money problems but they are very much in love. When Manny goes in the insurance office to take out a loan he is falsely identified as the man who twice had held up the office. The police have Manny walk in to a deli and liqour store, both which had also robbed. The owners- like the clerks at the insurance office- identify Manny. Manny being falsely accused weighs heavily on Rose. She blames herself for Manny's arrest and suffers a nervous breakdown.

I would argue The Wrong Man is Hitchcock's most serious-minded film, particularly in regards to its exploration of the wrong man theme. While he had used this this conceit as the launching point of twisty thrillers, here Hitchcock treats it with a sober sense of realism. The film- with the exception of Fonda's casting- is very un-hollywood. Hitchcock even filmed on actual locations, including an actual prison for the scene where Manny is locked up.

While Fonda's casting is a case of white-washing, it works because of Fond's noble and upright image. Seeing Fonda treated so ignobly adds to the film's power. Miles is devastating as she shows us Rose's breakdown. Rose eventually recovered and she, Manny and their children moved to Florida. Miles was to play Madeline in Vertigo but she became pregnant. Hitchcock would cast her again as Lila Crane in Psycho, a role she would reprise in the 1983 sequel.

The Wrong Man remains one Hitchcock's most undervalued works in many respects- and one his most mature as well.

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Paths of Glory

I don't know if there's a more harrowing anti-war film than Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory. One of Kubrick's earlier films, it shows that Kubrick was already a master of camera movement and composition. Kirk Douglas- already a Hollywood heavyweight- put a lot of faith in Kubrick as a director. Douglas gives a sturdy and impassioned performance as Colonel Dax, whom defends three soldiers accused of cowardice during Word War 1 in France. The commanding generals sent the troops to take hold of a German position. It's essentially a suicide mission but they still decide three men must be punished. While Dax pleads for mercy, the three men are executed.

The film is full of righteous anger and Dax's outburst at General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) is one of the most powerful pieces of acting I've ever seen in a movie. Looking back at Ace in the Hole and Paths of Glory it's a shame Douglas wasn't nominated Oscar nominated for either performance. 

This feels like Kubrick's most cynical film. Kubrick is often seen as a cold, emotionless filmmaker who hated humanity. However, Paths of Glory is a deeply humane film that shows us the goodness along with the cruelty of humankind. I believe Paths of Glory was Kubrick's first masterpiece and his most emotionally affecting film.
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Anatomy of a Murder 

Otto Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder is considered to be a very accurate depiction of the justice system. Made two years after 12 Angry Men and Witness For The Prosecution, it may be the best courtroom drama ever made. I don't know if any film in the genre has surpassed it.


The film is based on a novel by John D. Voelker (writing under the pen name Robert Traver) who was a Michigan Supreme Court Judge, and inspired by a trial in which Voelker was the defence attorney. Jimmy Stewart plays small-town lawyer Paul Biegler who lost the re-election bid for District Attorney. Biegler becomes the defence attorney for Lieutenant Frederick "Manny" Manion (Ben Gazzara), who murdered innkeeper Bernard "Barney" Quill, whom Manny says raped his wife Laura (Lee Remick). Biegler plans his defence around Mannie being temporarily insane. 


George C. Scott plays Claude Dancer, who has been brought in to help the prosecution. Scott's performance is perhaps the most vicious and smug depiction of a lawyer on film. Both Scott and Stewart would be Oscar nominated for their performances- Best Supporting Actor and Best Actor respectively- though Hugh Griffith and Charlton Heston would win in those respective categories for their performances in Ben-Hur.

What I admire about Anatomy of a Murder is it has no heroes. Biegler is manipulative and twists the facts to fit his case. In this regard Anatomy of a Murder is the most unsentimental honest depiction of the trial system. For Biegler and Dancer it's all about winning.

Ruthless material like this needs a ruthless director, which is why Preminger, who was known for being notoriously rough on actors, was perfect. Wendell Mayes' screenplay balances the personal scenes with the courtroom scenes, giving enough weight to both arenas. The film was very controversial for its frank discussion of rape and the use of the word "panties." While this dialogue is tame by today's standards, the film was an important taboo breaking landmark.

Some other favourites: The 400 Blows, The Band Wagon, Roman Holiday, Sabrina, Seven Samurai, Smiles of a Summer's Night Some Like It Hot.