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An intriguing and deeply personal film about the greatest bassist to ever live
Described by nme.com as "a four string demon", Jaco Pastorius was arguably the greatest electric bass guitarist to walk the earth since John Entwistle, and continues to hold a revered reputation amongst bassists across the world, including me. The news of a documentary and the release of the film's theatrical trailer tickled my anticipation to high levels, and I can proudly say that Robert Trujillo's 2015 passion project is a great representation of Jaco's career and personal life.
Although normal moviegoers might not appreciate Jaco as a film, it should not be viewed as a mind-boggling piece of cinema, but rather a detailed lesson on one of the most influential musicians of all time. The essential purpose of a documentary is to educate the masses on a subject not commonly known. Jaco more than delivers as a refresher for fans and as a discovery for newcomers. It touches on most of the essential topics in Jaco's life: his youth, musical career, personal life, mental disorders, and most importantly, his legacy in the musical community. This intriguing and deeply personal story is represented through a wide variety of media, including photos, archive footage, interviews, and music. You might question the over-reliance on grainy Super 8 footage, but it nonetheless provides us to hours of unseen footage and concerts, showing that the filmmakers have really done their homework and respect the material they are handling. As far as their production values go, the style of the titles and montages is gorgeous and oozing with colour, while the high resolution, low depth-of-field shots showcase a level of professionalism for the most part.
Jaco features dozens of famous musicians that offer words on this kingpin of the electric bass, including Flea, Joni Mitchell, Herbie Hancock and many more. Although the filmmakers fail to capitalise on the big-name bassists, such as Sting, Bootsy Collins, Geddy Lee and Victor Wooten, the undeniable influence of Jaco reverentially acknowledged by these musicians is humbling to listen to, propelling your appreciation of him even further. Moreover, the people who were most important in Jaco's life and/or those who knew him best are given longer amounts of screen time, and rightly so; the raw authenticity with which they describe Jaco and his demise propel the emotion of the film.
No discussion of Jaco would be complete without mentioning its soundtrack, primarily (and appropriately) comprised of music composed and performed by Jaco himself. While the occasional leitmotifs from the soprano saxophone and the bass guitar harmonics feel a bit too monotonous, it is a very small complaint, because the symphonic-like arrangement of Jaco's countless compositions throughout the film is so intelligent and mathematical, and it is impossible not to feel chills when you hear the deus-like virtuosity of Jaco's playing. Coincidentally, the best Jaco compositions are the ones that are utilised the best in the film, such as Continuum, Portrait of Tracy, Donna Lee and Come On, Come Over, all of which happen to be from his eponymous debut album.
We might view films as a means of escape and entertainment, but the really good ones are ones that manage to both distract and educate us. Jaco perfectly achieves both of these objectives, and while it is not as jaw-dropping as Whiplash, it is the perfect medium to transform anyone into a fan of Jaco Pastorius, a unique, tormented and unforgettable individual who reinvented the electric bass the same way Jimi Hendrix did with the guitar.
One of the biggest regrets I hold to this day is not having seen The Good, The Bad and The Ugly many years ago. I've been well aware of its revered reputation amongst moviegoers, but I had no idea just how mesmerising it is to watch, no matter who you are or what you know about cinema, nor how quickly it would pop into my list of perfect movies.
Set in the unforgiving environments of New Mexico, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly tracks the three eponymous bounty hunters racing to find Confederate gold. The narrative is original, unpredictable, and meticulously constructed throughout the three- hour runtime. The context of the American Civil War is used as a setting rather than a subject so we can focus on the story. The script, bereft of dialogue in most places, slowly builds up to one of the best endings in all of cinema. Picture a desolate cemetery with the three leads in a tense Mexican standoff, contrasted by Ennio Morricone's blazing score, and polished by a memorable quote - "You see, in this world, there's two kinds of people, my friend: Those with loaded guns and those who dig. You dig."
Despite the language barriers between the American actors and the Italian crew, coupled with Leone's alleged perfectionism, he executes his vision to perfection, utilising a wide variety of camera angles and real locations to further captivate the audience. However, Clint Eastwood (The Good), Lee Van Clef (The Bad) and Eli Wallach (The Ugly) combine Leone's direction with their own aptitude in acting to elevate the material. Leone veteran Ennio Morricone establishes himself as a god in film scoring, combining conventional instruments with whistling, gunfire and the iconic two-note whistled motif that forever changed film music.
If there's one thing I'll remember The Good, The Bad and The Ugly for, its the enormous similarity it bears to the work of one of my biggest filmmaking idols: the self-professed, highly knowledgeable and irrepressible Quentin Tarantino. It's easy to see how the smooth dialogue, punctiliously crafted tension, genius orchestration of music, varied cinematography and the overall epic and grandiose experience of this movie are replicated effectively in films like Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill and Inglorious Basterds. I should also mention how The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, like Tarantino's films, instigates almost every type of response from the audience, including laughter, anger, anxiety, confusion, etc. Tarantino sure wasn't joking around when he declared The Good, The Bad and The Ugly as "the greatest achievement in the history of cinema".
Trois couleurs: Bleu (1993)
A cerebral, poetic and misty experience
I don't think I can emphasise how much I adore world cinema, an innocent pleasure vindicated by the 1993 French film Three Colours: Blue. Starring Juliette Binoche, the film treats us to a dreamy snapshot into human remembrance and existence, forcing us to meditate on our own experiences of life. The intelligence and reverie that Three Colours: Blue exhibits should convince anyone how world cinema, dare I say it, is superior to most of the films produced by Hollywood these days.
Although I hate the fact that years of English and Drama studies have hardwired my brain to view everything as symbolically as possible, I will admit that the emblems and symbols presented in the film are simply astounding. What is particularly enticing is director Krzysztof Kieślowski's ability to utilise symbols in not only objects and locations, but in film techniques as well. The smooth tripod movements and natural lighting emphasise our stability as observers of Julie's story. I don't intend to bore you with the multitude of symbols in this film, but I will mention perhaps one of the most memorable scenes in the film. As Julie swims through the ghostly blue waters of the pool, her introspection brings her to one of the core messages of the film - no matter how hard we try to suppress bad memories, we are inevitably confronted and challenged by our past.
Now, allow me to examine the story without a gratuitous analysis of symbolism that could make me sound all too posh. I think the film has a strong opening that is laden with mystery and coldness that conveys how we are both observers and participants of the narrative. Julie's journey throughout Paris brought me back a feast of memories, ranging from the solitude within cafés, to inhaling the sights and sounds of Parisan streets, and ascending through the labyrinthine staircases of apartments. I should also mention that the relationship between the story and soundtrack cleverly represents the various psychological states of Julie, with the lonely piano phrases emphasising her isolation, while the pan-flute of the busker symbolises the mystery surrounding life.
Although I applaud the filmmakers' exploration of issues such as solitude and suicide, the biggest let-down for me was the fact that the film had a slow pace despite its 94 minute runtime. However, if you consider yourself to be a patient movie goer, this shouldn't be an issue for you. Despite this small crack in the armour, I was impressed with the cerebral, poetic and misty experience of watching Three Colours: Blue, and I found it to be a good film to end the week with.
Dirty Harry (1971)
A superb and gratifying thriller
There's an explanation as to why everybody names the seventies as the coolest decade of the 20th century, and one of those reasons is the 1971 film Dirty Harry. Of course, everyone knows this is the movie where a younger Clint Eastwood utters the iconic question, "Do you feel lucky, punk?" If you watch the whole film, you will find that this is the tip of a much bigger iceberg manifested as a superb and gratifying thriller.
Starring as the irrepressible, cold and calculating Harry Callahan, Eastwood snatches the show and beckons us to follow him throughout the film. He exerts a commanding presence with his trademark swagger from beginning to end, in spite of the physical, moral and emotional hurdles thrown at him. If you haven't guessed it already, Dirty Harry is a character study, and has us rooting for Harry for the entire 102 minutes. Speaking of plot, I have to applaud the sagacious screenplay. Sure, the premise of a detective chasing a serial killer is simple, but that doesn't prevent the story from being engaging and above all, fun. You are definitely eager to see the son-of-a-bitch get defeated, but you are also surprised by the movie's investigation into the morality of the law itself. It's not as meditative as Citizen Kane, but the film is nonetheless one of the most intelligent action thrillers I've seen so far.
Dirty Harry also boasts a tinkling score from the genius composer Lalo Schifrin, who is undeniably one of the greatest composers still walking the planet. While it's easy to see how other films have parodied the upbeat rhythms and suave harmonies that define his music, Schifrin's soundtrack doesn't distract the plot or character development, a directorial choice that I am a staunch supporter of.
However, the film does suffer from amateur cinematography and lighting, along with a villain who failed to intimidate the audience as much as Darth Vader, the Joker or Hannibal Lecter. The frequent placement of Scorpio in dimly-lit locations, to me, felt like a cheap way of symbolising his malevolent nature. Luckily, this flaw fades like a dwindling ray, as it becomes clear how Dirty Harry is the OG for other 20th century action flicks like Lethal Weapon, Die Hard and Speed. This, coupled with the other achievements of the film, vindicates Dirty Harry's reputation as one of the greatest action thrillers we've seen so far. It may not be able to surpass other classics like The Godfather: Part II or Lawrence of Arabia, but that doesn't detract from its stem-winding cinematic power.
Paths of Glory (1957)
A multilayered and candid portrait of war
The expression "two for one" summarises my experience of Stanley Kubrick's anti-war masterpiece Paths of Glory, a work from a cinematic maestro examining the multitude of issues that plagued World War I. Sure, the film is a great history lesson, but it also highlights the origins of Kubrick's directorial style, and how it has also educated cinema for the last 58 years in a profound way. In the words of Steven Spielberg, "when you look at Paths of Glory, every sequence hammers its points home, but within every sequence, the filmmaking is delicate, subtle and gentle almost."
Before Kubrick's idiosyncratic and perfectionist nature was highlighted in his later works, such as The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut, the subtlety, perception and imperturbability he applied to his direction is in full bloom. We are constantly reminded how we are observers to the tragedy of events, instanced by the going-over-the-top scenes and arguments between Kirk Douglas' Colonel Dax and the pompous generals. The impeccable composition and lighting of the cinematography highlights Kubrick's undying attention to technicality, and also sheds light on the influence of his background in photography.
However, the sound design of the film is particularly enticing, with the rhythms of machine gun fire and legatos of whistles providing a haunting soundtrack in its own right. When actual music does occur, the symbolism is retained, as shown by the mocking juxtaposition between snare drum ostinatos and marching generals. I'm sure that I'm not alone in my view that Stanley Kubrick is the director to learn from when it comes down to solely technique.
Although the dialogue in Paths of Glory tends to be wearisome and slowly articulated, I should remind myself that the film does depict the prosaic nature of war, and that we are observers of the events, be they snappy or sluggish. The story touches on a wide variety of topics surrounding the Allied war effort, including the persuasive yet delusional behaviour of the generals and the suicidal nature of trench warfare. However, what separates Paths of Glory from other war films is its ability to simultaneously examine law and justice, and therefore bolster its educational power.
Although Paths of Glory is an unconcealed constituent from the Criterion Collection, evidenced by its artistic, symbolic and periodic features, it is nonetheless a multilayered and candid portrait of war that still maintains its relevance and watchability almost six decades from its release. It's easy to see how both history documentaries and other film directors have tried and failed to replicate the work of the integral film genius known as Stanley Kubrick.
Blue Ruin (2013)
A great piece of independent filmmaking
Blue Ruin taught me that young filmmakers like myself can learn just as much from indie films as much as they can from big-budget classics. This 2013 thriller reminds us that you can still produce a film with great visuals and a gripping story, even without a $100 million budget or a diverse soundtrack. Described by MTV.com as "the perfect example of what crowdfunding can achieve", this film may not appeal to all viewers, but it is still a great piece of independent filmmaking.
The story follows scavenger Dwight Evans, played by the film's producer Macon Blair, on the hunt for the man who murdered his parents. Although the concept is not the most original I've encountered, the actual narrative of the film is nonetheless engaging, and demands the attention of the audience. The film borrows the suspenseful tonality from other acclaimed low-budget gems like Memento and No Country For Old Men, and presents us with a film that exhibits both familiarity and novelty in a canny fashion, reminding us that showing is always better than telling. I should also mention that the dialogue is absolutely minimal, exacerbating the tension already present, and highlighting writer/director Jeremy Saulnier's insightful approach towards story. Although it's a common technique utilised by indie filmmakers, it's a testament to the practical and astute nature of the filmmakers.
If there's one thing I'll remember Blue Ruin for, it's the astoundingly gorgeous visuals achieved by Saulnier himself. From the very first shot, both the cinematography and lighting are absolutely flawless, and do what few films do - balance technicality with artistry. Moreover, the film exhibits a really clever colour coding system; the eponymous colour of blue is associated with Dwight, but as the story progresses, the shift to a murkier colour palette is a sign of the psychological change going on within Dwight.
Although Blair's performance as Dwight did not impress me as much as those of the other cast members, I feel that this is a small complaint. There's no denying that Blue Ruin is a decorous movie, but it didn't blow me away like other small films have in the past, such as Whiplash, Reservoir Dogs or Memento. Indie filmmaking can be an acquired taste, and its sparse and stealthy style might not appeal to mainstream viewers. Despite these cracks in the armour, the film is nevertheless one that exerts authority with silence.
Ne le dis à personne (2006)
A rushed attempt at Hitchcockian cinema
I've always found mystery thrillers to be hit or miss, and sadly, Tell No One falls into the latter category. I will admit that the 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and the intriguing premise of a widower rediscovering the presence of his wife did seduce me into watching it. However, if you're picky when it comes to story and style, then your engagement in this 2007 French mystery flick will potentially slope down.
In terms of story, I was disappointed that the tension and emotion that was exhibited in the first 20 minutes mysteriously disappeared like the mist of a lake. Although it can be easy to turn your brain off and just watch the goddamn movie, I could ignore neither the weak power of the plot, nor the same thought that circled around my brain - "I've seen this happen a million times before". The film feels like a rushed attempt at Hitchcockian cinema, which taught me an important lesson - there's nothing wrong with drawing inspiration from the greats, but don't rip off of them, as you'll strip your source material of its honour in the process. Although I failed to connect with the plot, at least it wasn't as infuriatingly terrible as any of M. Night Shyamalan's films.
As far as direction goes, director Guillaume Canet's analysis of shame and secrecy did not shine across to me, and it quickly became clear to me that the film is like any other generic Hollywood offering, except in the French language. It's just entertaining fluff as far as I'm concerned. The film lacks the ravishing visuals of other French films like Amelie or Three Colours: Blue. However, I will give Canet credit for having a sophisticated and eclectic choice of music in the film, ranging from Otis Redding to Jeff Buckley, and even U2.
Straight Outta Compton (2015)
A hardcore and truthful story
My fascination with rap artists like NWA has been reignited for good by the highly anticipated Straight Outta Compton, which promised to deliver a hardcore and truthful story of one of the most well-known rap groups of all time. My expectations generated by the trailer were not let down, with F. Gary Gray's memorable biopic hitting on all the elements, including the iconic rap numbers, police brutality, and the personal lives of the rappers.
The principal strength of Straight Outta Compton is its sporadic portrayal of scenes that add to the historicity of the film. The rapping scenes are cool and drive the energetic nature of the film, forcing you to bob your head to the beat, or in my case, rap along to the lyrics. We are subtly reminded of the notion that "our art is a reflection of our reality", and fortunately, the message doesn't wear out its welcome.
The scenes in which the police arrest the rappers for no good reason are portrayed in a grizzly and spine-chilling fashion, especially if you consider how police brutality continues to stain American society. However, in a similar fashion, one of the most memorable scenes for me personally, is when Ice Cube demolishes Bryan's office, enraged that he has not been paid his money, yet despite this barbaric act, Bryan still operates as Cube's manager. Holding my breath as the scene unfolded, I was jolted not only by the foreshadowing of Jerry Heller's deviousness, but how the unscrupulous nature of the music distribution/copyright industry is an alarming reality. Speaking of Ice Cube, the decision to cast O'Shea Jackson Jr. as his own father was a decision that paid off immensely, as the actor brings an enormous amount of veracity to his character you don't often find in cinema.
While the story and ideas of Straight Outta Compton are interesting, there a few flaws hidden in the script's nooks and crannies. In addition to the worrisome runtime (2 hours 30 minutes), the engagement starts to dwindle during the more monotonous conversations. I also feel like the whole subplot of Eazy-E dying of HIV received too much attention, with its sentimental tonality betraying the passion that is present in the first half. Although the editing makes you feel like a participant in the conversations, the overall cut of the film feels like a tender, well cooked rack of lamb that still has a bit of fat that could have been trimmed off. While the filmmakers' difficulty in achieving a steady pace is noticeable, the themes, characterisation and historical weight more than compensate for that, cementing its reputation as one of the best rap films history has seen so far.
The Lobster (2015)
A quirky and playful yet despicable comedy
I never really thought about how film has the power to translate extreme theatrical styles and ideas onto the big screen, until I watched The Lobster. Borrowing heavily from Absurdism, this science fiction artwork from Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos is disguised as a quirky and playful yet despicable comedy that presents a relevant commentary on relationships in the world in which we live. It does so in an original fashion that is becoming exceedingly rare in modern cinema.
Let's place ourselves in the familiar situation of the not-too distant dystopian future, and imagine that we are imprisoned in a remote hotel, and if we fail to find a suitable romantic partner in 45 days, we are turned into an animal of our own choosing. This is an idea that sounds both interesting and frightening at the same time, but is without doubt innovative, as is the rest of the narrative. The plot is unpredictable and expertly paced, and balances moments of shock and anguish with spasms of rupturing laughter. If I mention any in this review, I will have made the same mistake as the movie's trailer did, and that is reveal too much of the film. What the trailer doesn't reveal is the enormous complexity of the film's message; neither side (being in a relationship versus being single) is an ideal side, and that the real nature of society is not restricted to black and white.
For a film with a budget of just over $8 million, the film boasts an ensemble cast that takes the wheel of this film with little effort. The residents at the hotel include Ben Winshaw (Skyfall and Perfume) and John C. Reilly (Step Brothers and Guardians of the Galaxy), while the rebels hiding in the woods include Léa Seydoux (Spectre and Mission Impossible IV) and Rachel Weisz (The Mummy and The Fountain). Most of these unnamed characters support the protagonist David, played by an unrecognisable Colin Farrell, whose character development propels the film even further.
In terms of execution, the cinematography is exquisitely composed, and is complemented by the bleak colour palette. Returning to the sci-fi features of the film, I applaud Lanthimos's choice to employ normal locations such as hotels, woods and cities to show how the possibility of a dystopian future is very real and very imminent. However, I feel that he may have indulged too heavily in the usage of slow-motion, and the recurrence of the same piece of music quickly wore out its welcome. Upon further reflection, this technique not only symbolises the cyclical nature of the world portrayed in the film, but dodges a few of nasty entanglements associated with copyrighted music. Overall, The Lobster, while undoubtedly eccentric and esoteric, was quite enjoyable to watch in my opinion. Having seen it in the cinema, I was initially confounded as to how many people (mostly contumelious seniors) complained about it and/or walked out. However, that did not ruin my own experience of watching the film; a sign of a very good film.
When a highly anticipated blockbuster is around the corner, I inevitably find myself prowling the cinema in order to unearth the truth for myself. Spectre was my second most anticipated movie of 2015, narrowly beaten by Star Wars: The Force Awakens, with trailers that indicated that this would be a great movie. My decision to ignore the "mixed or average reviews" of Spectre was a move that paid off, considering how great my experience with this film was.
Considering how awesome and fun the film is, there are only a few negatives to point out. Sam Smith's title song is abysmal and on par with some of the songs from the Roger Moore Era. In addition to the minimal appearance of Monica Belluci's character, I was really disappointed by the handling of Oscar winner Christoph Waltz in the role of Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Although Waltz gives a performance akin to his role in Inglorious Basterds, he is let down by weak dialogue. As summed by Bond, "the only thing more painful than torture is listening to you talk".
However, most of these flaws are quite forgivable, as the the overall story and script of Spectre is surprisingly great. I disagree with the assertion that the script is a huge letdown; I found it to be concise, eloquent and humorous. What elevates Spectre is its ability to balance its gritty action and tone with genuinely humorous repartee. The most memorable punchline is when C, played by Andrew Scott (who borrows from his performance as Moriarty in Sherlock), states that "M stands for Moron", to which Ralph Fiennes' character responds, "Now we know what C stands for". In addition to his ability to have fun, Sam Mendes' clever direction is also evidenced by his aptitude in achieving great performances, symbolism and a smooth round-the-world tour. I should also mention that Spectre is the jackpot of nods to almost every previous entry in the Bond canon, and handles all these references in an intelligent fashion.
As far as performances go, Daniel Craig never disappoints in the role of 007, and brings out the humour, acumen and vulnerability that none of the previous Bonds have been able to achieve. His support trio (M, Q and Moneypenny) are at their best, especially when they all work as a team to aid Bond in the final act. Dr. Madeline Swann, played by the irrepressible Léa Seydoux, is sexy, smart, sassy, and everything a great Bond girl should be, while simultaneously bringing raw emotion and complexity that makes her an overall strong character, regardless of her gender. One of the most memorable characters in the film is Mr. Hinx, played by Dave Bautista, fresh off Guardians of the Galaxy. Although he is clearly a modern-day Oddjob, he also reminds us of the T-800, with his brutish penchant for violence complemented by his silence, striking fear into the hearts of both Bond and the audience.
Exquisitely shot by Interstellar cinematographer Hoyte van Hoteyma, the visual representation of the action and drama in Spectre is close to perfection. The opening tracking shot throughout Mexico City is so bloody brilliant, that if CinemaSins were reviewing this film, they would remove several sins just for that one shot. The action in Spectre is enormously fun, and makes great usage of its $300 million budget. I'm not sure if Spectre is better than Casino Royale or even Skyfall, but it is supremely better than Quantum of Solace. Considering how much of a ball I had while watching the film, this film ranks high on my list of films that critics got wrong.