I can’t be the only person whose entire opinion of a specific film can sour over such a simple thing such as a solitary, final shot? C’mon now, lets hear from those amongst us who for the proceeding two hours have inexorably been pulled into the lives of these two-dimensional human beings up on the silver screen, forging some unconscious empathy with them through the medium of a conflagration of elements such as performances, lighting, music and editing to name just a few, how have thrilled and marvelled at their adventures and activities in the shared dark experience with total strangers only to be obliterated by a final image which for some reason jerks out of that mental space and shatters much which has gone before? OK, I’m exaggerating a little but this was my dual experience after digesting two American films over the weekend, the Oscar pricking August Osage County and gloomy working class drama Out Of The Furnace. Both films are similar in other respects, they are both contemporary American drama’s with largely unsympathetic and difficult characters, both put you through the grinder of physical and emotional violence to get to their conclusions, and they both feature American wordsmith Sam Shepard hence my coupling of this review for the sake of brevity as I’m already another BFI review behind (with more films thundering over the horizon this week. But they also and both lost a half star (if we’re going to follow that shorthand film criticism standard) purely on how they visually concluded their stories, I’m not necessarily referring to how the plot or character’s lives and fates are concluded, I’m not speaking from a narrative technique perspective, what I’m driving it is how visually and tonally a film gracefully exits from that shared unconscious experience which for me is critical as it is the final mouthful of the dish which remains in the palette during digestion, if you’ll forgive me for stretching my cuisine metaphors to such celluloid contortions. Now just to be clear I’ll avoid spoilers of course so don’t fret if Meryl Streep’s actually rather good performance is tempting you out to the auditorium prior to awards night, or if you liked The Place Beyond The Pines then this years similar re-tread of similarly attuned material might convince you to punch this down on the rather limited London release pattern its been burdened with, but before then we need to mournfully attend a prairie baked funeral….
Based on the play by current Hollywood hot ticket scribe Tracy Letts let me introduce you to the deeply dysfunctional Weston family, the shuttered family home baking during an ungodly August Oklahoman heat. After a context setting introduction to the film’s mileau through silent witness proxy Misty (Johanna Monevata) is a nurse hired by alcoholic poet-patriarch Beverley (Sam Shepard), he finishing the interview by quoting T.S Eliot in a melancholy fugue. Soon we learn that he has fled the nest, prompting mouth cancer suffering & pill polling matriarch Violet (Meryl Streep) to entreat her serrated family for aid. Her three daughters are trembiling in successive stages of misery present and future; Barbara (Julia Roberts) is wallowing in the pits of an adultery striken marriage with husband Bill (Ewan McGregor), their separation increasingly strained by the moody behaviour of their young daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin). Flighty, head-in-the-clouds middle sister Karen (Juliette Lewis) has just got engaged to Ferrari sporting business jerk Steve (Dermot Mulroney), a weed puffing dunce who clearly has a loose grasp of respectable boundaries with other family members. Waning young sister Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) never got out and has remained chained to the family home, having never found her soul mate a recent illicit liaison may finally provide a chink of hope for the future. Other family members such as Aunt Mae (Margo Martindale), her husband Charles (Chris Cooper) and their wayward son ’Little’ Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch) complete the portrait of dysfunctional distress, so when some suspected terrible news is finally realised the stage is set for a final reckoning of unresolved conflicts, substance abuse powered mayhem and the excavation of deeply drowned family secrets…..
The film has all the bells and whistles of an Oscar clamouring campaign and I must admit I went into this with some pretty strong reservations following that shrill trailer, but I have to say as an instant fan of writer Tracy Letts (he also penned 2011′s Killer Joe) I found this more emotionally resonant and charmingly performed than was anticipated, occasionally peaking with a great scene, the sum not always equalling the strength of the parts. The first port of call is obviously Streep and her grandiose, drawl of a performance, it’s actually less irritating than the trailer suggests and has a pound of pathos pulsing under that witch friendly wig, soundtracked to the chime of her twitching finger nail talons and smokers cough cruelty. For me the real revelations was Roberts as a similarly granite hellion, whilst her heart is in the right place her methods are destructive, she resigningly realising that she is transforming into her mother with a cruel and unavoidable destiny. Due to the subject matter it’s quite theatrical in construction with some corrosive scenes but little in the way of cinematic scope, all the characters receiving a singular pay-off seems a little forced, but it has some incredibly powerful moments and gasp inducing revelations so I for one was quickly sucked into the distorted dysfunction of the family from hell. If I can be so crass it’s an Americanized Mike Leigh picture, full of broad performances which shriek for attention in the sticky Oklahoma heat (although suggesting this cinematically rather than repeatedly having characters whine that ‘it’s so hot’ wouldn’t have gone amiss) , whilst Letts displays his uncompromising cruelty in grinding characters into the dust with waves of misery and maudlin regret, yet life goes on and a sense of slip optimism struggles against the setting sun. Benedict Cumberbatch whom we know can be quite the presence is horrendously miscast as a incompetent self confessed loser, and as I said closing the film on what can only be described as one of the most clichéd vistas in American cinema - the highway stretching ahead into the heat shimmering distance, presumably some visual motif of life’s great voyage and the possibilities ahead - would be less of a problem if it didn’t subsequently dissolve into a horrendously maudlin police artist sketch montage of the main characters, all accompanied by a bloody Kings Of Leon track – I don’t know about mouth cancer but this gave me…well….you can do the rest…….
Speaking of misery we now turn to Out Of The Furnace, director Scott Cooper’s follow-up to the Oscar performance crooning Crazy Heart. This time we’re in an Autumn choked Pennsylvania where the reserved Russell Baze (a brooding Christian Bale) dutifully executes his duties at the local steel mill, watching over the sad decline of his terminally ill father Rodney and the psuedo-criminal activities of his Iraq service veteran younger brother Rodney Junior played by a grimly seditious Casey Affleck. Haunted by his experiences overseas Junior is being sucked deeper into the furtive world of bare-knuckle boxing through the patronage of local barkeeper John Petty (Willem Dafoe), his meagre winnings never enabling him to get out from under an overpowering avalanche of debt and regret. When their father dies Russell is is in jail after perpetuating a horrific drink driving related manslaughter charge, serving his time quietly and turning to the Lord for some small sense of redemption. Immune from his controlling presence his brother sucked into the orbit of the menacing Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), a redneck criminal kingpin from the old-blood communities up in the mountains where even the police fear to tread, forcing Rodney to throw one last fight in order to repay both his and John’s sizeable debt. As you may imagine events do not go to plan, and a biblical reckoning is soon on the agenda….
Like Crazy Heart the film has a fine attention to detail to the American underclass, the forgotten stripmalls and exhausted bars, of the decaying communities that squat between the coasts. If you’re fond of that old-school gritty and bleak style of cinema, of crime films where antiheroes merge with heroes on the margins of society then this is worth a flutter. With that bleached emulsion veneer so favoured by many contemporary American filmmakers the film is also shot with that hand-held emotional intimacy, it works and pulls you into the sad and struggling social order of thwarted ambition and seething indiscriminate rage, an American scream if you will. It’s interesting to see Iraq and the Afghanistan abattoirs being woven incrementally into cinema as plausible back-stories and contexts for characters, not being what the film is ostentatiously about but provoking the spark for the rage and disillulsion of main characters, as the chickens finally flock home to roost in the heartland. The film also has a major boon in the form of Woody Harrelson’s frankly terrifying redneck psychopath, personally speaking it’s very rare for an actor to really get under your skin and convince you that you really don’t want to spend any time within several hundred miles of this individual, but from the opening pummelling of his girlfriend and an unfortunately inquisitive bystander he’s one truly revolting muthafucker. The other crucial element is the evident and plausible affection generated between Affleck & Bale, it’s genuine and critical as the main propeller of the films plunging trajectory, conjured through a couple of quietly judged performances. If this film was made in the 1970′s it would feature Charley Bronson or Lee Marvin as villain or hero such is the interchangeable relations and the moral uncertainty of the films architecture, so again I think a tense final sequence should have punctuated with truly memorable metaphor rather than the grasping coda which we saw. Still, with a biblical wrath burning like the steel mills core Out Of The Furnace mutters than an eye for an eye is a mantra which leaves the whole world morally and spiritually blind.
Film history is littered with classics that were reviled and vivified upon initial release. Take Now Voyager, an early melodrama which during its 1942 release was dismissed as romantic bilge, now considered as an early precursor of the sly social satires of Douglas Sirk and Nicholas Ray. The reverberating strains of Carol Reed’s bleak post war discourse The Third Man may now be considered a classic, embodied by Orson Welles personification of the conflicts distinctive moral quagmires, but audiences at the time wanted to escape from the horrors of the war and not wallow in it’s still exposed wounds. Notoriously (at least around these parts) 2001: A Space Odyssey was incomprehensibly rejected, with no less a figure than Pauline Kael sneering that the picture was ‘monumentally unimaginative’ Even Hitchcock’s Vertigo, the recently anointed Greatest Film In History© was scorned and mocked upon initial release, with scribbling hacks proclaiming that the master had lost his way with a lacklustre piece that was low on thrills, and which performed the unforgivable transgression of revealing its twist far too early in the narrative, in yet another example of the filmmaker being decades ahead of the era’s cultural consensus. The strain running through these examples however is that they are films which sprung from the imagination of established talents, figures whom have had the venerable ability to erect a protective shell against the cruel barbs of the chattering classes, a critical callus if you will which wasn’t available to Charles Laughton directorial debut The Night Of The Hunter which was apprehensively released by Universal back in 1955. Laughton was a character actor with decades of film and stage experience behind him, a thespian of the calibre of Olivier and Gielgud whom were his generational peers, a modest man who finally took to directing late in his career with this deeply atmospheric American fable, the critics crucified it and he refused to ever step behind the camera again. Now over fifty years it is widely considered as a post-war classic with some of the most haunting beautiful cinematography ever crafted on a Hollywood sound-stage, and as soon as I heard that the BFI were developing a ‘Gothic’ minded film season this was the first picture that leapt to mind as the absolute cinematic iteration of that historical phrase.
In a career defining role Robert Mitchum smoulders with the stench of brimstone as the sinisterly bewitching figure of Reverend Harry Powell, a tattoo knuckled preacher who prowls the monochrome canvass of the smouldering American south. One part snake-oil salesman who frequents the local brothels and bars to two-part miserable huckster Powell is arrested by the authorities for vehicle theft and a number of other minor transgressions, and finds himself sharing a cell with a recently apprehended bank robber Ben Harper (Peter Graves). Harper has the rather unfortunate tendency to confess to crimes in his sleep, and soon Powell seizes upon a scheme to relieve the bereaved Harper family of the hidden proceeds of his bank robbery after the unfortunate wretch is dispatched to his maker via the gallows. Ma Harper (a quivering and shame fuelled Shelly Winters) soon falls for the righteous pastor, leaping at the chance to absolve her soul for her previous husbands sinful transgressions, but her young children John (Billy Chapain) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) do not trust this new interloper, with the former in particular seeing through his serpentine charm and understanding his real ambitions towards them….
As those lengthy noir stacked expressionist shadows lengthened during the war by this point in American cinema the industrial shift to Technicolor was in full stream, as the increasing battle against TV prompted Hollywood moguls to seek out new prestige methods to entice audiences back in the auditoriums from the comfort of their front rooms. In many ways then this 1955 effort is one of the last masterpieces, at least from a cinematography level, of the first century of the format. Sure there have been breathtakingly shot B&W films since then and the format isn’t entirely the preserve of resource poor independent productions such as the recent Mumblecore movement (The Artist springs to mind, as does just last years Nebraska) but this was one of the most lyrical deployments of those monochrome shadows and the space between light and dark, a position which captures the films central duel of good versus evil. The film was shot by Stanley Cortez who also helmed The Magnificent Ambersons for Welles a decade earlier, was one of the great cameramen of the era along with Greg Toland and Boris Kaufman, just drown in this dazzlingly magical sequence where our tiny protagonists flee from the devil and punt out into metaphorical waters;
Unsurprisingly, that sequence is pretty much on the core syllabus of any film school, and I’d select as pretty much the ultimate cinematic representation of the term ‘gothic’ in all its mysterious, uncanny, spectral glory. Alongside the brushstrokes of shadow and light scenes are punctuated with a slight camera push into the action, to incrementally pull the audiences ear into the dialogue – a sly technique I’m picking up more examples when I return to the films of this era – and of course the cinephile favourite of deep focus staging (as seen in the still below) with all aspects of the visual frames in crisp presentation, coordinating the relations of the characters and a harbinger of their fates to come.
As well as the photography the film has two other aces up its sleeve – Mitchum’s glowering career best presence, and the saintly beatific visage of Lillian Gish, one of silent cinemas most rapturous faces, and like all great cinema evidence a DNA connective membrane to earlier triumphs of the form. I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned this before but movie stars of this era have a different aura than they do now, some of them endured early lives of poverty with experiences alien to the current industry, so when Mitchum appears on-screen as that serpentine snake-oil spouting drifter it’s not to difficult to see the honesty and reality in that performance. He spent years penniless and destitute drifting through the prairies, working summers on farms and jumping the box-car trains in a furtive search for shelter and the next hot meal, so he’s marinated in a genuine rural American history which weeps from every pore of his ink penned knuckles. As his spiritual foe Lillian Gish is undiluted Christian grace, a symbol of decency and fragile honesty, slightly smeared with a frontier frostiness which isn’t afraid of the bruising tedium of tending crop and shouldering shotguns to protect her kin. It’s no surprise that the film coaxes out such terrific performances given that director Charles Laughton was a such a immense talent, one of the great characters of his generation who was comfortable and understood the definitions of both stage and screen, which maybe explains the curious theatrical slants of the films expressionist staging and visual schemata, as the film is all about composition rather than camera movement or scene specific editing rhythms.
We critics can be a merciless breed and recent events testify the greatest actors can be unstable, mercurial and tortured spirits, so the in retrospect pillaring of the film deeply wounded Laughton and he never directed again, a real waste of potential but at least we have this singular, eerie masterpiece. He therefore joins the pantheon of one film talents who produced extraordinary work yet never stepped back behind the viewfinder, including Gary Oldman’s Nil By Mouth, Brando’s One Eyed Jakes, Saul Bass’s insectoid Phase IV and the dude who made Manos: The Hands Of Fate as a drunken bet that ‘any fool can make a god-damn movie’. I think the film has dated a little even when balancing its fairy tale allusions, it very much wears its heart on its sleeve with a rather untextured wrestle of good versus evil which seems a little uncomplicated these days, but the films simmering, starlight atmosphere makes for a heady gothic brew, a biblical incantation of innocence lost;
Great start to the year universe you fucking dick, what the fuck am I supposed to do with this terrible news? It’s absolutely terrible and I think it will take a few days to process this, and let me clarify what I mean by such pronouncements – I’m not some celebrity worshipping idiot and obviously I have no emotional attachment to the man, but as a deep lover of movies the loss of one of the top dozen in the field working today of either sex this is just tragic, especially at the shocking age of 46 when he had decades of incredible work ahead of him. So here is an obvious choice I guess which many of my kin will be similarly posting, but it is of course the perfect choice – a simply phenomenal performance which makes and enhances the movie it’s in, which no-one else could have pulled off;
This has seriously fucked me off, maybe I’m feeling a little fragile and melancholic after spending most of the day in the cinema consuming two dense, uniquely American dramas with powerful performances punch-drunk with emotional and physical violence, so this comes as a triple shock to the system. Anyway, if the suspicions are true of the cause of death then I hope he’s in a quieter and more blissful place now….
So this is doing the rounds, and quite nice it is too – WARNING: Ingrediants May Contain Robin Williams;
Compare and contrast with this nifty feature.
And there was me thinking February was going to be quiet, filmwise. I’ve just booked tickets for this special event in the elite enclaves of th Curzon Chelsea;
Good ole Curzon, I’ve also got tickets for Bastards next week at Curzon Soho with a Claire Denis Q&A to follow. Difficult times dictate difficult films I guess, professional help is being sought…..
You’d think Mr. Wright Esq. would have his hands full with miniscule superheroics, but here is some movie mechanics filler, from him, via me, for you;
50 years ago to the very day the finest black comedy ever committed to celluloid was released, Stanley Kubrick’s ferocious cold-war satire Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying & Love The Bomb. Firstly I think I need to make a full disclosure, yes I had tickets to see the film at the BFI last weekend complete with special Q&A guests, alas no I didn’t attend as I was out with friends having a jolly good time involving alcohol and Chinatown eateries so for once I put my social life ahead of my cinema life – fucking sue me. I have seen the film before at the BFI with legendary production designer Ken Adams in attendance back in those dark pre-blog days of around 2005, I will track it down eventually and craft a full review alongside all the remaining Kubrick texts (like I said I’ve got my cross-hairs set on A Clockwork Orange as part of the upcoming BFI Science Fiction season) so although I do feel a little guilty at evading this opportunity I can at least throw together a short tribute post to celebrate one of Stanley’s more terrifying achievements;
The film still casts a long phallic missile shaped shadow across just about every black comedy made over the past five decades, and every nuclear themed movie is measured against its radioactive blast radius, not to mention the etching of the War Room and Strangelove himself into popular culture as the sputtering idol of modern military insanity. As you may be aware the film was initially scoped as a earnestly serious movie on the then emerging concepts of MAD and Game Theory but as Kubrick delved into the material with his usual perfectionist poise he realised there was no way this would be swallowed by an audience, and the only way he could truly excavate the intellectual horror that was propagated by the evolving military industrial complex was through a comedic delivery system – mission accomplished. In terms of context it’s useful to consider that the film was being shot in London’s Shepperton studios as the world held its collective breath during the Cuban missile crisis, not to mention the film’s very first test screening was initially programmed for the now infamous date of November 22nd 1963, with that event prompting a few swift changes to the film’s dialogue. As you’d expect it was mauled by the right-wing press with the tediously predictable allegations of those responsible being ‘communists’, a rabid assertion which ignorant idiots always seem to vomit if any criticism is offered of their precious nationalist ideological infrastructure, and I’ve always enjoyed the revelation of a few NORAD inspectors touring the sets during production and turning pale and visibly distressed when they saw some of the technological details that Kubrick and his team had culled from publicly available mechanics and aeronautics manuals – apparently the CRM114 discriminator was absolutely spot-on.
I think what also made some viewers uncomfortable on a potentially unconscious level was precisely what mischievous screenwriter Terry Southern brought to the poker table (which was the design ethos Kubrick suggested for the War-Room), and that was the satirical melding of sex and death. The swooning, elegantly meandering B52 bombers are penetrated and de-couple to the romantic strains of ‘Try A Little Tenderness’ during the opening titles, and the film is replete with aphoristic boasts of impressive yields, powerful payloads and Sterling Hayden’s magnificently mentalist musings of ’precious bodily fluids’. Infidelity and innuendo are endemic on both divides of the Iron Curtain, as these powerful men bolster their testosterone powered prestige on the world stage, sensuously interfering with the very infrastructure of civilisation which of course ends in an orgiastic series of multiple explosions. Whilst we’re on the subject someone really needs to commission Blue Movie, Southern’s Hollywood set novel which he dedicated to Kubrick (and whom at one stage he considered adapting), it’s tale of A grade Tinseltown stars actually consenting to full penetrative hardcore sex movies for general release one assumes that such material was a little too transgressive even during the permissive 1960′s when now we are in the era of Nympomaniac, for better or worse….
Naturally there are plenty of articles and dissertations being launched which supersede any comments I could make on the context of the film or its craft, however the truly terrifying reportage is here which shows just how close Kubrick and Southern came to nuking the paranoid mindset of the era, and let’s face sweet fuck all has changed in the intervening half century. I particularly like the image of some drunkenly obliterated US general insisting on staggering up on stage to blast out a few Beatles numbers in front of a shocked Soviet delegation, that’s pure Strangelove and one of those tales which you couldn’t put in a film for fear of being too ridiculous. More sobering is that jaw-dropping revelation that like the Russkies infernal Doomsday Weapon they had implemented a similar device, and neglected to tell anyone else about it, and it may very well still be operational - oh well, it’s not the end of the world;
The trailer for this inevitable to 2011′s high-octane adrenaline thrill ride has been floating around for a few weeks, but now that it’s received its world premiere at Sundance I think we need to take stock, magazine, silencer and laser-scope. Hyperbole is not a unknown dimension for movie bloggers so claims ‘the greatest action film evar’ should be taken with the requisite pinch of salt, but this does sound quite entertaining and has zeroed in on taglines such as ‘The Godfather II of Action Movies’;
Apparently it’s 20 minutes of set-up, then once those hares are set racing round the narrative track the film is two hours of relentless, uncompromising & invincible violence, with a particular emphasis on the excruciating bone crushing qualities of hammers and baseball bats – nice. I wasn’t completely crazy about the first one, it was good fun but dulls quickly on a second watch, but this could be a welcome antidote to all the worthy award season product currently weeping through screens. It opens in the States in March, so I assume we’ll get it later in the Spring….
I can’t believe I missed this from my most anticipated films of 2014, as this looks awesome;
The future of film financing?
OK, yes, it’s a standard issue 21st century horror genre trailer which I’m sure won’t necessarily raise the required chilly hackles, but as the current crop of American horror goes this was one of the more inventive efforts of recent years. I’m sure it will go straight to DVD here in the UK though, although maybe some domestic festival will pick it up for big screen reflection. In other news, rumors are gathering of potential guests at tomorrow nights Quinquagenary Kubrick themed BFI event…
Good timing this, as this comprehensive little montage of a specific camera technique has a few examples from the Scorsese canon;
Perhaps this collection of craft can distract from this melancholy news, I know I called it just over a year ago and in my defence it is a death of a thousand cuts rather than an overnight massacre, but the news that one of the original Hollywood studios, established in 1912, is now distributing its moves purely in a digital format is really the end of the beginning, For bonus points, this is faintly amusing;
Martin Scorsese has many strings to his bow. As well as being widely accepted as one of the greatest post-war American directors he is also a highly respected movie scholar, using his influence and prestige to promote the teaching and appreciation of the most commercial of the visual arts around the globe. He is a tireless campaigner for film preservation and has toured the world for decades in his exhausting quest to persuade governments to invest in their celluloid history, and through his own restorative foundation he has issued gleaming new prints of faded masterpieces such as The Red Shoes and The Life & Death Of Colonel Blimp, and helped rescue hundreds of other films. His resume is almost peerless, as fifty years of constructing his energetic and occasionally challenging fables has resulted in three inarguable masterpieces – Taxi Driver, Goodfellas and Raging Bull - and other pictures as he charmingly calls them which are beloved of cinephiles the world over. But all of this was almost not to be, as a young man growing up in a strict Catholic Italian-American household he once stood at a crossroads in his life, either to embrace his beloved movies or to enter the seminary and join the priesthood, and I think in that light many of his films can be seen as quiet moral dissertations, one of the most powerful examples being his latest movie The Wolf Of Wall Street.
This appropriately excessive three-hour movie is christened with the roar of a $500,000 pearl white Ferrari, of blowing coke into the ass of a $2,000 a night call girl, of hoovering up thunderous rails of prime colombian flake and swiftly turns more degenerate – meet Jordan Belfort (a career best Leonardo DiCaprio) an utterly amoral, wealth obsessed wretch of humanity whose precipitous rise and fall is the films trenchant trajectory. Flashing back to his 1987 arrival at Wall Street Jordan is awarded an entry-level job at an established stock broking firm, and is taken under the wing of Mark Hanna (a loquacious Matthew McConaughey). In one scene the film obliterates every documentary on the intangible casino which is the global stock market made since 2008, as Hanna explains the ruthless theft of investors dreams, of brokers pocketing their bloated commissions whilst keeping the suckers paper rich but chained into the system. The day that Belfort secures his licence to trade chimes with a chilling omen – Black Monday - so barely into months into the job Jordan swiftly finds himself out in the realms of unemployment. Initially excelling in a successive role of selling penny stocks to gullible working class stiffs he pockets an outrageous 50% commission, but even a $72K monthly salary isn’t enough to sate his inexhaustible appetites so he and his cronies set up their own whale hunting operation, with his right hand man Donnie Azoff (Dionysian poster-boy Jonah Hill) at his side they swiftly become the toast of the financial elite whilst their quasi legal operations begin to draw the interest of the regulators…..
There are many pleasures to partake of throughout this excessive, extraordinarily entertaining and seductive film, from exorbitant performances to cinematic design, from social comment to indoctrinating unease. Firstly, it will bring such joy to lovers of film to see one of the greatest directors in the medium’s history absolutely firing on all cylinders, equalling the power and prowess of his highest regarded previous work – I’ve already seen it twice and my appreciation seems certain to deepen as its aboriginal flourishes and delirious sequences are audited and scrutinised. It’s a dangerous films in many ways, in its absolute rejection of spoon-feeding the audience by barking moral judgements, it’s an uncomfortable truth perhaps but hey guess what – getting drunk is fun. Taking drugs is fun. Having sex is fun, but when these appetites are ballooned to grotesque levels of debauchery these practitioners become pathetic creatures, and all the trappings of wealth and prestige cannot hide their repugnant, commerce afflicted souls. Scorsese, screenwriter Terence Winter and a chutzpah cleaved performance from DiCaprio clearly inculcates the audience into this lavish, obscene lifestyle through carefully constructed repetition, but there is clear conscientious purpose to this seduction which becomes abundantly clear in the final phases of the picture, when Jordan’s true character is clearly presented in all its nausea inducing glory. The allegations of misogyny also baffle and astound, yes it’s throughly accurate to state that the only women in this film are vacuous trophy wives and hookers (well, apart for Johnny Lumley’s brief turn as the elegant Aunt of Jordan’s wife Naomi (Margot Robbie) but here’s a curious point – maybe because that’s exactly how these disgusting specimens see women and it represents the total breadth of their interactions with the opposite sex? The assertion by imbeciles like Mark Kermode that the presentation of women is therefore ’problematic’ so there needs to be a balance is mind-stunningly ridiculous, as it would betray the entire ethos of the film and its apparent failure in treating its audience as adults (both in content, some of the sex and drug taking sequences are like nothing seen in American cinema for a long, long time) would be sacrificed at the altar of some specious notion of respect.
This is turning into a rant isn’t it? Well, what can I say, its been a long time since film reviews actually made me furious but here we are. The ethos and the filmmakers position towards these characters is perfectly obvious in the films last hour when in devastating detail we are shown exactly what pathetic dregs of humanity these pond scum really are, there is no need to show the effects of their crimes upon the investors whom they defrauded as again this would break the cycle of seduction which is so carefully construed, and the final shot of those enraptured faces (I’m remaining vague for spoiler avoidance) is the ultimate statement not only on the crash of 2008 but how exactly nothing has changed in the intervening years as the filthy rich continue to amass depressing wealth whilst the majority of members of our so-called civilisation work in slave like conditions, as these capos of commerce are continually feallted by the political and media class while the genuinely deserving of aid and support are demonized and marginalised.
A-hem. OK, let’s decant from the soapbox and get back to the movie itself shall we? On a second watch there are some intriguing choices, some blipvert inserts and 12 fame insertions, some subtle time lapse arcs and unusual compositions, all embroidered within the traditional arc of a delerious rise and catastrophic fall which naturally brings Goodfellas to mind. Jordan regularly shatters the fourth wall and brings us into his Mephistophelian confidence, his superbly crafted voiceover married with Thelma Schoonmaker’s dexterous editing patterns and jagged continuity cuts, moving effortlessly from gut-punching humor to abject humiliation of junior and female colleagues, a merger of assets which exposes the intrinsic chavinism of the films principal shareholders. The film mixes digital and film stocks and marty’s trademark deloyment of music underscores the purpose of certain scenes, and as you’d expect from this notoriously agile director the camera sharks through the sterile sets with a predatory precision that mirrors the cut of Jordan’s bespoke Armani suits, technique marrying temprement in an exhilirating portfolio of craft and character. The quaalude scene is an instant classic with physical comedy ameliorated with intoxication in a fashion not seen since Fear & Loathing, a $2 million bachelor party drizzled with heaps of cocaine showering the interior of a private jet in imagery worthy of Hogathian (NSFW and spoilers) excess.
Some years ago I read Taxi Driver Executive Producer Julia Philips notorious memoir You’ll Never Eat Lunch In This Town Again where she recalled the gasps in preview screenings when Travis Bickle intoned how every night he had to wash the cum-streaks from the back of his car, and there are some truths excavated in this film which are just as challenging and uncomfortable which elevates this to one of Scorsese’s hungriest and angriest works of art since the Nineties. DiCaprio has a a couple of scenes where he is required to raise the morale of his footsoldiers which equal the famous ‘Greed Is Good’ calculus of Wall Street, his charisma beguiling as the twisted ideology tumbles from his lips. The film is a quiet sermon, as if half of Scorsese’s omerta was enshrined in that aforementioned seminary, he quietly exposing some darker depths of the male psyche and by association the structures and symbols of the modern world which spring these biological fathoms, especially when you consider those Vitaliano Pancaldi ties (where do they point?) and those skyscraper phallic testaments to virility which litter the financial centres of the world. So as it my way there is plenty of supplementary material floating around, here is a wonderful interview with Thelma Schoonmaker which she divulges details of the initial four-hour print, and the film community have been going wild for this amusing post screening discussion with Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson (which naturally is spoiler heavy so beware) but the Executive Summary is this – this is a terrific film from one of the worlds great filmmakers, a final piece of a trilogy begun with Goodfellas and continued with Casino, if at the age of 72 he only has a couple more films in him this investment is absolutley critical in this withering criteque of unchecked capitalism;
Yeah, OK, it’s fucking great, it is relentless and the thought that a 70-year-old made this movie makes me feel exhausted. Does it equal vintage Scorsese? That’s difficult to say, and a period of reflection and absorption is required to give that assertion justice, but for pure unadulterated energy and humor, with as always a fine subtly etched line of deeply absorbed pathos, this is his best film in decades;
Leo is at his charismatic career best, Hill is disgustingly fantastic, and in terms of excess this gives Scarface a run for its coke drenched money – man, that Quaaludes scene is just……well, lets just say it needs to be seen to be believed. Here’s the opening four minutes which sets the extremely NSFW tone;
Y’know, the announcements of the Oscars take me by surprise every year, in an inverted relationship to how much I care about them as the years stroll by. They rarely have a huge connection to the genuinely envelope pushing elements of the art form other than their cultural specific, North American blockbuster centric take on the land of film, with the odd pedigree picture thrown in to honour the art form with a sheen of respectability, as every 12 Years A Slave attempts to obliterate any horrific reminiscences of Jack & Jill 2 (shudders). But as I always say they can be fun to consider and predict, especially as I publicly display my total ignorance of Tinseltown entanglements, and as always my formula is this – bold for those I’ve seen, italics for those I think will win, underlined for those I think should win……
I must say I’m a little surprised to see Philomena in here, I’ve not seen it yet but to plucky little British movie jostling with the big boys is quite pleasing, from a nationalist perspective. Other than that no major shocks apart from raised eyebrows at Dallas Buyers Club, a movie which got a fairly ‘meh’ reaction in my experience at TiFF but appears to have gained some traction. Fortunately like Her my omissions open here in the next month or so which enables me to catch them before the ceremony, but I think McQueen and company quite rightly will snare this one for their immediate classic which is instantly the yardstick that all other films examining that period of history will be measured against.
12 Years a Slave
The Wolf of Wall Street
Dallas Buyers Club
God-damn this is tricky this year. McQueen deserves it, but is fairly notoriously a prickly sort of chap who isn’t exactly part of the Hollywood scene. Marty’s already been honoured, and I don’t think O’Russell has many friends left after his years in the wilderness. So I’m opting for Cuaron, he is certainly deserving and the technological breakthrough he’s mustered was out of this world, plus there’s little pathos in Gravity which usually goes down well with the Academy.
David O Russell – American Hustle
Alfonso Cuaron – Gravity
Alexander Payne – Nebraska
Steve McQueen – 12 Years a Slave
Martin Scorsese – The Wolf of Wall Street
BEST ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE
I enjoyed Bruce Dern enormously in Nebraska but it struck as a performance which wasn’t hugely demanding, but then again I’m no expert and he certainly had the occasional moving movement in that tender little movie. I think he’ll take it as part of the lifetime achievement factor, but for my money Ejiofor gave the most electric performance which was absolutely devastating.
Christian Bale – American Hustle
Bruce Dern – Nebraska
Leonardo DiCaprio – The Wolf of Wall Street
Chiwetel Ejiofor – 12 Years a Slave
Matthew McConaughey – Dallas Buyers Club
BEST ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE
Well there’s a surprise, I wonder if it is even legal to have a year when Meryl isn’t nominated? Despite having not seen the film and indeed dreading the prospect given what seems to me like Allen’s horrendous caricatures of anyone who doesn’t dwell within the elite enclaves of millionaire Manhattan Blanchet is the clear favourite for this, I controversially think Bullock deserves an award for delivering such a faintly moving turn in such a difficult physical conditions. I won’t even start with the ultimate stupidity which is the omission of Adele Exarchopoulos for Blue Is The Warmest Color, due to the Academy’s archaic rules which might also crop up further down the line..
Cate Blanchett – Blue Jasmine
Amy Adams – American Hustle
Sandra Bullock – Gravity
Judi Dench – Philomena
Meryl Streep – August Osage County
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
It’s rewarding to see Fassbender in with a fighting chance given that he was overlooked for nomination at many other ceremonies. I’ve heard Jonah Hill is phenomenal but I’m not seeing Wolf until tomorrow, so let’s stick with Mike for now;
Bradley Cooper – American Hustle
Barkhad Abdi – Captain Phillips
Michael Fassbender – 12 Years a Slave
Jonah Hill – The Wolf of Wall Street
Jared Leto – Dallas Buyers Club
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Damn, this is always a close one. Lawrence is flavour of the month so she’s definitely in with a chance, but sometimes outsider performances like Lupita Nyong’o can sneak in and take it. Let’s take a gamble and go with her, she certainly deserves it;
Jennifer Lawrence – American Hustle
Lupita Nyong’o – 12 Years a Slave
Sally Hawkins – Blue Jasmine
Julia Roberts – August Osage County
June Squibb – Nebraska
BEST ANIMATED FEATURE FILM
Or, most disinterested category as far as the Menagerie is concerned. I’m going for Frozen which seems to have generated some critical heat, but Despicable Me 2 did rape the box-office. I haven’t seen the original one yet….
Despicable Me 2
Ernest & Celestine
The Wind Rises
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
I think Linklater has a lot of love out there for the third part of his maturing trilogy, it might have the aura of being improvised in places but I think it will swing it;
Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke – Before Midnight
Billy Ray – Captain Phillips
Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope – Philomena
John Ridley – 12 Years a Slave
Terence Winter – The Wolf of Wall Street
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
This is difficult to judge before I see Her, Dallas Buyers Club and Blue Jasmine, structurally Hustle has some major defects so I can’t see that getting away with it. So lets opt for Nebraska which at least a fully circled arc, great characters and terrific, zippy one liners….
Eric Warren Singer and David O Russell – American Hustle
Woody Allen – Blue Jasmine
Craig Borten & Melisa Wallack – Dallas Buyers Club
Spike Jonze – Her
Bob Nelson – Nebraska
BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
The Great Beauty would seem to be the obvious choice given its accolades in the serious press, The Hunt is certainly too severe in terms of subject matter to be lavished with such praise;
The Great Beauty (Italy)
The Hunt (Denmark)
The Broken Circle Breakdown (Belgium)
The Missing Picture (Cambodia)
BEST ORIGINAL SONG
Oh I don’t know. Another stupid guess, let’s go with Disney again;
Let It Go – Frozen
Ordinary Love – Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
Alone Yet Not Alone – Alone Yet Not Alone
Happy – Despicable Me 2
The Moon Song – Her
BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
Oh jesus christ, you know what this means – I have to see Saving Mr. Banks which looks like one of the most unpleasant experiences of the year. I’m told it’s a total hatchet job on a fascinating woman who had an incredible life and career, reduced to be some frigid stuck-up witch who finally learns some life lessons as her frosty demeanour begins to thaw under the influence of the Mouse-House. it sounds fucking horrendous. So let’s go out on a limb with Gravity as you never know….
The Book Thief
Saving Mr Banks
BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
When a documentary is routinely trouncing best fiction films across the worlds cinema intelligentsia I think it’s fair to assume it should have this award dead to rights. I am somewhat shocked to see Stories We Tell and The Gatekeepers omitted from this list however, which I’m sure is shared across the movie on-line community – what were they thinking?
The Act of Killing
Cutie and the Boxer
20 Feet from Stardom
BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT SUBJECT
Again, total guesswork as always;
Karama Has No Walls
The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life
Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall
BEST FILM EDITING
Out of this bunch I’m guessing that juggling the characters and competing story-arcs would go American Hustle’s way, although Captain Philips could also be in with a shot given the tension it generates and sustains;
Dallas Buyers Club
12 Years a Slave
BEST MAKE-UP & HAIRSTYLING
Oh boy, at least if Knoxsville gets this there should be an amusing on-screen incident. I am reliably told however that Jared Leto’s cross-dressing performance in Dallas is quite an arresting display, so lets play it safe;
Dallas Buyers Club
Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa
The Lone Ranger
BEST SHORT FILM (ANIMATED)
Oh, I don’t know, I’ll make a proper assessment when I’ve actually seen some of the damn things. Until then, lets opt for…erm…Possessions;
Get a Horse!
Room on the Broom
BEST SHORT FILM (LIVE ACTION)
As usual, I have absolutely no fucking idea. I do try and see these on-line and post links to them as they are sequestered, so for now I’ll opt for Helium as a counterpart to Gravity;
Aquel No Era Yo (That Wasn’t Me)
Avant Que De Tour Perdre (Just Before Losing Everything)
Pitääkö Mun Kaikki Hoitaa? (Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?)
The Voorman Problem
BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
There has been enormous chatter about how brilliant the near future tech-designs of Her prefigure real, on-the-cusp plans of certain silicon valley firms, but the Academy normally praises the period glossy period reproductions, so I’m playing sage with Gatsby;
The Great Gatsby
12 Years a Slave
BEST SOUND EDITING
Alongside the visuals, the extraordinary sound designs and techniques deployed in Gravity are worthy of award, although All Is Lost comes a close second;
All Is Lost
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
BEST SOUND MIXING
As above, although Inside Llewyn Davis which can loosely be described as a musical could also be in with a shout;
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Inside Llewyn Davis
BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
Well what do you think? if Blanchet’s a lock for actress, then the most impressive deployment of SFX since Avatar is something of a fundamental physics derived law. Quite why The Lone Ranger is in here is something of a mystery, although the film wasn’t as bad as its reputation suggests (aside from Depp whom should hang his dead crow festooned head in deep, deep shame) it’s not really in the same league as the other big pixel crunchers here….
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Iron Man 3
The Lone Ranger
Star Trek Into Darkness
BEST COSTUME DESIGN
The Invisible Woman? I haven’t even heard of that one. One of the more memorable qualities of Hustle was it’s period recreation and of course the costumes are a major part of that, so rather going with what should be one of O’russell’s commiseration awards….
The Great Gatsby
The Invisible Woman
12 Years a Slave
As always I err toward supporting Roger Deakins who still hasn’t received the recognition he deserves, but I must veer toward Gravity which Lubeski should win for designing and implementing completely new limits of technology. Then again, maybe the B&W of Nebraka could steal the gong on a nostalgia ticket, I’m betting there is some great oscar trivia about how this is the first monochrome nomination for, say, twenty years – since Schindlers List?
Inside Llewyn Davis
A significant blast of culture for all your aesthetic troglodytes, here is the full four and a half hour Philip Glass opera I saw a couple of years ago – magnificent;
My excuse to post this is that Mr. Glass did compose the soundtrack for Marty’s Kundun back in 1997, did I mention that he has a new film out at the end of the week? I think I must have….
A new year, a new start, a new schedule of enquiry for the Menagerie. Over the festive season it occurred to me that a certain film director, one of my favourites, has barely been featured in this quiet corner of the internet over the past six and a half years, a criminal oversight which I endeavour to correct throughout the coming weeks and months. This decision has partially been inspired by a re-watch of all 900 minutes of Mark Cousins exhausting The Story Of Film series, as even though my director of choice made only a fleeting appearance in that overview of the art form it struck me that his career would be an excellent subject for a writing project given the extraordinary range and depth of his work, from a nervous nest of aesthetic, geographical, genre and historical perspectives. Fritz Lang dominated the indigenous industry of his German homeland during one of its most artistically productive and resonant periods, before the rise of National Socialism saw him flee to America in the late Thirties where Hollywood distilled his visions through the regimented model of the studio system, a shift both in language and manufacture which like others emigration of the period (Hitchcock, Robert Siodmak and Billy Wilder to name just three) saw European bred auteurs realising their projects in umbilicaly linked yet fascinatingly fractured ways.
So whom is this fiercely monocled, riding crop wielding Teutonic tyrant of which I speak? Well, like his compatriots Cecil B. DeMille or Erich Von Stroheim Lang encompasses all the clichés of the Hollywood megalomaniac, a barking egotist who allegedly reduced his cast and crew to shivering wrecks on set if his uncompromising vision was not obeyed, he having little regard for such absurd human frailties such as empathy or sympathy if it interfering with the perfect representation of the images and ideas in his fevered brain making it to the silver screen. He experimented with the art form and matured it’s technological developments - M is arguably considered as sound cinema’s first masterpiece – whilst the enormous scope and ideas constructed in the likes of Metropolis still drape an enormous shadow over current genre filmmaking a mere eighty years later. Those wide scale vistas, a combination of political naivety and unequalled production resources morphed into a fascination with psychological waters and depths which he mined in his American work, like Nolan, Melville or Mann he used the fulcrum of crime cinema and its practitioners to peer into some uncomfortable depths of the human condition, with a number of key film noir’s gloaming in the gutters of treachery and betrayal.
I’ve already invested in a trio of Blu-Rays which I’ve punctuated this post with to give you a flavour of things to come from his German period, one example of his work is already on my schedule on the big-screen as part of my Gothic season mutterings and that seminal work in the genre Metropolis is certain to be a centrepiece of the imminent SF season which beams down to the Southbank later in the year. Incidentally I’m already constructing a mental checklist of movies to cover for that season including Forbidden Planet, Them!, Close Encounters of The Third Kind (either edition), THX1138, The Fly (original or remake), They Live, A Boy & His Dog, Escape From New York, The Incredible Shrinking Man, Solaris and of course A Clockwork Orange and the schedule hasn’t even been announced yet. But I digress, with Lang I’ll pretty much review the films as they come, leaping from period and genre as the disks arrive in the post or the curtains part on big-screen exposures, but fret not for I will still be continuing my Universal Monsters series which will cautiously progress throughout the year, as I think I can manage three competing seasons throughout the months to come – I’m like a cinema robot;
So the UK press screenings were held over the weekend and like our American cousins the Wolf verdict is clear – phenomenal, stunning, outstanding etc. So in tandem with this let’s start to raise the temperature on the investment portfolio shall we?
I’m actually thinking of taking Friday off work to see it first thing you fucking mooks, for three delerious hours of this incredible energy;
It’s been a while, perhaps too long, since I threw together a list post. Having perused this weekend’s cinema listings I’m afraid to say there is nothing which potentially floats my boat - 12 Years A Slave I’ve already seen of course and although I got vaguely excited at seeing The Canyons on the schedule this glee was smothered when I realised that it is only showing at midnight screenings over at the Ritzy Picturehouse in Brixton - not convenient. This may well be the calm before the storm as after this weekend I have quite a demanding schedule movie wise throughout the rest of January, but one doesn’t wish to rest on their laurels so in the interests of utter plagiarism of a podcast series which I follow I’ve decided to copy their lead and select a year and extract a few movies from that period for a few scattered thoughts.
Why 1984? Well, obviously its been three long decades since the Orwellian marker, it’s widely seen as a year where the notion of the blockbuster really began to cement itself as the absolute dominant form of product with marketing budgets equalling production budgets, with focus grouped analysis gaining a new ‘maturity’ and something of a halcyon period as franchise were still being birthed, rather than revisited or rebooted. It’s also the year, roughly speaking, where a certain generation of critic came of age and started to go and see films more than once at the cinema given their new-found economic purchasing power, their cinema obsessions beginning to coalesce in earnest, I’m certainly a member of this movement that poured over film magazines and newspaper articles back in those unimaginable pre-internet days, where the only chance of seeing a trailer was actually at the cinema or if you were lucky as part of the closing titles of Film ’84. The year had a number of big budget smashes which I’m going to sidestep as they’ve already garnered a wealth of nostalgic adoration over the years, Gremlins and Dune I’ve already covered (this is quite amusing), Temple Of Doom has its own kali cult and Ghostbusters is a comedy classic which doesn’t need any further exorcism from me. So instead here are some scattered thoughts on my most memorable and favourite films of 1984 beginning with a positively chilly cult curio;
Ice Pirates (Stuart Raffill) – What a ridiculous premise, that in some far distant future precious and abundant resources would have eroded to such a meagre proportion that wars, conflicts and piracy will be conducted to control them eh? Trailing in the wake of the original Star Wars trilogy this sightly more tounge in cheek cube of bandwagon jumping at least has something of a sense of humor, and with a cast involving early Angelica Huston and Ron Perlman its cult credentials are cooled. This scene always froze in the memory….
Johnny Dangerously (Amy Heckerling) – After Airplane and Police Squad this johnny come lately has been somewhat airbrushed from comedy history, but like Top Secret it still holds a fond space in my and my friends hearts. It’s amusing seeing Michael Keaton before he went superstar at the end of the decade playing some nocturnal psychopath, see also early appearances from Griffin Dunne and the late, great Peter Boyle. The goofy humor still plays if you’re in a juvenile mood, it’s certainly more aligned to sheer gags per minute rather than some self-referential plundering of the gangster movies of the 1930′s which is the source milieu, and that’s probably why it still hangs tough.
Night Of The Comet (Thom Eberthardt) – Aside from the post doomsday setting which is always catnip to the menagerie I have no excuse for my love of this film, it’s just pure, stupid nostalgia, there is not much to praise this film for in terms of script, performance, photography or indeed anything other than a period filtered hazy bleached sky, but this excels as a guilty pleasure which is hardly the end of the world.
Starman (John Carpenter) – In terms of SF yes I’m overlooking The Terminator, Repo Man and Dune which also came to light in 1984, but as Carpenters crafts go this post E.T. effort always gets short thrift on JC’s roll-call. I distinctly remember seeing this on a Saturday night as a special treat VHS rental and being somewhat fascinated with Bridges birdlike performance, post Raiders I’m sure I bore a torch for the cute button nosed Karen Allen as well. A great, memorable soundtrack as always from JC, rumors still rumble of a sequel which of course will never fucking happen – we’ll see Plisken on the Moon before that happens…..
The Company Of Wolves (Neil Jordan) – After La Belle Et la Bete I must admit I’m anxious to revisit this frightening fairy tale, a movie with genuine brooding menace and murky mythic psychosis. It’s a shame Jordan never really seemed to fulfil his potential as an adult themed Tim Burton, even as the budgets shrank you can see the faint pulse of an auteur beating beneath the compromised visions, see for example the frustratingly flawed Byzantium which at least tried to put some bite back into the vampire movie.
Paris Texas (Wim Wenders) – Something a little more serious, it’s always instructive to see a culture through an outsiders eyes, and Wim Wenders cool observations on the American veldt, devoid of empathy, remains a sand blasted classic. The scene above may seem a little on the nose by todays standards but its the perfect encapsulation of the era, of a lone voice isolated in the wilderness, drowned out by the obliterating clamour of the Thatcherite & Reganite free market revolution of the self.
Once Upon A Time In America (Sergio Leone) – We’ve been here before of course but one of the all time great classics of the genre is always worth paying tribute, unless you wanna get discreetly garrotted in a West side tenement slum car-park. I’ve got my crew out on the street looking into these rumors about the longer Cannes anniversary cut being released from the penitentiary, nobody’s squealed yet but I’m a patient man….
Blood Simple (Joel Coen) – Who knew that this stylish, moody little neo-noir would be the inauguration of one of the most critically beloved American film brotherhoods of the past thirty years? It rarely gets much discussion these days, when delving into their back catalogue the likes of Millers Crossing and Barton Fink tend to get the attention, but this small town tale deserves more attention, if ony for M.Emmet Walsh’s brilliant performance of that horrendous figure who literally sweats slime….
2010 (Peter Hyams) – Once again, I have vivid memories of seeing this at the cinema, and I must have been a slightly weird kid (as opposed to now of course) as a SF film with a total lack of space battles, alien encounters, fainting princesses or heroic derring-do still ignited my rockets. Of course it’s inferior to the original – what isn’t – but as a slice of SF this works as a standalone translation of Clarke’s second in the series of Odyssey books, and the late great Roy Schnieder was always honorably trustworthy.
The fourth and final phase of the BFI’s glorious Gothic season is now upon us and in an incremental drift away from the ghoulish and horrific the programme has turned to matters of the heart, of narcotic romance, brooding lust and dark sexuality with the ‘Love is A Devil’ strand of their enormously successful and most ambitious season to date. I do like to open and close the waning years with films that could widely be considered as ‘classics’, given the vagaries of screenings and alternative commitments this hasn’t always been feasible, but I have managed to programme quite an ambitious final push at the BFI for the inception of 2014 in order to soak up the final month of this fantastic season, I’m just a little aggravated with myself that I haven’t been able to make more of an effort since last August. Still, I can’t imagine a finer method to inaugurate the year that with Jean Cocteau’s 1946 classic of world cinema La Belle Et La Bête, lavished with a new 4K digital enchantment which is ravishingly resplendent on the big screen, for fans of cinema this is an absolute must see as a magical distraction from the perils and prostrations of this most dreary of months. Initially it feels strange to consider that the film was shot in the dying embers of the war and occupation yet doesn’t seem to reference the darkness and betrayal of the previous six years, it’s a film which wears its romantic revelry and burning brazier of cinematic wonder on its glittering embroidered sleeve, with a spellbinding elixir of technical magic and photographic beauty it’s a film which carves its own space in cinematic time, unencumbered by the distracting anxieties of the real, non-fictitious world. In terms of Cocteau I have touched upon one of the great triumvirate of pre-war European cinema before with Orphée, alongside with Jean Vigo and Jean Renoir he is considered one of European cinema’s great pioneers of the era, and as an avant garde artist who moved from theatre to film his associations and romances with the likes of Marcel Proust, Pablo Picasso, Nijinsky, Kenneth Anger, Jean Hugo, Yul Brynner, Marlene Dietrich, Coco Chanel, Igor Stravinsky and Édith Piaf means that he must have had quite a few tales to tell and stories to weave…..
Opening with a theatrical shattering of the fourth wall the film makes its intentions clear, as a glimpse behind the scenes of the crew and technicians assembling for action precursors the presentation of a clapper board and a jaunty scored overture, before a written preamble sets the stage of the fairy tale with a closing, leading utterance of ‘Once Upon A Time….’ Immediately Cocteau is casting an incantation of fantasy and signalling an omission of reality, appealing to the long dormant childish embrace of enchantment over reason, even as he acknowledges the illusory power of the silver screen. The Beauty and the Beast myth is firmly etched into our culture alongside many other fairy tales, in this conjuration of the fable Beauty (Josette Day) is swiftly imprisoned in the phantasmagoric Chateau of the mysterious Beast (Jean Marais) as a punishment for her fathers transgression, he mistakenly purloining a white rose from the canine creature’s garden for which the penalty is usually death. In order to save her father Belle agrees to become the Beast’s surrogate prisoner and he swiftly falls in love with the delicate and noble creature, proposing marriage on a nightly basis which she dutifully refuses. As the days stumble into weeks Belle incrementally warms to the curious Beast, her initial pity thawing to his romantic ardour who tests her by letting her return home to her family and telling her that if she doesn’t return to him within a week, he will die of grief.
Designed to reflect the illustrations of Gustave Doré and the paintings of Jan Vermeer this may be one of the most beautiful films of the first half century of cinema, before colour usurped monochrome’s crown, before Technicolor triumphed as the veneer of celluloid fantasy. This digital restoration genuinely sparkles on-screen, from the glittering facets in the beasts luxurious finery to Belle’s magical tears transforming into clinquant diamonds the film weaves a dexterous and spirited spell, adrift in a prism of legend and lore, a shared iconography which transcends cultural and historical boundaries. There are psychological depth charges lurking beneath the surface, that’s why these fairy tales endure in the collective unconscious across numerous generations, with symbolic charges built into the plot that hold some uncomfortable truths on the human condition, clad in fictitious form to be easily digestible to a younger audience. That’s why Kubrick researched texts and scholarly tomes such as Bruno Bettelheim’s Uses of Enchantment with his co-screenwriter Diane Johnson when crafting The Shining and infusing it with sly fairy tale motifs (consider ‘Little pigs, little pigs let me come in’, Wendy’s claim that she will be ’leaving a trail of breadcrumbs just to find my way out’ or the final plunge into the labyrinth), it’s that density of image and idea which approaches the status of masterpiece. In La Belle Et La Bete a stolen white virginal rose is the panacea to Belle’s imprisonment, a crime accidentally committed by her father after being driven into the Beasts realm following a disorienting storm, the Beast’s glove is her transformational route of escape, the symbolic informing the physical, narrative sublimated to the symbolic and symbiotic.
Despite the submerged symbolism being densely embeded throughout the film its unconscious exculpations have reverberated throughout the art form, it’s not just Polanski with those grasping wall-mounted hands in Replusion who fell under Cocteau’s sorcerers ways but the film and his wider work is also a major influence on David Lynch, that thieving Lumbertown swine lifting the whole reverse cranking effect and phantasmic milieu of the these films and brewing his own corrosive concoction of nightmares and dreamscapes - the Black Lodge is modern Cocteau in all its mystifying and colourful malaise. Seeing the film again I was also stuck by individual portraits and sojourns into the uncanny which also bear sigils of this film, I was reminded of Legend in which Mia Sara wears a costume reminiscent of that which Belle inhabits, of the intersection of fairy and fear in Labyrinth and of course Disney’s retelling of the myth back in the 1990′s, complete with French anthropomorphic candle holders, amusingly named Lumiere which stands as a dual homage to Cocteau and those pioneering French siblings. Overshadowing them all of course is a certain Mexican auteur whom has frequently expressed his total adoration of the film and its grip of the romantic and monstrous, after sating his appetite on big budget behemoths such as Pacific Rim one can fervently pray that he gets back to the strand of his career which follows this potent path through the labyrinth such as, erm, Pan’s Labyrinth, Cronos or The Devil’s Backbone.
A few flickering embers to close from this big screen viewing, Cocteau has his camera glide around the characters within his expressionist sets with a porous, ethereal quality, rarely cutting to glowing close-ups of Belle and the Beast to punctuate key emotional moments, this control and discipline of composition is pure storytelling from a cinematic standpoint and quite an effective change to the hyper-edited kids movies of today. That thought leads me onto the proliferation of animated movies over the past couple of decades which attempt to straddle two audiences, the rapt eyed youngsters and their jaded parents, it seems that any live-action effort such as this has been crushed under the juggernaut of Disney, Dreamworks, Pixar and the other animation companies, is there no space for live-action tales of this complexion anymore? There is a key strand if cinema born by Melies, enhanced and evolved through films such as this by Cocteau and out through the enchantments of early Spielberg, a casting of cinematic wonder which I find animated fare has crushed, apart from Pixar’s best efforts (and lets not get into that argument about how they have plunged into mediocrity in recent years after the Mouse House acquisition) when was the last time an E.T. or Close Encounters really arrested the popular imagination, which wasn’t based on pre-existing media? There’s LOTR I guess and I’m probably missing some blindingly obvious texts (one frame of this film has more magic and wonder that the entirety of the Pirates or Harry Potter franchises combined, and yes I am an elitist snob but don’t let that stand in the way of empirical, visual evidence) but that’s my general, grumpy and growling attitude. Anyway, apparently the current Criterion Collection DVD and Blu-ray release has the option to screen the film with a Philip Glass score which he composed back in 1994, and I’m sure this 4K transfer will arrive on a scintillating new Blu-Ray so we can all live happily ever after, but before then be sure to catch this on the big screen while you can if you have an appetite for a film which is guaranteed to dismiss those morbid January slumbers;
No, I’m not branching out to video game reviews but I think given the movie connections I can get away with posting this, plus its my excuse to buy me some time while I put the finishing touches to last weekend’s film review which I’m finding hard to finalize – don’t hold your breath;
All of the Alien inspired games have been fairly terrible if memory serves, so anything aiming for the initial sense of dread and horror of the superior first film could be quite an experience, especially given the fidelity and respect for the source material outlined here. Any excuse to buy a PS4 also isn’t such a bad thing…..
‘The light that burns twice as bright, burns half as long’, except quite clearly not in this case as the Hong Kong entertainment mogul Sir Run Run Shaw passed away yesterday at the venerable age of 106. I’m no expert of martial arts movies, I have fond memories of some early Jackie Chan and associated merciless melees populating the shelves of my local VHS emporium (there is a nice little collection here) but course I couldn’t let this dudes passing go unremarked as he sponsored a certain special 1982 SF project;
Here’s a comprehensive list which is an amusing perusal, if only for some of the movie titles. It’s kind of fitting isn’t it, that a Warner Brothers distributed and independently financed movie should have some Oriental DNA, given Blade Runner’s sociological Asian influences? Other films to admire include The Right Stuff, Outland and of course Police Academy….
First day back at work or do you have that dubious honor on Monday? Fighting through gales and freezing rain? Suffering that post festive hangover? Then let me cheer you up with this 1984 Oscar nominated documentary on the distressing lives of street children, not in Bogotá or Mexico City, not in Saigon or Port-au-prince, no this is set in….Seattle;
What can I say? Well, I was turned onto this by a new series of articles in Sight & Sound highlighting overlooked and neglected gems, they usually know what they’re talking about and this is devastating, as much a fascinating snapshot in time as it as a damning indictment of Regan’s economic ‘miracle’…..think of it as pre-grunge The Wire, complete with Tom Waits scored ending…..
I love me some con-man movies. Whether it’s The Sting, The Grifters, Nine Queens or House Of Games I love the cinematic sleight of hand, the fabrication and delusion, a plot with more twists and veiled intentions than a Raymond Chandler retrospective. Combine that with incredibly strong reviews and opinions Stateside concerning director David O. Russell’s continued rehabilitation after Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter then you have a strong contender to lead into a new year, so with a slight sense of apprehension (there have been some dissenting voices) I broached my first new release of 2014 with American Hustle. The presence of Annapurna pictures on the pre-credit logo’s provoked some reassurance of quality, Megan Ellison’s funding company (Zero Dark Thirty, The Master, Killing Them Softly, Spring Breakers) have yet to back a total loser (well OK, I’m goring Lawless OK?) although I am shocked to learn that the film was only lensed in March of last year, so a six month turnaround to actually get the caper into cinemas is quite an achievement, although it may explain some of the films discreet shortcomings - this is a relatively entertaining and fun romp with a clutch of belly laughs, but it’s not one to linger in the mind.
New York, 1978, and balding pot-bellied Irving Rosenfield (Christian Bale in method mode) is a part-time business man with a chain of dry cleaners and a small and profitable side venture of conning gullible investors out of their money. When he spies the ambitious flame haired Sydney (Amy Adams) at a pool party it’s lust at first sight, she beguiled by his corpulent chutzpah, a small town girl trying her best to make it in the big city. Soon roped into his scams and schemes the duo are initially a success, Sydney adopting an upper class British persona in order to lacquer a veneer of elitist class upon their financial philandering. Their luck runs out when one scam turns into a sting orchestrated by FBI agent Richie DiMasio (Bradley Cooper), a similarly ambitious man-child who flips them to potentially nab an even bigger score, his sights on popular Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) who might be the only guy in the entire enterprise with genuine intentions at heart. Polito wants to pull off an investment scheme with foreign investors in order to revitalise the Atlantic City zone with a new gambling supercasino which will create thousands of jobs and kick-start prosperity for one of the poorest districts of the city. Complications abound as Rosenfield’s wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) enters the scene as a bold and brassy boozer, and the double-crosses and scams accrue around the edges as who’s conning who gets lost in a whirlwind of clandestine cameras, fake sheiks, champagne fuelled parties and the interest of the mob…..
Many critics have alleged David O Russell’s recent effort as a Scorsese xerox given it’s 1970′s soundtrack, ensemble cast, duelling voiceover commentary, character piece camera push-ins, whip fast pace and boundless energy, a ‘fauxcorsese’ movie which is a phrase that raised a chuckle around these parts. Well, those allegations are not without merit as American Hustle is so obviously styled around New York’s great chronicler that certain sequences feel like extended homages, and one can’t help but compare this films stylistic flourishes rather disdainfully in response to Marty’s absolute command of the form, of style befitting subject and the turbulent lives of his protagonists. Such ripe underpinnings are sadly absent in Hustle, there is an element of everyone conning each other and no-one trusting anyone but this is never appropriately excavated, in fact the film doesn’t really have much to say about anything and for the first 45 minutes or so is rather a chore to get through. The pace shifts into a higher gear however when certain character meet, get involved and begin to gain some traction, particularly Jennifer Lawrence whom is the real con-artist of the film as she steals every scene she’s in, and the wider angles and deceptions that Rosenfield and Sydney are perpetuating begins to spin out of their control.
With its period setting and occasionally flamboyant costumes – there is plenty of cleavage on display here and I’m not just talking about the women – it’s almost pantomime in places, a current crop of top billed actors playing at 1970′s rather than inhabiting the characters existing in the 1970′s, so taken on that level its an above average romp which keeps the interest levels reasonably high as the film meanders into its final home straight, with a few running gags and character beats just about ensuring the price of admission. One unbilled cameo also strengthens the Scorsese aura which I thought enhanced the film, if you’ve been following Russell’s recent career then I don’t think you need to have the mental prowess of Baker Street’s sleuth to work out who it is. So, speaking of Marty to state I’m excited about Wolf Of Wall Street might be the understatement of the year, I mean you don’t throw out claims like ‘Scorsese’s best film since Goodfella’s, and it might even be better than that’ which have reverberating from the States since its Christmas Day opening without eliciting a windfall of expectation, so maybe as an aperitif before the main course one could enjoy American Hustle as precursor to the real thing, a pleasant light snack before the banquet begins;