Operation Avalanche (2016) – Review

Without YMS’s recommendation I wouldn’t have sought out The Dirties. And without that seal of approval, plus the mere concept alone being a large selling point, I wouldn’t have found one of my favourite movies. So, in following the career progression of director, Matt Johnson, I now find myself watching Operation Avalanche. To put it frankly: I’m happy with Johnson’s latest faux-meta-verite-mockumentary-thing, but only to the point of simple satisfaction. While The Dirties felt like a film that needed to be seen, Operation Avalanche is a film that acts like you need to see it, but in reality you don’t.

The film is an exercise in titillating small pleasures: that cute satisfaction we get from seeing the plausibility in fictionalised truth. It goes without saying that everything is so securely locked, there really isn’t anything to break our suspension of disbelief; except for the inherent safety net of the unprovoking plot. Operation Avalanche would surely be an indictment against the American intelligence corporations; a couple of dimwits put together the largest cover-up in history (that we know of). But that’s the problem, the parenthesis should probably be a statement of it’s own, and the film shamefully doesn’t push that angle – the ending of Indiana Jones is more convincing than Operation Avalanche. There’s this box over the film, containing everything, prematurely wrapping the bow and ribbon, ruining the authenticity.

Believability-wise, everything is great; it’ll have you chuckling away at how incredibly supposable their wacky ideas can be, it’s quite the set-up for (yet obviously antithetical to) National Treasure 3 (or something of the likes). To the audience it’s exposing the lies. The film itself is a supposed “truth”. But within the film, there is creation; we see behind the expose and take a rare look into the creation of conspiracy – a rather fascinating perspective we often never consider. The film offers two forms of discovery, each satisfying and individual. The narrative works like a tape recorder: as one wheel of information unravels the mystery, the other wheel sucks it back in, keeping it out of the public’s eye.

However, The Dirties is a wrestle with its subject, Operation Avalanche is not. There’s no clawing, raw feeling to this filmic farce. There’s a delightful bunch of inspired moments, but that means nothing when compared to The Dirties, a plate which balances on thin wire. There’s no tension in these fearless, valiant patriots; they’re just too palatable; they’re a safe bet.

I adore Matt Johnson’s work, he’s a wonderful, intelligent film-maker, but he needs to shake things up in his future. His formula worked excellently in reality based narrative, and it gets a pleasant result when applied to fictionalised farce, but there’s nothing much to stretch it to beyond these goalposts.

That said, the expanse of plot is quick, slick and mighty impressive. You’re taken all over their world, and then right back to the centre before it explodes magnificently and leaves you a little shell-shocked. Operation Avalanche is certainly a fun ride.

Check this out if it looks like your thing, you’ll probably get exactly what you expect.

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The Raging Moon (1971) – Review

A calm, steady observation on how people transition from one state of normalcy to another; what happens after the everyday life is fractured by trauma? My greatest praise for The Raging Moon is that the handicap isn’t overwhelmingly important. Still, the subject of disability isn’t passed without commentary; there’s a great deal to be said about the public’s notions on how we treat the disabled and how we assume they must feel. Rather, the essence of The Raging Moon is our journey of understanding; how we access the story of Bruce and Jill through their mutual situation.

An essential moment for understanding The Raging Moon is the church fundraising scene; occurring near the halfway mark between the duo’s story. The scene is: a bunch of rich snobs give pitying charity to the disabled as the wheelchair bound residents are paraded around for sympathy. Our couple, Bruce and Jill, decide to flip the script: what a freakshow it must be to walk on legs, what other tricks can they do? It’s a heartwarming moment that bonds the two, they comfort one another with their unity; meanwhile, the script doesn’t go heavy handed on the commentary, the first and foremost priority of the scene is to show that after the trauma, and the sadness, there comes normalcy again, life slowly resets to equilibrium and you can have it your way (maybe you can have more than you had before; who can be sure what to expect from the unexpected).

Now, the film isn’t a masterpiece, not even by the farthest stretch of the imagination, mostly because it’s fairly simplistic in its cinematic technique: the film starts, and continues, to feel like an English kitchen sink drama, except when it detours and reaches a little higher, but ultimately never surpasses their cinematic quality. Bruce and Jill’s character development is borderline cliche; he’s a little rugged, she’s a bit pristine: they compliment each other by learning self completion through the opposite’s best qualities. And sure you’ve probably seen it before, but the script is so well paced that you’d probably overlook these conventional tricks by praising McDowell’s performance and his endearing portrayal of what emotional recovery really is.

An unexpected joy. Sorrowful, semi cathartic, semi melancholic and an all round brilliant sleeper drama.

La La Land (2017, U.K.) -Review

I was enchanted in less than approximately 150 frames; even before the film properly began. Then the no nonsense musical number introduces us to a firmly placed genre flick; but that’s just the introductory point. What might surprise you is that La La Land has an addition core genre: drama; real, human drama. The tragedy of Mia and Sebastian is truly spellbinding, and while their paths might feel somewhat formulaic (like a simple foundation for the musical to exist. And I’m definitely ok with that), Damien Chazelle’s modus operandi weaves a tale akin to Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Singing In The Rain and even Fantasia; by planting the spellbinding: the musical, the fantasy, with the tragic drama: the reality of chasing personal fantasy. La La Land is clearly inspired; a very po-mo look at why audiences go to the cinema, and why some of us venture into the dangerous dream zoned career that is film, music, or art of any kind really.

But more than La La’s coyish, humbly sweet introspective look at cinematic fascination (deconstructing the musical genre on a two pronged approach; music, cinema), is Chazelle’s most valuable merit: his craftsmanship of the camera. Side note: my favourite, albeit trivial, trinket of the movie is a small rainbow flair a lamp gives in the park (“what a waste of a lovely night”). It’s barely noticeable, but these small filmic treasures give La La Land it’s sincere beauty. Chazelle’s force in controlling the camera gives me that knowing sense of accomplishment in seeing something executed to near perfection; from whip pans to pivoting tracking shot, he creates energy in pace and rhythm to the musical numbers – and more importantly, with the actors. And while many of the actors aren’t Astaire or Kelly tier performers, there’s a charm to seeing amateur(ish) performers give their biggest performance with a great success in making it feel as seamless as possible. I’d argue that works to the film’s benefit: the mixture of reality and fantasy, of drama and musical, earths their performances (depending on each character’s state of fantasy and imagination).

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I think that the planetarium number is the summation of their entire relationship together, at that single point in time, and wonderfully demonstrates the creative talent on display; oh, and it’s my favourite scene. I just adore how the phenomena of the universe is just a backdrop to these two lovebirds; he guides her through the expanse of galaxies, but all that’s important is how they dance with each other. There’s this sense of power: they’re bigger than the universe, they can face anything. It’s a moment of pure fantastical surrealist imagination – not too far removed from something out of a classic Disney animation. The cinematography is gorgeous, but not superficially so: there’s an intentional exhibition of the emotional impact each plot point has on the characters. Each scene hits hard with its tonal richness; it’s immediately consuming.

La La Land is an astonishing work of dramatic yet entertaining, creative, traditionalist, revisionist, and revolutionary film making. The screenplay isn’t perfect; bluntly stating the issues dealt by the film isn’t a call for celebration or even praise, but since it tackles these questions with such an unbelievably deft hand, I can’t help but forgive its minuscule weaknesses in favour of loving and honouring the thing as a collective of perfection. I can’t stop humming the tune to every song.

Onibaba (1964) – Review

This is how people are unknowingly their own horror stories.

Onibaba starts ominous, we look into the deep empty hole, wondering what dark entity exists far beneath the surface. The title smash cuts onto the screen; as though to create an association between Onibaba, ‘Devil Woman’, and the hole. And that’s the closest Onibaba gets to the horror genre; mostly everything else is just drama, perhaps the most thickly veiled sinister drama of all time, ripe with a unique, difficult dilemma and a harsh, stark character study. I discovered that when I grappled with the central plot I realised that the plot concerning the hole (and the samurai) is a reflection of their struggles; the whole story about the old lady betraying her daughter in law in order to live is not just a heart-twisting tale of tragedy and internal conflict as she fights to survive, it’s a fable about the greed of a woman so determined to live that she will force her closest companion (and only dependable source of help) to mercilessly kill as many passing strangers as it takes to keep going; by keeping her daughter in law from moving on, she’s condemning her to a life of sin, murder and a soulless existence. It goes without saying that the old woman is eventually punished.

From the start, I thought they we’re feeding a monster inside the hole; I wasn’t wrong, but not in the way I expected. Instead of feeding the literal, the film feeds on the interpretive: the monster being fed is the woman’s greediness to survive. I loved how her power dynamic changed as she played each hand throughout the whole movie; my focus was mainly drawn to her make-up and appearance. Her desperate need to eat feels like her version of the hole: constantly consuming; and like the hole’s infinite blackness, the make-up on her eyes creates an identical symbol of emptiness. When she puts on the mask, the night overwhelms her, darkness engulfs her as the light highlights her mask: the symbol of fear (and of the protection that offers final punishment). This attention to storytelling excites me, the layers of meaning given in every aspect of the story offers something so truthful to the characters that in their weakest moments they remain honest and true to the audience. Onibaba changes the way light works in movies; instead of light being a symbol of safety, it becomes a symbol of weakness, an expression of the true face of horror: that horror is fear to itself.

I could go on forever about how intricately every detail is painted in tightly wrapped layers, but I’d rather you go see it for yourself. Trust me; it’s gorgeous in every regard.

Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) – Review

A bait and switch works best when it’s delightfully surprising to discover; a moment of elevation, “oh, I did not expect that”; it doesn’t work if, while still technically unexpected, the plot switched to is less interesting than the film’s original state. It’s probably because Genevieve (the lead female) brings an indescribable amount of sweet, sugary colour to the world; once she leaves, the world becomes drab; she’s all that stops Cherbourg from seeming depressing: Cherbourg becomes the reality when the fantasy, Genevieve, leaves. I suppose it’s right to feel disengaged when she leaves, I can sympathise more with Guy (the lead male). Even so, the singing becomes irritating after awhile, especially post-Genevieve. Everything is set in this small town of Cherbourg, the camera never leaves, so the feeling claustrophobia sets in deep, and deeper as their world changes, so as the music gets sombre and their energy fades the scope of the film narrows around Guys words, and since he’s orphanly depressed the music begins to grate with every lyric, the name of music is tainted with every overly melancholy verse of Guy’s. You can argue these things as a positive to the film, or a negative; it’s a personal thing, I wasn’t of a fan of these decisions. But, overall, I admire the courageous concept and their execution of it.

Perks Of Being A Wallflower (2012) – Review

Ezra Miller gives us character in a way that only a rare, true performer does. Emma Watson is the antithesis of Ezra Miller’s talent. Where Ezra Miller knocks out a killer performance as a troubled gay man with a funny ol’ defense mechanism, Emma Watson can’t even muster up the charisma of a knock off post-Breakfast-Club-make-up-scene Ally Sheedy. That said, she’s not exactly in the best position to deliver anything noteworthy when the depth of her character can be summed up on a twice folded post-it note. The whole “we are weirdo’s and that’s why we’re great” philosophy might’ve worked in something more attuned to John Hughes’ honest style and not to something this amateurish, this blunt and this underdeveloped. Let’s look at how it’s so fetishistic of the 90s, yet really doesn’t feel at all like the era. I think that this is part of the film’s misunderstanding of montage theory, and how its misguided attempt to emulate the films it admires creates a weak collage of cliffsnotes that lack the foundation that these previous scenes built throughout their own stories. I would liken Perks Of Being A Wallflower to Almost Famous; in every way, characters, theme, story and even in Perks’ occasional, slight tone it poorly traces the outlines of Almost Famous, except in the ways that matter. The problems with Perks are simple: it’s too afraid, until it isn’t, and then it’s too late to count. There isn’t enough adventure, or any thing that greatly warrants this being labelled a significant experience: instead of tackling personal stories or getting into the nitty gritty of everyone’s dramas, the story tiptoes, and then wallops you with a plot twist that could’ve really pushed the element of engagement onto our main protagonist, had it come sooner rather than later. I understand that the film is going for a shock value final punch; a certainly effective tactic; but it comes at the cost of our engagement to Charlie whilst we’re watching his present day story unfold – had I known that what had happened to him, I might’ve approached his ‘wet-blanketness’ with more sympathy; but with schlocky and unimaginative exposition, his perspective falls flat. In addition, it becomes quite the slap in the face when Sam (Emma Watson) refers to herself as the misfit toy, when not a whole lot happens to her that even compares to child molestation – the film offers no consequence to the comparison with the reductionist attitude that the misfit toys quote labels everyone with. I’m not impressed, Perks Of Being A Wallflower is a lazy, underdeveloped caricature of greater, real movies.

Plus, is it me or did anyone else think that Charlie doesn’t actually feel like a writer. I don’t really remember him writing, it’s never a significant part of his persona. Compare to Almost Famous; where the kid went all across America, hung out with people way outside his comfort zone – a comfort zone where his mom felt like a real character and not just a prop in the plot -, drugs lead to significant changes in his life (unlike the quirky quirkfest that is Charlie’s drug trip) and went on an amazing coming of age story that will change his writing career forever. Charlie writes exposition and borrows some books from a fairly bland teacher; and he doesn’t really affect his life too significantly either (even Philip Seymour Hoffman’s occasional appearance offers more advice to William than Paul Rudd’s character offers Charlie). From time to time his friends call him a writer and they’re really rooting for him, but heck – the film just didn’t convince me. Perhaps it is just me, but when you’re a writer: you live and breathe writing; but Charlie breathes the air of a trivia kid in the search of friendship (and we, the audience, will never know the true, important meaning of his quest until the film is almost over – shame).
Don’t expect too much from this fairly snoozy, partially poorly acted, non drama, non comedy, non film. Cut Emma Watson, cut the fake love interest, shift the plot twist to the start and don’t be afraid to be adventurous, and I’ve considered this as something half decent and worth watching.

The Neon Demon (2016) – Review

Supporting characters support main character/s; obviously.

While Ruby, Sarah and Gigi support our exploration into Jesse’s character they do so with more purpose than to simply “support the main character”: they become the main character. I think this is a commonly overlooked consideration when people criticise The Neon Demon’s “lack of character”. These ‘three witches of LA’ are our essential gateway into the film’s mythology; Winding Refn’s fable-like horrorshow feels like a fashionista’s rendition of Macbeth. They work as essential, but individual, components in the story; contributing to the themes of lust (Ruby), fame (Gigi), youth (Sarah); and all are connected to revenge and purity. This kind of exploration is rare in something so identifiable as arthouse, and in something so determinately pornographic (said by Nicolas Winding Refn himself). The Neon Demon is bloody fantastic for something so centered around self-satisfaction. Refn’s cinematography almost fetishises Jesse’s face, she’s made to be adored in close ups, painted in beautiful light and soft music plays as she whispers her words; and without this romanticism, of her physique, of her eyes like “deer in the headlights”, she would be remarkably uninteresting. Even so, this does not help her dull personality. What does make her interesting is how she is seen through the eyes of others: specifically the three witches. That’s what makes the bathroom scene so compelling, and what keeps the showdown shocking, and sensible.

I think it helps that Refn is a genius at immersion, he sucks you in the frame, we were falling down the rabbit hole with Jesse without a moment to pause with a break in the cinematography; his continuous flow, his choice of cuts and shots build a tunnel that draws our eyes, luring us deeper into the world of the necromantic fashion industry. Everything is designed to stop us from averting our attention, our gaze. Look at his use of the consuming, infinite black, I feel like he’s compelling us to look for something in the endless depths; in addition to the rich aesthetic it provides. I love his piercing vibrant colours: washing this beautiful world with sickening light. Between Refn’s use of colour and Brandon’s perspective of sex in Shame (2011), the theme of taking something beautiful and distorting it into something repulsive and disgusting is one I’m really beginning to admire.

Before I leave, I wanted to address something that I read in a review for this movie. I saw that one review said “mansplaining the fashion industry”. While I do have a problem with the term mansplaining, as a specific word and its use in relation to The Neon Demon, I have a bigger problem with that someone understood this film as an explanation of the fashion industry. Whoever it is that can’t understand that this is clearly a fiction story, pumped to extremes and is clearly intended to be seen as a myth or just pure experimentation; this is in no way a genuine representation of the fashion industry. If critics could, please stop pushing your agenda onto films that do not warrant it.

The Neon Demon is a brilliant foray into the sickening world of its directors mind. Keanu Reeves’ performance was a personal favourite, Jena Malone was a knockout.