”Dear Sid Sheinberg. When are you going to release my film?”
I’ve talked about my love for dystopian movies set in futuristic cities. We’ve already covered Dark City, Blade Runner, Minority Report, and A Clockwork Orange. And I’ve talked about my love for Monty Python type comedies. We’ve already covered Life of Brian, Holy Grail, A Fish Called Wanda, and A Clockwork Orange. Now, it’s time to combine two great tastes that, maybe surprisingly, taste great together.
Brazil is less a movie and more just what happens when a visual stylist operates without restraints. Terry Gilliam was mainly known for creating these hallucinogenic little animated worlds in Python, now he’s been given the money and the creative freedom to do the same in live action. The whole story is just an assault of images.
It’s also a melange of subplots that float in and out of the movie, none of which really advance the narrative but vividly paint a picture of a world driven mad by bureaucracy. Luckily Jonathan Pryce grounds things somewhat, playing another one of those audience insert character who is frustrated by his surroundings, but not really empowered to do anything about it.
We like Sam Lowry, but we do mostly remember the movie as just a hodgepodge of sequences. We remember the dreams, the tracking shots, the sets, the sly humour. I’m especially partial to the endless nightmare that closes out Brazil, it’s striking in the same way as the Batty scene in Blade Runner. It’s a movie spent in a brain we can thankfully leave whenever we want.
Brazil’s greatness for me is in no way contingent upon the legendary behind the scenes conflict that surrounded it. There’s a great documentary called The Battle for Brazil that covers the whole story, but the long and short of it is that Universal didn’t want to release a film as offbeat as Brazil without some serious reediting. So Terry Gilliam exploited some loopholes to screen his own cut for critics, who then went on to vote Brazil as the best film of 1985 in order to shame the studio into putting it out. And anyone who thinks award shows have only been politicized now haven’t been paying attention, because Brazil clearly ought not to be the consensus pick for the best film of 1985. I mean, it’s mine, but I’m a weirdo.
Anyway, makes for some good lore, but it doesn’t compare to the movie itself.
*FULL REVIEW COMING SOON*
Appreciation (Construction): MODERATE. The script I sometimes think of as just a series of events, but that’s the studio edited “Love Conquers All” cut as well, and it sucks, so there must be more of a shape to the film than I think.
Adrenaline (Excitement): HIGH. Though Terry Gilliam’s chase scenes are meant to be more subversive takes on Spielberg/Lucas style action scenes at the time.
Affection (Emotional Impact): HIGH. There are some surprisingly wrenching moments (the widow Buttle) and that last shot has all the feels.
Applicability (Real World Resonance): HIGH. It starts in a relatable place, we’ve all been frustrated by red tape and longed for a simpler, fantastical world, then heightens from there.
Anxiety (Suspense): HIGH. 1984 is one of the most horrifying books ever written, so even a satire of that kind of world is pretty scary.
Amusement (Humour/Elation): HIGH. If you enjoy Gilliam’s Monty Python animations an entire film with that sensibility may be more than you bargained for.
Awe (Visual Impact): EXTRAORDINARY. You can’t find one dull shot in this entire movie.
A man wearing a funny hat is not funny. A man who doesn’t realize he’s wearing a funny hat… ah, now you’ve got something. ~Roger Ebert
4. Dr Strangelove
We were doing so well but now it has to be done… we can’t talk about Dr. Strangelove without mentioning Donald Trump. I hate to do it, because I’m sick of contemporary movie reviews that relate every single fictional villain back to him. Not because I think it’s unfair, I just think it’s hack. “This Batman film made in 1992 has a perverted criminal running for office REMIND YOU OF ANYONE?!?!?!?!11?!?!” It’s like how every late 2001/early 2002 movie review brought everything back to 9/11. Yeah, your dissertation on how Boo from Monster’s Inc. is a representation of America in a more innocent time was absolutely the filmmaker’s intention and is really going to resonate in a couple years.
Everything I write on this site, I write with the presumption that we will actually make it to a post-Trump era in which you can read it, so why even bother bringing him up? But it’s disingenuous to discuss a movie about human error causing the end of the world without relating it to the present day. That was Kubrick’s intention. Despite centering on 1960s cold war politics, Dr. Strangelove is really about how world ending technology is in the hands of humans who are fallible, stupid, or venal.
You can relate the film to the Cold War, or you can relate it to an era with a President who could plausibly tweet a declaration of war while he’s on the shitter. This movie is forever relevant, and forever funny. Though not really ha-ha funny, depending on when you watch it.
I guess Dr. Strangelove is a comedy. But that being the case, every Kubrick movie is as well. Going back to the idea that the best way to strip a taboo of its power is to laugh at it, Kubrick decided the best way to confront the end of the world was to make it ridiculous. Maybe he took the same approach to criminal violence in A Clockwork Orange and domestic abuse in The Shining, and we only think of Dr. Strangelove as a comedy because it’s got a handful of unmistakably broad moments.
There’s certainly no mistaking Dr. Strangelove himself as a serious character, but when you think about it he’s the only consistently “wacky” figure in terms of how he’s written. George C. Scott gives one of the all time funniest performances without a single overtly funny bit of dialogue, it’s all in the mannerisms or gestures. There’s Sterling Hayden, whose ridiculous lines sneak up on you because he is 100% committed to what he’s saying. And of course Slim Pickens, who infamously was told he was making a serious picture. Yet another amazing Kubrick performance that’s the result of just sheer psychological manipulation.
Dr. Strangelove functions as a legitimately great thriller too. A desperate effort to avert the end of the world makes for some pretty intense stuff, especially when it’s being directed by a master filmmaker. But the story wrings tension out of the situation in an interesting way, it makes things difficult for ALL parties.
Naturally we get invested in Mandrake’s desperate efforts to get the recall code, and the moment Ripper commits suicide in the bathroom is a legitimate “Oh shit” moment. But the tension in the scenes aboard the bomber are all the more potent because there’s a strong element of frustration. The odds are so stacked against Major Kong, but he’s doggedly getting closer and closer to triggering the Doomsday Device and it’s just agonizing because he ought to have been stopped so many times. And if you don’t believe me, remember Trump’s election night.
Sorry, Trump references are like Pringles, once you pop the fun don’t stop. We’ll get this under control by the next review.
The ending implies that humanity will carry on even following the end of civilization, and even with all the cynicism of the movie, I hope that’s the case. If humans survive, there’s still hope that they’ll learn.
Adrenaline (Excitement): N/A
Affection (Emotional Impact): N/A
Awe (Visual Impact): N/A
Amusement (Humour/Elation): HIGH. So this is that ‘gallows humour’ I’ve always heard about.
Anxiety (Suspense): EXTRAORDINARY. It’s amazing how suspenseful this movie is, considering that according to the movie the human race being wiped out might not be such a bad thing.
Appreciation (Construction): EXTRAORDINARY. The script, the story construction, the performances, it’s all flawless.
Applicability (Real World Resonance): EXTRAORDINARY. We’ll either reach a day where this movie is no longer a cautionary tale, or we won’t, it’s that simple.
”Yippie kijay, Mr. Falcon.”
3. Die Hard
Why Die Hard? For me, it’s unquestionably the best action movie ever made. I’m not saying that to try and fit in with some broader consensus, I saw the movie at around age 14 without knowing its reputation, and there was no doubt in my mind that it was my new favourite action movie.
But why? What is it about Die Hard? We’ve just about reached the end of this list, we’ve talked about great directors with great scripts who work with great casts and create great action scenes. What puts Die Hard at the top?
It’s a bit of a non-answer, but it really might come down to the intangibles. It might be the way the camera roves and subtly establishes the geography and elements of a room in order to give an impending shootout more impact. Or the way about four or five different stories are intercut in a way to maximize the tension. Or it might be how even most inconsequential members of Gruber’s team have their own little personalities, or how pleasing the design of the Nakotomi interiors are to the eye. Put a pin in Die Hard, we’ll be coming back and looking at the nitty gritty at some point.
But in the meantime we can still point out that Alan Rickman makes for the greatest, most charismatic villain ever to appear in a movie. My phone autocorrects “haha” to “Hans” because I actually do spend that much time talking at people about Hans Gruber.
And the clever thing about the script is that it hands Hans some victories that have lower stakes, and he gets to outwit plenty of obnoxious non-Bruce Willis characters. He triumphs so far as the heist is concerned and we’re happy to see it. But that’s not to undersell Bruce Willis, he’s wonderful in the movie too. When it matters, i.e. when the stakes are humans and not money, we’re rooting for him.
And there’s something about compression that works really well for an action thriller like this. One building, the story happening in something close to real time, it’s a pressure cooker. It’s intense, yet it’s a really funny movie from beginning to the end. How?!
Again, those pesky intangibles. We’ll figure it out.
*FULL REVIEW COMING SOON*
Applicability (Real World Resonance): N/A
Affection (Emotional Impact): LOW. I don’t know what it says that there’s more heart in the John/Powell reunion than John/Holly.
Anxiety (Suspense): HIGH. Things feel like they could go pear shaped (at the LAPD or the FBI’s hands more than John’s).
Awe (Visual Impact): HIGH. Sleek. Camera movements, the set design, it’s a very polished movie.
Amusement (Humour/Elation): HIGH. Even in the climax it’s got a lot of genuinely funny moments.
Appreciation (Construction): EXTRAORDINARY. Not a wasted moment in the whole script, everything is paid off and every character has a purpose.
Adrenaline (Excitement): EXTRAORDINARY. The storytelling and John’s vulnerability’s bring an extra something to the shoot-outs and fistfights.
”A more offensive spectacle I cannot recall…” ~Newman
2. Schindler’s List
It’s THE cinematic accomplishment of our time. Steven Spielberg found a way to take the Holocaust and make it palatable for wide audiences, all without diminishing anything that was horrific or shameful about that time even one iota. The character arcs and the level of craft in Schindler’s List, along with carefully applied instances of more traditional suspense, melodrama, and even very occasional humour make for a story that’s… well, “enjoyable” definitely isn’t the right word. But the movie is one I can… hmm, “endure” undersells the experience too. It’s appropriate that this movie has so many Germans, because maybe they’ll be the ones who invent the word that exactly describes how I feel about Schindler’s List.
Liam Neeson, in an early Towering Authority Figure part that would later be his wheelhouse, is the perfect entry point to this world. A con-man who redirects all of his considerable talents towards saving Jewish lives and even outright sabotaging the war effort, that’s a character you can get your head around if you’re a fan of Spielberg. He’s already done wacky Nazis in Indiana Jones and you can easily picture a Schindler’s List that’s not quite in that vein, but something that’s more of a heist or a thriller.
Obviously, that’s not the movie we got. For one, the way Schindler changes is so subtle, if not for a couple of private moments when the audience alone can see his horror, we (along with the Nazis) might still think he’s keeping Jews alive purely out of convenience. Second, the movie offers him a terrifying opponent in the form of Amon Goeth, and the contest of wills between them shows us how extraordinary circumstances bring out extraordinary qualities (good or evil) in otherwise unremarkable people. Last, and most important, though the focus is on Schindler, the movie is three hours long, which means there’s plenty of time to paint a fairly complete portrait of what life was like in Nazi occupied Poland.
Some critics and even some other directors have accused Spielberg of diminishing the Holocaust by telling the story of a small group of Jews that were saved. Films, series, and documentaries that fully confront the horrors of what the Nazis did absolutely have their place, but the reality is that they’re not going to be sought out by many in the general public.
A story of finding hope and ultimately surviving within the bleakest of circumstances, and how those circumstances bring out the good in a selfish man is, in addition to being a story worth telling, something that has some wider audience appeal. An audience that might have been unwilling to confront the Holocaust sees a movie about the Holocaust because a story of hope is less daunting to them.
And we need these kind of mass appeal stories, because we need everyone to remember what happened not even a century ago. Let’s not beat around the bush here, Schindler’s List features scenes of mothers being distracted so that government agents can separate them from their children. Under different circumstances these agents probably wouldn’t be bad people, and their orders were given legally, but what’s happening is morally wrong and will ultimately be judged by history.
It’s a lesson we need to relearn in the 21st century. And if Schindler’s List prevents the Holocaust from fading, even in only a few people’s minds, then it’s more important a film than ever.
Adrenaline (Excitement): N/A
Amusement (Humour/Elation): LOW. There’s actually humour in Schindler’s List, though mainly in the first hour.
Awe (Visual Impact): HIGH. The black and white is classy as fuck.
Appreciation (Construction): EXTRAORDINARY. Slowly escalates to the Holocaust, and gives Schindler an arc that is crystal clear but not overtly discussed until near the end.
Anxiety (Suspense): EXTRAORDINARY. Thank God we only have to stay in this world for three hours.
Applicability (Real World Resonance): EXTRAORDINARY. Never forget.
Affection (Emotional Impact): EXTRAORDINARY. Told with a bit of a detached eye, but the last couple sequences push every button there is and good luck not weeping.
“We come to it at last…”
1. The Return of the King
The third Lord of the Rings movie is the most triumphant instance of my own sky high expectations being dwarfed by the quality of the actual thing. I expected a continuation of the quality from The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers. But The Return of the King ramped up the scale of the story to impossibly epic and operatic levels.
As a final chapter that benefits from a lot of rising action, The Return of the King is free to quickly plunge its well established characters into 200 minutes of questing and battling. Excitement, terror, awe, this movie brought ALL the feelings up to a fever pitch and kept them there the entire movie. I left the theatre with a newfound appreciation for what film is capable of.
My absolute loftiest ambition in life is to make someone feel what I felt during the lighting of the beacons, or Faramir’s doomed ride to Osgiliath, or Sam’s nick-of-time rescue of Frodo from Shelob, or “You bow to no one.” This is a movie that succeeds on the basis of literally dozens of sequences of enormous power.
This is worth talking about though, The Return is the King is the most flawed of the three Lord of the Rings movies, and one of the more flawed films on this list overall. There’s a lot of little story problems we could get into, and corny lines. Some gaping holes left in the theatrical edition, some outright padding put back into the extended edition. But for now let’s focus on this; Denethor really sucks.
Set aside that he’s this nuanced character in the book who’s wholly given into despair, because in the movie he’s a madman whose every decision is irrational and contradictory and made solely to create obstacles for Gandalf. Plus it was a revelation to me that John Noble is a really good actor in Fringe, because he spends this movie twitching his face in uncomfortable close-ups and I’m over it.
This entire subplot is a much bigger waste of time than, just to throw out a completely random example, the Canto Blight sidestep in The Last Jedi. But guess what, The Return of the King is still my favourite movie. What it does right is far more important than what it does poorly.
Which brings me to a reason this site exists; I think Internet criticism has created a generation of filmgoers who aren’t watching movies correctly. There’s a subset of people who aren’t sitting back and letting movies wash over them, they’re viewing them as crime scenes to be dissected. It’s hard to feel a movie if you’re thinking too much, and as I posit with my Seven As, thinking about a movie is only one seventh of the experience.
If you’re watching the beacons scene and thinking about the keepers who have to live year round on a mountain and what they must do to maintain a pile of flammable kindling, do you feel the majestic New Zealand cinematography and Howard Shore music? If you’re thinking about how Sam couldn’t possibly have scaled an entire mountain in time to save Frodo from being eaten by Shelob, do you feel the thrill of his last minute entrance?
I’m convinced The Lord of the Rings would not have been as well received had it been released in this more cynical time. I’ve got nothing but love for anyone who can make granular film criticism entertaining for a wide audience, but that kind of criticism is usually the result of a great deal of deep thought and a lot of careful viewings. So an audience might only see the findings of the critic, and because there’s a tendency for reviewers to accentuate the negative (it’s more fun) they come away thinking that film criticism just amount to how long your list of nitpicks is. And then they judge stories based on how many things they get wrong, not for what they do right. I’ve seen it happen to a lot of great movies.
So with Cine-Betweener we’ll try to have our cake and eat it too. We’ll talk about some great films, along with some television and books and video games, in exhaustive detail. If there’s flaws we won’t shy away, we won’t pass up a chance to poke some fun, but it’s all coming from a place of great affection.
And yes, we’ll talk about The Return of the King, though it could be a while before we get back around to it. It’s my favourite movie, so we’ve got to build up to it.
*FULL REVIEW COMING SOMEDAY*
Amusement (Humour/Elation): N/A. What little comedy there is falls pretty flat.
Appreciation (Construction): LOW. It’s a movie that was rewritten and reshot and reedited pretty much every day, so its bound to be a bit messy as a whole.
Applicability (Real World Resonance): EXTRAORDINARY. The book has a great message about fighting even in the face of despair, which only sort of makes it to the film intact. RotK mainly resonates for me because it that woke me up to what movies can be.
Adrenaline (Excitement): EXTRAORDINARY. You’ll cheer…
Anxiety (Suspense): EXTRAORDINARY. …you’ll gasp…
Affection (Emotional Impact): EXTRAORDINARY. …you’ll cry…
Awe (Visual Impact): EXTRAORDINARY. …and you’ll awe. You heard me!