It’s been quite a year for the movies when you think about it, during the final gasp of the, erm ‘noughties’ we’ve had new films from the likes of Michael Mann, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, James Cameron, Sam Raimi, Pedro Almodovar, Michael Haneke, Lars Von Trier, the Coens, no less than four Soderbergh’s, a Gilliam, a Park and a Fincher. Oh, and a couple of Herzog’s. I’ve seen a cluster of my favourite films – The Godfather, The Thing, The Shining – on the big screen not to mention a whole Kubrick season all the way back in March. On the smaller screen I’ve ‘discovered’ the likes Seijun Suzuki, saw seven Mizoguchi’s, caught my first Agnes Varda and Deny Arcand films, away from the arthouse stuff I’ve have also immersed myself in some sleaze by catching up on a few unseen Lucio Fulci and Umberto Lenzi massacres, delved into the jungles of Brazilian voodoo with the work of José Mojica Marins and embarked on mini Douglas Sirk, Tarantino, Mizoguchi, Mann, Haneke and Bigelow seasons. Phew. It was the year that 3D cemented its presence in the multiplexes with Avatar and Up incorporating the technique seamlessly into the fabric of their fables and I’m certain that’s what the historians will remember of the period in years to come.
There seem to be two strands comprising this years reflections of the state of the movies in the press and blogosphere, the first to take a look at the last decade of movies such as this top 100 and this (Borat at number 2? Fuck the fuck off you obviously comment baiting manipulators) whist some podcasts have been comparing 2009 to 1999, a vintage year including as it did the return of Kubrick and Malick to the screen, innovations in the big budget area with the first explosive instalment of the depreciating Matrix series, the new Brats cementing their pedigree with the outstanding Magnolia, Election and Fight Club (hands down the definitive American film of the 1990′s?) and other innovative, intriguing gems such as Being John Malkovich, Ghost Dog, Rushmore and Office Space, genre-wise the influential Blair With Project and Sixth Sense which are both precursors of their own mini-genres, the overlooked Ravenous and the likes of All About My Mother, Open Your Eyes and Run Lola Run from the European markets. If I get the time over the next month (and given the fact I’m taking January and perhaps February off) I have no excuse not to put together a list of my personnel favourites of the,<sigh> ‘noughties’, I’ll see what I can throw together. For now though lets cast our gaze over the past twelve months and see how things turned out.
Films Of The Year
Let The Right One In - Hard to believe this came out in the UK this year isn’t it? It feels a lot older already. Not a great deal to add my previous remarks on this perfectly carved paragon of genre cinema, despite the glut of undead media chittering around the large and small screen this year Let The Right One In was one of the best films of the year, not merely the best horror themed release. It diminishes a little on the smaller screen – what doesn’t – but that frigid atmosphere endures and the fascinating relationship between the leads remains as mesmerizing as ever. I guess we’ll have the remake at some point next year, I’m more interested to see what Tomas Alfredson is going to do with the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow and Nicole Kidman in his chilly sounding follow-up. I must get round to tracking down some of his earlier work to see what it’s like.
Moon - I couldn’t summarise it any better than William Gibson: ’My favourite SF on film usually consists of brief luminous moments in what are generally rather low-budget and often actually very bad movies. The outstanding big-budget exceptions of course being Alien and Blade Runner. Duncan Jones’ Moon challenges my aesthetic of brilliant pebbles, though, because it’s so tightly and consistently excellent. It does everything I want an SF film to do, and none of the things I don’t want an SF film to do. How did *that* ever happen?’ Having just watched it again I’ll nominate Rockwell as one of the best actors of the year, he crafts not only a technically brilliant performance but also that rarest of achievements in the context of a SF movie, an incredibly emotional performance. I’ll just add that I’m so proud of the UK background to this, I hope that it stimulates a lo-fi breed of smart SF which at its best doesn’t just explore the nature and impact of technology on our culture and society but like the best SF scrutinizes that perennial question- what it means to be human.
Enter The Void - Bollocks to Antichrist, that was a reasonable movie but for a real challenge, for really testing your limits then Noé takes the prize. This still surfaces now and again, some of the frenetic imagery of the directors diseased mind has evidently burrowed into my cerebral cortex and likes to unexpectedly emerge during impromptu daydream sessions. It really was the most absorbing film I’ve seen for a long, long time, cinema as an almost fully immersive, arresting experience, I made a quip a while back about Noe getting his hands on a 3D camera (incidentally I also joked about Jodorowsky making another movie and voila) and you know what, if you are of an unusually strong constitution I think a double bill of this and Avatar would make an astonishing double bill, just as long as you had a psychiatrist on hand to manage the inevitable mental fall-out. Not to mention the mammoth running time.
A Serious Man - Brilliantly made, subtly textured, open to a panoply of interpretation depending on your idiom – A Serious Man is one of the Coen’s best films to date which is high praise indeed. I loved one thing I heard from Ethan which was along the lines of ‘I’m not sure what the prologue means or why we included it, but it would be a weaker film without it’, that’s an interesting insight into their instinctive method of film-making. At the turn of the decade there was some consternation that the brothers had seriously lost their way with the disappointing Intolerable Cruelty and excruciating The Ladykillers, as the decade closes they have delivered some of their strongest, most mature work with this and of course No Country For Old Men. I’m looking forward to a second viewing, the final scene is amongst the best and most ambiguous moments they have ever crafted.
The Hurt Locker - Action pyrotechnics for the boys, submerged allusions for the academics, the first truly great film to tackle the central conflict of the decade which serves as a great companion piece with In The Loop which almost made the cut but doesn’t quite escape its TV shackles to overwhelm Bigelow’s glorious machismo. I haven’t seen it again yet but it lingers in the memory for its fingernail shredding tension, taut construction and sly commentary that I’m certain will cement its position as the best combat movie of the year – Tarantino be damned – and an incredible skill in rendering essential the same bomb disposal set pieces with an accelerated presence of gut-wrenching fear and intensity. It might even get the Oscar.
Avatar - Far and away the technical marvel of the decade, this is the film that will map the next ten years of mainstream, big budget entertainment. I have been more than a little exasperated at the haters opinions of the film, yes it has its flaws – the score, the predictable plot and dialogue - but again I’ll reiterate the question of just what did they expect, just what planet are they living on (heh) to imagine that such a expensive project wasn’t going to have to appeal to the widest possible demographic? It’s a spectacle, it’s a visual symphony couched in traditional American genre paradigms and taken on those terms it is an awesome achievement. I chime with the opinion that whilst the Brett Ratners and Michael Bays of the industry use SFX to sell their product which are no more than marketing platforms for the associated corporate tie-ins, Cameron uses the SFX to tell the story and that is a crucial difference – it’s also slightly refreshing to see a big film that isn’t a sequel, that isn’t culled from an existing book, computer game or graphic novel franchise, or worse still from a fucking board game or fucking kids toy line.
Just to go a little pretentious for a change on a second viewing it is chock-a-block full of Cameron’s themes and tropes – the notions of motherhood (the richest being the ‘cradling’ scene toward the end), the clash of technology versus nature, the film masterfully educating its audience to its revolutionary format by incrementally acclimatizing them to the denizens and landscapes of Pandorum, all bookmarked with opening and ending imagery of a characters eyes opening, a comment on cinema if ever there was one. I am positively salivating to see what this technology can craft in the hands of the likes of Park Chan Wook or JJ Abrams once of course it becomes adopted as a de rigueur, affordable tool – can you imagine a Lynch film in such a immersive format ? For the inevitable sequel I’ll stick my neck out and predict some coverage on the future conflicts that are alluded to in the film – the wars in Venezuela and Nigeria – as well as some focus on the nature of the cloning technology, if we have become so advanced to meld alien and human DNA together then logically human cloning has already been achieved? Here’s a nice primer if you haven’t caught it yet and here is some indications of what the future holds in store for the films Blu-Ray release and 3D technology that the film heralds in a vaguely irritating but increasingly insightful interview. 3D photos? 3D TV by next Christmas? Bring it on….
Wendy & Lucy – If Fahrenheit 9/11 was the overt political movie of the decade that attacked the poisonous Neo-Con project that will define the decade then here is its more intimate, micro level companion that explores the consequences of the ideological, economic consequences of ten years of social and fiscal incompetence and corruption. In a lo-fi, verite hand-held shooting style we follow the fate of teenage runaway Wendy and her dog companion Lucy as they struggle to survive a transient, dangerous life on the road through small town rural America. Its a film about the people who slip through the cracks, whom society and the state has abandoned with wanton cruelty and indifference, a devastating simple and enormously affecting tale that punches far above its modest 80 minute run-time. Michelle Williams is proving herself as one of the more talented actresses out there at the moment, like Moon she is essentially the only character in this movie and captivatingly holds the attention of the audience all the way through to its heart breaking conclusion. An independent triumph.
Ne Touchez Pas La Hache - Jacques Rivette is probably the most ‘difficult’, the most impenetrable of the French New Wave auteurs with his four, five hour achingly slow movies of which I’ve seen about a half dozen over the past few years but this one is different, as least in length if not in his unusually mannered, austere style. The film features Gerard Depardieu’s son Guillaume (who tragically killed himself earlier this year) in the central role and is based on a novel by Balzac that concerns a doomed romance between a French general and Parisian coquette, she is trapped in a loveless marriage and the rules of society prevent the slightest hope of a successful union. Now I know how that sounds, like one of those bodice ripping yarns or Eighties UK heritage films but there is much more to it than that, it’s a very sombre, very controlled, elegantly ascetic film whose final, devastating mediation evokes the likes of Barry Lyndon. Like Lyndon it is a film rigorously structured in terms of its tone and pace, the atmosphere rendered by those choices that has haunted me since April – give it a chance if you’re in the mood for something different.
Tokyo Sonata - For my money Kiyoshi Kurosawa – no relation I hasten to add - is one of the most interesting and compelling world cinema directors operating today and this is another of his uniquely mannered, distanced but affecting fables of Japanese society and experience. It’s a simple tale, an embittered salarymen’s world disintegrates after he loses his prestigious, status critical job due to the economic turbulence that has cycloned around the world in the past few years, Kurosawa mounting an examination of the repercussions of such an event on the contemporary Japanese nuclear family. The redundancy exposes the fractures and faultlines that underpin contemporary Japanese society, the importance of status and honor suddenly eviscerated, the clash of generations between Ryuhei and his children with their independent beliefs and ambitions, the cohesive role of the matriarch in the family unit. Like Kurosawa’s earlier work it’s a horror film of sorts with some of the fantastic, gruesome flourishes that illuminate his earlier films like Kairo and Kyua all serving as a fulcrum to metaphorically question Japan’s current status. Regular readers may have detected my love of Japanese cinema over the past three years in all its permutations, it’s the difference in approach and technique that directors as blessed as Kurosawa bring to the table to explore global anxieties refracted through their personal experiences and culture that I find enormously fascinating and rewarding, that’s what foreign cinema, from seeing our world from alternate perspectives and opinions is ultimately what cinema in its global sense is all about. In my opinion.
Films for 2010
And so to the bad news. Casting my eyes over the distributors sites I have to say that the birth of a new decade is not looking very promising, cinematically speaking, at all. Four essentials only, two of which could be sketchy, one maybe which we’ve already waited two three years for and a handful of relatively ‘meh’ movies does not bode well. The notion that the consequences of the recession, that all the projects that were green-lit prior to the financial meltdown have now finally been released seems to hold water in this analysis, then again cinema always does well in such an environment so what do I know? Time will tell…
Shutter Island - Hope springs eternal. It’s been ten years since Marty made a film I thoroughly enjoyed so it should hopefully be interesting to see what he does in this apparent mystery/thriller verging on horror genre movie, the presence of pretty boy DiCaprio however has me concerned. Here’s the deal, I have nothing against Leo, in fact in the few interviews I have read with him he has come across as a thoughtful, smart and committed chap whose championing of environmental causes is genuine and passionate, not mere Hollywood grandstanding. As a screen presence however I just cannot take him seriously. This is my problem I guess but did he convince as Howard Hughes? No. Did he convince as a violent turn of the century gang member? No. Did he convince as an angry young undercover cop in The Departed? No, despite as a friend quite rightly pointed out his age and demeanour being perfect for the role. Well, we’ll see, Shutter Island is based on a novel by Dennis Lehane which is encouraging, the trailer is…..OK I guess but if there is any sort of ‘oh my god, I’m the mad person in the sanatorium and I’ve been investigating myself!!” stupidly blatantly obvious plot twist clichés then I’m going on a spree. Please don’t let us down again Marty.
Inception- Here he is again the little bastard!! I heard it was the schedule for Inception that led to Shutter Island being put back as Leo wouldn’t have been available for the gruelling worldwide press marketing tour that a star of his calibre is expected to deliver so we can blame him for that too. OK, OK, I’m joking – just a little. Having already picked up well, not exactly a spoiler per se but an explanation of what the plot of the film is I’m going to pull another media black-out on this, no doubt if Nolan so much as sneezes the fan community will swarm around his emissions, attempting to divine some arcane secrets of what the actual plot and purpose of his hugely anticipated new project is about- nice article here on the lack of mystery in film marketing these days. Is he, as some lazy journalists have posited the new Kubrick? In some sense ‘yes’ for me with his almost perfect track record – he hasn’t made a bad film yet and consistently incorporates an identifiable stream of personal themes, stylistic flourishes and predilections in his movies that straddle an art house and mainstream mentality but where is the real breakthrough, the real explosion of what cinema can be and achieve that encapsulates its moment in the evolution of the art form? That’s a rare achievement of course, perhaps only executed a dozen or so times over the past century, as the increasingly fluid nature of visual narrative evolves it becomes more difficult to imagine such a Phoenix. Those visuals of Paris collapsing into itself are extremely exciting though……
Tree Of Life - Jeez, what else can I say about this other than I’m still waiting. I really hope Malick doesn’t kick the bucket amidst this now tediously long, two years in the editing room production hiatus, like the controversy surrounding Eyes Wide Shut we’ll never hear the end of it if it doesn’t supposedly ’satisfy the full genius vision of its creator’. Here’s that most rare of beasts, a genuinely amusing comment from the IMDB on the project – ‘I like to imagine Terry sitting down with the editing team vehemently working on the film when he suddenly gets distracted by something he sees in the window. He gets up and notices it’s a rare species of bird and he stands there, taking in the moment of serene and calm, all the while a voice over is murmuring in his head in a deep southern accent. Prompted by the turn of events he decides to simply walk out of the editing room and out into the wilderness and go exploring. He walks through the woods and tastes berries and plays with foxes, maybe even climbs a tree or two. After an hour or so he falls asleep on a log in the middle of a sunlit patch of wildgrass. He loses himself in the forest for weeks and weeks and is finally found via search team 3 weeks later. Of course his PR team kept this all hushed up, but it certainly caused some delays in the post production of the film. I imagine this occurring ever 2-3 weeks of editing’. Here is one of the finest pieces of film writing of the year, by the consistently brilliant John Patterson, making a strong case for The New World being the film of the decade. I’m inclined to agree.
Un Prophète – The best film of 2009 according to Sight & Sound and they know a thing or two about the movies, this will serve as the first ‘must-see’ of the new decade. If you’ve seen the solid The Beat That My Heart Skipped then you may have an idea of what to expect, another remorseless gallic thriller that takes no prisoners with some intriguing nods to its native cinema pedigree, amongst them the particular embellishments of Godard and Melville. It was playing in Paris when I was there earlier in the year, I remember seeing the posters on Le Metro but didn’t want to risk seeing it in its native tongue as frankly my French is atrocious. Again I’m avoiding what I can about this to go in as ‘blind’ as possible, it sounds like a cracker.
The Killer Inside Me - SERIOUS, MASSIVE SPOILERS FOR THAT LINK by the way. I finally got round to reading some Jim Thompson books a couple of years ago, an author I’d been meaning to check out for years after hearing about him in the same breath as the likes of Chandler, Hamnett, Spillane and Ellroy, as the masters of their field of broodingly nasty crime fiction that I love. The news that his most cherished novel was being developed by the great Michael Winterbottom with Casey Affleck in the central role was welcomed, in its own grim little way The Killer Inside Me is something of a hard-boiled classic, lets hope that Winterbottom can make the most of that impressive looking modern neo-noir cast he has assembled. That link is quite unusually spoilered given that it pretty much reveals most of the tales central story beats, so beware if you are unfamiliar with the material. You can’t beat a good old fashioned tale of betrayal, deranged murder and sexual obsession eh?
Other films I’ll go and see include The Wolfman which I’m not holding out much hope for although it has got a hard R rating which is a surprise, The Lovely Bones despite my initial low levels of interest evaporating further since the uninspiring trailer and poor reviews emerged, the BFI Tokyo Story re-release which after Kane offers a chance to see another bona-fide classic on the big screen, hopefully the frenetic Herzog Bad Lieutenant will get a proper release, the claustrophobic Lebanon looks tense, the evil The Revenant should hit those pavlovian genre satisfaction buttons, yet another laff-riot end of the world riff Collapse and finally of course the chucklesome Machette:
So here we are. Not counting the repeated viewings of certain films I’ve managed to see no less than 69 films at the flicks this year, personally I aim to capitalise on my tentative steps of film reviewing away from this humble blog which should enjoy a cosmetic overhaul if I can find the time, I also plan to be a little more proactive in seeing, understanding and writing about more esoteric movies, thanks for reading, watch more movies and enjoy what the new year and beyond has to offer:
Remember the final titles shout-out – for those that know you know what I’m talking about….
Well, if 63 is young then 32 is positively terrifying. I saw her once, at the Sin City premiere a few years back and she seemed a very bubbly and enthusiastic person, qualities which seem to be echoed by the tributes coming in. Makes those New Year healthy living resolutions seem a little more attractive….
Sixty three is a horrendously young age to die isn’t it? In the midst of this sad news its been vaguely heartwarming to see the acknowledgement of O’ Bannon’s influence on genre film-making, the film nerd community respectfully paying their respects to a talented, modest figure behind some true genre classics. There must be a word that envelops the timing of a death such as this on the day before the biggest SF film ever gets its official release but it’s beyond me, especially considering the Alien/Aliens connection and how Bannon was supposedly seriously fucked over by the Tinsel Town executives, just take a look at the extras on the Alien Quadrilogy box set. This won’t be the most original of RIP posts out there but the clips are fun, from the obvious:
….to the more esoteric and genuinely weird 80′s big budget strangeness, I watched this again last year and its a real oddity:
……to the gruesome fun;
……to the this low-key genre gem;
and the blatantly obvious:
Here’s hoping he found his Phoenix Asteroid eh? The last time I watched Dark Star I was reminded of perhaps its best comedic sequence, I’ll be dusting off my copy this weekend which should make an intriguing juxtaposition with my second viewing of Avatar….
Ferngully with guns. Dances with Smurfs. A PS3 cut scene that lasts for two and a half hours – the knives were out for the biggest film in history(TM) whose budget seems to veer from $230 million dollars to £600 million quid depending on which article you read. Its been twelve years since the wince inducing, self proclaimed ’king of the world‘ cannily welded a romantic weepie for the ladies with some state of the art SFX for the boys that resulted in the most profitable film of all time, in the twelve year hiatus Canada’s most famous tyrant has beavered away on a a project so visionary that the technology and equipment to realise his vision had to be invented – I think it’s fair to say that James Cameron is not man without ambitions. When I saw that first trailer I was initially unimpressed, given the tone and tenor of reports coming out from the set I was disappointed at seeing something so apparently conventional, the second trailer however was a vast improvement, especially when seen in full 1080p HD which revealed some of the intricacies and attention to detail that the new technology has captured. Anticipation has been mounting incrementally ever since and I confess to feeling like an eight year old on Christmas Eve when queuing at the Waterloo IMAX earlier today, suffice to say I simply can’t wait to see it again in a couple of days as it is unquestionably a magnificent achievement, it’s the ’gamechanger’ we all hoped for and heralds a new benchmark in mainstream film-making. On a purely visceral, action orientated level it excels Aliens, the Terminators and True Lies combined. Are you excited yet?
Its 2154 and the human race is reliant on dwindling stocks of a magical mineral called (a little in joke) Unobtainium, fortunately the newly discovered lush, verdant jungle world of Pandorum is rife with the stuff. A military expedition is despatched to the planet in order to secure essential deposits of the material at all costs, a mission directed by the abrasive Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) who cunningly launches the Avatar programme to infiltrate the planets indigenous ten foot tall, blue, feline-like race – the Nav’i - in order to assess his foes strengths, weaknesses and tactical predilections, not to mention ensure the survival of his agents in the planets poisonous atmosphere. Our hero Jake Scully (Sam Worthington) is a paraplegic marine who is selected as one of the programmes test subjects due to the genetic code that he shares with his dead twin brother who has initially trained for the mission, his consciousness downloaded into the body of genetically cloned Na’vi simulacrum with the promise that he will get his legs back should he successfully complete his task. Seduced by the bewitching beauty of Pandorum Jake falls in love with the Na’vi princess Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) who teaches him to live in harmony with nature, eventually with the assistance of his colleagues including the irascible Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) and belligerent Vasquez Trudy Chacon (Michelle Rodrequiz) leading her people in an insurrection against the military colonist invaders. There will be mild spoilers to follow so be warned…..
So let’s get the bad stuff out of the way so we can got on with the fun – the plot, in its entirety, can be gleaned from the trailer and there are no real surprises from a narrative perspective. Cameron has also absorbed some of the LOTR story beats which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but it does make for some standard issue ‘epic’ scenes in the final act, perhaps his choice of turning to WETA to provide the majority of the CGI pyrotechnics has had some subconscious input. As you’d imagine, the eco-hippie, gaia mother earth stuff is overdone and is faintly insufferable, Cameron serving up some mature slices of cheddar in the vein of the thumbs up from T2 and slushy romance of Titanic whilst the song that plays out over the final credits needs to have every copy on the planet collected together and hurled into the nearest active volcano. Then again, for my part this was all anticipated, this is an immensely expensive project (but not the most expensive film to date by the way) and as such has to appeal to the broadest possible demographic, alas for the film connoisseur this means choking down some McDonalds amongst the Beluga caviar and Kobe beef steaks, cinematically speaking. In terms of spectacle however, of a film event where the noise of a few hundred jaws hitting the floor is repeated again and again as we are incrementally drawn into an alien world it is unsurpassed. I quite literally could not believe what I was seeing when the film found its stride and the infiltration of this magical world began in earnest.
If you’re fortunate enough to have a functioning memory and are of a certain age then you might remember how exhilarated, how awed and dumbstruck you felt upon exiting the cinema after seeing The Empire Strikes Back - this movie equals and replicates that feeling. It is stunning, absolutely, devastatingly, utterly bewilderingly stunning on a visual level, as Ebert posited in his review Cameron may be one of the only contemporary Hollywood film makers where you can see all the money on screen in all its digitally mediated splendour. You are completely engulfed in the teeming, humid world of Pandorum and all its flora and fauna, the 3D is fully immersive - all those motion blur and ghosting worries are immediately dispelled – like Scullys on-screen transportation into an alien body the audience is simultaneously transported to an alien planet, into a fully realised and tangible realm quite unlike anything I’ve had the privilege to witness. Cameron has finally nailed that uncanny valley problem, the reaction to the images that prompts a ‘wow, that looks like a great piece of effects’, being surpassed and taken to the next level were the Na’vi and the world of Pandorum are a living, breathing entity. The motion capture breakthroughs lead to real characterisation, the eyes and facial textures are convincing, there is a soul and plausibility to the Na’vi and their Avatar kin which are immediately recognisable as incarnations of their human progenitors, an interesting meta-mirror to one of the films timely concerns - don’t get me started on how this is a film of its time not merely with its embrace of an ecological message but also the nods to a society that increasingly mediates its relations through artificial representation via MMORGS and numerous, electronic social media. It’s simply astonishing with the teeming planes of the image also evading that tiresome, forced visual pollution that poisoned the Star Wars revisions and their tiresome ilk – the bar has been indisputably raised and the likes of Spielberg, del Toro, Zemeckis and Jackson will be operating under its shadow for the next few years, Tintin leaves me cold but the gauntlet for The Hobbit has been well and truly thrown down.
The allusions are obvious – an indigenous species invaded and exploited by an aggressive force who desire to rape and pillage their natural resources, a protagonist of the military industrial complex changed by the exposure to a more holy, more (dare I say it) earthy ideology, Vietnam, Iraq and the genocide of the Native American Indians are all alluded and referenced to in an admittedly clumsy fashion at certain points – lines like ‘we will fight terror with terror’ and ’we will commit a pre-emptive strike’ are perhaps just a little too obvious – but again this is Hollywood so I could sacrifice these shortcomings on the altar of pure, unadulterated entertainment. Personally I found the middle section of the movie the most immersive and affecting, that is where the film really expanded and aggregated its breakthroughs, demanding a second and possibility third viewing – we shall see. The final battle is executed with Cameron’s customary skill, the action sequences equaling the films progressive visual agility, climaxing on a set piece that explores the perils of sending an incapacitated hero into a tactically flawed war theatre that any reasonably acute film fan would anticipate yet enjoy for its inherent, dexterious possibilities. The movie is a step change equivalent to the 50′s and 60′s B Movies leading to 2001, the CGI expansion progressing the technological marvels of the likes of Beowulf and others as the decade expires. Treat yourself, leave your objections at the door and let yourself be overwhelmed by Pandorum. On the biggest screen possible. It’s history in the making.
The Basildon boys are back in town. I’ve been following Depeche Mode, one of my favourite bands, for over twenty years now and never pass on the opportunity to see the guys perform in their home town, despite some health concerns earlier in the year Dave was his usual excitable self, effortlessly getting the crowd in the palm of his hand.
This years album, Sounds Of The Universe, I’m sorry to report is rubbish but thankfully we didn’t get too many ‘album tour’ tracks which could have soured the whole experience. Then again, I do quite like the first single from this release:
They weren’t the best I’ve seen them, the set list was a little predictable and some of their more obvious tracks which I’m not hugely fond of were blasted out with their usual professionalism, we got all the singles from their breakthrough Violater album;
….the best live tracks from their biggest album Songs Of Faith & Devotion;
…and a couple of oldies from way back in the eighties;
Nevertheless they still had their moments and a couple of surprises. Unfortunately I didn’t make it the The Posters Came From The Walls screening I mentioned last week, work interfered with a late night meeting that I was press-ganged into attending, thankfully I only have two days left before taking a well deserved break in the new year. I’m made a pact to try and see newer bands next year, with one exception all the gigs I attended this year were to see bands that I grew up listening to, given that I haven’t bought any albums for months I’m open to suggestions although I have a couple of ideas. Tomorrow – Avatar day.
Here’s a challenge, discussing a film which outside the likes of the Star Wars or Star Trek fan-boy communities has had more words, more articles, more discussions and more analysis heaped upon on in the seventy years since its release than any other, the most frequently vaunted greatest film of all time, Orson Welles 1941 masterpiece Citizen Kane. Naturally any serious cineaste really should see it on the big screen at least once, it has made a couple of appearances on London screens over the past decade but they were always real missions for me to get to or clashed with other arrangements, since the NFT announced an extended run of a cleaned up print that was screening throughout November I had no excuse but to correct this glaring oversight. The first port of call is this fantastic article from one of the worlds premier film writers David Thompson that was commissioned to accompany the new print, he sets out all the necessary details of the film several million times more effectively than I ever could, I’ll begin by stating that the first thing that struck me whilst absorbing the movie in the reverently silent environs of the NFT1 was just how modern Kane is. Lets begin, appropriately enough, at the beginning:
‘No Trespassing’ eh? As the film is essentially an analysis of a man’s life, an analysis that crucially questions the cinematic validity of such an exercise to capture some empirical notion of ‘truth’ (an atypical concern of Welles throughout his career) by opening and closing on the same image the enterprise is bookmarked with sly nudge to the audience that we cannot believe and accept all that we have seen and are about to see, that no simple truths will emerge from Kane’s deserted Xanadu. If Griffith and Chaplin can be widely attributed to inventing the basic grammar of film (the close-up and elliptical editing) with Lang, Eisenstein and Murnau developing more complex camera moves, edits and innovations with the infant use of sound in the likes of Potemkin, Sunrise and M then Citizen Kane is Cinema 3.0, a quantum leap forward in all these disciplines with further modernizations that are evident in every single scene of the film. Let me reiterate that, when seeing this on the big screen I detected something of merit, something innovative, something remarkable for the period in every single scene - I’m struggling to think of another picture that has secured such an achievement.
Millions of words have been written over the years about how it wasn’t the first film to employ deep focus photography (in fact you can see Toland testing the water in certain sequences of the celebrated chiller The Hands Of Orlac from 1935), how it wasn’t the first film to construct more realistic sets by adding roofs to enable tilting cameras and a more claustrophobic mise-en-scene, how it wasn’t the first to employ sound edit cuts to transition from scene to scene, the thematic and structural match cuts that granting the film a formal elegance. It was however the first film to crucially to collate all these techniques together, for every scene to push at the medium, to use the formal tools of cinema to tell the story cinematically, to detail characters and plot nuances not merely through dialogue or a background score – on one celebrated sequence an entire marriage and its collapse is detailed in 90 seconds. For the record, this (0:20) is just about one of the greatest dozen or so shots in cinema history, in my humble opinion, technical brilliance aside it works on a variety of formal, subjective and recondite levels that are breathtaking. For me what’s most impressive about Kane is how those innovations operate in a film which also seamlessly switches from genre to genre, a mosaic of a movie, shifting from expressionist opening to Pathe newsreel reportage, from film noir investigation to classical melodrama, all under the aegis that a film, like a man’s life is subjective, is distorted by mystery and can never achieve any factor of absolute, indefatigable truth. Not dissimilar to Welles own life now that I come to think of it….
Whatever your interest in cinema Orson Welles is a fascinating figure given his amazing life and turbulent career, I was going to try and catch this over the weekend but I got distracted by prepping my Avatar post and managing to get most of my films of the year round-up drafted. He is of course celebrated as the greatest prankster of the 20th century for his epochal War Of The Worlds radio transmission that convinced sectors of the American public that an Martian invasion was in process, was a child prodigy whose groundbreaking theatrical productions remain legendary on Broadway and the West End and he just happened to make (arguably) the greatest Shakespeare film adaptations committed to celluloid and a handful of bona-fide, all time cinema masterpieces. A few anecdotes - Welles screened John Ford’s Stagecoach every night that he was making Kane, citing it as the greatest influence on his embryonic cinematic education, even when it violated the holy 180° degree rule during the attack scene. In a great tale about the vapid, shallowness of Hollywood Welles once rushed to an important party from the set of Touch Of Evil still in full grotesque make-up and weight padding to play the obese Quinlan. Having been exiled from Hollywood for many years the majority of the studio executive guests hadn’t seen Welles in years, yet they all greeted him with a false passion and proclaimed ‘My god, you look fabulous Orson!!’. Less amusing but an example of the more things change the more they stay the same, media tycoon William Randolph Hearst on whom Kane is loosely based was so infuriated by the picture that not only did he order a total media blackout throughout his communication empire but one evening, before returning to his hotel room down in Brazil where he was researching his propaganda effort Its All True, Welles received a tip-off from a police contact that an underage girl had been placed in his room with a photographer hiding in the closet. Hearst was so incensed by the rumour then doing the rounds that (Erm, spoiler) Rosebud was in fact his nickname for his young girlfriend Marion Davies special lady-bits, a rumour that remains undimmed to this day, that he would do everything in his power to destroy Welles – one only needs to look at the remainder of his career and the butchering of his next film The Magnificent Ambersons to see how that turned out. Still, at least he got to marry Rita Hayworth, the Angelina Jolie of the era.
If you’re interested in more then I’ll agree with Thompson and cite the exhaustive Simon Callow biographies as the preeminent biography on Welles, I’ve got and read the first part which was terrific, walking the fine line between admiration and hagiography it portrays Welles as a vain, insufferable, elitest snob as much as the extraordinarily talented, generous and effervescent artist that he was. The timing for this post seems apt as BBC4 are embarking on a Welles season over Christmas, if you haven’t seen the essential and exhaustive BBC Arena interviews with him, filmed in 1982 , then that’s your Christmas Day evening sorted. Maybe one day we’ll get to see the unreleased final chef d’oeuvre The Other Side Of The Wind, a late seventies film which is tied up in byzantine legal constrictions not to mention that Welles daughter, the executor of his estate, has vowed that it will never see the light of day. Just to be brutally obvious lets close with one of the all time great monologues, the jury is out whether Welles did pen the dialogue on set just before it was shot, that mystery, like Kane, like Welles, demands to remain elusive:
My media purdah begins today, a week to go and tonight’s London premiere – and I have to say that I’m quite surprised that it’s getting its world premiere here in the UK and not LA – has already revealed a couple of minor spoilers purely from a red blue carpet impromptu interview with Ripley in Leicester Square that I just heard broadcast on BBC Radio 5. I’m excited in the sense of a cinema event looming on the horizon, a potential game-changer in terms of Hollywood film-making that may map a new decade of mainstream cinematic experiences, most of all I’m simply in the mood for an enveloping action movie that will just be some good fun, pure and simple. Early reportage is hesitantly ‘good‘, in the interim this kept me entertained:
Some time ago I remarked that it doesn’t get much better than this when it comes to film related events I’ve attended, after last weeks experience at the Rolex Mentor and Protege Arts Initiative Talk at the NFT we have something of a close second as the protégé in question was rising Argentinean director star Celine Murga whose mentor was none other that the legendary Martin Scorsese, a film-making genius whom you wouldn’t be surprised to hear is one of my all-time favourite movie personalities. Chaired by critic Kent Jones the evening began with a discussion of the mentoring programme and its myriad benefits before moving on to wider topics such as their shared love of cinema, their favourite films and most bountiful influences, their careers to date and divergent creative processes and protocols. It was an absolute joy to hear one of the most eloquent, knowledgeable and passionate cine-literate souls on the planet wax lyrical for an absolutely riveting two hours, Scorsese was pretty good as well. Ha. Little joke there. You’re welcome.
The programme primarily consisted of Murga being on set for the shooting of the upcoming Shutter Island, an envious opportunity to observe a film master at work, crafting his film from the ground up and discerning how her mentor works with actors, how he works with the crew, how shooting sequences and compositions are considered and decided upon, how the sound will be textured and captured, how the creative process her tutor employs to draw the myriad, disparate elements of film-making together to construct a scene that best reflects the script. Scorsese made the point that shooting a film for $20 dollars or $200 million dollars is essentially the same thing, the obstacles and problems that can arise – technical restrictions, the weather, unexpected problems with the cast and crew – are identical and require the same innovation and inspiration to circumnavigate and overcome, some unexpected changes on occasion leading to new fertile lines of enquiry that in the final analysis can enhance the completed movie. The real differences when it comes to the budget concern the ambient pressure, the involvement of the money men and executive producers whose chattering and interference can divert attention and crucial creative force from the important things – the characters, the scenes, the story – this pressure being incrementally denser and distracting as the budget rises through the $10 million, $20, $40, $60 million and onward mark. Having read the script of Murga’s new project Scorsese recommended viewing a selection of films from the likes of Imamura and Franco Rossi as they demonstrated connections to her script in terms of similar subject matter and thematic focus, I love that, its a brilliant example of film as a living, breathing art form with previous work by established masters being able to influence and inspire contemporary practitioners.
A natural connection was then developed between Scorsese and his less official but no less inspiring mentor back in the Seventies, the undisputed godfather of American indie cinema, the magnificent John Cassavettes whom is best known on screen for his appearances in The Dirty Dozen and Rosemary’s Baby. Scorsese recounted a reasonably famous story – after he screened one of his first films to Cassavettes, the Corman produced, exploitation styled Boxcar Bertha which he had just finished editing, John took him aside, laughed and said ‘you spent a year of your life on this piece of shit? C’mon, what do you really want to do?’, Marty hesitantly replied ‘Well, there’s this script I’ve been working on for four years, it’s about where I came from, it’s called Mean Streets…….Unsurprisingly given its recent restoration the protégé / mentor relationship was then examined in terms of screen representation, specifically that between dancer Moira Shearer and teacher Marius Goring in the magical The Red Shoes, one of Marty’s all time favourite films. The good news is his team of artisans are moving on to give the same restoration treatment to another Powell masterpiece The Life & Death of Colonel Blimp which should get a release in the next couple of years. All in all it was far and away one of the top five events I’ve attended at the NFT, there was a real sense of occasion given the brief introduction by Stephen Frears and the fact that a good proportion of the audience had actually flown in from mainland Europe for the event, I noticed a few familiar looking critics in the audience and none other than the legendary Thelma Schoonmaker (Marty’s editor for thirty years, wife of Michael Powell) was sitting a couple of rows in front of me. A final note, I love the way that Scorsese doesn’t always refer to films as ‘films’ or ‘movies’, he sometimes calls them pictures which I find simultaneously old fashioned and amusingly reverential – ‘Ah, yeah, Bicycle Thieves, great picture, great picture’….
So, such an event gives me a carte blanche to embark on a brief career overview, for the most part I’ll try to avoid the obvious film clips – ‘you talking to me‘ or the famous Copacabana sequence – in favour of some different sequences in his career, youtube offerings permitted. So first of all lets slow things down and begin with his first collaboration with Daniel Day-Lewis:
The Age Of Innocence - Scorsese’s native home again and another exploration of a self contained society, this time he’s interrogating the upper class of 19th century New York, a world where verbal sparring and malicious gossip is just as violent and destructive as the firearms and baseball bats seen in his gangster movies. It’s something of a love letter to those elegant costume dramas of Visconti and De Sica, in particular The Leopard which is another one of Marty’s all time favourite ‘pictures’.
The King Of Comedy -A surprise entry at No.10 on the London Film Critics Circle best films of the past 25 years, I guess its inclusion is in some part due to its hugely prophetic treatise on the nature of celebrity and its distressing ascent in the public consciousness. Whenever people complain along the lines that actors like De Niro are always playing the same person, the same character I always think of this in comparison to The Deer Hunter or Midnight Run - does not compute. This is a very unerving film with a conclusion that is quite unusual, not the type of closure you’d get today but its comedy of cringeworthy embarrassment seems to have been adopted.
Raging Bull -I have a confession to make, sacrilege I know but I’m not actually that fond of Raging Bull and don’t even own a copy. What can I say, on paper it should he one of all time faves – a Schrader script, De Niro starring, Scorsese firing on all cylinders after his career, at least to his mind, had been totally destroyed by the catastrophic flop of New York New York (not to mention a spell in hospital resulting from his increasingly destructive cocaine use), all the key collaborators in place (Schoonmaker, DP Michael Ballhaus etc.) but it just doesn’t arrest me. I think maybe its the sporting story at the core, I’m not a big sports person but the construction and cutting during the fight scenes are exemplary. I think I need to give it another look soon and see if I can discern what I’m missing….
Cape Fear - There aren’t many film-makers who can get away with remaking a bona fide classic and get away with it. I like the 1991 version, it’s swift and exciting with one of De Niros most menacing screen appearances.
Goodfellas – In the Q&A Scorsese revealed that if is wasn’t for Michael Powell reading the script and almost demanding that he make this film we’d never have this highpoint in his glittering career – Marty wasn’t keen to return to a world he felt he’d already excavated for Mean Streets. To my mind it is one of the most watchable films ever made, I watch it every year and never ever get bored, its just so damn quick and entertaining with so much to revel in – the language, the kinetic movement of the shots and performances, the now classic scenes (‘I’m funny how?’, ‘Go get your fucking shinebox’), the brilliantly funny and horrifying presentation of a very alluring but ultimately degenerate world. Why did I pick that clip? ’cause the doctor that takes pity on Henry is none other than The Wire’s Clay Davies of course. Sheeeettttttttt…….
After Hours - Ten years down the line people are making some brilliant connections to this, another nocturnal odyssey, based in New York, where the protagonist is thwarted from getting his winkie polished. I think this is Scorsese’s most underrated movie, a Hitchcockian comedy of the blackest kind, a neurotic gem of the yuppie generation. See if you can spot the cameo in that clip.
So concludes my last visit to the NFT of the decade, I didn’t make it to see The Limits Of Control as work interfered yet again – roll on January and a well deserved break. Nevertheless the evening served as an apt close to ten years of film related talks, interviews, master classes and introductions that I’ve enjoyed over the past decade in our fair capital. In the interests of (my) prosperity those events have included appearances by Peter Bogdanovich ( the very first back in 2000) Ken Loach, Shane Meadows, Stephen Frears, Mike Hodges, John Boorman, Zowie Bowie, Terry Gilliam, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Jane Fonda, Juliette Binoche, Julianne Moore, Marisa Berenson, Angelica Huston, Emily Watson, Penelope Cruz, Sir Ken Adams, Malcolm McDowell, Christine Kubrick, Kathryn Bigelow, Oliver Stone, Joel Coen, Peter Bogdanovich, Wes Anderson, Jonathan Demme, John Lasseter, Pete Docter, Rutger Hauer, Steve Buscemi, Casey Affleck, Ben Affleck, Gene Wilder, Pacal Laugrier, Gasper Noe, Park Chan Wook, John Hillicoat, Michael Haneke and Pedro Almodavar. Phew. Biggest misses were Lynch of course (now that would have been an interesting Star Wars movie eh?) and Catherine Denevue a few years ago, both Fincher and Herzog made appearances this year but were sold out by the time I picked up the e-mail, I wonder what the next decade has in store….
Right, I’ll keep this brief – I am a busy bee at the moment, wrapping work up and with no less than four five six other blog posts to finalize by the end of the year I simply don’t have the time to construct any sort of detailed review of a somewhat peripheral film such as Bright Star in comparison to the effort I wish to devote to the likes of Avatar and the recent Scorsese event. You’re probably wondering why I went to see a film about the doomed love affair of an early 18th century romantic poet anyway, in my defence it has cropped up on numerous best of the year lists including Sight & Sound’s December issue which has just arrived in the post, also quite simply the timing of the screening slotted perfectly into my schedule of meeting some friends for drinks on Friday night, I had two hours to kill and seeing as we were meeting in a pub just off Shaftesbury Avenue this appeared to be a perfect fit with a late afternoon screening at the Soho Curzon. I can’t say I regret the decision as this was actually a reasonably moving and affecting film, beautifully photographed and performed by the two leads, in particular Ben Whishaw for whom I predict a James McAvoy style career acceleration over the next couple of years.
1818, Hampshire Village, London. Aspiring poet John Keats is ailing to his sickly brother when he meets the flirtatious Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), a young society lady who is developing a fascination with literature and the arts. After his brother dies the Brawne family kindly invite the destitute Keats and his friend and literary partner Charles Brown (Paul Schneider whom it took the entire film to recognise from this) under their roof, Fanny’s sister and mother (Kerry Fox) being similarly enamoured of Keats chrysalising poetry. A passionate but difficult love affair between Fanny and Keats blossoms but of course the river of true love can never run smoothly, Keats woeful financial status and ailing health preventing him from making a genuine proposal of marriage due to the societal rigours of the period. Brown disapproves of the affair and sees in Fanny nothing more than an aspiring society heiress, in his eyes no more than an 18th century Paris Hilton whose temptations are diverting his friend from his prodigious talents with the written word.
There is something to be said for a film which unanimously receives praise along the lines of its ‘ravishing visuals’ or ‘enchanting production design’, such complements usually being camouflage for what the films primary quality is – stultifying boringly dull as ditch water. Thankfully, if you’re in the mood then this movie avoids that trap as Bright Star is a lavish treat, a very seductive film that incrementally draws you into its 19th century orbit and the tragic romance that ameliorates between Fanny and John. Crucially both Whisaw and Cornish develop a thoroughly convincing chemistry on-screen, even though it’s one of those films set in a realm where a suitor takes to their bed for five days, ill with fever because an expected letter from their paramour has not arrived the passion between the two is tangible and corporeal by our modern standards. It does look pulchritudinously* beguiling with production and costume design that is guaranteed to crop up in the Oscar nominations, what I really admired is how the film is modest enough not to bludgeon the viewers round the head with the visual stylistics, there are no epic widescreen vistas with swirling musical scores, its all much more modestly arranged and presented which builds a far more efficient emotional pull. It’s been praised as Jane Campion’s best film since the lauded The Piano some ten years hence and I have to concur, its final title card pay-off revealing our principals fate following the films conclusion in a suitably mournful fashion.
I have a few posts to put together over the weekend, I saw this today which was far more affecting than anticipated but the highlight of my week was seeing no less than the almighty Scorsese in discussion at the NFT – an epic reportage is being constructed. In the meantime here is a taster of his immense intellect on all matters cinematic – enjoy…