THE CINEMA FIX PRESENTS – TWELVE FAVOURITE TV SHOWS OF 2019!
Bit late with this one, but following on from my twelve favourite films of 2019, here are the twelve favourite television shows I watched. I must admit I am still way behind on many AMAZON shows and don’t have APPLE TV+ or DISNEY +, so there’s probably loads of good TV stuff I have missed. For comparison I include last year’s favourites here:
FAVOURITE TWELVE TV SHOWS OF 2018
Atlanta (2018) – Season 2 – Fox
Billions (2018) – Season 4 – Showtime / Sky Atlantic
Black Mirror (2017) – Season 4 – Netflix
Bodyguard (2018) – BBC
The Deuce (2018) – Season 2 – HBO – Sky Atlantic
The Handmaid’s Tale (2018) – Season 2 – Hulu / Channel 4
Inside No. 9 (2018) – Season 4 – BBC
Killing Eve (2018) – Season 1 – BBC
Patrick Melrose (2018) – Showtime / Sky Atlantic
Vanity Fair (2018) – ITV
A Very English Scandal (2018) – BBC
FAVOURITE TWELVE TV SHOWS OF 2019
Now, this was TOUGH! Television productions just got better and better! I cannot believe I had to leave the following off the list. Yet, here are the honourable mentions: Afterlife (Season 1), Billions (Season 4), Black Mirror (Season 5), Euphoria (2019), Ghosts (2019), The Handmaid’s Tale (Season 3), Line of Duty (Season 5), The Loudest Voice (2019), My Brilliant Friend (2018), Ozark (Season 2), Stranger Things (Season 3); and the baffling genius of Watchmen (2019). But I decided to limit myself to twelve favourite shows and here they are:
CHERNOBYL (2019) – HBO / SKY ATLANTIC
“… an incredible TV drama. This tragic event teaches us to never take anything for granted. We have built our own gallows.”
DARK (2019) – SEASON 2 – NETFLIX
“… confused in a good way and totally immersed in the Tenebrae. You will be lost — searching for the light — yet you will be astounded too .”
ESCAPE AT DANNEMORA (2018) – SHOWTIME / SKY ATLANTIC
“… These are not likeable characters, but the Showtime production delivers as compelling a character drama as you’re likely to see all year.”
FLEABAG (2019) – SEASON 2 – BBC
“… Waller-Bridge takes familiar themes and situations and spins comedic and dramatic gold from them. Deserves all the praise and awards going.”
FOSSE / VERDON (2019) – FX / BBC
“… If you’re interested in the life and work of Fosse and Verdon then you will absolutely love this warts and all biopic. Rockwell and Williams are incredible.”
GAME OF THRONES (2019) – SEASON 8 – HBO / SKY ATLANTIC
“… despite the incredibly disappointing final episode, it was all about the journey rather the final destination. Winter has come and winter has gone and it’s one I will never forget!”
IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA (2019) – SEASON 13 – FX / NETFLIX
“… The season takes joy in referencing the #MeToo and Time’s Up and Inception. The latter becoming a hilarious meta-textual delight. By the thirteenth episode,I had thoroughly enjoyed the scatter-gun chaos!”
MINDHUNTER (2019) – SEASON 2 – NETFLIX
“… with gripping narratives, great direction, memorable performances and the production team’s accurate eye for period detail in mind, I just did not want the latest season ofto end.”
SUCCESSION (2019) – SEASON 2 – HBO / SKY ATLANTIC
“… Ultimately, this is Shakespearean television of the highest quality. Succession (2019), is what we would get if Billy Wilder did TV.”
UNBELIEVABLE (2019) – NETFLIX
“… thoughtful, suspenseful and, at times, heartfelt drama. It highlights the shocking nature of sexual crimes against women and the very different ways police departments handle such situations.”
THE VIRTUES (2019) – CHANNEL 4
“… a more individual focused, personal and painful character study. Stephen Graham is absolutely amazing as the character of Joseph.”
WHEN THEY SEE US (2019) – NETFLIX
“… Beautifully written, acted and directed, this is an incredible work of television. It combines both a fascinating style and a brutal vision of the struggle of these characters experience.”
Produced by: Debra Martin Chase, Daniela Taplin Lundberg, Gregory Allen Howard
Screenplay: Kasi Lemmons, Gregory Allen Howard
Cast: Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, Janelle Monae, Clarke Peters, Zackary Momoh, Vondie Curtis-Hall etc.
**CONTAINS HISTORICAL SPOILERS**
With $100 million being spent on the film Midway (2019), which I haven’t seen, and $160 million being spent on The Irishman (2019), which I have, it’s kind of shame that a way bigger story like that of Harriet Tubman is only afforded a mid-budget tribute adaptation. Because, even if this story is only 10% true, Harriet Tubman’s character deserves so much more. In fact, I am shocked that it has taken this long for her achievements to reach the cinema screen. Especially because we had to endure another rendition of Lincoln (2012), in Spielberg’s recent ponderous epic.
That isn’t to say that old Abraham isn’t deserving of praise. I’m just an ignorant Englander, but Harriet Tubman, as represented by Cynthia Erivo’s sterling performance and Kasi Lemmon’s and Gregory Allen Howard’s fizzing screenplay, is a tour-de-force encapsulation of empowerment. That isn’t to say that the film isn’t without flaws. Indeed, this is an amazing story which is professionally told. However, it seems to have been short-changed on budget and marketing possibilities here in the U.K. I mean Frozen 2 (2019) is on about a million screens, whereas I struggled to find one for this film.
Araminta “Minty” Ross was born in 1820 and into the slavery that blighted the “United” States. Eventually this humanitarian stain would lead to civil war in the U.S.A and the film charts Minty’s legacy from slavery to escape to freedom fighter, during the build up to this fierce conflict. Her character is one of guts, determination, fight and she also has the gift for second sight. Indeed, if the period setting wasn’t so well evoked, you could be mistaken for feeling like the film was using the beats of a superhero origins film.
But that is what Harriet Tubman becomes; a superhero and saviour to her family, friends, slaves and the abolitionist movement as a whole. A superhero needs a nemesis though and white slavers have now become the new Nazis. They are the bad guys and villains we boo and hiss and hate. Here they are represented by Joe Alwyn’s Gideon Brodess. While not as charismatically dastardly as Tarantino’s Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), he remains a benign, matter-of-fact vision of evil. Perhaps, the brutality could have been heightened, but this is more of an inspirational and empowering tale, rather than one that wallows in the misery and genius of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave (2013).
Overall, the film is a fine tribute to an incredible human being. There are some issues in the telling of the story. It feels rushed like a “greatest hits” package. I mean I just wish they could have developed a longer television series for this character or given it the running time Harriet’s plaudits deserved. Plus, some of the direction is a little flat in places. Where suspense and fear could have been ratcheted up a bit, in certain scenes Lemmons rushes through them. Nevertheless, I was thoroughly absorbed by the subject matter, themes and character throughout. Special praise goes to star-in-the-making Cynthia Erivo too. Via Harriet Tubman’s incredible actions Erivo has broken out in more ways than one.
While we all love a good proper feature film containing one continuous narrative, the anthology or portmanteau film has thrown up some fine cinematic entertainment over the years. Generally, an anthology film can be described as a collection of works with a linked theme, genre, style and author etc.
Thus, in my occasional Six of the Best series I have decided to pick some favourite ones. To make it more interesting I have chosen them from different genres. Otherwise, I would have just chosen all horror films. So, here are six of the film anthology films worth watching.
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS (2018) – WESTERN
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a mischievous alchemy of stories. Here, the Coen Brothers reach into their cinematic bag of tricks to deliver an entertaining and memorable collection of characters, songs, bloody death, jokes, pathos, landscapes, snappy dialogue, dark humour and action. Coen’s films often improve with each viewing as their work is so full of stylish depth and this is no different. Quite often, you’re laughing so much you miss the philosophical happenstance which is occurring in many of these fine stories.
DEAD OF NIGHT (1945) – HORROR
It seems sacrilege not to include the likes of George Romero’s Creepshow (1982) or one of Amicus’ unhinged collections such as Dr Terror’s House of Horror (1965). But, having watched this classic recently I can certainly say it has some brilliant and scary stories which stand the test of time. Full to the brim with the cream of British acting, writing and directing talent, the standout tale is Michael Redgrave’s troubled ventriloquist, although the whole film is a nightmarish treat for horror fans.
FANTASIA (1940) – ANIMATION
With the current trend for Disney to remake their back catalogue as “live” action films in mind, I very much doubt they will doing this with Fantasia. Conceived as a short to re-invigorate the slowing career of Mickey Mouse, the film is unlike any other Disney have made. It consists of experimental, non-narrative and hallucinogenic vignettes mainly set to wondrous classical music. A masterpiece of hand-drawn animation, style, colour and design, it’s certainly not just for kids. I recall many images giving me nightmares when saw it as a child and it remains a powerful cinematic work to this day.
NIGHT ON EARTH (1991) – COMEDY
I was going to choose Woody Allen’s erotic sketch film, Everything You Wanted to Ask About Sex but were Afraid to Ask (1972), for the comedy section. However, I decided to select a more deadpan and character oriented film. What better then, than a Jim Jarmusch curiosity. I love the concept of the film as Jarmusch sets several themes and parameters in place. There are five slice-of-life vignettes set on the same night in the cities of Helsinki, New York, Rome, Paris and Los Angeles, all starring some of Jarmusch’s favourite actors. Relationships and quirky interactions between cab driver and passenger are explored in the filmmakers’ inimitable style.
PULP FICTION (1994) – CRIME
Quentin Tarantino’s second feature film remains a fresh masterpiece of colliding gangsters, uber-cool hitmen, fixers, boxers, sexual deviants, femme fatales, drug addicts and general criminal types. With an over-lapping timeline that kind of does a figure of eight, we get stories ranging from a couple robbing a diner; a boxer double-crossing a crime boss; and an employee almost killing his boss’s wife. Tarantino breathes life into the crime genre and the stock pulp characters with one of the greatest screenplays ever written; full of incredible dialogue, startling twists and a brilliant ensemble cast.
WILD TALES (2014) – DRAMA
Damián Szifron conjures up a delectable and devilish set of stories mostly based around the themes of obsession and revenge. It opens with a breath-taking little prologue featuring a horrific incident on a plane and culminates in arguably the wildest tale when the Bride goes on the rampage at her wedding. Everyone’s favourite Argentinian actor Ricardo Darin pops up in the middle as an explosives expert who enacts revenge on City Parking fascists. I love the whole thing as the film delivers a full deck of twists that master of the macabre Roald Dahl would be proud of.
by: M. Night Shyamalan, Jason Blum, Marc Bienstock, Ashwin Rajan
by: M. Night Shyamalan
James McAvoy, Bruce Willis, Anya Taylor-Joy, Sarah Paulson, Samuel L. Jackson
Music by: West Dylan Thordson
**CONTAINS SPOILERS FROM SHYAMALAN’S PRIOR FILMS**
M. Night Shyamalan is arguably one of the most critically divisive directors working today. Not because his films are particularly controversial, but mainly because he is a risk-taker that tests the boundaries of genre expectations. He has so many different ideas and concepts that quite often his movies have back-fired spectacularly, however, when he gets it right his genre films are highly entertaining and compelling. Films such as: The Sixth Sense (1999), Unbreakable (2000), Signs (2002), and The Village (2004), were for me, brilliant genre films full of invention, suspense and wicked twists. Many people felt The Village stretched the limits of suspending disbelief, but it was a masterpiece compared to his filmic failures like: The Lady in the Water (2006), The Happening (2008) and The Last Airbender (2010).
I missed seeing the apparent disaster that was After Earth (2013), yet it was opined that Shyamalan returned to some essence of form with the horror film The Visit (2015). However, I still felt there were some dodgy creative decisions in that, such as the story-filler-white-middle-class-rapping kid in amidst a creepy thriller. Yet, with Split (2016), Shyamalan was back to his best, weaving an exploitational B-movie kidnap-plot with a searing psycho-performance from James McAvoy. The ending, which found Anya Taylor-Joy’s ultra resilient Casey fighting back against McAvoy’s twenty-plus split-personality maniac, then brilliantly linked the film to Shyamalan’s Unbreakable (2000). Therefore Glass (2019), becomes the third part of an unlikely trilogy; three films where Shyamalan strives to create his own universe and mythology within a more realistic superhero and super-villain world.
Glass starts three weeks after the end of Split and opens with a terrific and bruising encounter between McEvoy’s dominant “Beast” personality and David Dunn’s (Bruce Willis) vigilante, daubed “The Overseer” by the media. Captured by authorities, the two are locked up and analyzed by Sarah Paulson’s seemingly sympathetic psychiatrist, Dr Ellie Staple. Enter Samuel L. Jackon’s Elijah Price, who is ALSO being held at the same mental health facility. I mean what could go wrong? Does the catatonic Price have villainous plans for The Horde and The Overseer? What do you think?
What I love about Shyamalan’s screenwriting, and this is something which he could equally be criticized for, is you can hear the cogs of contrivance creaking with every plot turn. Yet his ideas really capture your imagination and you genuinely want to know what happens next. Personally, as a fan of say Agatha Christie, I love theatrical exposition and clear “rules-of-the-world” mechanics. Shyamalan gets his three big-hitters in the same place and cinematic fireworks, however unlikely and full of plot-holes it may be, ensue. Woven within the fights, monologues and narrative misdirections are very clever meta-textual references to comic-book structures. This adds a welcome context to the denouement, which contains at least two incredible revealing twists.
Ultimately, I feel, unlike certain critics, that Glass is a fun and entertaining end to the trilogy. Yes, it tests the believability grid but Shyamalan must be applauded for striving, once again, toward some form of originality within his chosen genre. It arguably goes down a deep rabbit hole at the end which is hard to get out of; but the impressive cast keep you in the light for the most part. James McAvoy is simply, once again, outstanding. Why hasn’t he been nominated for an Oscar? Who knows! Jackson and Willis are always solid performers, although I felt that Dunn’s character was slightly thrown away at the end. Anya Taylor-Joy also stood out and she is going to be a big star if she carries on delivering wide-eyed and steely performances such as these. Thus, Shyamalan gives us another big hit and something very different from the Marvel and DC superhero universes; something altogether more human.
Produced by: Kathleen Kennedy, Allison Shearmur. Simon Emanuel
Written by: Jonathan Kasdan, Lawrence Kasdan
Based on Characters: by George Lucas
Starring: Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Thandie Newton, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Joonas Suotamo, Paul Bettany
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
Anyone for another round of Star Wars bingo?
In a particularly biting satirical swipe at George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, the South Park episodes Free Hat (Season 6) and the latter episode The China Probrem (Season 12), criticized the filmmakers for digitally altering their beloved Indiana Jones films on re-re-re-re-release. The China Probrem took the barbs even further (too far one could argue) by showing a lascivious Lucas/Spielberg raping Indiana Jones. I mean, Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skulls (2008) wasn’t great but to suggest its sexual assault on one’s childhood memories and a beloved character did have me spewing out my metaphorical popcorn in shock.
Moreover, South Park further lambasted the avarice of corporate culture, specifically Disney, and their purchase of Lucasfilm in the excellent episode from Season 16 Obama Wins! All this proves is that controversial and offensive satire cannot and will not change the Panzer-like “progress” of the Mickey Mouse machine. They own many of the biggest film franchises and absolutely will not stop until they have our money. What can you do? Do you rebel against the Disney Death Star or do you join the dark side? After all, it could be fun.
Indeed, after all the apparent production shenanigans reported on the set of Solo (2018) – notably the “sacking” of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller – I can advise that this latest Star Wars prequel is a lot of fun. That darned elephant in the room still haunts the film though and that is the nature of prequels. Whatever danger you put your protagonists in you know they are going to survive; thus, tension is very often lost within the action and drama. Having said that Star Wars fans will have a lot of joy ticking off HOW Han Solo’s early life began and how he originated into one of the best characters of the whole science-fantasy series.
Characterisation is in fact one of the strengths of the film in my view. Solo comes from sewers of a guttural world and chances and gambles his way through the story but with strong motivation. His devotion to Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) is a powerful spine with which to hang the excellent action set-pieces on. Their romance and the chemistry between Clarke and Ehrenreich is palpable throughout and drives the story into interesting areas. Alden Ehrenreich, I think, is a bona fide movie star. He shone in Hail Caesar (2016) and does so as Han Solo. Whatever the difficulties were on-set I think his likeability and acting style brings handsome energy and humour to the role. I especially loved the gambling-fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants nature of Solo’s character which owes much to Lucas’ original scripts.
Overall, Solo is a very entertaining join-the-dots prequel that ticks off all the by-the-numbers Star Wars scenes, tropes and characters including: the Millennium Falcon, Chewbacca, the Empire, Lando, the Kessel Run, plus many more to keep the fans happy. Lastly, Solo works very well as both an origins story and a fantastic fusion of heist and Western films. The supporting cast all deliver in a positive way, notably the charismatic Donald Glover and always reliable Woody Harrelson. While you can often see an element of chaos in certain scenes I think the steady directing hand of Ron Howard has delivered a franchise film which will safely keep Disney’s gravy train on track. In fact, both prequels have been, in my humble opinion, better than The Force Awakens (2015) and The Last Jedi (2017), because Solo (2018) and Rogue One (2016), actually have narratives which made some emotional sense.
Screenplay by: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
Based on: The Avengers by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Don Cheadle, Tom Holland, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, Dave Bautista, Zoe Saldana. Josh Brolin, Chris Pratt etc.
The reward for Marvel fans and cinemagoers committed to watching every single film – from Iron Man (2008) to Black Panther (2018) – is a gigantic, breath-taking, explosive, colourful, dark, epic, fantastical end-game blockbuster. Unless you have been stuck on a desert island or on a digital detox, Infinity War (2018) is the culmination of decades of comic-book and cinema storytelling coming to a head in one incredible feat of spectacle and super-hero conflict.
The film opens pretty much immediately after the end of Thor: Ragnarok (2017). The Titan Thanos (Josh Brolin) has hunted down Thor, Loki and the Hulk in order to obtain the Tesseract and the Infinity Stone within it. In fact, he is after all six Infinity Stones in order to gain twisted, yet in his mind, logical control over the Universe by killing half its inhabitants. Thanos’ characterization as a villain is given the most narrative power throughout and via him we get some nuance and subtext.
While brilliantly rendered, in look, by the army of special effects, and performance by Brolin, I kind of felt we were missing an element of mania and a committed statement of intent. I knew why Thanos was doing what he was doing but aside from an opening speech about destiny his mission lacked the political or social context compared to say that of Hydra from The Winter Soldier (2014) or Erik Killmonger from Black Panther (2018). Nonetheless, lack of political context is a mild gripe because spectacle in terms of power and storytelling is what Infinity War is all about.
Thanos’ quest for domination was still a pretty decent structure to hang the story beats on and the writers should be applauded for trying to create a rounded super-villain. Because, allied with the incredible set-pieces and locations across the various galaxies, a major strength of Infinity War’s screenplay was the pace, power and interplay between the multiverse of characters and plot strands which were fantastically juggled by the directorial and editorial teams. This was epic storytelling, not just in length, but in scope. As we cut between Dr Strange, Iron Man and Spiderman on their particularly deadly mission; we also cut between Thor, The Guardians of the Galaxy, Vision, Wanda the Scarlet Witch, Captain America and their respective advnetures. There are so many different elements at play there is little breathing space, yet with a whip-smart script full of one-liners any plot deficiencies are masked expertly with perpetual motion and punchlines.
Visually, the film is also extremely strong with bright funky new suits for the Hulk, Tony Stark and Peter Parker. Moreover, the locations in space and on Earth from the dark lands of Vormir to the verdant pastures of Wakanda are rendered beautifully on the screen. All manner of magical weapons, space-ships and military hardware explode and destroy and whizz-bang throughout. There is SO much crammed into the film that it’s a major coup that it worked so well. At one point I felt like I was watching three films in one echoing the great ensemble films I grew up with such as The Great Escape (1963). While the now obligatory end-game battle sequence echoed the likes of: Spartacus (1960), Braveheart (1995), The Return of the Jedi (1985) and more recently HBO’s epic Game of Thrones (2011 – )
In terms of performance it’s difficult to pick out any one stand-out as the ensemble cast were uniformly impressive. My particular favourites were Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr Strange, Chris Pratt as Peter Quill and Zoe Saldana as Gamora, all giving memorable performances. Saldana’s Gamora arguably had the most powerful moments of stillness and pathos especially in her tragic backstory. Drax (Dave Bautista) and Tom Holland’s Peter Parker nailed their comedic patter too; the former’s deadpan literalism raising many laughs throughout. I also thought the details in look and voice given to Thanos’ Black Order stood out; notably the wonderfully named Proxima Midnight (Carrie Coon) and Corvus Glaive (Michael John Shaw).
In conclusion, Avengers: Infinity War (2018) overall was spectacular blockbuster filmmaking which entertained me thoroughly for over two-and-a-half-hours. It could be argued that the army of special effects technicians, plethora of Disney and Marvel executives, array of Hollywood acting and filmmaking talent and the obscene amount of money spent has churned out YET another soulless super-hero film but wow didn’t they do it in style!!
FAMILIARITY AND NOSTALGIA IN THE FANTASY FILM GENRE
“Here you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow, and fantasy.”
― Walt Disney Company
Once upon a Time. . . four simple words which immediately conjure a whole host of possibilities and eventualities in literature and by extension, cinema. In her book A Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale, Marina Warner attests that fairy tales are “Stories that try to find the truth and give us glimpses of greater things. . . this is the principle that underlies their growing presence in writing, art and cinema.” My own personal experience growing up was of reading fairy tales, myths and legends. Indeed, such stories formed a narrative backbone to my childhood and opened my mind to all manner of worlds of monsters, magicians, Kings, Queens, dragons, spiders, ghosts, gold-haired heroines, muscular heroes, acts of love and war, epic journeys; as well as breath-taking battles and feats of unimaginable compassion and bravery.
Such an education conditioned my young mind for an array of imaginative potentialities and in later life my love of fairy tales and stories would bleed through into my love of cinema. But how does one make the leap off the page onto the screen, making that which is fantastic believable to our eyes, hearts and minds? In this article I would like to consider certain ways we have been conditioned and how storytellers develop their narratives in the fantasy genre. How does the unbelievable become believable in our minds? There are many ways in which this is achieved but I would like to focus on two methods which are familiarity and nostalgia.
How does one define fantasy cinema? One could certainly posit the notion that the fantasy genre deals with fantastic themes including: magic, the supernatural, myth, folklore, exotic worlds, and fairy tales; and for the benefit of this article can encapsulate science fiction, horror and superhero movie genres. Essentially, fantasy is that which is not of our perceived rendition of reality, enabling escape into the extraordinary. Fantasy cinema is not simply dragons and wizards but more far-reaching as their stories cast their magic from childhood to adulthood. I myself recall the day when I first saw The Wizard of Oz (1939) as Dorothy’s journey from Oz literally took my breath away. Moreover, only recently I marvelled at the fantastic images and comedy of Thor: Ragnarok (2017) on the big screen.
Lew Hunter’s book Screenwriting 434 is a fine research tool for all budding writers. He opines, “You have to make the audience care about your on-screen people and their dilemmas, and when that occurs you’ve created believable unbelievabilty. Audiences will not just get with a film that starts with what they perceive as unbelievable unbelievability.” Thus, this is an integral rule in getting the audience to suspend disbelief and come into a fantastic world. I mean for every Lord of the Rings Trilogy, which in my view brilliantly brought to life J. R. R. Tolkien’s incredible literary behemoth, you get many films which fail to achieve this. Peter Jackson obviously used, at the time, state of the art special effects to achieve his vision of the book but more important, in my view, is establishing the world and characters in the audience’s psychology and making the unbelievable believable.
As aforementioned there are many other movies which do not arguably work as fantasy films. Of course these are subjective choices but offerings such as: The Island of Dr Moreau (1996), Judge Dredd (1995), Batman and Robin (1997), Van Helsing (2004), Cat Woman (2004) The Lady in the Water (2006), Eragon (2008), Foodfight (2012), Terminator: Genisys (2015), Death-Note (2017), to name a few, could all be argued to have failed to make the unbelievable believable. Be it the poor writing, bad production choices or a lack of cogency in the presentation of the rules of their respective worlds, these are a few examples of movies which arguably did not work. But what of the films that successfully connect with our imagination. How do they achieve that?
Disney Studios has been presenting animated and live action films for close to a century now. As well as developing short animated films centred on iconic characters such as Mickey Mouse, Disney Studios used established texts too. Their first short was Little Red Riding Hood (1922) and subsequently they would win an Oscar for The Three Little Pigs (1933). Thus, the Disney template of utilising familiar stories from folklore or fairy tales was born and since then they have produced many, many such short and feature length productions such as: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Sleeping Beauty (1959) and The Little Mermaid (1989). The suspension of narrative disbelief is achieved because innately we are accustomed to the idea of talking animals or wicked witches or half-woman-half-fish characters as they were familiarised to us in infancy. Indeed, as famous fantasy writer Neil Gaiman confirms, “We encounter fairy tales as kids, in retellings or panto. We breathe them. We know how they go.” Thus, believable unbelievability is achieved due to conditioning as children with the extraordinary. Likewise, our acclimatization with commercial products when growing up, including toys such as: Lego, Transformers, Barbie and the Pixar’s ingenious Toy Story trilogy tap into this familiarity model and the child’s dream that perhaps our toys can actually come to life.
As we grow older though many of us can become cynical and lose the innocence and imagination we had when younger. Thus, the challenge for filmmakers is to make not only children but also adults believe in the fantastic and the unbelievable. One way of doing this is through nostalgia or harking back to narrative conventions established from yesteryear. Academic Frederick Jameson wrote in his seminal essay Postmodernism and Consumer Society, that society entered a key cultural period from around the 1960s onwards where modernism had given rise to postmodernism and that originality per se was being replaced by emulation; more specifically satire, parody and pastiche. He goes on to suggest “. . . individualism and personal identity is a thing of the past. . . stylistic innovation is no longer possible and all that is left is the imitate dead styles.” A cinematic element of pastiche he argues is the “nostalgia film” which consists, not of original narrative, but of film moments and narratives from the previous films.
Indeed, one of the most successful cinema franchises of all time is George Lucas’ series which began with, Star Wars (1977). While containing many original elements in regard to the fictional monsters, creatures, planets, space ships, weapons, heroes and villains it’s structurally very familiar, featuring the archetypal hero rescuing a “Princess in a Tower” narrative. Even the “Once Upon a Time. . .” like beginning is echoed in the now classic opening text: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. . .” Moreover, the expositional crawl which then follows is inspired by the early Saturday cinema sci-fi adventures such as: Flash Gordon. Lucas’ genius in using such nostalgic devices creates a clear pattern of familiarity and mental preparation for the fantasy elements yet to come in the story. Lastly, and less obvious, Star Wars also draws heavily, in terms of structure and characters, from Akira Kurosawa’s classic film Hidden Fortress (1958).
Similarly, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is equally adept at creating a magical world out of nostalgia and familiarity. The films are all structured around the school year and generally begin with an opening set-piece set in a mundane suburban area before slowly introducing the fantasy elements. Of course, some of us may not be so nostalgic for our school years but we are familiar with the educational structure. The Harry Potter books and films are a creative stroke of genius creating both emotional connections for children and adults. Children see the characters of Harry, Hermione and Ron as reflection and wish to emulate such characters; while adults can look back on their school days nostalgically and perhaps also enjoy the magical adventures from a position of halcyon positivity. What Star Wars and Harry Potter both offer is a means to project some incredibly fantastical elements but make it believable by setting their worlds in a recognizable environment such as school or through the stylistic signifiers like the opening Star Wars text.
Ultimately, most of us love reading or going to the cinema in order to be entertained and escape from our reality. However, if the writer or filmmakers have not successfully created a suspension of disbelief we as an audience will fail to enter their fantasy world. Quality writing, production design, costumes, make-up, performance are of course integral to ensuring we believe what we read and see on the screen. However, as I have attested films also work on a more psychological level of drawing us in using methods such as familiarity and nostalgia to tell their stories. We may not even be aware of this but to make the unbelievable believable it paradoxically must connect with our prior knowledge and experiences, especially those we had as children.