My Favourite film…

Talking about a common icebreaker…

I have real difficulty responding when asked the question, “What is your favourite film?” There are so many ways to answer this question; Do I talk about the film I personally enjoy most? Or the one I objectively think is the best made of all time (in which case I might have to list ten). Or do you want to know about a film I recently saw which is temporarily my favourite thing ever, because I’m still in the honeymoon phase? As a film student, I get asked this a lot, and at risk of seeming predictable, I almost always end up replying that my all-time personal favourite movie is Lord of the Rings.

I know what you’ll be thinking, that is a trilogy not a single film. Although this is true, the three films tell a single story start to finish, and can be taken as acts one two and three, and if I’m honest, I have never been able to pick a favourite of the three anyway. Sometimes I prefer The Two Towers, other times The Fellowship of The Ring. So rather than break my own heart, I count each of the three films as one cohesive experience and so I’m going to talk about them as a single film. This is normally the part where I would warn you about spoilers but seeing as this film series is about fifteen years old at this point, I think you’ve only yourself to blame if you haven’t seen it yet.

Growing up these films have been very important to me. My Dad used to read the books when he was younger, and so my sisters and I got introduced to it at an early age. The books by J.R.R. Tolkien are a great read, although challenging to young children. When I was about eight or nine, I watched the Lord of the Rings trilogy and from then on, I watched the films regularly. My parents bought the extended versions that included documentaries about the making of the films, which were as long as the actual movies themselves, and from watching these I learned a lot about film-making. You could say that these films are what got me into film in the first place and so I owe an awful lot to them. I am certainly not going to attempt to be one hundred percent objective in this review, after all these are childhood favourites, but the films do definitely have a lot of laudable features, regardless of opinion.

The films are a testament to dedication. One thing that really comes across when watching the behind the scenes features is just how close all the production staff were, and how long and hard all of them worked in order to achieve the quality seen in the final films. A good example of this is two guys who made all of the chain mail for the films by linking rings, working on each of them piece by piece. By the end of the shoot they had worn out the finger prints on the tips of their thumbs and forefingers. Peter Jackson joked that they could now live out a successful life of crime. All of the departments, from costume to digital animation (and Weta Workshop) worked almost tirelessly for three years, excluding pickups to bring all these films together. They used many practical effects, including miniatures that were so large they ended up being dubbed big-atures. As a child, watching these features showed me just how much work and time had to go into making movies, and gave me a profound respect for the dedication showed by movie crews.

The actors are also very well cast. Peter Jackson knew what he was doing when he brought in such talented people as Ian McKellen and Viggo Mortensen, they all bring such depth and humanity to their roles, and in watching the documentary, it was a pleasure to learn how much Viggo Mortensen put into his performance. To hear how he broke his toe kicking a helmet, and used it to improve his acting was hilarious, but also admirable.

His courtesy and friendliness on set is often stated by other members of the cast, and it’s a relief to know that your favourite actors are actually nice people for a change! I got a real sense that these people were for three years, a family, working together and living in the same place for a long time. It made me wish I could have been a part of it in some way.

Translating such a classic book into a movie can be a risky move, with so many beloved characters and story-lines potentially lost, but LOTR was, in my opinion, expertly adapted into screenplay format by Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens. . While I don’t agree with everything they left out or moved around, I can’t deny that the pacing for the overall story is much stronger in the film trilogy than in the book. Furthermore, the film still feels true to the tone and themes of the books, and so most of the changes and cuts do not bother me in any strong way.

Visually, the film is a treat. The action is riveting and well-choreographed, the shots are varied and often quite experimental, even if Jackson did overuse the wide angle close-up in Fellowship. Most of all the incredible costume design by Weta Workshop really gives the films a unique look that fantasy films have been failing to copy ever since. The blend of real world historical inspirations and creative designs leads to props and costumes that look mystical, and yet practical at the same time. Many of the props designed, such as the Elven boats used at the end of the Fellowship of the Ring, actually could be used. The set design went above and beyond, a scale model of Helm’s Deep was really build in a quarry and many of the locations were actually built on in order to create the unique settings in the films, such as Rivendale. In particular, one of my favourite locations was Edoras, capital of Rohan. The city was built for real on the summit of Mount Sunday, which is a striking hill that lies on a flat plain behind great mountains. New Zealand has a treasure trove of fantastic locations, but this is my personal favourite. The place is breathtaking even in photos, but the best part is that the city is designed around a Saxon style. The halls are thatched and wooden and everything was really built on the hill. The crew had to preserve countless plants in greenhouses for months whilst the exterior shots were filmed there – yet another display of the dedication that went into keeping the locations as realistic as possible, when they could have just built an indoor set and used a green screen.

These films are amazing to watch, there is so much to enjoy; adventure, action, drama, romance and poetry – the list goes on. As a child I never got bored of acting out scenes from them with my friends. But watching the behind the scenes features brings a whole new level to the films. Once you understand exactly how much hard work and passion went into every scene, you can appreciate these films on a whole other level, and I hope this explains why for me personally, the Lord of the Rings trilogy are my all-time favourite films.

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Making a Scene: Westworld season two…

It has been a while since I did an in-depth scene analysis, and I felt the time was ripe. Since Westworld season two has been airing for the past few weeks, and every scene in it is loaded with meaning, symbolism and subtext, I thought I’d take some time to look at one of my favourite scenes. The series seems to top itself every week, but there was a scene last week that was just a great blend of fantastic action and masterful character development. Jonathon Nolan, who is the writer behind many of his brother Christopher’s best films, is, in my opinion, one of the best writers in the industry currently. Here he works with his wife Lisa Joy to create one of the best scenes, and indeed the best episode, of the whole series so far. From this point onward there will be spoilers, so be careful.

The Riddle of the Sphinx is the fourth episode of the second season of Westworld. It continues multiple story-lines which are all infinitely interesting, however, for the purpose of this analysis we are focusing on the story-line of William, the Man in Black. After spending all of last season searching for the centre of the maze, hoping to discover a hidden meaning behind the park and create real stakes for the game, he finally got his wish when Ford allowed the hosts to shoot and kill the human guests. So far in the second season, he has been tasked with a new quest from hosts programmed by Ford; find the door. In this week’s episode, after finding his favourite host Laurence once again, he takes him back to his home town, hoping to find new hosts to help him on his journey. However, they find the place overrun by confederados, led by the unhinged Craddock, who after being resurrected by controllers last week is convinced he is death’s chosen man. In the scene I want to explore, he has the town under his thrall, and is using a glass of nitro-glycerine to taunt Laurence’s wife. He boasts of his relationship to death to William, who appears to be beginning to pity the hosts. As he looks at the women balancing the nitro in the rain, he is reminded of his wife’s suicide, and a twinge of guilt causes him to turn on Craddock. In a pivotal moment, he tells the man, “You didn’t recognise him sitting across from you this whole time…” and with that, he guns down Craddock’s men and allows Laurence to finish Craddock, performing, for the first time in decades, a righteous act.

There is a lot to unpack in this scene, which is why I have included a clip above. The episode is a directorial debut from Lisa Joy, co-creator of Westworld. She proves to be a masterful director, with a firm grasp of visual symbolism and subtlety. Her choice to shoot the scene in the rain creates a strong mood; rain is often used in pivotal moments to reflect turmoil within characters. However, the rain is also a great parallel to William’s own past. We see shots of water from a bathtub, mixed with blood, making it clear that this moment is reminding William of his wife’s death, without a need to show the actual body. The many close ups of water highlight this and provide a great metaphor for what this means for William. As he exits the tavern and faces off against the confederados, the rain serves as a symbolic baptism hinting at the idea of washing away past sins and starting again. However, the brutal way in which he forces Craddock to drink his own glass of nitro shows us that his good acts are still tempered by violence. William still has a way to go. The shots are well chosen and beautifully framed. The tight close ups and mid shots of the Man in Black make this his personal moment of triumph, a decision which has changed his arch for the rest of the season.

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The dialogue is crisp and chilling in this scene as well. Written by Gina Atwater and Jonathan Nolan, the script has no unnecessary words. William, after having been confronted with death in a real way that shook his understanding, doesn’t appreciate Craddock blabbering on about it. He knows that no host knows true death, and indeed has become desensitised to it himself over the years of coming to the park, to the point where he cannot process it when his wife succumbs to it. He chides Craddock, telling him that he hasn’t known a true thing in his life, but that death is true, final. He speaks of death with a reverence and an understanding that comes from his new experience of it. It is also very appropriate that he identifies himself as death, both because it shows his reliance on his tough persona, and because it shows the guilt he feels over his wife’s demise, partly because his daughter blames him for it.

So, the direction and scripting are both perfectly crafted, but what of the music? Ramin Djawadi, famous for Game of Thrones, provides the score for Westworld as well. This scene is him at his finest, lacing the scene with a mournful and somehow triumphant beat. The final moments also use the man in black’s personal leitmotif, an ominous and impressive tune which takes on a new meaning when William starts to finally stand up for the hosts. He becomes less of a villain and more of a dark protector, and the music reflects this. This musical change is mirrored in scenes with Dolores, who has begun to accept her role as the villain, which is reflected in a darker soundtrack whenever she is onscreen. It is interesting because it seems that Dolores and William are starting to switch roles as the series goes on. Djawadi does a smashing job in this scene and it illustrates and dictates the tone of it impeccably.

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Finally, we come to the actors themselves. Jonathan Tucker, who plays Major Craddock, does a great job playing a robot that has gone wrong, finding out that he cannot die. He plays a man who is unhinged, madness playing beneath the calm eyes. But the star of the show is Ed Harris. This is his scene, and he plays the contemplation of his situation perfectly. His thoughtful stares as he tries to come to terms with his wife’s death once again, and his delivery of his tough guy dialogue really sell the scene. He is a master of looking cool, in each of his action scenes his physicality and commitment really emphasis how long he has been playing this game. He is my favourite character for a very good reason. He is complex and cool at the same time.

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So, looking back over the scene, there is a lot to enjoy. The music, direction and dialogue are finely crafted to achieve a very meaningful and action filled scene. The actors give top performances, especially Ed Harris, and they are given perfect lines. The scene of course is part of a great episode on the whole, but it stands out to me as an almost transcendent moment, that will become a highlight for the entire series. I recommend Westworld for anyone, and I recommend this scene above all.

Deadpool 2: Bigger, Funnier, Better.

Deadpool is an interesting and often hilarious character from Marvel Comics. Whilst not always handled well, his character has the potential to be a great satire of superheroes in general, and a vital contrast, should the comics ever become too po-faced. Ever since I saw X-Men Origins: Wolverine, I have been hoping to see a better film adaptation of Deadpool. In that film he was wasted, expertly cast as Ryan Reynolds, who is a master of the quickfire quip, but given little connection to his comic counterpart. They even removed his mouth, one of the most important aspects of the character. In 2016 I finally got my wish. Deadpool was a smashing film, with some great crass and stupid humour, mixed in with a dollop of good-natured piss-taking at the expense of the entire superhero genre.

I did however, have some criticism. The film suffered from a lack of budget, although that did lead to a rather amusing joke in which Deadpool leaves most of his guns in the car and cannot use them. While it poked fun at other superhero and marvel films, Deadpool offered nothing as an alternative. There was little substance, and I could have used a few cleverer jokes, perhaps some proper character development. The new film seems to address much of my issues, perhaps owing to the increased budget or the change of director, and as a consequence I love it even more. There are more characters, a much more interesting plot, some fantastic cameos and a genuine emotional core, albeit one that is constantly interrupted for more jokes. I’m going to get into some specifics about the movie now so consider this your spoiler warning.

Deadpool 2 is a deeper movie than the first one. I know that sounds ridiculous, and I don’t mean that this is anywhere near the emotional wringer Logan was, but this sequel has matured slightly. Deadpool goes through loss and growth and comes out at the end, still a clown, but a clown with more weight as a character. His partner, Vanessa is murdered because of his actions as a contract killer, although one who only kills bad people. His arch throughout the film is to come to terms with her death and try to redeem himself for his inadvertent role in her death. This creates an interesting parallel between him and the film’s major villain, Cable. While Deadpool sinks into rock bottom in the most fantastically comedic way, Cable is dealing with the death of his family at the hands of another mutant. Travelling back to the past, he tries to kill the teenage boy who will one day destroy his family. This boy, played with just the right level of anger and vulnerability by Julian Dennison has grown up in an orphanage alone and abused. As such he desperately needs care and affection, but unfortunately comes across Deadpool right at the wrong moment, leading him down a dark path the kill the ones who tortured him. So, for the majority of the film, Wade Wilson tries to prevent Cable from taking out the boy, and recruits domino, played by Zazie Beetz to help.

The performances are very entertaining. It was a wise choice to cast Julian Dennison, who has proven to be an excellent comedic and serious actor in Hunt for the Wilder-people, directed by Taika Waititi. He manages to balance the feeling of years of torment and abuse with some excellent line delivery and great comedic timing. He matches Ryan Reynolds in every scene they are in, which is amazing as Reynolds himself is on fire. These films capitalise on Reynolds skills as a comedy actor perfectly, and I really admire the actor’s willingness to go there. Zazie Beetz, although with less funny lines, is still a great portrayal as Domino, very confident and cool with a calm outlook that contrasts well with Deadpool’s extreme energy. Josh Brolin plays a gruff, over the top Cable with a degree of empathy and is a fantastic straight man to Deadpool’s comedy. He could do with more depth as a character, but that is no fault of Brolin’s who looks like he was born to play Cable. The CGI for his robotic disease and Winter Soldier arm is very slick. There is also a ton of cameo performances that lend the film a much bigger scope than the first one, which felt a bit too self-contained. My personal favourite was the Vanisher, who we didn’t even know was real until he was killed, revealing the character to be played by Brad Pitt.

This film’s humour is on point. There is a good mix of fourth wall breaking, immature gags, violence and crudity, and very accurate jokes at the expense of the superhero genre. I laughed much more in this than in the first film, and I found that film really funny to begin with. I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone however. If you don’t like the more crude and gory style of humour then this isn’t a film for you. This film is quite brutal in places, although it goes right along with the tone. It is an excessive film, but excessive in the right way. The cinematography isn’t particularly memorable. There are a few shots that I remember thinking were well done, but I rarely noticed them. The costume design toes the line between cool and ridiculous. Cable is obviously over the top macho fantasy, but it is balanced by the X-force team, all of whom have silly impractical get-ups, designed to worn with the tongue firmly planted in the cheek. While Deadpool’s costume is well done, it degrades as the film goes on, by the end it is half made of duct tape, which is a nice subtle gag.

Overall, this film is a great time. It balances a varied and almost eclectic sense of humour with some genuine moments of emotion and character growth and presents a character who copes with the world through humour, coming to terms with great loss, and trying to save a young boy. This film may not be Schindler’s List but it does much more than I expected. It has grown and learned from the film that came before and doesn’t just repeat what worked in that film. I recommend this to anyone who watched the first one, and to anyone who enjoys a good R rated superhero comedy.

Infinity War: Finally Marvel has stakes…

The new Avengers film is a nice surprise…

I have felt a little burned out about marvel films for quite a while now. The problem is that there are so many superhero films coming out at the moment. While I love films like Thor Ragnarok I just can’t muster the same enthusiasm as back in 2012, when superheroes were becoming so popular for the first time. It’s been ten years, and I feel as though Hollywood needs a new fad, perhaps fantasy. So, when I went into this film I was fully expected it to be mediocre in every way. I couldn’t see how they would juggle so many characters in one film, or how they would make a coherent plot to begin with. However, I find myself pleasantly surprised by Avengers: Infinity War. It’s not a masterpiece, but it is a well-made film with some excellent action and some genuine character growth. Let’s take a closer look. Oh, and spoilers of course.

One of the first things that struck me about Infinity War is that is has managed to find focus. The Russo brothers have learned from directing films like Civil War that an ensemble film needs a character to focus on in order to have purpose. There were so many heroes in this films line-up that to focus on any to a large degree would have made the film feel uneven, and so the clever solution of the film is that is makes Thanos essentially the main character. Making the villain of the movie the most prominent character might strike some as odd but it allows him to become a much more layered and interesting character, which solves the villain problem Marvel has had for a while. Normally a Marvel villain, with one or two exceptions, is simply an antagonistic force to propel the plot forward, rather than an interesting character in his/her own right. Thanos by contrast has a plan, motivation, backstory and even a relationship to one of the characters. He has genuine affection for his adopted daughter Gamora. This is helped by some fantastic CGI, and a great motion capture performance by Josh Brolin, who makes Thanos into a very human character, one we may not root for, but can all understand.

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The cast all give solid performances, although inevitably the more popular and older characters get more screen time. There are too many actors to go through each of their performances and so I’m focusing on a few choice characters that stood out to me. Off the success of Ragnarok, Thor now has a much larger role, spending time with the Guardians of the Galaxy and taking Rocket and Groot to make a new weapon to take on Thanos himself. Thor is beaten soundly at the start of the film by Thanos and watches helpless as his people and friends are slain. The decision to kill Loki was a smart one, as his character arc had really finished in Ragnarok. Him dying at the hands of Thanos is also symbolic, representing a new, more threatening antagonist destroying the old. Chris Hemsworth plays a darker Thor than ever before, deeply hurting from the loss of all that he holds dear and is ready to die in order just to get back at Thanos. The scene in which takes the full force of a dying star in order to make his new axe is very powerful, as it forces him to earn the powerful weapon. When he uses it in battle at the end of the film, it doesn’t feel cheap because he has spent most of the film earning it.

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Robert Downey Jr is always fun as Tony Stark, and the way he clashes with the similar character of Doctor Strange is satisfying. Gamora, played by Zoe Saldana gives a moving performance as she grapples with her severe father issues, as well as the close bond she and Peter Quill have developed. Her and Chris Pratt have a great chemistry and it is great to see them share a moment. This emphasis on her character did make it clear she was going to die from the beginning, but it was still a powerful moment watching Thanos sacrifice her to gain his power. His genuine regret made the scene all the more unnerving.

Speaking of death, the film pulls few punches. We lose Gamora and Loki, two fairly major players who been with the MCU for a long while. At the end of the film, Thanos succeeds with his plan and wipes out half the universe. This is so refreshing I cannot emphasise it enough. Death has not mattered in the Marvel Universe for far too long. So many of these films are hampered by the fact they have not real stakes. We know the characters will all survive. In this film, not only do we fear for all the characters, knowing now that they may die, but it makes Thanos a credible threat. The fact that the film begins with him wiping out the Asgardians, whilst sort of ruining the ending of Ragnarok, sets the tone perfectly. No-one is safe.

Admittedly it would have been nice if one of the big three, Iron Man, Captain America or Thor had bit the bullet, but it is still a great start. The fact that the Avengers lose in failing to stop Thanos is so refreshing it elevates the film. No doubt they will still triumph next year in the sequel, but it is great to have the villain win for once. Many characters disappear as a consequence, including several major characters like Black Panther, Spider-man and almost all of the Guardians. However, I can’t feel sad about this, as it is pretty obvious they’ll all be returning next year. There are plans for sequels to Black Panther and Spider-man: Homecoming for a start. But nevertheless, the stakes have been raised for the next film, and I wait with bated breath to see what they will with Thanos next year.

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Finally, the action in this film is top-notch. There are some decent skirmishes on Earth early in the film which are quite fun, but for me the standout is the Battle for Wakanda that happens whilst Thanos fights Iron Man and Doctor Strange on Titan. The battle is shot very well, using the Russo Brothers signature hand held style, and it gets in amongst the action in a very unique way. The scale of the battle is impressive, and the brutal way they fight is a nice change from the over choreographed flippy style that tends to affect other Marvel films. I love that basic tactics are used in the battle, such as opening the shield around Wakanda to create a bottle-neck. Each of the fighters get a moment to shine, all except for the Hulk, and it almost reminds me of the battle sequences from Lord of the Rings. That isn’t to say the fight with Thanos is boring; the magical duel between him and Doctor Strange uses some very beautiful visuals, including transforming energy blasts into butterflies. A great gag in the film is that Thanos keeps turning his enemies’ attacks into bubbles. Overall the action is well done, and in places outstanding.

Apart from a few moments in which the film renders plots from previous movies obsolete, my major gripe is that the film lacks a unique visual style. Whilst it has many beautiful moments and images, it suffers from the blend of so many different locations, as though several marvel films crashed into each other. But this was never distracting and I can’t really think of any way the Russo brothers could have avoided this.

Avengers Infinity War may not be a masterpiece, it has issues and could definitely improve, but it is still a great fun movie. It has learned quite a lot from the films that came before and manages to juggle the most characters I have seen in one movie, while not feeling overstuffed. It somehow keeps focus, finally provides an engaging villain, and creates a desperate tone that keeps you paying attention all the way through. It has real stakes for the first time in a Marvel film and some fantastic performances from its cast. I recommend this, but be warned, you do have to have seen most of the previous Marvel movies in order to get what is going on!

The Thing: A Horror Legend…

My housemate is currently in the middle of writing a distressing amount essays, one of which happens to about John Carpenter. An upside of this is that we recently spent an enjoyable evening re-watching and analysing a bunch of his films, starting with my personal favourite, The Thing. This made me realise that I have yet to cover John Carpenter in this blog and that is a tragic mistake. Allow me to immediately rectify this by looking at The Thing right now.

For those who don’t know, The Thing is a 1982 remake of the 1951 film The Thing from Another World which in turn was based on the book Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell Jr. It cleaves more closely to the original novel than the ‘51 film and achieves a lot more in terms of creature design by virtue of having decades worth more developed practical effects. The film is a great watch and a very tense one at that. The story revolves around an Antarctic research base, which is invaded by an alien who can take the form of any living thing it kills. This leads to rising tensions and paranoia amongst the team as they try desperately to route out the creature and prevent it from reaching civilisation. Careful, some minor spoilers ahead.

Re-watching it, even knowing the plot in advance it is still stomach wrenching trying to keep track of who has been assimilated by the creature at what point. The film is very well acted by all the cast, particularly Kurt Russell as MacReady, who plays a tough no-nonsense helicopter pilot. A man who doesn’t normally lead, but naturally takes charge and keeps his head in a crisis. Russell was born to play tough rugged characters like this, and MacReady is a fun character to root for. He is resourceful and intelligent, yet fallible. Another standout is Keith David as Childs, who simultaneously provides a good sceptical foil to MacReady, and also brings some moments of levity, such as when he explodes after being tied to a chair for so long. His confrontational relationship with MacReady is contrasted well with his methodical and careful nature. He doesn’t want to take anything for granted.

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It is immensely refreshing to come back to a Horror film where the characters act logically and make smart decisions. The threat is immediately taken seriously and studied. Once the crew learn of the alien after seeing it assimilate a dog, they take many measures to try and wipe it out, even torching every creature they come across. The script allows for them to make mistakes of course, but they are much more capable than your average horror protagonist, and this makes their inevitable deaths much more impactful. We want to see these characters survive. The blood test scene is a perfect example of logical characters. After seeing different parts of the thing react with self-preservation MacReady devises a heated blood test, to see if the creature’s blood will react to defend itself. This creates intense tension and helps drive the plot forward, weeding out members of the group one by one.

Speaking of the creature, the makeup and practical effects in this film are outstanding. They were incredible at the time and they still hold up really well today. While I think CGI is often unfairly maligned in cinema, there is something to be said for trying to make things for real first, especially because there is always a visceral reaction to seeing something physical happen in a movie, even if you know it isn’t real. The grotesque models and animatronics used to create the various phases of the thing as it assimilates the crew are obscenely fantastic! All the credit in the world needs to go to Rob Bottin, who was only 22 at the time. He dedicated so much time and effort to getting these effects made, that he was ordered to hospital by Carpenter after shooting wrapped. The fact that he received not a single award for this movie is nothing short of criminal.

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In terms of direction, Carpenter employs a lot of the same techniques he used in his earlier horror, Halloween. The camera is almost always moving, creeping around the characters and often lingering on empty environments, giving the disturbing impression that the creature is always watching these people, waiting for the right moment. The shots of the base without people in view shape the idea that the building is almost a character on its own, hiding the creature with its small rooms and long corridors. I love the way that Carpenter turns the bright comfortable building, full of beds and TVs into the more inhospitable environment; a place of endless fear where the thing could be hiding in plain sight at any moment. Contrast that to the dark, freezing cold outside, which feels oddly safer at times, forcing the creature to be out in the open and vulnerable, nowhere to corner one of the men to assimilate him. The film also makes great use of reincorporation, bringing things that have been casually set up back later in the film. My favourite example is the idea of using blood to test the men, which initially fails because the samples are ruined, only for MacReady to improvise a simpler, more intuitive version later on. The fact that the crew keep finding torn garments in the trash is another little detail that I picked up on the repeat viewing. Later in the film we find out the creature tears the clothes of it’s victims, and so needs to rip the name label to avoid giving the game away.

This film is an iconic achievement, and it has influenced a lot of media over the years. The creature effects are now legendary and its atmosphere of paranoia inspired directors like Quentin Tarantino, when making the Hateful Eight. John Carpenter is a fantastic cult director, who’s varied body of work is quite an experience to watch. I would strongly recommend seeing this movie, although be warned, it’s not for the squeamish.

Unusual YouTube gems…

I have been rather sporadic in my posts recently, as I have been on a long holiday in Iceland and before that was busy with yet more university work, however I am now back to the grind and can promise I will be posting more regularly from now on, hopefully on Wednesdays. With that said, let’s get down to business!

I thought that since I haven’t seen many new films as of late, and since I want this blog to explore other related topics, that I would take a look at YouTube this week instead. I have been an avid YouTuber for a long time, in fact I started watching videos on the site not long after when it first began. Since 2008 I watched many film-making and sketch shows, and after a while I created my own account, to upload crappy movies my friends and I made. On a side note, don’t go looking for those films, I deleted them a long time ago, and the rest have been lost to the ether. Since 2011 I’ve subscribed to a metric ton of different channels, as my tastes have evolved and so today I thought I’d share five of my favourite channels, still with quite a small audience, and whom I would love to see get more attention.

 

1. AgentXPQ.

A channel I have followed for a long time, Levni Yilmaz is a Turkish American film-maker who makes short, mostly anecdotal animated videos in a series called “Tales of Mere existence”. I discovered him when I came across his video “a typical conversation with my mom” which I found so instantly relatable and funny that I subscribed on the spot. His style is to film short static cartoons of what he is talking about as the lines are still being drawn in, creating a unique and really cool look for the series. His videos cover many observations about his life and pop culture in general as well as quite a few amusing and unusual stories from his life. The videos have a mildly pessimistic and sardonic tone, and while I am not a pessimist, it is very cathartic to watch a melancholy perspective to balance out some of the more positive and saccharine channels I watch. The series is also very funny in a dry pithy sort of way.

2. Harry Partridge.

Another channel I am a long-time fan of, Harry Partridge is in my opinion the finest 2D animator working on the internet currently. He has been around for a long time, originally posting mostly to Newgrounds, and has developed a lot as an animator. His cartoons are highly polished and very funny, the humour a mixture of campy parodies of various pop culture and absurd and slightly immature comedy. I think Harry is at his best when making completely original content that sends up old material, such as his most famous creations, the Starbarians, a loving parody series mimicking the classic 80’s Saturday morning cartoons by being as far from them in tone as possible. Full of blood, crudity and completely reprehensible characters, the Starbarians is the most hilarious cartoon series online at the moment. The overblown style of the animation and the stellar voice acting from Partridge make for a winning combination, even if the videos are inevitably a little short on plot. The only major drawback is that owing to the time-consuming nature of hand-drawing cartoons, and Harry’s own heightened perfectionism, you can expect maybe two videos a year currently! I for one though, feel they are more than worth the wait.

3. Lindsay Ellis.

One of the creators I love most that came out of Channel Awesome, I would say that Lindsay Ellis has far outgrown her slightly cringey beginnings. For those who don’t know, Lindsay started her online career as the Nostalgia Chick, a persona created by the Channel Network now known as Channel Awesome to parallel the Nostalgia Critic, a character played by Doug Walker. She won a contest to play this character, and the idea originally was that she would focus on the “girly” side of nostalgic film and television, leaving the Critic free to keep his fragile masculinity intact. As such her early content is hampered by a lot of restrictions, first of the limited material and secondly the need to keep a similar style to Walker’s content. However, in recent years, and especially since leaving Channel Awesome, a very smart move in retrospect, Ellis has started to make some of the best video Essays on film I have ever seen. She may be my all-time favourite YouTuber, and there is some tough competition. Her style and voice have really developed over the last few years, and her roots as a film student have really come into play. Her analyses of films are insightful, deep and very engaging. She has taught me quite a bit about story structure and auteur theory, and she has a cheeky, dry sense of humour that I really appreciate.

4. FilmJoy.

Taking a look now at a more recent find. FilmJoy is a relatively new channel, having started only four years ago. The Channel has a small number of subscribers as of yet, but the content is worthy of a hell of a lot more. In particular the “Movies with Mikey” series created by Mikey Neumann is a great watch. The videos explore various aspects of films, from popular blockbusters to more obscure films like The Rocketeer. Mikey has a very laid-back style, seeming almost drunk in his speech, but nevertheless extremely insightful, and in every single video has a unique perspective on the film in question I have not heard before. His humour is quite anarchic and careless but funny in its own way. However, what really got me interested in his videos is his video editing. Each entry in his series seems incredibly slick and professional. The openings to the videos are colourful and well shot, the clips of films are fantastically edited, keeping the pacing light and quick and yet the series is unmistakable in its style. You know when you’re watching Movies with Mikey.

5. Passion of the Nerd.

Lastly, I wanted to share a YouTuber who is still criminally small for the quality of content he puts out, Ian Martin, AKA Passion of the Nerd. Ian caters to a very specific corner of the internet, Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans. I have no doubt he has brought renewed interest to the series through his videos “Why you should watch Buffy/Angel” because I started watching those series mainly because of him. He started out making weekly videos looking at Buffy episodes in his Buffy guide, mostly to let you know which ones to skip. However, after a while his videos have evolved into deep analyses of the series sub-textual meaning as well as the character growth and story arcs. His take on each episode and how it fits into the series as a whole is very interesting and engaging. He is also of course very funny when he wants to be. Now making reviews and discussion videos on other movies and media as well, he still makes his best content looking at the works of Joss Whedon and exploring its cultural impact. His guides have been fascinating and stimulating, and I sincerely hope he gets millions of subscribers, because Ian really deserves more.

 

So that’s my top five most interesting YouTubers, I hope you check some of them out! I’m definitely going to try and expand this blog, talk about more aspects of films, and not just Hollywood movies, so expect more posts looking YouTube channels and videos in the future. Also expect more posts in general, as I’m going to try and keep to a very loose schedule from now on. If any of the channels I have covered sound interesting I urge you to give them a watch as many of them are quite small and could do with many more subscribers. Hope you enjoyed this different sort of post and let me know if you want more content like this in the future.

Flint and Marble Gods

This week I thought I’d take a break from talking about other peoples movies, and instead talk about my own. I’ve made quite a few, and one of the most recent is an animated film for a guerrilla film-making module in my film course. We were given a list of premises for art films to make, with limitations such as only using still images, or doing the whole film in one take. The film I’m showing is one which had the premise of a letter to a loved one.

As soon as I saw the premise, I knew it would work perfectly in the form of a poem. I have a friend who is a brilliant writer of poetry, so I asked him to send me a piece, which I then recorded and made animated segments to accompany it. I created models based on some of the imagery from the poem and then used them to make stop-motion scenes. The stop-motion took about two days, as each frame had to be captured several times to control pacing. Hope you enjoy!

Firefly: A Perfect Cult Series

Taking a look at a personal favourite show…

Having fallen behind on my TV watching habit thanks to a rather large amount of work at Uni, I thought I’d fall back on talking about another cult series that I love dearly, Joss Whedon’s Firefly. This is a fantastic series that was criminally cut short after only the first season and has since gained a large cult following. I also recently finished watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and you’re probably wondering why I’m not reviewing that instead, but Firefly is conveniently much shorter and so much quicker to go through, which fits perfectly with my limited time! Spoilers ahead.

Firefly is a blend of genres: part western, part space adventure, part drama, and it, like most of Whedon’s work manages to balance each genre superbly. The mixture of tones and style lead to a very unique feeling world which really lives and breathes. Most of Joss Whedon’s fiction is set in modern day earth, so it is interesting to see what he does with a world set far in the future. The characters use Chinese expressions, as it is the most common language besides English, the costumes are a mixture of modern business attire for the wealthy part of the Alliance of Planets, and more old-timey frontier clothes for the outlying planets. The series is full of little details which create an incredible atmosphere.

Set in the aftermath of a planetary civil war between the Brown-coats and the Alliance, the story follows Captain Malcolm Reynolds and his crew as they pilot the ship serenity into deep space, always on the lookout for their next job, and avoiding Alliance authorities every step of the way. The premise alone was enough to convince me to watch it. It really is a niche, you have to love both the western genre and the space exploration genre, which fortunately I do! The combination of styles enhances both, and the feeling both of familiarity with the setting and newness with the story and concepts makes for a very enjoyable experience. As the show progresses each of the characters gets explored in more detail and the way that this new world works is unpacked. If the show had gone on more could have been introduced, but what is already there is great fun.

The acting across the board is superb. I won’t be able to only talk about a few choice performances here as the cast are just too damn good. Nathan Fillion is alternately brooding and lovably charming as Captain Reynolds, Alan Tudyk is fantastic as the slightly more comical Wash, although he is also one of the more moral characters. Gina Torres is excellent as a very protective and loyal Zoe, the second in command. Morena Baccarin is calm and gentle, with an often sharp tongue and a very winning smile, playing the lovely Inara. My personal favourite character is Jayne, played by Adam Baldwin. The classic mercenary, Jayne could easily have been a simple thug, but thanks to Baldwins excellent comic timing, which can be seen better in Chuck, Jayne has plenty of funny moments and witty lines. His character is also very endearing. He is blunt and threatening, but deep down cares immensely for his crew, especially Kaylee. Speaking of, Jewel Staithe is a ray of sunshine, her portrayal of Kaylee is uplifting and heart-warming and her character is the most adorable person you will ever see. Sean Maher is perhaps the weakest actor. He has moments, but on the whole, when surrounded by such interesting characters, he has a tendency to get side-lined. Summer Glau is much more memorable. She plays River, an exceptional girl who has been experimented on by a shadowy part of the Alliance and spends a lot of the series adjusting to her life on the ship, and trying to come to terms with her abilities. As such she is very unstable. Finally, Ron Glass plays Booker, the resident preacher on the ship. Rather than being a self-righteous character, Booker is the moral centre of the group and often doles out advice to the rest of the crew. I enjoyed seeing a positive portrayal of a religious character, especially a Christian, as they tend to come off as pushy.

Of course, the show isn’t perfect. Despite the realism of the exterior scenes in space being shot in silence, the effect is unsettling and takes me out of the experience a little. As well as this the limited budget means that the space craft, while looking fantastically designed are very dated. The CGI doesn’t hold up well to scrutiny. The budget also means that many of the Terra-formed planets we visit on the far reaches of space just happen to have very similar environments. Sand and grass. It would’ve been nice to visit a few more diverse planets. However, none of these things are too distracting for me to not recommend the show, in fact I find them quite charming. The visual style of the show is strong enough to overcome bad CGI. The costume design alone is gorgeous, and the sets and props are all very cool and blend frontier cowboy style clothing with grungy Red Dwarf style technology.

However, the costume and characters aren’t all Firefly has to offer. I haven’t talked before about Joss Whedon, but he is a rarely talented writer. His TV shows in particular always appeal to me. He is a master of writing witty back and forth dialogue and making potentially boring exposition sound weighty and important. The characters are written so well, they seem like living breathing people, not stale archetypes, which is always a risk when writing genre fiction. Whedon has a flair for dialogue, but also a knack for organic world-building; he knows when to give the audience more backstory, and also when to ease off and let the characters chat. It’s always a pleasure to watch his work.

Firefly is one of those shows that feels so unique and interesting that you must watch every episode. It was a crying shame when it was cancelled in 2002 after only one season. However, Whedon since went on to make a film wrapping up the story, and I would rather watch a short-lived show I can love, than 20 seasons of a mediocre series. If anything about the show has intrigued you I urge you to give it a watch and discover how awesome it is for yourself.

Robin Hood Prince of Thieves, It’s crap and I love it!

The difference between enjoying a film, and a film being well made…

I’ve wanted to talk about the difference between liking a film and thinking a film is good for a while now. One of the things I’ve noticed when talking to people about movies, is that people often take criticism of a film to mean that the person doesn’t like the film, or is insulting them by suggesting their taste in movies isn’t good enough. I’m not trying to patronise; it is perfectly understandable when you enjoy something a lot to want to defend it, but I feel strongly that acknowledging flaws, even in your favourite films can help you gain a deeper love for them, and even make you more secure in your own taste. Case in point: Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.

This is a film I watched religiously when I was a kid. It was just the kind of movie I was drawn to; it had sword fights, explosions, romance and honour. It was the perfect swashbuckling adventure with better effects than the Errol Flynn version and even a cameo from Sean freaking Connery! What more could a geeky ten-year-old want? However, as I’ve grown, and especially after studying film, I’ve come to notice some of the glaring flaws that went over my head as a boy. These problems don’t ruin my enjoyment of the movie, on the contrary, they actually seem endearing. After all, I can still watch it and remember how much I adored the film as a child, knowing the film is far from perfect certainly can’t take that away from me.

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Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is not a very good movie. The effects, whilst miles ahead of the 1938 film, are a little dated by today’s standards. The acting is all over the place and some aspects of the story are very strange, but overall it is a staggeringly fun movie. I can at least promise that you will not be bored watching it. I’m going to compare the aspects of the film I love versus the aspects that make it a poor quality film, and why these flaws don’t bother me in the slightest.

Let’s start with the lead actor himself. Kevin Costner is a limited actor. I don’t mean to say he’s bad, he was very convincing in the Untouchables, but the guy doesn’t have much range. He isn’t suited the character of Robin Hood. Robin of Locksley is a fun loving boyish rebel, a man who inspires loyalty through his good nature and humour, and the script tries really hard to make Kevin Costner seem like this man. Costner gives it his best shot, but sadly he just isn’t up to accent, or to sounding energetic. Other performances are for the most part solid (if slightly melodramatic), I particularly enjoy Nick Brimble as an extremely bloke-ish Little John, but the stand out actor is once again Alan Rickman. That man was a gift to the screen and as always he proves to be the highlight of the film. Every scene in which the sheriff of Nottingham minces down a corridor, or snarls at Kevin Costner I’m having a blast. Rickman gives the sheriff a barely held together, delightfully malicious character which never fails to entertain. He consumes every inch of scenery every second he is onscreen, and this is more than enough to make up for Costner’s wooden delivery.

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As for the story, apart from a few additions it stays mostly true to the legend. This is hardly a historical film, after all, Robin travels home with a Moor, Azeem played by Morgan Freeman with his usual dry wit. Apart from a few moments of telegraphed racism most of the merry men seem to accept this stranger unrealistically well. But as this is a film more about the legend of Robin Hood, this doesn’t bother me as much as something like Brave heart (Oh, we’ll get to you later). The story is paced well, though it takes its time getting to the forming of the merry men, spending quite a while showing Robin returning to Sherwood, and seeing it changed for the worse. This is actually quite a welcome alteration as it allows for some interesting character moments, especially the scene in which Robin lands at the beach, and leaps into the sand. It is one of the few moments of joy that Costner absolutely nails. If I had a choice, I would say that there a few story points I would cut. For instance, while the sheriff wants to marry Marian in order to secure a claim to the throne, the scene in which he loses his mind and tries to rape her was very tonally dissonant. This somehow never registered with me as a boy, but as an adult I recognised how jarring it was for him to be trying to do something so brutal in a PG film.

Apart from the wonky story, another aspect of the film which lowers the quality is the dialogue. This matters less when you’re a young boy who wants to watch the very American sounding Robin Hood fight with swords, but as a film student, it’s hard to overlook. While actors like Rickman and Freeman are strong enough on their own to sell the cliches, Costner and many of the other actors, like Christian Slater just can’t make the lines convincing. The melodrama is acceptable in this style movie, but when the lines are so trite and predictable that I can guess what the character will say next, and be completely right, you know something has gone wrong. For instance, at one point in the film Robin buries his father in what is supposed to be a deep emotional scene. Unfortunately, Robin goes on to cut his hand pointlessly and mutter “I swear I will not rest until my father is avenged.” My eyes rolled so hard at this scene I almost went blind. And yet every once in a while, a couple of the lines will catch you by surprise, by being actually good, or at least funny.

Finally, we come to the strongest part of the film, the music. Apart from a few choice selections, such as Lord of the Rings and Blade Runner, there aren’t many other film scores which have had such an effect on me. The sweeping adventurous style of the main Robin Hood theme is a perfect soundtrack for an action adventure. Michael Kamen composed an excellent tune. In fact, a large part of what makes the film seem so epic, and helps distract from some of the dodgy performances is the score. The music is on point, perfectly illustrating each dramatic moment, or letting an intimate character scene play out without music. But the crowning achievement is the main theme. It really emphasises the naive sense of fun and adventure that Robin Hood represents and it promises a world of possibility and excitement!

So, there we have it. A film which has many problems, but which I love nonetheless. It has a lot to offer, and for me the flaws aren’t nearly enough to ruin my experience. Obviously this film isn’t for everyone, and if any of the issues I have addressed have put you off, I don’t blame you at all. However, as I said earlier, just because it isn’t a well made film, doesn’t mean it isn’t fun.

Also Sean Connery has a cameo.

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“Are you shure she’s taken?”

Update

Hi guys! Sorry about the rather inconsistent posting at the moment! I have rather a lot of Uni work to take care of, so the blog is taking a bit of a backseat. This week I have an essay with a looming deadline, so I’m going to hold off on a new post until next week, when I can give it some proper effort.