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Steven Spielberg

2020: 12 Movies to Get Excited About

As we close out 2019, it’s time to put together a few Top 10 lists based on my key entertainment passions – film, TV and film scores.

I’m taking a little swerve with this final list to look ahead and think about what films we have coming up in 2020, and why I’m excited about them and, maybe, this might get you a little excited too.

So here we go. 12 movies for 12 months, by UK release date. Almost…

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Film Review: MAKING WAVES: THE ART OF CINEMATIC SOUND (2019)

When considering a movie, how often do you consider how it sounds? Not just the score, which many increasingly recognise as a crucial and celebrated component of a cinematic experience, but the aural aspect of how a film is put together. If your answer is “not much”, then Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound is an eye-opener.

Directed by Midge Costin, a former sound editor who worked on films throughout the 80’s and 90’s (heavily on Jerry Bruckheimer productions such as Days of Thunder and Armageddon), Making Waves shines a light on sound design, a process which has been key to the history and evolution of cinema since the pioneering work of Eadward Muybridge all the way back in the 1870’s captured the possibility of an image on screen. Costin’s documentary roughly chronologically tells the story of sound in film, as Muybridge gave way to Melies and the silent film era of the early 20th century, all of which struggled to sync manufactured sound to film. Theatres would use orchestras or even employees banging equipment to mimic sound alongside image. None of it came from the actual picture at first, movies often shot in locations filled with sound because only image was required.

Then along came Don Juan, with John Barrymore, adding sound to image and finally the first talkie, The Jazz Singer, more infamous now for a blacked up Al Jolson, but which for the first time had audiences hearing someone not just sing but talk on a motion picture screen. Making Waves takes that history and runs with it across the subsequent century.

A Slayer Reborn: Buffy and the Reboot Question

Every July weekend at San Diego Comic Con, the biggest geek showcase on the planet where all the major studios and productions roll up to drop exclusives and surprises, you always get one announcement which courts a level of controversy and/or deep analysis. This year it wasn’t even the debut of a trailer for the Jodie Whittaker-fronted, Chris Chibnall-era new series of Doctor Who—which is going to almost certainly lead to a Star Wars-esque online tirade from grown man children at the idea of a woman playing the Doctor. 2018 had another major female figure from popular culture waiting in the wings get people talking: Buffy, she of the vampire slaying.

More specifically, the fact that Joss Whedon is overseeing, though likely not directly show running, a modern reboot of his legendary 20th Century Fox series which remains one of the bastions of 90’s pop culture, female empowerment, and genre storytelling. Note the word here that is crucial: reboot. Not revival. Not continuation. A reboot.

Mission Impossible III (2006)

Mission Impossible III may not be the strongest outing in the franchise, but it may be the most human.

Surprisingly, this works as both a strength and to the film’s detriment in the eyes of many. For everyone who considers Mission Impossible II the weakest episode of the saga, which you can find my thoughts on here, not far behind will be a detractor of JJ Abrams’ sequel to John Woo’s own take on Bruce Geller’s kitsch 1960’s series. This, to me, is hard to fathom, and not simply as a big fan of Abrams and the dominance his works have achieved on pop culture, both in television and cinema.

The reason this revisionist disdain for MI:3 is strange to me is because Abrams’ movie arguably saved the franchise, and allowed Tom Cruise to not just reinvent his character Ethan Hunt but position Mission Impossible as a series which blended fantasy escapism with a relatable heart and soul.

Last Action Hero (1993)

Last Action Hero is both ahead of its time and perfectly positioned *within* the era it was made, such is the paradox of a forgotten curiosity of 1990’s action cinema and the stratospheric career of Arnold Schwartzenegger.

Here’s my story and why I’m writing about Last Action Hero some twenty five years on from its release. I was 11 years old when Last Action Hero was released in cinemas, in the US one week after Steven Spielberg’s decade-defining Jurassic Park. In theory, I was the perfect age to consume a film which is entirely about the youthful obsession of a similarly-aged child, Austin O’Brien’s Danny Madigan, with action adventure cinema. Jurassic Park I badgered my parents to take me to see three times yet I didn’t go anywhere near Last Action Hero. It didn’t even register with me. It has taken me until age 36 to actually sit down and watch it, and this is after spending at least the last twenty years being an enormous fan of Schwarzenegger’s movies and career. Last Action Hero was always the Arnie film I missed.

Marvel, Gatekeeping and the ‘Problem’ with Avengers: Infinity War

There has been an interesting response to the dominant Avengers: Infinity War this weekend as it romped home to a record-beating opening weekend in the States, and a remarkable $600 million plus global take home. Aside from the legion of critics, professional and amateur, who have all lined up on either side of whether the film is good or bad (and most reactions seem positive), the issue again seems to concern fandom. In this instance, whether Infinity War is for anyone who isn’t already a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

A piece in The New Yorker has been widely circulated, with people criticising and defending an article which suggests Infinity War suffers for the fact it does nothing to ‘introduce’ the myriad amount of Marvel players to new audiences. Some are suggesting that it doesn’t have to, given its place as the first part of a finale to an ongoing saga—which I discuss more in my review—but some have on the other side of the fence suggested this kind of storytelling by Marvel Studios, and how the fandom have responded to it, is yet another form of ‘gatekeeping’.

That fandom are, once again, erecting a big ‘KEEP OUT’ sign and planting it firmly in the entrance of every cinema from Middlesbrough to Manhattan.

Ready Player God: Technology, Spirituality & Nostalgia in Modern Fiction

Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Ernest Cline’s pop-culture busting novel Ready Player One has a more than overt reference to ‘God in the Machine’, a conceptual fusion of spirituality with near-future advancements in technology which suggests our models of worship are changing and evolving alongside how we interact with entertainment, media and the wider online world.

That phrase sounds a little similar to ‘God From the Machine’, better known as deus ex machina in fiction in the original Latin, which has emerged as a symbolic description over the years in narrative terms whereby the resolution of a plot comes at the hand of a character or object, equivalent in relative terms to a God, which quickly and unexpectedly solves the insoluble problem faced by the protagonists.

This doesn’t equate directly to Ready Player One, because the deus ex machina is coded into the very DNA of the entire concept behind that fictional world; James Halliday, the programmer and creator of the OASIS, developed a world he wanted to give back to the people once they found him, his soul essentially, deep inside the hidden corners of the machine.

Ready Player One (2018)

Ready Player One really does feel like the pop-culture culmination of modern entertainment since the advent of Star Wars. Festooned with references, characters and trademarks from dozens of well-known properties from everything cinematic through to the video game world, Steven Spielberg delivers the ultimate expression of why we digest media, and possibly a glimpse into a world we could all be heading towards.

Ernest Cline delivered a remarkable confection of a novel back in 2011, certainly in pop-culture terms. Ready Player One crammed almost every single reference point since the late 1970’s across half a dozen mediums into a novel which, ultimately, told a fairly relatable David vs Goliath story set in a near-futuristic dystopia. It was a piece of work which seemed to operate like Marmite; for everyone taken in by its wide-eyed engagement with particularly 1980’s geek and nerd culture, someone else would respond that Cline’s prose was awful and the novel was a mess of winks, references and incohesive plotting which worked more like a gimmick than a piece of fiction. Wherever you stood on the spectrum, Ready Player One seems to have always been a polarising experience.

Which made the idea of a film adaptation even more intriguing, especially given Cline’s novel swiftly arrived in the hands of Spielberg. In many respects, this brought Cline’s work full circle, as Spielberg alongside filmmakers such as George Lucas and Robert Zemeckis, essentially created not just the cinematic blockbuster but the combination of pop-culture escapism and mainstream entertainment that drove the core of Cline’s novel. 

Films such as Star Wars or Raiders of the Lost Ark, not to mention Back to the Future, which especially factors into Ready Player One on several levels, all remain the key cultural touchstones for Western audiences thirty or forty years on. Spielberg has arguably been the most successful purveyor of family escapism in cinema, blending skilled craft and an innate understanding of what audiences will connect to. And connections, ultimately, are what drive his adaptation of Ready Player One.

Wolf Creek (2004)

While ostensibly Wolf Creek may appear to be a typical piece of exploitative, grindhouse horror, there’s more going on under the surface of Greg McLean’s debut feature than one might imagine. It plays with your knowledge and understanding of horror movies and to some degree science-fiction, suggesting the narrative may be heading one way when it moves in quite another. McLean seems acutely aware of the narrative and cinematic touchstones his film is playing with, which gives Wolf Creek an edge when it treads territory familiar to anyone who has a grounding in specifically American slasher horror.

It’s a film which feels very much like it knows the gallery it’s playing to, appreciates and doesn’t take for granted its audience. McLean manages to craft a film at once familiar and at the same time unnervingly alien, which ends up being a key descriptive when it comes to Wolf Creek. The desolate, arid, unexplored plains of Australia feel like the *other* main character in McLean’s picture, given form and character by the haunting way the writer/director captures his landscape. Australian cinema isn’t immediately characterised by this kind of vicious, bloody horror fiction.