Sick of the summer stupidity yet? Tired of tedious comic book movies aimed squarely at the attention deficit afflicted youth market quadrant? Do you yearn for a film, as opposed to a movie, which doesn’t have a number in the title or ten minutes of end title crawl listing enough CGI rendering agents to populate a virtual village? Then come with me gentle reader as we plunge into the fathomless deep waters of art-house pretension, as a palette cleanser to all the blockbuster bombast I can’t imagine a more diametrically opposite strain of cinematic communication than the austere alchemy of Robert Bresson, one of the most impassively displaced filmmakers to ever freeze the silver screen. Bresson is perhaps best known for his two films A Man Escaped and Pickpocket whose sparsely arranged, emotionally neutered dimensions often find themselves as prime examples of economic storytelling on a film art syllabus, as the ultimate practitioner of how information can be imparted to an audience with the absolute molecular minimum of information or inference. His films are almost wilfully obtuse and alienating, all emotion and empathy is quite deliberately parsed away by techniques I will get into shortly, but for context let me explain that we’ll be looking at L’Argent which was his final film from 1983, his 13th feature in a forty-year career which incidentally mirrors Kubrick’s final tally – there are many connections between the two. This rare screening as part of the Monday night film programme of education known as Passport To Cinema is one of the central strands of BFI support of London’s film students, screening a broad spectrum of material across genre and country, era and style, presumably to give them as wide an appreciation of the form to draw upon for their pieces and dissertations. As my fellow audience members shuffled out of NFT2 after this brisk 80 minute screening the overall mood was of quiet shell-shock, as this rather draining piece is quite a demanding watch.
The plot, if you can honestly call it that is based on Tolstoy’s short story The Forged Coupon, updating the social and cultural environment from 19th century tsarist Russia to modern nation-state European capitalism. A young, unnamed man receives his allowance from his father, and requests funds from his mother when he explains he has a debt at school to fulfil – both parents dismiss his entreaty to exceed his fiscal allocation. In exchange for a forged 500 franc note the man pawns his watch, which he then exchanges in a Parisian retail shop for a modest picture frame. Once the subterfuge is discover the shop owner scolds the retail assistant, and instructs her to pass on the note to the next appropriate customer, which just happens to be the doomed Yvon, a blue-collar worker with a young wife and child. Retiring for lunch Yvon tries to pay a restaurant tab with the unknown to him forged note, but a eagle-eyed waiter spots the counterfeit and calls the gendarmes. Yvon is arrested, but avoids a custodial sentence due to his previous good character; nevertheless his loses his job. Desperate and facing destitution with mouths to feed he makes a fateful decision and acts as the get-away car driver for a friend’s bank robbery. The robbery is a failure and Yvon captured and sentenced to three years, due to his previous interaction with the authorities. During his incarceration his daughter dies and his wife writes to him that she is leaving him to start a new life. Then things start to get worse……
If that summary of the plot sounds mechanistic and reduced to the facts then that’s my intent, as this is exactly how the plot mechanics of this deeply pessimistic film unravel, with the elegant perfection of a swiss watch’s relentless movements it charts with an intergalactic weight of dispassion just how one quirk of fate can obliterate a life. A lot of critics and commentators find Bresson an obstinate, implacable cliff face to navigate, his utter disregard to trade in emotion or even a social or political credo can be deeply divisive in that all elusive search for meaning amongst form, but I love this style of filmmaking where the various elements are manipulated in perfect concert to build a deeply affecting, distressing and yes I’ll go there depressing diatribe at modern dianetics, where the systems and processes of civilisation have come to overwhelm their originators, truly the lunatics have taken over the asylum. Bresson always utilised non-professional actors – the sobriquet of ‘acting’ being one he abhorred – whom he termed as his ‘models’, manipulating them like some perfectionist puppet master to be the marionettes of his frigid passion-plays, divorced of emotion, bereft of sentiment. His collaborators were instructed to repeat the sparse dialogue, twenty, thirty, even forty times until every molecule of emotion had been obliterated from the line reading, its no wonder that the vast majority of his models never went to appear in other films, such was the trauma of their experience. The narrative has the economy of a 21st century high-end gadget instruction manual, developments and points are illustrated with the bare lip service of sequential convention, for example in L’Argent a double murder, surely an enormously dramatic and potentially powerful sequence is parsed down to one shot, of a figure washing his hands in the sink as the water runs red. A breathless, nail-biting jailbreak is signalled with a light curling under a cell door, and the distant sounds of movement and friction. This rejection of the normative functions of shot reverse shot & continuity editing, the wholesale ignorance of character depth or development through dialogue and performance push Bresson’s cinema into densely metaphoric realms, the absence of those grips on which to purchase a translation of the film cause the emphasis to alight from the normative to the transformative, as we begin to coalesce what Bresson is actually concerned with – this is the world as it stands parsed back to reveal its true functions and dimensions, and it is inhuman and nubilously ugly.
We were warned beforehand that the print was somewhat distressed but it wasn’t as bad as I anticipated, as usual around the regular reel changes the image could jump and become misaligned to the axis but this wasn’t too jarring, and the films cavernous lack of a soundtrack wasn’t interfered with by any hissing or scratchy glitched transitions, usually it’s the interruption of the soundtrack or clipping the dialogue that can throw you out of the picture with these retrospective screenings, but Bresson’s sparse aesthetics are immune even to the inevitable decay of photo-chemical film stock it seems. When I first saw the film on BBC2 back in those crazy days when the Beeb used to transmit art-house fare I remember being somewhat mystified at the concrete tone and ruthless frugality of the film, this was probably one of my first exposures to such relentless arrangements of form and structure, and then the final sequence arrived and I experienced a palpable rush of blood to the celluloid head with this extraordinary arrangement, like Roy Batty’s tear swept speech or Marlon’s mumbling ’the horror’ this has been indelibly etched on my memory;
Pure, unadulterated existential terror, no lurid sweeping gaze at oozing entrails or the glassy-eyed visages of the recently expired, no weapons lunging into fractured flesh or crescending screams cut short, just a calm reportage of fragments of the event, as Yvon executes his family without any rhyme or reason, other than for the cold, detached and unstoppable march of acquisition and commerce. Butchered for their money the sequence appropriates the ruthless rhythms of capitalism, the howl and turn of the turbine, the eternal crawl of the production line, the mechanical cosmetics of that illusion which allegedly makes the world go round, dwarfing any alternate tenet of a shared humanism or spiritual succor. I remember audibly gasping at the cut to the bodies clustered at the top of the stairs, that sound all the more amplified as barring one brief sequence of Bach which a character plays on a piano L’Argent has no non-diagetic music whatsoever, it plays to the rhythms of real life with distant hums and echoes of activity, as the automatons walk through the motions of Bresson’s reformation fresco’s.
Throughout the film compositions are framed around entrances and exits, doorways and alleyways, cells and shops, in broad cinematic language these structures are a potent signifier of transition, of development and movement as characters egress from one scene to another through the cinematic space, driving the narrative and plot forward through a sequential process of physical displacement. Bresson perverts these conventions with a perturbing precision, through unconventional pacing a curious effect happens as the camera frequently holds the shot and lingers with a strange curiosity on these points of entry and exit long after the ‘model’ has departed the frame. It’s difficult to grasp what purpose Bresson as driving at with this glitched chronology but I will say it incrementally builds an intangible, formless anxiety which is really quite strange to behold, why are we looking at this? Why is he cultivating this vandalised canter? When absorbed in conjunction with the command of the other cinematic tools – the void of diagetic music cues, the obliteration of character and empathy – the physical space has become prime real estate, emotional or humanist discourse reduced to the simple and unimpeachable act of the transaction, the exchange, the barter. Cinema, or more specifically Film is fundamentally an industrial process, chemical solutions reacting to light, whirring gears and peering lenses, time and space sculpted and frozen in time, and Bresson’s figurines moving through that manufactured and constructed space at a formal level bridge half constructed thoughts of how the world is, how our society functions at its more abstract definitions, with an inhuman symmetry to the enlightenment virtues of scientific rigour and progress, of rational reasoning – and crucially what has been lost.
That’s not to say that the film is working any overt political or social manifesto, what makes this scale the highest pantheon of art-cinema is its operating above such tangible concerns, as the Communists embraced cinema as propaganda through the building blocks of montage, or the Americans seduced the masses through form as commerce, Bresson espouses his strict Catholicism through his clandestine formalism, with a hint of redemption and a paradise beyond the veil of tangible earthly temptations. Some critics have sensed a transcendence at the film’s climax which you can see here, I can’t say I see it myself as Yvon’s confession merely completes the circle to the inferno which was set in motion with that initial plea for commerce, as the film unceremoniously guillotines to black with no credits, a genius stroke which crowns a severe, his forty-year career. It’s the cutting from abstract forms and shapes to another shared symbol of our experience – from feet and hands, from tools and instruments – these functions severed from the body, isolated as mere corollaries as cause and effect supplant faith and charity. None of the ‘models’ obtains a single close-up as the machinery of civilisation is favoured by the implacable camera, the blood greasing the yield, as money, documents, tills, contracts and various media are presented with a solemnity evocative of a 15th century ascension triptych, our new figures of worship and power replacing the divine with the decimal. It may feel at times like being lectured by a particularly stern Marxist theologian and its obvious that Bresson is a progenitor of more recent world cinema figures such as Haneke or Bela Tarr, they share an absolute steeled command of cinematic language, a devoted sparseness of performance, an almost insulting disregard for the conventions of audience sympathy and comfort. For me it’s within these eyries that true masterpieces are formed, and that marriage of rigid formalism and technique elevates material to the rapturous, with a total disinterest in the social conditioning that can drive a man to ruin and barbarism through one malfunction of the capitalist machine L’Argent is nothing less than a macro level lecture on the disease of modern life, a sermon for the sacred over the secular. If all cinema is alienation, a rejection of reality in two-dimensional space, then Bresson is its most sanctified curate, the Archdiocese of apostasy;
*For you real completests I’ve just found this, his 1971 film which has never been released on VHS or DVD due to complex right issues, a film I’m sure will fill a long Bank Holiday weekend with mirth and joy? Yes, yes I am kidding – I’ve bookmarked that for later. So I’m off down to the South Coast myself for a well-earned break, consequently things should get a little quiet around here until next week, in the meantime doesn’t this sound particularly promising?
Well, this has snuck up on me. If I had to choose the best ten TV series of the new millennium, as well as the obvious candidates like The Shield, Mad Men and The Wire I’d also nominate two comedy series, namely The Thick Of It although that might only fully connect with we UK government spads and Arrested Development which remarkably returns for a long lobbied fourth season via Netflix;
I remember starting to watch this on BBC2 late on Sunday nights and it took me a couple of goes to absorb the rhythm of the show, but once it had percolated it became an instant classic. It’s always a big risk that when you bring these series back you risk tarnishing the memory of the originals if you ain’t up to par, judging by that trailer we should be in for more hilarious antics of the Bluth clan. The running gags are absolutely unbeatable;
Gob is probalby my favourite character – can’t wait for more ‘illusions’. I guess I could query this whole emerging trend of Netflix acting as distributors of nerw material as with the successful House Of Cards, challenging the broadcast networks and studios hegemony over the means of consuming the product, I reckon in five years the old notion of a TV broadcast schedule will be well and truly dead….
Can a movie change the world? Over their long and illustrious history they have certainly provoked non-fictional responses, shamefully screenings of DW Griffiths still controversial The Birth Of A Nation aligned with an upsurge in lynchings in the deep South, and Spike Lee’s incendary Do The Right Thing is claimed to have sparked a plague of public clashes in New York. Ronald Regan reputedly begin to chill to the prospects of discussions with the Soviets after being moved and stunned by seeing the TV movie The Day After*, but then again he also asked to see the War Room that was depicted in Dr. Strangelove, once he was inaugurated, a tale that one assumes was apocryphal as the alternative is too terrifying to entertain. Closer to home and sticking with TV movies Ken Loach’s brutal Cathy Come Home led to questions in the House Of Commons and new legislation to modernise social service provision, I’m sure there are many other examples where the fictional has influenced the real, where an issue or subject, an event or is brought to the radiating and excoriating sunlight. This brings us to Beyond Rangoon, John Boorman’s scathing portrayal of the military junta in Burma, as seen through the eyes of a naive American traveller played with a sweltering charm of Patricia Arquette. Released in 1995 this was one of the first films to spotlight the regime’s appaling behaviour – atrocities which still occurs daily by the way – and is partially credited with accelerating the release of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, an event which raised the previous invisible issue to the world media and all the attention that has subsequently been directed to that beautiful corner of the planet.
I wanted to revisit this film for a couple of reasons, first of all I remember seeing this on VHS back in the late nineties and being floored by an unexpected slap of a film, a powerful yell for justice and hu, excoriating a litany of violations and suppression which had previously been unknown to me. Secondly I wanted to select something a little of the beaten track for my Boorman season, it would have been too easy to cover the usual suspects of his career – Deliverance, Point Blank, Excalibur – plus if the film was as good as I remembered then maybe a humble review might just prompt some readers to hunt it down and widen its exposure, however infinitesimal. Set in 1988 the film charts the brutal suppression of that years pro-democracy uprising, transmitted through the eyes of audience surrogate Laura Bowman (Arquette) who travels to Burma with her sister Andy (Frances McDormand who is always great) to repair her soul after the murder of her husband and son by burglars. After losing her passport she stumbles into one of the 8888 protests and is tarred with guilt by association, the junta accusing of her of aiding and abetting the insurgents for foreign exploitation, and she is soon on a desperate mission to flee to the safety of Thailand with her new friend U Aung Ko, a persecuted professor whom was one of the central revolutionaries protesting the scripture of Democracy .
Any film that achieves an ‘awestruck’ achievement from the notoriously grumpy Andrew Sarris has to be doing something right (it even got into his top dozen for 1995) but memory is a funny old thing, and I found this film to be a rather turgid affair, with only a few scattered high points of sweltering interest. Maybe it’s the cynic that has festered in me in the past twenty years since the film was released, the idealistic scales falling from ones eyes after two decades of real world events and political experience, or that this movie’s style of storytelling seems clumsy in comparison to today’s hyperkinetic norms, but Beyond Rangoon suffers from a rather patronising tone which takes the time to show just how IMPORTANT it is as if speaking to an impatient child, rather than letting the story unfold organically through Laura’s eyes as witness to the horrific events and struggle for liberty. I’ve always liked Patricia Arquette although she seems to have dropped off the radar in recent years, for some reason the screenwriter has encumbered her with a redundant voiceover which tells us exactly what she is thinking, when this should really be expressed through her performance as she comes to terms with her bereavement through supporting and assisting others. Similarly the Burmese protesters and activists are little more than ideological ciphers, spouting their concerns through political speeches rather than human beings covertly discussing their experiences with a sympathetic alien , overall it’s all quite forced even as you admire the ambition to weld together an important ‘issue’ film with a convincing character study, to make the tonic more palatable for an unsuspecting audience.
As I mentioned before Boorman likes to use a journey as a narrative structure, with his protagonists subtly changing and morphing as their sojourn unfurls, the experiences of life and the people they meet altering their world view and ideology over the course of their odyssey. This is the trajectory of Beyond Rangoon and the film gains a new momentum as it hurtles into its second hour, when John Seale’s expressive photography expands the vista of the film and it actually starts to arrest the attention with drama and peril, the expedition generating some missed heat and drive as Laura frantically navigates the wilderness with her wounded compatriot in tow. Unfortunately an early Hans Zimmer score hobbles some of this liberty with the obvious employment of Far Eastern chimes and wistful panpipe warbling, as one of my favourite contemporary composers (alongside Howard Shore and Clint Mansell since you ask) he falls seriously into cliché mode here, as it is the most obvious choice to employ the native instruments of the culture you are unearthing, especially in such a doe-eyed, sentimental fashion. To be fair though the film’s heart is in the right place and its position as possibly the first serious work to shine a light on the horrendous abuses in Burma shouldn’t be faulted, even if the delivery method of the movie doesn’t match the historical bravery that the movement should be assigned. It seems as if Boorman was the go to guy in filming movies with a mixture of action and issues, usually in difficult foreign climates (see also The Emerald Forest as well as Deliverance), smuggling a little political persuasion amongst the characterisation, which charitably speaking yield mixed results. Whilst we’re on the subject can I also recommend the surprisingly moving Luc Besson biopic The Lady which centres on Aung San Suu Kyi’s extraordinarily brave fight for justice, it’s a much more nuanced presentation of the political intertwining with the personal with a terrific central performance from Michelle Yeoh an achievement which really deserved some award kudos but was sadly overlooked. So that’s my knuckles rapped for being a bit creative isn’t it? Next time I’ll stick to the formula and focus on the agreed ‘classics’ I guess, thinking logically there is a reason why the likes of Hope & Glory and Point Blank are remembered and Beyond Rangoon is relegated to the back benches of cinephile scrutiny….
*One speculates what he would have made of Threads, the UK equivalent which remains one of the most harrowing and terrifying pieces ever submitted to film in my opinion. My entire school generation still shudder at the mention of it…..
What a week eh? I think we can all agree that this is a period we’d all like to get behind us, whether it’s the nauseating hagiography of the worst and most destructive entity to assault my country since the Führer’s Luftwaffe or carnage inducing explosions over in North America, not to mention the mind-boggling decision not to acquiesce to the vast majority of the public’s demand that something needs to be done to control the horrific proliferation of massacre and murder implements – exactly how the fuck can those Senators ever look their constituents in the eye again? Simply unbelievable. Still, we’re here to talk about the movies of course and today saw the unveiling of this years programme for the worlds most prestigious film festival, and whilst I can’t say I’m jumping up and down with excitement there are some appearances which deserve mention. Looking at the list of films in competition I am struck by the same response I experience whenever I receive a new edition of Sight & Sound, namely that I rather arrogantly assume I know a lot about cinema until confronted with a dozen directors and filmmakers that I simply have never heard of – like clockwork this occurs pretty much every month. There is still so much to learn and see, and of course this is a good thing. So forgive me for a rather Westencentric and English language orientated look at what’s on offer, here’s the latest sight of the opening gala selection;
Just posting this makes my skin crawl but one strives to be neutral, as you have gathered I loathe Baz Luhrmann and all the atrocities he has visited upon the cinema, especially Australia and Moulin Rogue which are worthy of particularly venomous scorn. It’s nothing personal, I’m sure he’s lovely chap whom is kind to pets and children but I simply can’t stand his films, and even the threat of repeated molestations by a horde of famished rapedogs couldn’t drag me to the cinema to see this. It wasn’t always this way, I was entertained by Strictly Ballroom for example when that came out back in nineteen ninety whatever, although upon reflection I was smoking a lot of weed then and my critical facilities may have been somewhat warped. Gatsby is a big, prestige product however and some quarters are really looking forward to it, so I’ll pinch my nose and let you make your own mind up.
I think we’re all looking forward to this, it looks ravishing and Refn seems to be powering from strength to strength as his career accelerates, one wonders if he can take the material to the next level or if this will just be a pleasantly violent and stylish thriller yarn. Now, is he still on board for the long languishing Logan’s Run remake or not? I heard that Gosling had bailed but maybe he’s looking at replacements….
This looks like a slightly different tack for the Coens, it’s difficult to articulate but this looks a lot more ‘realistic’ and less mannered than most of their recent output, I can’t say I’m chomping at the proverbial bit to see this but one has to see everything new of theirs at the flicks doesn’t one?
I quite like Sophia Coppola’s movies but this looks a little samey, but then again if it ain’t broke don’t fix it I guess? The woeful travails of the incredibly wealthy, those poor souls navigating their empty lives as they are ferried from fashion show to red carpet premieres, the poor little darlings, it must be so horrid…
And finally as I don’t have the time to delve further at the moment, I don’t want to be a complete philistine and will actually post some foreign language competition, so let’s go with the always reliable Mikke Takashi – looking amusing as always. I didn’t even know Alexander Payne had another film in the can so that’s a nice surprise, a new Polanski is always worth a look and if like me you’re a little lukewarm on this schedule as there isn’t anything which really leaps out as a must see – other than Only God Forgives maybe - there may be some hidden gems tucked away under those directors we’ve never heard of. Now, if you’ll excuse me in keeping with the spirit of the week I’m off to laugh uproariously at some innocent youngsters get torn to pieces by a pack or slavering hell beasts, it’s the only way to keep sane….
Films lurking at the apex of the alphabet are few and far between. Even a cinephile such as myself finds it difficult to offer movie titles beginning with that arrogant dash of a letter known as Z, there’s Michael Caine’s honourable sacrifice in Zulu or Costa-Gavras politically deadly Z, (which to my eternal shame I haven’t seen), the more historically attuned of you may consider Zéro de Conduite, Jean Vigo’s celebrated childhood paen which shares its qualities with the dark surveillance of Zero Dark Thirty. Then there’s Woody Allen’s schizophrenic Zelig or Antoninoni’s explosive Zabriskie Point, a film which arguably shares some contemporarily minded cultural concerns with tonight’s entertainment. With the possible exception of any of the Zombi movies, or Takashi Kitano’s Zaitochi for us cult and SF fans the first Z movie that springs to mind is the eccentric Zardoz, the post Bond Sean Connery starring oddity which has developed something of a devoted cult following, as part of the retrospective BFI season of John Boorman’s work this was an immediate selection for a big-screen reappraisal due to an urge to revisit a film I’ve never entirely enjoyed despite my affection for all things Science Fiction. I’ve seen the film maybe twice before and the only real moments that have stuck in my mind is the striking opening and unintentionally amusing conclusion, and I have to say that an enjoyable but slightly exasperating rewatch hasn’t entirely changed this opinion, although I was struck by a) the amount of drugs the filmmakers were clearly on and b) a small gloomy resignation that I couldn’t join them in tuning on, jumping up and dropping down. Or something;
As the BFI is festooned with posters celebrating Boorman’s work it amused to me see the tagline ‘Beyond 1984 ; Beyond 2001’ quoted on some marketing material, a mere seven years after the gradual appreciation of Kubrick’s Space Odyssey this was one of the last films of the cycle of distinctly odd and partially intellectual SF movies, before Lucas’s meek little effort obliterated ‘cerberal’ SF for the likes of Republic Serial inspired derring-do and scorched laser-blast swashbuckling silliness. In a far advanced civilisation - well, some of it has advanced – the human race has evolved to the point where powerful subjects known as Eternal rule over a sub-class of the dregs of humanity, a group hunted and killed by another strain of Homo-sapiens known as the ‘Brutals’. These swarthy, amusingly garbed barbarians are brainwashed through a religious spell of fire-arm rifle distributing giant floating heads, convincing the proles to exterminate their weaker brethren under the orders of a holy supplicance, in order to destroy the curse of life and pay treaty to the all-powerful deity of Zardoz. Whilst the elite class idly cavort and enjoy the wealth and resources of their godlike technology one rebellious leader of the exterminating underclass known as Zed (Sean Connery, anxious to shed his Bond image) manages to infiltrate one of the shielded villages, as a figure of curiosity to the Eternals Zed’s arrival upturns the society and a chain of revolution is set in motion, as he slowly seduces the senior matriarchs Consuella (Charlotte Rampling) and May (Sara Kestelman) and ushers in a new stage of revolution, or should that be evolution?
Shot in the tranquil beauty of the Wicklow mountains of Boorman’s adopted Ireland Zardoz can best be described as a Heavy Metal strip crossed with a Michael Moorcock book, specifically his Dancers At The End Of Time series with the idea of an idle class of late civilisation humanity wielding incredible technological power over life and death itself, but suffering from a profound sense of ennui and moral incapacity as they have simply seen, done and experienced everything, yielding questions that perhaps a core tenet of our humanity is the limited lifespan we are granted upon the earthly realm. It has its assets, like many films of the period it has a specific visual charm which is a hangover of the psychedelic sixties – halls of mirrors, crazy framing, colours timed to ‘pop’ on the emulsion - which stands in contrast to the digitial holocausts of contemporary SF, all the optical tinkerings are practical models or in-camera feints, and I’ll always a smiling affection for these techniques on the big screen. And as is my idiom I must once again highlight the presence of Geoffrey ‘2001: A Space Odyssey Unsworth in the cinematographers chair, he was clearly the go to guy for SFX heavy projects in the Sixties and Seventies, and would you believe it we shall be seeing even more of his work next month as part of a different BFI film season, but I’ll just tease you with that clue and move on…..
The reveal of the background universe and what has happened to led up to this allegorical society is not a bad framing device from a genre perspective, it does provoke the requisite internal ‘aaah’ response but holds little depth in how Boorman explores the muddled metaphor, and any allegorical treatise behind the framing is lost among a rather cluttered and narcotic narrative which doesn’t really know where’s it going or what to do when it got there. I was amused to see the deployment of Beethoven’s 7th as a swirling aural ballet to the bookended on-screen antics, this piece of music has become increasingly popular (The Kings Speech and Irreversible to name but two fairly recent examples) and this may be it’s very first utilisation on the silver screen – and then after consulting with our digital oracle I found this which provides many more examples. So is Zardoz a groovy Griselda or a Debbie downer mmmaaannnn?? Well I think it has had its impact on the genre even as it is lampooned and dismissed as a messy embarrassment, that appropriation of older texts as source material (The Wizard Of Oz as a defining cultural instrument in this case) has become something of a crutch for the genre, and just a casual glance at the Wachowski’s Cloud Atlas invokes similarities with the pure visuals of their long advanced, neo-feudal society, and I’m pretty sure that Stephen King used the same framing tool as part of his Dark Tower odyssey.
The film can and has been read from a variety of political viewpoints – a critique of the self involved, Ivory Tower dwelling countercultural movement who deny human barbarity at their peril? A poisoned and bewitched servile class kept in mental chains by the hypnotic possession of religion and an urge to bow the divine as an excuse for unleashing tangible horrors? The hippy dream taken to its logical conclusion as an ideological nightmare? Is Sean Connery’s moustached and crimson nappy sporting Zed really a stand-in for Manson and his families unorthodox version of cultural revolution? Only the giant floating head knows, and he ain’t yapping. I’d like to keep this review relatively short so I’ll just wrap things up by saying I can see what fans appreciate in Zardoz but I’m no zealot, it is very much a product of its time and is thus quite the bizarre and idiosyncratic beast, a curio which doesn’t quite meld its cultural commentary with its psychedelic pondering, indulgent and irascible in equal measure – but I do still like the opening.
As I meandered home after this screening with a slightly puzzled expression on my face I was reminded of Beyond The Black Rainbow as a more recent example of unusually psychotropic Science Fiction, although I’m quietly furious that the bloody film never received any sort of release here and I’m still praying for some sort of DVD or Blu-Ray miracle. In terms of the more esoteric SF of the period may I humbly suggest Robert Altman’s little considered Quintet which is a real cult competition, then of course there is the ecological concerns of Silent Running and The Omega Man which together offer a far more effective use of the counter-culture, post-holocaust landscape, as does A Boy & His Dog which shares many of the allegorical dimensions of Zardoz and other societal shimmering SF serials. Closer to home was the Skynet heralding supercomputer of Colossus: The Forbin Project which is a personal favourite, then there’s A Clockwork Orange and The Andromeda Strain which cast long shadows across the genre even after a certain Space Opera detonated in 1977 and transformed the genre and movies in general. What’s next? Well, I’m accelerating matters to warp-speed for a more up to date look at the universe of SF, so join me as we both seek Oblivion….
Y’know, I’ve been thinking through the various ways we could mark todays events, maybe a look at some of the core political films of the era (lots of Alan Clarke, Mike Leigh and Ken Loach in other words), or something along the line of a general movie politics post, but I think I can keep this short and sweet, with an obvious but apt clip;
I don’t wish ill of many people, I really don’t, there’s more than enough hate and divisions in the world, but I think you can make a special case for poisonous political fanatics whose disgusting ideologies and policies are still harming people today – thus I hope she is consigned to the dustbin of history. Good fucking riddance….
It is with a significant pang of regret that we bid a fond adieu to director Steven Soderbergh and his (allegedly) final European theatrically released film Side Effects. If you’ll excuse the pun I don’t wish to get too ‘side’tracked but I think there are a few crucial items to consider before we delve into the movie itself, a concluding episode to his career which is as expected a superb contemporary drama which springboards into other areas with the dexterous ease of a state drilled East German Olympic gymnast, namely what on earth could drive such a prolific and endlessly inventive cinematic soul into potential big-screen retirement? Soderbergh has professed an interest in shifting his muse to painting or perhaps shepherding a HBO style series to living rooms and Blu-Ray players around the world, reading between the lines it appears that his growing frustration with meddling executives second guessing his choices and material coupled with a particularly gruelling phase of creative interference on the likes of Che has completely sapped his creative drive, and like Schrader he grandiosely claims that cinema is ‘dead’ given the fracturing of audiences and ubiquity of alternative and copyright evading technological delivery systems – I disagree but that’s an argument for another time. The rhinestone that broke the proverbial camel’s back sparkles around the controversy swirling around his final work, the Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra which was denied a US distribution deal, apparently we Europeans will be getting a big screen opportunity later in the year but he has not been so fortunate on his home turf, and the film is destined for a cable screening and no big screen appearances. Now, I’m as cynical as the next critic and I rather foolishly assumed that the almighty dollar would overcome all prejudices, the astounding ROI that Soderbergh’s previous film Magic Mike achieved – a $7 million budget translating into a staggering $167 million global haul - well, I would have that success would have had the chequebooks snapping open faster than a producers zipper at a hooker convention. As a straight dude I’ll admit that a biopic on Liberace really doesn’t hold any interest for me whatsoever, a Soderbergh film however does so I’m minded that the executives comments that only gay people would be interested in such material is just ridiculously short-sighted, as I was under the impression that peoples money was just as bankable regardless of sexual orientation? Apparently not as the project was rejected by every studio despite its miniscule budget, and if a star laden vehicle – Michael Douglas and Matt Damon – can’t be snapped up for the very low millions then it’s a sad state of affairs indeed, and one suspects that there is some latent homophobia going on here with a studio nervous to be involved in what you might literally term a ‘gay’ project. In any case we are left with Side Effects, an effective swan song for Soderbergh to bow out at the ripe old age of fifty, perhaps a symptom of an industry sick with introspection and inaction?
Rooney Mara sheds the makeup and accent from the Girl With The Dragon Tattoo but retains some of that fragile, anxious beauty as the porclean skinned Emily Taylor, married to sensitive miscreant and Soderbergh regular leading man Channing Tatum whom is released from a 4 year stretch for insider trading as the film anxiously opens. Emily has been suffering severe depression following the disintegration of her perfect life and a possible suicide attempt or at least a cry for help lands her in the ER where Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) is assigned as her distantly concerned, state mandated psychiatrist. Professional smitten with this wounded creature Banks takes an interest in her plight and prescribes her a phalanx of pharmaceutical crutches, including a programme of treatment with Ablixa, the new wonder product which he has been convinced to trial with his patients via a $50K fee which fiscally sweetens the deal given his ballooning financial responsibilities – private school for his stepson, a new apartment in one of the more desirable enclaves of New York. Initially her transformation is welcome, Emily regains focus of her life, her energy and her sexual drive, but the titular side effects of this chemical regime sparks a new series of neuroleptic activities, as one problem is surpassed others blossom in their wake. Soon disaster strikes – and I haven’t heard an audience react so strongly to a certain plot pivot for quite a while – and the film takes a horrendous turn into a parallel arena, as Banks consults with his colleague and Emily’s previous shrink Victoria (Catherine Zeta Jones) her past psyciatric history suggests all is not as it seems…..
There is no small pang of depression as the credits rolled and yet another finely honed thriller was prescribed, heck I even stayed until the lights came up as a small and quiet tribute to Mr. Soderbergh’s terrific quarter century career. Side Effects isn’t simply a searing indictment of a chemically frayed society, looking for answers and solace in the wonderful sterility of international pharma who perhaps have their eyes on the bottom line and are not even remotely interested in the mental well-being of their hordes of punters, there is also a vague sense of unease with corporate mandated happiness, where even the beautiful and wealthy people find themselves afflicted with a distant and elusive ennui as the intangible pressures of modern life ravage the spirit - you must raise the pefect children, progress the perfect career, have the beautiful and successful partner. It’s certainly a smart exercise in genre manipulation, as a film which begins as a contemporary melodrama before shockingly transforming into a legal drama, then pulling the rug out once again for a left turn down to other nefarious realms which I’ll keep schtum for fear of spoilers, it’s a convincing blend of storytelling styles which Soderbergh transmits without shifting his visual style or palette, and as such it is a neat encapsulation of his entire genre flirting career. I’ve had my issues with Catherine Zeta-Jones and Jude Law in the past with some of their occassionaly horrendous acting styles and choices, but in Side Effects they convince as fully rounded creatures of their profession, Law in particular transforming from a not entirely likeable ambitious medical professional to a beleaguered and trapped figure, he feels like a shaded character with his own specific qualities and foibles, rather than a simple black or white, good or bad guy.
I loved the little nods to Psycho which appropriately enough bookend the film with those gods eye pans into the drama, like Hitchcock’s masterpiece Side Effects also has an unexpected shift in allegiance and empathy early in the movie which slightly confoundingly should keep you on your toes in terms of character motivations and veiled intentions, the ability to be kept guessing at where the film will go next is one of its most compelling qualities. From destabilised establishing shots and unconventional focus decisions the film is invested with a nervous, jittery infrastructure, textured with Thomas Newman’s unobstrusive, seething score. Supporting player Ann Dowd who rose to attention in last years Compliance superbly sketches out her character as Martin’s mother in an economic half-dozen scenes, she looks to be joining the matriarchy of terrific middle-aged actresses who actually look like normal people rather that perfectly sculpted Hollywood stars, alongside the likes of Patricia Clarkson, Margo Martindale and Kathy Bates. Simply put this is another great thriller from Soderbergh, a film which feels very current and contemporary on a sequence of levels,with a solid cast, discrete but excellent direction – just what the doctor ordered.
Under his long utilised pseudonyms Peter George (cinematographer) and Mary Ann Bernard (editor) the man was born to make movies, mastering the core essential functions of the profession as he shifts from one genre to the next with a dexterous amd almost effortless skill, the dude can make you sick with envy. Sure some of them have been more successful than others in both the entertainment and box office areas but he consistently delivers compelling fare, not necessarily clustering to a repetitive miasma of themes or obsessions but certainly adhering to a consistent cinematic style, not just in his use of filters and cool (as in temperature, not street-cred)cinematography but also how he breaks down and covers scenes, every composition and cut is there for a reason yet it doesn’t yell or draw attention to the growling engine throbbing beneath the chassis. If I’m honest I have found his more ‘arty’ material difficult to enjoy, I don’t wish to sound like a philistine as I think I’ve proved by the breadth of material that I review here that I’m not exactly hostile to movies which employ divergent narrative patterns or obtuse plotting, or movies which portray less formal ‘mainstream’ treatments of themes or subjects, but the likes of Bubble or Full Frontal just did not connect in the way that simply, commercially attuned and ‘clear’ fare such as Erin Brockovich, the Ocean Movies or even last year’s Haywire managed. If we’re going to opt for a top five, and I guess now is the best chance we’ll ever have if his retirement is permanent, then I’ll have to opt for Kafka (which is also getting a restoration next year with reinstated excised scenes, plenty of featurettes and a digital scrub) Solaris (which he has kinda disowned as a failure but I still like it as a rare moment of moody, cerebral US SF), the first Oceans Eleven, Out Of Sight and Haywire, I also liked The Underneath, The Limey and the Che duo. So here is a little round up of the Soderbergh’s we’ve covered on the Menagerie, a not insignificant parade of movies over the past five years, I think if permanent this is a real loss to the art form, like Ahnoldt we can only hope that he’ll be back…..
Well, we’ve all been waiting with bated breath since January but today the Sundance Institute and The O2 announced today the programme of panels, feature films and short films for the second Sundance London film and music festival, due to commence on the 25-28 April at The O2 in Greenwich. If you’re so inclined then passes and ticket packages are available at www.sundance-london.com, and individual tickets will be on sale from 9:00 a.m. GMT Friday 15 March. The Sundance Institute, which annually presents the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, U.S.A., selected the film and panel programming for this second year of the best in American independent cinema and music programming, and this years schedule continues its 2012 focus on presenting new work by independent filmmakers and exploring the interplay between independent film and music. The programme announced today includes 18 feature films and nine short films across four sections, including a new UK Spotlight. Twenty-three films will make their international, European or UK premieres at Sundance London. Ten are by female filmmakers and six are by first-time feature filmmakers. The films collectively received 12 awards when they premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, U.S.A.. Among the artists expected to attend Sundance London are Lake Bell, Mike Birbiglia, Jimmy Carr, the Eagles, Barbara Kopple and Peaches, as well as Sundance Institute President & Founder Robert Redford.
Now we’ve got the blurb out-of-the-way I’m enormously relived to see one inclusion on the schedule which we’ll get into shortly, on the other hand I’ve a bit glum that the terrific sounding Escape From Tomorrow isn’t included, I wonder if that films guerilla shooting tactics has resulted in potential trademark problems from the evil house of mouse, or perhaps it was considered too slight a feature for international selection? I’m still waiting to hear on my potential press credentials so we’ll just have to keep the extremities crossed, I have however booked the time off work so that’s one hurdle overcome. Questions about my sanity in spending the first time off in four months by evading any relaxing lie-ins and charging over to the O2 for four days straight of eight to ten hours of movie watching coverage could not be confirmed as of press time. In any case here’s what we have on the cards;
Oh well, not the most exciting promo I’ve ever seen, hopefully that’s just a placeholder and something more official and slightly more assertive will be circulated shortly. I think I have an idea on how to grab your attention, here’s one of the short films that’s screening which a friend sent to me a few weeks ago, I assure you this will burst your Sundance bubble;
Heh, that makes me laugh every time – looks like someones angling for a potential Scanners remake? Right, so what’s on the Minty hit list? Firstly, I’ve been vaguely following the release of this as I’m a fan of the This American Life and associated podcasts, Birbiglia gets around and can be amusing so this could be a pleasant diversion;
After that it gets pretty short on the trailers list, these films are so hot off the press they haven’t even concluded their marketing strategies. I really enjoyed Your Sisters Sister last year from director Lynn Shelton, she’s followed this up with another one of those slightly quirky relationship dramedies Touchy Feely;
After Mea Maxima Culpa (a fantastic, gruelling and important documentary) and almost weekly revelations about the crimes and corruption of various Church factions around the world anything else illuminating these financially self-serving, medieval ideological peddling criminal conspirators gets a holy blessing in my book;
In terms of special events there is a screenwriters panel featuring the exalted presence of Tony Grisoni (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Tideland, In This World, Death Defying Acts), Peter Straughan (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Debt, Men Who Stare at Goats), the aforementioned Lynn Shelton (Touchy Feely, Your Sister’s Sister, Humpday), and an afternoon with David Arnold, musical score composer of Bond movies Casino Royale and Tomorrow Never Dies, as well as Independence Day, Stargate, Godzilla, Hot Fuzz and The Stepford Wives. Now, hands up if you liked Take Shelter? Good, well then, here’s the trailer for Mud, director Jeff Nichols follow-up;
There is a UK strand to the festival which highlights indigenous work, naturally a repeat collaboration of Michael Winterbottom and Steve Coogan on the sordid sounding biopic of Soho magnate Paul Raymond is an early riser;
The horror themed In Fear also sounds like its worth a go, alas no trailer yet. Finally thank god Upstream Colour is on the list, this is one of the ‘hottest’ films of the year and I’m pretty sure this is going to sell out immediately given the cult prestige of Carruth’s earlier effort, with one skim-read exception I’ve avoided all reviews but the general feeling out there is that this is an astonishing piece of work which hasn’t aligned with everyone’s sensibilities, so that sounds like Primer II to me…
After the delirious plunge from quality to curiosity following the third installment of the Matrix trilogy – yes I’m one of the strange drones who still quite likes The Matrix Reloaded - it didn’t seem as if the secretive Wachowski siblings would ever wield a super-budget again. After the erotic noir stylings of their debut Bound, a sexy thriller with a genre challenging androgynous subtext they swiftly ascended stratospheric heights with the first installment of their cyberpunk pilfering triumvirate, culminating in one of the most mauled and muddled final franchise episodes in SF movie history. Nevertheless a global haul of $1.6 billion can still ease the purse strings of a greedy studio executive and their follow-up project was dully greenlit, whilst it has its admirers Speed Racer was also savaged by the press and barely recouped its production budget, banishing the duo to director jail to lick their wounds whilst dabbling with the odd production credit on a handful of forgettable pictures. Nevertheless the Wachowskis are clearly not content to return to the days of miniscule budgeted neo-noir as they have now embarked on their most impassioned project to date, a screen adaption of the multi-strand, ethnically diverse and structurally significant Cloud Atlas, an endeavour which proved to be so ambitious that they needed yet another director, the German helmer Tom Tykwer of Run Lola Run fame to assist with herding the digital cats into their narrative bags. In the new era of studio austerity the producers had to go cap in hand to private investors, raising the reputed $100 million dollar production budget from a panorama of private investors before Warner Bros. stepped in to handle global distribution and marketing duties. This welcome intervention was potentially powered by the studios reputation in supporting the artistic vision of their creative vassals, but remained a relatively significant risk as the film was a difficult to market product, a movie which seems to once again have evaded the popular audience despite its global possibilities. With glaring reservations I was one part bemused and embarrassed to two parts genuinely and incrementally impressed, like many of its sprawling kin Cloud Atlas is a big, bold yet ultimately flawed mosaic, with an impressive sense of scale which doesn’t always quite gel.
Based on the acclaimed novel by David Mitchell Cloud Atlas is split between numerous time frames and character streams, lilting and lurching from one stand of storytelling to another like a storm-tossed schooner, with many of the same actors playing different iterations of friends and foes across oceans of time and memory. In the reserved 1930′s East Anglian England a gay musician struggles with social persecution as he assists an aging, bullying maestro in composing his new masterpiece, in 2012 a book publisher flees leering gangsters to accidentally bivouac in a suffocating elderly care centre. A 19th century gentlemen nascently involved with the slavery trade is slowly poisoned by a greedy doctor on board ship whilst befriending a negro stowaway, in 2142 a genetically birthed clone ‘fabricant’ leads a revolution against corporate inhumanity. In 1973 a San Francisco based Journalist stumbles across a radioactive conspiracy whilst millenia hence an off world, posthuman colonist revisits the Earth which has descended to quasi-feudal cannibalism in order to discover her destiny. From the future to the past, from the micro to the macro, from the fantastic to the formulaic it glitters with an all-star cast, I won’t spoil the fun by specifying who appears in which streams but we’re talking about (deep breath) Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, Jim Sturgess, Bae Doona, Ben Whishaw, James D’Arcy and Menagerie favourite Keith David, heck even Susan Sarandon gets a occsaional, if unfavourable look in.
Well, the first thing Cloud Atlas should be celebrated for is its sheer, unimpeachable and unadulterated ambition. It is very difficult, almost impossible (apart from maybe Inception) to identify any contemporary filmmaking north of the $50 million dollar signpost which isn’t culled from an existing franchise or cultural instrument, either comic book or video game, a remake or a ‘reimagining’ of previously successful fissile material. Now, yes, the film is based on a successful ‘cult’ novel but we’re not exactly talking about a Twilight or Harry Potter cultural phenomenon here, and the fact that they have approached the story as presented in the book (albeit with some crucial differences) by interweaving a sextet of interlocking and consorting strands into one homogenous whole would be laudatory if it were attempted at a student level, let alone a fiscally eye-watering nine figure star laden super-production. As I suspected some of the strands work better than others but I must admit that as the film got into its rhythm initially tiresome storylines waxed and waned to eclipse the primarily engrossing arcs, it deftly cuts and dances through the competing tales in a voracious vortex that successfully grips and maintains the attention, with some terrific specifically match cuts which I won’t spoil here, other than to say that on a structural level alone Cloud Atlas is worth the price of admission. The first film which leaps to mind is of course Griffith’s epic Intolerance which for its period was a game changing scope of attack, including parralell cutting across numerous timelines and stories, with the global theme of, well, tolerance surprisingly enough, and in that sense both films share a formal and thematic DNA.
Going into this I had some strong suspicions that the movie couldn’t succeed due to its numerous fractured timelines, such a broad spread of narrative streams should dilute any emotional engagement and could prove frustrating as one favoured strand gets going only for the flow to move to another thread, thuis whittling away the chance for any incremental empathic investment. Although I was admittedly wrong on that point I was correct in a roundabout way, the tempo is such that in some sections three or four strands can be juxtaposed within a couple of minutes of screen time and comment and refract on each other – corporate malfeasance throughout the ages, how one person can make a difference, how rules and regimented boundries are meant to be transgressed - the problem for me pulses at a more fundamental level within the nucleau of some of the stories, but we’ll come back to that later on. Visually the film is cornea striking, a spectrum of colours and textures that pirouette across the eyes, I’m looking forward to freeze framing a few shots on Blu-Ray to absorb some of the background detail of 2144 Neo-Seoul which is essentially Blade Runner meets Logan Run with a mash of Soylent Green, you’ll be unsurprised to hear that this was the most successful story strand for yours truly. Far less successful was some of the deeply distracting casting decisions, whilst I don’t fully agree with these accusations of ‘whitewashing’ scenes by having some actors scrunched into oriental make-up or amending the skin pigmentation to reincarnate characters across the timelines perhaps the Wachowski’s could have treated the audience with a little more intelligence, the garish signpost of the cycles in time is deeply distracting and throws you out of the picture, alas in places it becomes a point and stare oddity which provokes laughter rather than lustre. As others have remarked Tom Hanks as an Oirish geezer is terrible and I was embarrassed to watch his (thankfully) one scene appearance, even if he does have a rather amusing method in dealing with critical dissent which must be a daydream of many a mauled film director, one things for sure that this will go down in the history books as the Tom Hanks movie when the wholesome type shockingly barks two of the most offensive words in the English language, y’know the ones that rhyme with ‘tigger’ and ‘hunt’.
What the hell was that ochre coloured Alice Cooper apparition doing in the aeons ahead future strand? Never explained nor required, I also struggled to understand much of Hanks slurred speech and that ridiculous futuristic argot, it’s very strange angles and creative decisions like these which ensures that the film has cult oddity written all over it, with its shocking lapses in taste and distracting choices, its spectacular breadth and demanding design. There has been a bit of a trend for this breed of global cinema recently, ever since the Oscar storming Slumdog Millionaire Hollywood reared creatives have not been afraid to target to international audiences over indigenous purses through tales which preach a homogenized humanity, that we’re all the same deep down with the same fears and hopes, dreams and nightmares, as an aside I recently watched the deleted scenes for the film Looper (in itself an instructive exercise to see what was unfortunately culled) and the fact that the film had scenes featuring the Oriental wife specifically shot and inserted for the Chinese release is kind of fascinating, a sign of the times in a globalised entertainment market. I am slightly mystified then at the films lacklusture box-office, we know the release was butchered in North America but I would have thought this would have picked up support in the Far East markets, but perhaps this is why I’m not an international studio distribution executive…..
The films innocent plea for tolerance and understanding across the aeons finds some fruitful roots, and it’s a banally obvious point to make but LanaWachowski’s recent gender reassignment of course shadows the whole enterprise with a non-fictional functuality, it’s not difficult to see what she and her brother saw in the source material that they wanted to bring to the screen and parley with a potential global audience. ‘Everything Is Connected’ yells the film’s tagline but alas in the Wachowskiverse acute visuals and bold ambitions don’t always overcome juvenile thematics and simplistic moralising, and crucially there are some plot strands that I just couldn’t care about – 1973 San Francisco went nowhere and had a stupid action scene bolted on to raise the stakes, 2012 Jim Broadbents hilarious bumblings were about as funny as a HIV epidemic with some Scottish racism thrown in for good measure. At the risk of sounding derogatory this is very much a film which will appeal on a philosophical level with the type of creatures that gravitated towards The Fountain, live and let live is my motto and whatever floats your boat, but the lesson that souls are reborn throughout time and love can conquer all is patently ridiculous to me, but then again I’m a black-hearted nihilist who tends to view existence as an elaborate cosmic joke with a meaningless death as the punchline and your mileage, as they say, may vary. It’s a three star film if you don’t take it too seriously or dwell on its feeble philosophical assertions, maybe a 3.5 as it does have Keith David in it, worth seeing for the visual acuity and sheer spiring ambition, a rewarding three-hour picture which is worth an investment of your time;
Some more orbital manuevers on film culture before we plunge into an ambitious weekend of cinema visits, here’s a fascinating glimpse into the life, methodology and ideology of one of the worlds greatest living film critics, Jonathan Rosenbaum;
His rather cluttered site is nevertheless an incredible resource of material which you can spend hours traversing, there is literally decades of discourse to devour if you are so inclined. After Sarris passed last year he’s one of the last titans of the form, so a genuinely humble Happy Birthday from a simpleton acolyte…..although sometimes you just wanna have a laugh, or enjoy a tune from one of the films which Mr. Rosenbaum has supposedly written the definitive review;
Just in case you missed it, here’s my review of No which I caught at last years LFF and which opens today in the UK, I went in completely sight unseen I didn’t know anything about it other than it was set in South America and had that Gabriel-Garcia chap in it. I was very pleasantly surprised at a very contemporary political drama, and a compelling historical archive as well;
A new Spielberg picture is always a relatively big deal at the Menagerie, having sustained a twenty year unbroken streak of catching every one of his pictures at the movies (except for Amistad, that accursed thorn in my side which could be interesting to revisit in the light of Django Unchained), for me he is at the pinnacle of the pantheon, making equally flawed and fascinating films to be sure but demanding a rigorous appreciation, alongside his contemporaries Scorsese and Malick he is one of the omnipotent titans of modern commercial cinema and his influence on the art form and in particular my generations indoctrination to the movies is incalculable. Broadly speaking I think you can divide his work into two streams, there’s the state of the art action-adventure SF / fantasy blockbuster pictures which heralded his initial forays into the medium – the Indiana Jones quartet, the ET’s, the CE3K’s, the War Of The Worlds and Minority Reports – twin tracked with the historical epics that he began producing in the 1980’s, the aged reportage blended with his particular blend of ordinary people placed in extraordinary circumstances, such as The Empire Of The Sun, Saving Private Ryan, The Colour Purple and of course his potential masterpiece Schinder’s List. There is an overlap between the streams, a love of cinema history and the work of his idols which lead him to make such curiosities as Always, 1941 and Artificial Intelligence, with a healthy appetite for pushing the formats technical foundations into uncharted waters with the likes of Tintin and Jurassic Park, or the rather more modest inception of the modern Hollywood blockbuster with 1975’s feisty aquatic mastications. With the frustrating news that his eagerly awaited Robopocalypse project has been recalled back to the manufacturing plant for further modifications his latest picture finally inaugurates a long gestating project which he has shepherded to the screen over many years, the directly named Lincoln serving as another historical reflection on American history and its current cultural combat. With a staggering 123 Academy Award nominations generated over his forty-year career might Spielberg be politically angling for that long elusive prize, directing a cast member to a best actor or actress Oscar win?
Based on the closing chapters of Doris Kearns Goodwin‘s celebrated biographies of one of America’s most exalted Presidents it is January 1865, the twilight phases of America’s the long and bloody American Civil war. In a rather ham-fisted opening two pairs of confederate soldiers plod through a rain-swept and mud splattered battlefield, pausing to exchange their thoughts with a softly voiced off camera entity, one white skinned and one black-skinned duo who immaculately recite the inspiring words of some recent speeches designed to reunite the union, emancipate the subjects of slavery and cease the bloodshed - cut to Abraham Lincoln, the commander-in-chief meeting a microcosm of his serviceman, portrayed with impervious majesty by screen chameleon Daniel Day-Lewis. Recently re-elected as America’s 16th President Lincoln has a twin mandate, to bring the war to an acceptable conclusion and simultaneously push through the 13th amendment to the US constitution, outlawing slavery and freeing over 3 million subjects, a purpose and promise that Lincoln enshrined through his emancipation proclamation two years hence. After consulting his cigar chomping Secretary of State William Seward (a vaporous David Strainhain) the shrewd experts of Washington diplomacy decide on a fraught strategy, to develop a political hit squad removed from the President in order to lobby, convince and even bribe 20 vulnerable house Democrats to side with their Republican opponents in support of the amendment, and a colourful trio of Svengali backroom operators are enlisted to procure the affirmative alignment with this crucial vote, all three portrayed with a memorable economy by John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson and a portly James Spader. Behind the closed doors of the cloistered White House Lincoln the mortal man emerges, his strained marriage with his wife Mary Todd (Sally Field, irritating) in a precarious position after the devastating death of two of their four sons during childhood, and the patriarch also enduring a rather fractious relationship with his second eldest progeny Tad Lincoln (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who desires to enlist with the army and serve his country in his own unique way, a prospect resisted by his parents who perhaps understand better the horrors and potential sacrifice of conflict. With a parade of heavyweight character actors including Hal Holbrook, Michael Stuhlbarg, Walton Goggins, Jackie Earle Hayley, Jared Harris and a particularly memorable Tommy Lee Jones the chamber is set for a historic political procedural melded with the interlocking resolution of the civil war, a leader certain of his humanistic ideals and the historical opportunity to invigorate Americas stranding in the world through the pursuit of liberty and equality, if he can only chart the entrenched volatility of the times.
It took a while but I gradually warmed to Lincoln’s crusty, fossilised characterisations, after a rather tedious and context setting opening act you become adjusted to the films languid and metronome pace, perfect for a cold January Sunday afternoon if a little lacking in ardour, perhaps just a little self-important for its own good. It’s the West Wing with wigs with some astonishingly hirsute specimens on offer, Tony Kushner’s irregular script capturing a vivid dialect and pattern of communication which finally gains traction when the political chicanery begins to evolve around an hour into the picture. You can see that Spielberg wanted to give an impression of the man behind this monolithic figure of American history and it’s in these scenes that the film stumbles and falters, maybe it’s my personal problem but I can’t take Sally Field seriously (her Academy nomination is surely some sort of cruel hoax?) and although I generally enjoy Joseph Gordon-Levitt he is frankly out of his depth, massacred in one scene with his domineering yet sympathetic father, Day-Lewis effortlessly obliterating his petulant performance. Whilst Spielberg’s historical collaborators all perform sterling work, from Janusz Kaminski’s flickering cerulean, candle lit interiors to Rick Carter’s etiolated production design one wonders if he will ever cut himself loose from John Williams and his self-serving intrusive scores, this is clearly a film for responsible and thoughtful adults so why he insists in aurally telling us that ‘this’ is a crucial moment and ‘that’ development is so very very important with some rising orchestrations is faintly insulting. and it really begins to grate after a while.
Spielberg seems dully sullen and reverential of his subject and quarry, he keeps his camera locked down with a grudging respect not to overload the narrative with any sprawling or monumental techniques, covering scenes in masters and close-ups and only letting Lincoln raise his softly spoken, acclivous lilt during a few terse moments when the stakes at play are concisely expressed through some grandiose wordplay and hammering of desks. As expected Day-Lewis is gravitational, folding himself completely into the role with his polymorphic perfectionism, and a strong council of supporting players are particularly vindicated by Tommy Lee Jones compromising Congressional Leader Thaddeus Stevens – a more timely example to the contemporary gridlocked American senate couldn’t be more instructive – and the welcome return of James Spader to the big screen with a roguishly glint in his eye as he deftly heeds his presidents instructions. For a civil war era movie there is virtually no civil war on-screen, aside from an opening hand to hand melee and a closing fresco there is no combat in the picture other than the verbal sparring of Republicans and Democrats in the House of Representatives, in one of those ironic bends of the historical bell curve the mid 19th century actually saw the former as the true progressive party of liberty and equality, whilst the Democrats resisted the economic and ideological imperatives of freedom during this tumultuous campaign. Lincoln sees Daniel Day-Lewis orate for yet another golden figurine to complete the trilogy after There Will Be Blood and My Left Foot, he may well provide his commander with an award worthy performance and break his career long filibuster, like the Washington monument that houses his likeness Lincoln the film is statuesque and imposing, as staid and marmoreal as his alabaster skin;
When I first heard of the assassination of Osama Bin Laden back in early May 2011 I had a conflicting response. On the one hand as a Guardian reading lefty I was disgusted at America’s arrogance and utter disregard for legal covenants by deploying a kill team in a sovereign state to execute a foreign national, not even pretending to pay lip service to international law, trampling on the enshrined rights of less powerful countries as they stride the global stage with a disgusting, impervious and arrogant glee. On the other hand I do operate in the real world despite the volume of movies I watch, and I didn’t weep a solitary tear at the removal of one of the most loathsome mass murdering fuckers to blight humanity in a generation, spewing his poisonous misogynist, medieval and incomprehensible bile, and was fully contingent of the potential propaganda coup that an international trial could have provided to his deluded and perverted cause. A similar dysfunction seems to have afflicted the cultural and critical community when it comes to Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s re-team with her Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker screenwriter Mark Boal, deftly assaulting the story of the largest manhunt in modern history which culminates with the final maneuvers on the Abbotadad compound, an operation which some hoped could apply a soothing vengeance laced balm to the atrocity of 9/11 a decade since the twin towers fell and the Pentagon smouldered.
The film opens with a throttling grip – a blank screen, gradually filling the auditorium with a cacophony of distressing voicemails from the poor doomed souls trapped in the burning towers – before parachuting us into to a secretive rendition site where a dazzled and discombobulated intelligence asset is being beaten and waterboarded by a senior CIA operative (Jason Clark) as recent recruit Maya (Jessica Chastain, porcelain and brittle) looks on in queasy horror. The bruised asset has links to the most wanted man on the planet, the terrorist mastermind Osama Bin Laden whose evasion of justice is a weeping sore in the American body politic, Maya obsessively spearheading the furtive quest to uncover his clandestine nest over years of false starts and covert cul-de sacs, as further atrocities are visited upon London, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Madrid. As successive administrations are established in Washington Maya’s executive masters displace her resources as the priorities morph into homeland reared threats, but her contumacious passion remains undiminished, and an overlooked figure might just prove to be the breakthrough she has been praying for to finally avenge that epoch inducing September morning….
It has taken a dozen years but we finally have the crucial dossier on the defining international event of the past decade, thankfully this provocative and gaunt film is several leagues removed from the jingoistic nausea that the material could have enlisted in less professional hands. Zero Dark Thirty is a cold and dispassionate look at a decade of vengeance seeking diminution of the moral high-ground, forged in a reportage flavoured, hand-held dissection of the very dirty, loquaciously lethal business of surreptitious modern warfare. Maya’s alteration over this lengthy globe-trotting quest is anchored with a brilliant performance from Chastain, driven by an unexplained fury at the jihad, quite refreshingly there is no Hollywood back story of a slain lover or family member to ignite her unswerving devotion to the cause, she only letting a sliver of her psychological passion become illuminated in one electrifying exchange. The supporting players are uniformly excellent as a squadron of intelligence operatives and their auxiliaries, with particularly memorable turns from a scene stealing Mark Strong in a powerful sequence that recalls Alec Baldwin’s brutal pitch in Glengarry Glen Ross, and Jason Clark’s resigned confederate to the cause, musing over the neccesity to distance himself from his activites lest he loses his own disintegrating humanity. Like Bigelow’s best work the film has a pummeling momentum which careens through a decade of atrocities and covert failures, it’s a very bleak and unrelenting tour of our subversive recent history which entreats a funeral march rather than an inspiring militaristic trumpet blare, with few concessions to an audiences potential bewilderment at the rapid fire parade of names and leads, the film’s title referring to an establishment argot that simultaneously references the period of the final assault and the wider nebulous world of insidious espionage.
After two hours of procedural excellence the final assault on the compound unwinds in a tension shredding, heart in mouth bravura final thirty minute sequence which operates without the assistance of Alexandre Desplat’s brooding score, where most American fodder would shift to rapidly edited heroics the film’s climax is presented in a real-time allotted adamant and surgical fashion, there is nothing heroic in pouring high velocity silenced rounds into bewildered enemies or screaming women, it’s a tough watch and the filmmakers should be applauded for retaining their integrity to the non-fictional horrific facts of the operation. Bigelow exchanges a cool contact with her usual fascinations, embedding a female protagonist in an overwhelming male environment, but as you’d expect from a filmmaker of her calibre these elements are not overtly expressed but more obliquely suggested in Maya’s obliteration of obstacles throughout her professional prowess. She is quite obviously a cipher for the American experience in the months and years following 9/11, initially disgusted and visibly distressed at the moral quagmire circulating the use of torture and so-called enhanced interrogation techniques in order to realise a greater good, her innocence and virtuous standing crushed by the moral cost of a dispassionate and relentless pursuit of retribution.
The controversy around the films supposed promotion of torture is an absolute joke, with commentators and pundits using the film to further their careers and media visibility in a quite disgusting fashion, not to mention how utterly inaccurate these accusations are in the context of the films narrative as the intelligence yielded under such circumstances is false and redundant in the wider goal of defeating the serpentine al-Qaeda opponent. It is as Bigelow and Boal assert a journalistic account of the hunt with first hand confessions of the principals in the conflict, and there seems to be some strange myth out there that a filmmaker or indeed any creator of stories is complicit in any odious behaviour merely by presenting it as fact. Judged on those unstable grounds are we demanding that Spielberg be arrested for his anti-Semitism in Schindler’s List? I’ve even read accounts of Bigelow accused as a 21st century Riefenstahl - for the uninitiated she was the female filmmaker who served as the Third Reich’s principal propaganda agent – and this is some of the worst submerged misogyny I’ve heard for quite some time, isn’t it strange how the producers behind the torture vindicating 24 or deeply racist Homeland don’t seem to have attracted the same flack, but then again they’re not women are they? The film isn’t remotely jingoistic or flag waving even during its final hollow triumph, the film culminating in an extraordinary crowning image, a remorse streaked Pyrrhic victory which heals no wounds, a staggering finale which evokes Dreyer’s Joan Of Arc by circling the film in a loop which connects to the opening mausoleum prayers. Impeccably researched and brilliantly executed, Zero Dark Thirty is the definitive 9/11 movie thus far, a Orwellian census on the Dantesque cost of perpetual warfare;
Like the film let’s start with a little controversy to get the blood circulating shall we, here’s film critic Ray Carney on the cult of Tarantino, circa 1999 ’It’s only that in three films running something like seven hours in all-he has managed not to express one interesting insight into human emotion or behaviour. If it weren’t for daytime television, it might constitute some sort of record. All there is in his work is the Grand Guignol campiness, the chiller-diller suspensefulness, the kicky twists and turns of plot, and reversals of expectation. It’s not much to go on, if you are beyond the age of 18 (which, admittedly, most of his audience is not at least not emotionally).’ Well, apart from the inherent snobbishness in that last sentence this is a frequent jibe levelled at the films of Quentin Tarantino, and his efforts since that critique was published have not exactly challenged such handwaved dismissals of his work, with the double blow of the bloated Kill Bill indulgences and re-writing of history of Inglorious Basterds in 2009 not exactly signalling a new maturity or shift away from the genre sandpits, and the less said about the car-crash of Death Proof the better. But some commentators reject these knee jerk rejections of Tarantino’s post-modern pilfering, seeing in his inversion of genre tropes deeper levels that those normally associated with such ostentatious kitsch, and he has certainly gone for the pulsing jugular with Django Unchained, one part spaghetti western to two parts evisceration of America’s shameful slaving history, in perhaps his most broadly enjoyable film since the halcyon days of Pulp Fiction.
1858, two years before the explosive Civil War engulfed America and two slavers are leading a miserable chain gang of negro slaves through the frigid Texas wilderness. A spritely figure approaches, a dentist turned Bounty Hunter Dr. King Schultz (a magnetically loquacious Christophe Waltz) who swiftly secures the release of the prized specimen Django (a sibilantly seething Jamie Fox) in order that he may visually identify his previous masters, the notorious Brittle brothers, a triplicate quarry of Schultz’s avaricious eye. Nervously teaming up with the erudite foreigner the pair come to a mutually beneficial agreement, Django gains his freedom and secures a third of the dollar value of the bounties that the partnership macabre accrue, bloodily tearing through the winter months by gruesomely amassing a litany of murderous contracts, until the spring arrives and Django reveals his ultimate quest to his intrigued colleague. In a righteous act of vengeance Django needs to travel to the most dangerous part of the country for a man with his biological history, the famous Mississippi plantation where his wife Broomhilda von Shaft (a barely vocal Kerry Washington and no, I’m not making her name up) is now the property of the charismatic Calvin Candie (a slitheringly superb DiCaprio), she being imprisoned in his sprawling family grounds since she and her husband were separately sold to new masters, her new prison ironically known as ‘Candyland’. Hatching a devious plot to masquerade as slave traders themselves Django and Schultz ingratiate themselves with Candie and his brutal troupe, nervously entering the nest of serpents to attempt a daring and hopefully blood-free rescue mission….
This terrifically entertaining, occasionally hilarious and superbly performed film with terrific turns from Foxx, Waltz and even Dicaprio is tremendous fun, but it just seems to lack that one ingredient which can pitch a film over from the ‘good’ to ‘great’ stratification. The formula that was deftly employed in Inglorious Basterds - take a horrific injustices in history and transform it into a vengeance fuelled mission driven narrative in order to provoke some cathartic release when the dominating evildoers are exterminated with an incendiary fury drives the DNA of the film, but it has some severe problems with its pace and spiky tempo, particularly in its overweight final act. I have had a problem with the recent pacing and structure that Tarantino has chosen to emulsify his films so I was pleased to see that this piece felt like a coherent whole 9(at least until the botched finale) rather than some terrifically written sequences locked together like immobile blocks, there is a definite sense of an arching quest that pistons throughout the film with a relentless cantor, the sad passing of his longtime editor Sally Menke in 2009 seems if anything seems to have solidified some of his more flagrant structural decisions, although this thoroughbred falls at the final hurdle as after one expanded show-down (which as usual Quentin excels at it) is further bookended with a final twenty or so minutes which is drearily anticlimactic, and made me exit the theatre with a resigned acceptance when I should have been bellowing Django’s name in glee.
The film doesn’t so much as untangle the knotty and difficult history of racial politics in America as much as it shotgun blasts it in the face, the genteel civility and politeness of the South’s famed hospitality squatting in uneasy symbiosis with some absolutely horrific images of stark brutality, but they are earned and appropriate to the tale, I always groan when QT gets the inevitable ‘violent filmaker’ sobrquiet hurled at him as in Django there are two specific instances of horrific violence that are conceptually chilling, but unlike Refn or Noe who show their grotesque fantasies details in unvarnished full frame CinemaScope, Tarantino keeps them off-screen through framing and composition, just as he did with the infamous ear slicing in Reservoir Dogs you don’t see anything, but he still gets the achy accusations of being irresponsible and immature – frankly its nonsense. The shootouts when they come are frankly hilariously entertaining, urging us to uncomfortable celebrate in casual brutality where human bodies detonate like crimson hued water balloons, whilst the casual cruelty inflicted on the people of colour is extremely uncomfortable and nausea inducing, as is the frequent deployment of the word ‘nigger’ (someone has counted 110 instances) which is culturally appropriate given the period, and curiously through repetition seems to dull the disgusting words wider semiotic emanations, in much the same way that the gay community co-opted the phrase ‘queer’ as part of their struggle for equal status.
But the films more convincing pleasures rest more on the cast from an exhilarating character perspective, in particular Waltz is utterly charming even if is reprising his Hans Landa persona from the good guy benches, and Di Caprio must be applauded for accepting the role of an utterly disgusting specimen who orchestrates gladiatorial fights to the death amongst his enslaved stock, he is utterly, completely repellent beneath his cultivated veneer and there isn’t many stars of his wattage who would subvert their persona so poisonously - remember that this film had Kevin Costner, Kurt Russell and Will Smith all signed on then rejected once they got a look at the script. The unquestionable glaring omission of the Academy was its failure to heap praise on Samuel L. Jackson whose utterly electrifying performance as a chilling coadjuvant ’Uncle Tom’ is absolutely outstanding as one of the best supporting actor turns of recent years, he is easily the single best element in the entire film, his doddering, fragile, facile persona cloaking a truly Machiavellian intelligence churning under his menacing obsidian exterior. But there are flaws which one assumes are intentional, for someone whom is known for writing intriguing, independent and provocative women in his films Kerry Washington does nothing more than look forlorn or screams, she’s a damsel in distress cipher and I think QT deliberately choose this path for her to generate some emotional ammunition in the final stretch, although this strategy simply didn’t work for me. It’s also curious that I don’t think there is a single Native American in the film, perhaps not even as an extra in the city scenes, there is certainly no speaking roles but this is very much a ‘movie world’ movie if you catch my drift, hyper-realised and stylishly accelerated, with everyone communicating in quips and rehearsed lines utterly divorced from any semblance of reality. Considering the pedigree Django is also fairly light on the references and homages that QT’s indulges in although Franco Nero makes a clumsily handled appearance, with supporting turns from an unexpected Bruce Dern and a curious use of James Remar (probably best known as Dexter’s Dad) in two gunman roles which is perhaps a sly nod to the same faces cropping up in the original cycle of Spaghetti Westerns, Finally QT’s really needs to stop casting himself in his movies, his terribly accented cameo as an Australian trader toward the end of the film might in some senses be explosive, but it stops the film stone dead when it should galloping onward to victory.
Speaking of collaborators special mention should be made of Robert Richardson’s splendid photography which provides the mission with a seductive semblance, using his usual halo lights to parse away specific elements of the frame, and I really would like to know if the masked figure in Candyland (played by Quentin’s frequent actress Zoe Bell) was meant to have more of play in proceedings, as he kinda sets up this mysterious figure which subsequently gets no play off at all and appears to have been relegated to the cutting room floor. Oscar nominated films usually get dismissed as facile, populist fare without the gravity and integrity of the Sight & Sound best of the year lists but consider this, we have two movies explicitly concerned with the racial history of the country and its relationship with violence and firearms coincidently unleashed within a month of the re-election of the most polarizing President in American history, as the film rather uneasily cowers in the shadow of the America’s most horrific and numbing modern era massacre – that is curious in its timing and relevance of so-called ‘mainstream’ cinema. I do think that Tarantino is smarter than people give him credit for and like the grindhouse and drive-in movies he so adores there is a subversive purpose and message fermenting away under the surface of his apparent juvenile, gleeful torrents of viscous violence and grevious dialogue, even objectively taking a magnifying lens to the film it riffs on themes of performance, theatricality and crucially a black / white duality, with a white European and black native in combat with a white slaver and black collaborator. Like the debris of a dynamited saloon bar Django throws up all sorts of spiked and controversial elements – audience complacency in violence, cheering on shady characters who kill for money yet are somehow the moral champions, historical accuracy in the stories we tell each other about challenging epochs of human history – all these themes are not hectored or sermonised to the audience as you’d expect in say a Haneke movie, but they burst along the screen with his unique blend of exuberant kinetic and chaotic controversy.
As is my idiom I have amassed a wealth of supporting material which should provide you with a wider context to the movie, beware though they are insufferably heavy spoilers buried in that treasure, so enter at your own risk. Tarantino’s embarrassing claim that his film has sparked a debate on slavery may just be a little overheated but like Von Trier he’s also a showman and he knows how to generate the requisite controversy driving column inches, while I find him an immensely irritating and self-centred jerk in numerous interviews he frequently makes terrifically exciting movies steeped in cinema history, whilst I loathe the Kill Bill films Dogs remains one of the most assured American film debuts of the past thirty years, although wildly overrated Pulp Fiction has its iconic moments and Jackie Brown is an almost unheard of rarity in modern cinema – now only is it a film with a central female protagonist which isn’t some tediously insulting Rom-Com the woman also happens to be African-American and also (gasp, shock) – she’s middle-aged!! That’s quite the rare achievement. Now, can I share with you for me the worst story about him which think was printed in GQ when he was being interviewed in a Hollywood diner around the time of Kill Bill. He instructed his waitress to inform him when it was 4.00pm as he had to leave for another appointment as the journalist sat down, then of course went ballistic when the rushed off her feet waitress who dared to presumptuously prioritize her job by serving other customers failed to tell him the time an hour later as the interview ran over – I mean can’t you tell the time Quentin? Why should some random service staff suddenly become your de facto personal assistant? What a cock. Nevertheless you can admire the message even as you detest the messenger, Django Unchained is sensational in both senses of the word, conjured by a flawed and complicated consciousness he is inarguably an important and occasionally infuriating filmmaker, and this is the first essential film of the year;
Where’s your fackin Cabinet Strategy Report to the Regeneration, Environmental and Economic Development Panel you kant?
Well, considering that was my first return to an office environment in almost a year that was relatively painless, I barely had time to take my coat off this morning before I was ushered into a strategy and planning meeting which was an amusing baptism of fire. My new employees passed the Minty Efficiency Test®, as despite my accepting their offer late last Wednesday they had managed to a) secure a desk, computer and phone, b) acquired all the network logins and IT paraphernalia and security pass and c) complied a research dossier of all the myriad strategy reports, PID’s, Council Ten-Year plans and fascinating policy briefings that give us consultants a ’lazy woody’. I impressed myself, I think I’ve got my head around the entire programme, all we have to do now is plan, cajole, persuade and execute all the numerous projects – and that’s the fun part. Finally, no offence to my Essex colleagues but it’s a relief to be working back in London where I’m much more au-fait with all the third-sector organisations, sub-regional development agencies, strategy panels and funding agencies, despite the alleged ‘Bonfire of the Quangos‘ in 2010 there is still a fair amount of activity going on, it’s just a little more streamlined. I don’t think I made any glaring faux-pas, I mean I got into two fights but for the uninitiated Local Government’s a bit like prison, from day one you have to establish clear and unambiguous boundaries;
In other news, and just to keep my offensiveness train going the embargo on my review of Chained has lifted today, alas I’m having some hugely frustrating problems with one of my sister sites photo requirements – I’ll link when they have been resolved. In the meantime here’s the trailer;
Well gentle reader, it appears that after ten months of feckless luxury I am finally rejoining the land of the living with a new assignment finally secured with this crowd. I’ll be continuing my career in the carbon reduction and sustainability spheres, programme managing their ‘green’ activities alongside an enormous project of economic regeneration – so no pressure (gulps). I can’t wait to get back into this environment;
I’m kidding of course, with a relatively easy commute and a forward-looking authority with plenty going on this is a terrific looking next step, I got a good vibe from the people and interview, my instincts are usually pretty good on this front after a dozen years of contracting – I start on Monday so they ain’t messing around. Thus my life goal of working for every one of the 33 London Boroughs takes an incremental step forward, eight down, twenty-five to go – yes I am joking. Not a bad start to the year, the next couple of days are going to be hectic with a few appointments and having to find a new accountant, plus I have two exceptionally exciting screenings in the pipeline, tomorrow I have an ultra rare early Kubrick and Friday night sees the only London screening of American Mary with the twin sisters in attendance for a ghoulish Q&A – no rest for the wicked eh?
It’s always the way, like a stuck record every January I say this but for certain stretches of the year I’m left scrambling around for movies to go and see, but the first couple of months of the year are always saturated with material from the US and elsewhere which doesn’t conveniently fit into the other seasonal frameworks. This is where we get the Oscar bait and the material that the marketing boffins are unsure what else to do with, unceremoniously dumped with little fanfare in the hope that the bleak post festive season may still tease out a few curious souls. January 2013 is looking particularly mental, here is a taste of what the Menagerie has on the agenda;
I’ve become more and more interested in Lincoln following some strong plaudits from the more serious end of the US critical spectrum, just the prospect of a luxurious, expansive, detailed period historical piece executed with Spielberg’s consummate skill should be a wonderful couple of hours in another world – not a bad alternative to a grim and grey January in London. Product may include scenery chewing antics from Daniel Day Lewis and/or Tommy Lee Jones.
The years most controversial film by the looks of things, I’ve deployed the tenacity of a Navy SEAL in avoiding all rumors and spoilers on this one, I can’t be sure but I think someone dies at the end. All the conflicting reports of the film either supporting or refuting the suitability of torture from both left and right-wing pundits indicates that this is a powerful and thought-provoking film, I’m really, really looking forward to this purely as a Kathryn Bigelow thriller, as a film rather than a political screed, and that’s the helmet I’ll be wearing when I storm the auditorium.
Ah, well maybe I’m wrong as this could eclipse Zero Dark Thirty as the most controversial film of the year? It’s not just the racial politics and Quentin’s casual deployment of the ‘N’ word, he also seems to be the poster-boy for movie violence which the NRA and their deluded brainwashed followers have identified in some pathetic effort to distract the public and media away from the real source of gun violence – guns. Anyway, let’s not open that hornets here as this is a movie blog not a political soapbox, I’ve accrued hours and hours in podcast preambulations on Tarantino’s latest, should be fun going through my esteemed colleagues reactions and analysis once the film opens toward the end of the month.
I’ve surprised myself at this appearing on the agenda, it’s not the kind of film I’d normally carve out some time for even with the lovely Naomi Watts in a starring role, but the reports I’m getting is that this is an immensely powerful film, even causing some weak-willed patrons to exit the cinema in stunned and disturbed disbelief. As is my idiom such a challenge is cat-nip to yours truly, so I’ll probably go and see this today after a nice Sunday lunch at the local boozer – Dutch courage might be involved.
Another late addition, I can’t say the trailer inspires much excitement but that’s quite a cast, and I’m fascinated with this period of organised crime – we all know who Mickey Cohen is from the Ellroy saga now don’t we? – so this could be an entertaining romp through the ferocious forties. It’s from the same guy behind Zombieland which was alright, but this does kinda have a slightly worrying urban Lawless vibe…
Finally a little horror to blood the year in fine style, I’m told this is an ideal companion piece to my beloved Excision from last year, with some similar themes around distressed femininity and….surgery (shudders). Some other strands have kicked off on the small Blu-Ray screen as regular readers will attest, I recently contributed to Sound On Sights monthly Western programme and there’s also a strand of retrospective screenings which is percolating nicely thank you very much. It’s going to be a hectic month…..
Well, whilst I can’t speak for you illuminated souls I’ve had better years. A brief spell in hospital wasn’t the most auspicious of starts, and my growing suspicions that my meatspace world career has been finally wrecked by the 2008 bail out, the slow economic tsunami finally emanating out to gouge local government resources seem to have been finally and depressingly realised. For the uninitiated that was where the powers that be and the politicians in thrall to the wealthy and powerful took my and your tax payers money that we have invested into the system, into society for the universal benefit of all was plundered to bail out the malignant thieves, liars and crooks who now continue to pay themselves millions and millions and millions of pounds of bonuses whilst the rest of society stagnates – quite honestly the pharaoh kings of old can only be looking down on this new class of self entitled, greed driven liars and shake their heads in quiet respect, at least they didn’t collude with terrorists and murdering drug cartels which are raping an entire series of South American countries. I’m really not sure what on earth I’m going to do in 2013 and frankly it’s pretty fucking scary, so let’s dispense with the politics and ignore the mass shootings, devastating weather events, incompetent and destructive right-wing economic and social politics and….well I could go on, it’s been a wretched year in many spheres but let’s take succor in the eternal movies….
Halfway through the year and this was looking like a particularly poor cycle, a few highlights to be sure but on a consistency level a fairly erratic beast, but the Autumn and Winter months has reassuringly seen an explosion of talent across the board with a number of works that have thankfully raised the median to higher levels. Of course I’ve delivered my two most proficient film seasons, the David Lynch series back in February which I’m immensely proud of and my subsequent oodles of spare time gave me the opportunity to delve much deeper into the BFI Hitchcock retrospective that previously anticipated, with no fewer than 15 reviews and 7 associated features which is now the ballistic baseline to beat. My best screening experience of 2012 was unquestionably that ravishing digital print of Vertigo – more on that technological division later on – following Camille Paglia’s fascinatingly enthusiastic lecture, if I have one regret it has been in not visiting many new cinema locations in London, an oversight that I intend to rectify in 2013. We also have my 1,000th post zeroing in with the unerring accuracy of OCD afflicted kamikaze pilot, although I think I’ve finally cracked the subject matter of that significant milestone, all I need to do now is select the examples and write the damn thing. I managed to cover some bona fide classics – Jaws, Lawrence Of Arabia, Casablanca, The Evil Dead - and although I missed quite a few festivals the LFF was a sanity saviour, and on the smaller screen I managed mini-retrospectives of Theo Angelolopous (I can see the adoration but he mostly left me cold), a shotgun scattering of David Mamet films (before he went right-wing loony brigade he made some great films) and Louis Malle which was a treasure trove of gallic gems, as I was particularly uneducated on his early continental films. I bookended these activities with a second look at some of Dennis Hopper’s lesser known material from both sides of the camera, ignoring the likes of Easy Rider, Speed and Blue Velvet in favour of the likes of The Hot Spot, Hoosiers and Catchfire (AKA Backtrack), a curious blend of twitched performances in unremarkable films, and sultry toned neo-noirs which made a pleasing change to my usual auteur led traditions. I’d quite like to repeat this with another actor or actress next year, maybe Gloria Grahame or Robert Ryan for a historical change of pace. I’m also thinking about changing the graphic design format of the blog, using larger photos for a start and maybe a change a WordPress theme in terms of the colours, fonts and design, thus I’d welcome any feedback – but for now let’s get on with the business of show…..
The Films Of The Year
A mixed bag as usual, veering from the art house to the blockbuster, the genre busting to the horrific, as usual the auteurs are out in force as is my preferable idiom – it’s just what jacks my celluloid concerns. So let’s start proceedings with this list which I’ve expanded out to a full ten for the first time ever, I warn you now that this is predominantly a very grotesque year of occasionally challenging material, if the movies reflect the current temperature and agenda – and of course they do – the malfunctions run deep and one hopes the influx of SF material warping in for 2013 may redress the gloomy balance. As always these are presented in no specific order of merit, simply kicking off with one of the years biggest films, SPOILERS BEWARE and a very sad tale of computer malfunction;
The Dark Knight Rises – From the autumn browns of Batman Begins to the electric blue of The Dark Knight I did predict a seasonal drift to the icy ivory of The Dark Knight Rises, and if I hear one more pedantic idiot whine about the lack of explanation of how Bruce got back to Gotham then I’ll fucking scream. This triumphant peroration of the psychological nitroglycerine of Bruce Wayne’s furtive odyssey pummeled that all so elusive demographic mix into submission, both the passing cinema-goer and the fanboys being given the respect and treated with the intelligence that Hollywood frequently abhors. How the Nolan brothers with David S. Goyer have circled the story into a self-contained chronicle of how one tortured man mastered his demons is state of the art Hollywood filmmaking, smart enough to know where you need the gadgets and pyrotechnics alongside the character development and core narrative, commissioning elite-class technical crews and core creative collaborations (I think Hans Zimmer’s scores are 25% of the brilliance of these films), with a firm grasp of new technologies such as IMAX formats and visual effects, all nested within a visual and thematic iconography that permeates from film to film.
It’s scenes such as this where Nolan and his team didn’t so much as nail but crucify their take on the iconic Batman, his dark heroism and neurotically driven crusade, toying with the very notions of what it is to be a hero in the modern world, all lacquered with a throughly electrifying action thriller which has the audacity to blend in some pungent political commentary. That scene above is the moment when it comes to this trilogy that I passed from Batman fan into eternal champion mode disciple, for first time ever, ever, I genuinely was moved and cared about a character in such a cardboard comic book multiverse, and that is the ultimate and unique achievement of this blockbuster series. In terms of material I have spent the past six months accruing links and articles, but due to some malfunction they’ve all vanished in some anarchic electronic massacre, from memory however I humbly submit this and this, here is a side post on costume design and this has been doing the rounds (Not as funny as it thinks it is, but Bruce’s Batwing driving music made me laugh) and finally here is a terrific interview with Nolan which may answer some key questions on his ideas and purpose throughout the trio of films, a brilliantly epic nocturnal compendium here.
Killer Joe – I was recently reading Pauline Kael’s 1971 review of The French Connection, in which she remarks that the film is as fundamentally existential as Popeye Doyle is reprehensible, a racist goal-driven character who is compelled to get that sweet smack off the streets not due to any personally derived civic or social duty, but because he is a twisted obsessive and that is the only motivation for his unorthodox methods. It’s a useful insight that we can apply to Killer Joe, Friedkin’s most compelling work for thirty years, a film which keeps surfacing out of the subconscious to remind me of its wicked, draining and giggling power. Amidst the summer when one is besieged by movies designed for kids and adolescents it was a pleasure to be brutally assaulted by this powerful little bastard, this slimy, ugly, deep-fried tale of sexual malevolence, treacherous greed and seething Grand Guignol glee, making you laugh in uncomfortable uncertainty as Matthew McConaughey’s Oscar worthy lawman goes about his hysterical business – more like this please Mr. Friedkin who has recently become my Facebook friend, I’m anxiously waiting for updates on his legal case to finally get Sorcerer released in an appropriate restored format as I’m ashamed I’ve never seen it. Finger licking good etc….
West Of Memphis - As much as I love a good documentary it’s rare for them to crack my yearly top ten, however two candidates emerged this year, although I was deeply moved by the celestial scrying of Nostalgia For The Light the more earthly concerns of the horrendous West Memphis 3 miscarriage of justice yields closer to current concerns of institutional, bureaucratic corruption. The arrangement is exquisite – firstly just telling the facts from an independent perspective – who was killed, when, who was arrested and charged on the basis of what evidence – before delving beneath the surface to obliterate the prosecutions claims, and in the best tradition of the likes of The Thin Blue Line decouple the empirical facts of the case and its protagonists ulterior motives, before finally identifying a credible culprit. I’m told my review went as they say viral and got plastered onto their official Facebook feed which is encouraging, and a sober thought is that such incidents happen all the time, this just happens to be one occurrence when the authorities were exposed.
The Master – Harking back to transformative, robust performances of James Dean and Marlon Brando The Master has an umbilical connection to an earlier period of American cinema when the performance was the nucleus of a film rather than any high concept idea, and this is clearly a film of dense characterisation and mutual symbiosis. Having seen this twice it remains mysterious and is slightly more elusive on repeat, the widespread speculation on the ‘a-roving’ scene baffles me though as it is pretty clearly signalled that it’s all in Freddie’s chaotic head. Here’s a strange and sad connection – Jeremy Blake, the visual artist responsible for the colourful kaleidoscope mood interludes in Punch Drunk Love committed suicide with his girlfriend, both were scientologists who reputedly fled the church and were then remorselessly hounded to their death. P.T. Anderson once again displays what Sight & Sound cite as his ‘gun-slinging’ artistic bravery – think of the unexpected doughnut shop bloodbath in Boogie Nights, the pulverizing climax of Blood or the biblical rain of frogs in Magnolia, moments of bizarre and unexpected interlude that puncture the established realism, the auditing exchange and that long take as Freddy approaches the Master’s yacht for the first time are amongst the greatest single sequences of the year.
Amour – As cinema screenings go this was a smothering experience, a combination of sheer terror, grief and perversely exhilaration, as I realised I had just absorbed a melancholic masterpiece that was meticulously planned and executed. Amour is a deeply moving masterpiece – and I use that word with the respect deserves – like a film such as Irrerversible it’s a film that I hugely admire but never want to see again, you know those stories about Normandy veterans who were refered to a therapist after watching the opening of Saving Private Ryan? I imagine the same reaction for anyone who has had to nurse a loved one to their inevitable void. In a recent interview Haneke who is edging into his Seventies stated that his only professional regret is not making a SF series – the mind boggles.
Excision - It’s a rare occurrence these days given my iron cinematic constitution but sometimes a film can be genuinely and absolutely shocking, even for an old-school gore hound such as yours truly. This high-school horror film from debutante Richard Bates is a staggering debut, if you’ll forgive me I’ll go to the writers cliché dictionary and describe it as Heathers on meta-amphetamines or perhaps a better metaphor would be Todd Solondz fisting a Chuck Palahuink screenplay under the bleachers during the big homecoming game (if you find that excessive image troublesome then you need to avoid this film), you don’t cast teenage porn starlet Traci Lords as a conservative, self-righteous mom or John Waters as a sneering priest unless you’re clearly aiming to broach truly transgressive territory. There is an astonishing central performance from Anna Lynne McCord as the deranged Pauline, as a metaphor for the pain and awkwardness of your adolescent years Excision works as a terrific teen movie, before wrenching you down to a vision of suburban, clinical hell in a brilliantly orchestrated, incredibly horrifying and fitting finale to an occasionally uneven but uniquely idiosyncratic piece of work – this is a new talent I’ll be keeping an eye on.
Killing Them Softly - We continue with the comedy, (Jesus, looking back over this list it has been an extraordinarily bleak year) with Andrew Dominik’s pilloried crime tale, I am immensely discouraged at just how savaged this film has been in the US by critics who really should know better – it just shows goes to show the nerves that the film has politically and culturally grazed. Now, as agreed the film is very much a blunt force instrument and not very subtle, but criticisms such as James Gandolfini’s assassin ’never doing anything’ – presumably uttered because he doesn’t go on some ‘cool’ killing spree – well, this level of intellectual rigour should be dismissed with the contempt it deserves. Yes it’s an exceptionally bleak and sour evisceration of the American dream and the current world we live in, fractured through the lens of a criminal genre piece, but that’s what effective crime and criminal movies have always been about on one level, on economic and social realities which shine a light on the margins of society where we won’t like what we see. It’s rare enough to see such a serious genre piece on-screen with such an uncompromising position in almost forty years, so as a major fan of urban material on both the printed page and silver scream this has definitely grown on me and will be more rewarding with future viewings, if this was Domink’s immediate sequel to Chopper I’ll bet my meagre pay cheque it wouldn’t have been quite so stigmatized. An ideal festive companion piece to Killer Joe on the ‘developed’ worlds body politic during this incrementally declining decade, although you may wish to have the Samaritans on speed-dial….
The Cabin In The Woods – Whilst many critics have been going crazy for Holy Motors serpent eating its tail post-modern deconstruction of cinema I have to opt for this frequently hilarious evisceration of the horror genre, this perhaps being the closest beast on my list to a comedy movie, a laugh-riot which just happens to feature the brutal massacre of young students and the annihilation of mankind – like I said it’s been a tough year. It is certainly diminished on a small screen re-watch and does shrink to the diminutive dimensions of a special extended episode of Buffy or Angel, but as an unprepossessing cinema visit this was just so much darn fun, dreadfully entertaining and amusing with a central bloody mystery which kept my neurons firing in uncertain anticipation. Heck, I could also get into how like all good horror it does confront some uncomfortable issues of the day, in this case the sacrifice of a younger generation in order to maintain the status quo and the exalted position of the elite baby-boomer generation but let’s not get into that here….
Headhunters – Clearly I’m a fraud as this is probably the real ‘comedy’ on my list, and who’d have expected a Norwegian thriller to infiltrate the top ten? I love a good caper movie and Headhunters takes a risk in portraying its hero as an arrogant bastard who identifies potential marks by posing as a senior CEO recruitment consultant, acquiring intelligence to steal and fence their expensive art portfolios, usually the protagonists in this pedigree of pictures are loveable rogues such as Clooney in the Ocean’s movies or Robert Redford in The Hot Rock. This was just a brilliant script with more twists than a spaghetti supper at M.Night Shyamlan’s lair, and a gruesome line of pitch-black gallows humor which had me roaring in disgusted mirth. It’s also got a neat line in corporate espionage and malfeasance which gives the nightmare a contemporary edge, Hitchcock would have loved this MacGuffins and all, and you can’t praise a thriller higher than that.
The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey - Yeah, it just made it. This might be a surprise inclusion given my initial tepid to warm review, but on a second and indeed third 2D, 24fps view many of my disagreements faded into insignificance, and on reflection this is another superb addition to the beloved franchise. When you think about it, what other film series has been lavished with six three-hour movies (not to mention the Extended Editions, an extra 25 minutes has been confirmed for TH:AUJ already) with a consistent team of director, screenwriters and core creative personnel who display such an obvious love, reverence and understanding of the source material? I have my issues that I won’t rehash here, but the fanboy wailing over certain changes and amendments to make these films more cinematic are absurd, and I charge them to think of exactly which world they would prefer – the Jackson take on just one three-hour movie which was always the anticipated treatment? In this case the 3D and 48fps works beautifully and not since Avatar has an event movie delivered the goods in such a ravishing fashion, narrative, tone and pacing issues aside this is genuine cinema as event, film as spectacle, and how this installment sets up the next two episodes is a truly glorious achievement – I’m starting the petition for The Silmarillion in 2021 now.
Special mentions to God Bless America, Moonrise Kingdom, Berberian Sound Studio, Haywire, Margaret, End Of Watch, Silver Linings Playbook, Argo, Dreams For Sale and Looper, as I said I was despairing at how poor this year was maturing but then there was an abrupt volte face after Summer season when a whole crop of stronger material was harvested. I have to say the small screen still out distances cinema by a small margin when you factor in their ability to develop character and themes over numerous hours of transmission, Mad Men, Justified, The Walking Dead, Treme, the overrated but undeniably entertaining Breaking Bad and my personal favourite Boardwalk Empire have all had superior seasons, although I think I might finally drop the likes of Dexter and True Blood as they are both anemic parodies of their earlier, entertaining incarnations. For comparison purposes on the film front, this is useful.
I warn you now, anyone looking for some festive cheer best look elsewhere, it’s been a fucking tough year and these films continue in that dark vein of experience (sobs uncontrollably)……
Vinyan (Fabrice Du Welz, 2008) – In this psychological horror a distressed couple – Rufus Sewell and Emmanuelle Béart)- travel to the remote jungles of the Thai-Burmese border to look for their young son who was swept away in the 2004 Asian tsunami, a choking starting point for the real horror to come. The final images of those pint-sized, mud cloaked wraiths swarming around a steamy, misty jungle ruins obviously brings to mind Apocalypse Now, but this is more of a companion piece to Antichrist or Possession with the devastating loss of a child driving an increasingly emotional and violent wedge between the two frantic parents. This also treads similar mud-caked ground to next years The Impossible by the looks of things, but this is a much more submerged piece of work that gnaws at the very souls of the protagonists, a genuinely unsettling work that cautiously descends into a sweltering heart of darkness.
Son Of Frankenstein (Rowland V. Lee, 1939) – As I’ve mentioned I’ve been on a trawl of the Universal horror movies, whilst the majority of them are clearly swiftly lensed, badly written movies designed as a quick cash cow that would be knocked out if the studio were in financial danger, Son Of Frankenstein is a genuine sequel after 1935′s Bride Of Frankenstein (considered as superior to the original in some circles), as this third entry to the cycle was clearly considered and designed with those evocative expressionist contours (the stairs of the Baron’s castle remind of a horizontally arranged tombstones), evidenced by its expansive run-time – most of the knock-offs average about 70 minutes, Son being a fully fleshed 100 minutes. With Basil Rathbone as the Frankenstein’s genial son, Boris Karloff’s last appearance as the ‘monster’ and Bela Lugosi as the snivellingly malicious Ygor this is terrific fun, with a fairly exciting and explosive finale. If you dig mist shrouded moors, pitchfork and torch wielding baying mobs, and monosyllabic, misunderstood monsters then you can’t go wrong, even if one can’t fail to be reminded of Young Frankenstein which culled many of its characters from the picture.
Spartan (Mamet, 2003) – ‘Where’s the girl? Where’s the girl?’ David Mamet’s rare foray into action cinema may sound clichéd on paper – the presidents daughter is kidnapped and Val Kilmer is despatched as an elite special forces officer to bring her back – but like a great Michael Mann flick it’s the attention to detail that makes this work. The infiltration techniques, the survival skills, the combat clinician, the clandestine tricks of the trade, all these elements have been impeccably researched and are superbly portrayed through a state of the art warrior operating at the peak of his profession. As you’d expect from Mamet some of the narrative twists and turns will have you questioning what has gone before, and some faintly ludicrous reveals are subsequently fleshed out to make all the pieces drop into place like a well oiled plot machine, sure you have to abandon any pretence to realism early on but as action movies go this is nourishing slug of water in the dehydrated desert of recent American combat conflicts. Considering Mamet’s lurch to right-wing politics after 9/11 it is surprising that this dossier remains intensely critical of the American war machine whilst celebrating its fearless soldiers, a taut and tense combat flick that knocks both Taken movies dicks in the dirt.
The Turin Horse (Tarr, 2011) – At two and a half hours of gloomy insights into the empty, bruising and difficult lives of two peasants which centres around their deeply repetitive daily tasks of pure survival, of getting dressed, boiling potatoes, chopping wood, drawing water from the well and conducting chores this will not be for everyone (that’s the understatement of the year) but this caught me in exactly the right reflective mood, and I loved the repetitive yet lyrical score reminiscent of Philip Glass from the brilliant ears of Mihály Vig, this example from the earlier collaboration on the Wreckmeister Harmonies has entranced me for the past few months. The Turin Horse is more Tarkovsky than Bresson in terms of pacing and its wider religious questioning, yes it’s a very academic, parched and dare I say it depressing film but if you embrace its monochromatic idiom of the absurd and abyssal pointlessness of life then you might just achieve some strange, infinite nirvana. Apparently Tarr has exhaustively hurled down his viewfinder and abandoned his fruitless quest for artistic succor in the face of overwhelming disgust of the modern world, sometimes I know how he feels…..
The Keep (Mann, 1982) – Where to begin with this rarely exhumed Nazi inflected Grimm’s fairy tale that received a rare UK screening on Film4 last month? Sandwiched between the twin urbanity of Thief and Manhunter this is the one true oddity in Michael Mann’s clenched career, a film he has completely disowned due to its butchering in the editing suite by the film’s philistine producers, consequently it’s a difficult behemoth to track down with only inferior region 1 DVD’s available to the truly committed fans of Mann. It’s very much a film of two halves, the dialogue and performances are simply atrocious, particularly Ian McKellen’s Jewish academic and Robert Prosky’s Romanian Priest out chomping each other to decimate the Lovecraftian scenery, but it eclipses these barbarities with the evocative obsidian production designs of UK legend John Box, some eerie mist drenched haunting cinematography, and a palpitating score from Tangerine Dream which has become a cult collectors item in its own right. The editing is horrendous with characters arriving with no prior explanation (Scott Glen’s Jesus inspired saviour being particularly egregious) and it’s apparent how much of this languishes on the cutting room floor, but that barbarity is what alludes to its potential as the shell of a terrific film is incorporeally evident, it has a very odd, itchy vibe, and even the old school optical printing and reverse cranking SFX hold a strangely magnetic fascination for us cult movie aficionados. It’s an angular companion piece to Prince Of Darkness (or even Prometheus for that matter) with a grinding fairy tale aura, with notions of the seduction of overwhelming power lurking over the titular citadel like disembodied charcoal clouds, a pale cult item that is obsequiously flawed yet nebulously fascinating.
Films To See In 2013
Some repeats from last year and some material that has already been blessed with an international release, we Europeans might get certain texts early – Killing Them Softly for example only just opened in the States yet clipped the UK months ago – yet we must be patient with other material. Django goes without saying, its been getting extraordinarily good reviews, even from those who aren’t usually enamoured with Tarantino’s celluloid circle-jerks. I am filled with a quiet gnawing horror at the prospect of one of my favourite ever books finally galloping its way to the screen, on the one hand it does have some talent involved – Hans Zimmer on symphonic strides, Caleb Deschanel on lighting duties – but it’s being directed by the cretin who wrote the rightly loathed Batman & Robin and is responsible for a host of retch-inducing Ron fricking Howard pictures – uurrgghh. I guess we’ll see a trailer soon and the budget being slashed to $46 million also doesn’t bode well, then again Jennifer Connelly is in it and she’s always worth watching – and once that restraining order is lifted etc. etc. Anywho, the main theme is fairly obvious for 2013 – there must be something lurking in the distant grinding nebula as a glut Science Fiction projects are finally warping in for battle;
Gravity - Well, maybe this will actually dock next year, still no scans of the trailer so we’ll have to look back to Children of Men to remind ourselves of Cuaron’s astounding camerawork. Pushed back from an initial November 2012 release schedule the project seems to be beset with production problems, with supporting players to George Clooney’s lead orbiting through Scarlett Johansson to Sandra Bullock in the female astronauts chair, and detecting the merest fragment of production photos, SFX designs or that rarest of treasures an actual trailer has been as elusive as detecting H2O on the dusty plateaus of Mars. Still we SF fans are a patient breed, and we await this potential new evolutionary step in genre machinery and robotics with a baited, audible breath. It’s been granted an MPAA certificate so it must be in the can, perhaps they’re just polishing some of the visuals and then nervously deciding when to launch it into the stratosphere….
The Grandmaster – The wildly talented Wong Kar Wai returns to the screen after the disappointing My Blueberry Nights with this martial arts biopic of the legendary sensei Ip Man who famously taught Bruce Lee his memorable skills. This film has been beset with production problems and delays, as I understand it re-shoots are currently being conducted for the international market, but it opens in China next week and should secure world-wide distribution in the new year. A look at that trailer promises some ravishing images, with his frequent muse Tony Leung in the title role and the elfin Zhang Ziyi (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) one guesses that a passionate love affair will also be on the cards. This has also reminded to finally track down Chungking Express, I can’t believe I still haven’t seen that supposed classic of world cinema yet…..
Stoker - Well, something else with an actual trailer, so that’s nice. How will a director with Park Chan-wook’s affectations and obsessions translate into an English language dark mystery drama, with a reasonably heavyweight cast including Nicole Kidman, Mia Wasikowska and Matthew Goode? That’s an intriguing cast combination in this film which is supposedly inspired by Hitchcock’s Shadow Of A Doubt which gives me some signals as to what it might be about, I’m pulling something of an embargo on this now to keep expectations fresh. Stoker also has a Clint Mansell score and this is always a good thing.
Upstream Color - Shane Carruth, he of 2004′s Primer fame finally returns to the big screen (Where has he been? Stuck in a box somewhere?) with this Sundance premiering paradox, very little is known on this other than this curious tagline – ‘A man and woman find themselves drawn together as they struggle to reassemble the fragments of their wrecked lives’. Carruth seems to have been paying the rent with script consultant duties on the likes of Looper, whether he’s back in time travel territory remains to be seen. There’s no-one particularly famous in the cast, thus I assume it’s another lo-fi budget effort, I hope he can match the confusing yet alluring heights of his debut – Sundance hits in January so not long to wait for initial reactions. For those confused (obligatory Primer link) about the prospects of his long gestating A Topiary I hear that film would be very expensive given the SFX requirements inherent in the script, so this is probably a ‘bridge’ film where he has to prove himself as a filmmaker with talent and a certain degree of critical popularity – he has after all been off the scene for eight years – before the purse holders at the major studios are persuaded to break out the cheque books…..
Cloud Atlas – Yesterday’s papers for our US and Canadian cousins, the more I’ve heard about this box-office failure (which can mostly be attributed to its misjudged, staggered release pattern) the more I’m curiously intrigued. Opinions have verged from a horrendous muddled mess with embarrassing Charlie Chan make-up to the more Aint It Cool style breathlessly gushing sites citing the film as a ‘life changing experience’ – although that does not bode well truly ambitious cinema of the $100 million plus range is all too rare, and I look forward to making my own mind up come February. At the very least Cloud Atlas is going to be a different experience with articles citing the current experimentation with traditional film structures mapping the film with the likes of The Master, Holy Motors and Life Of Pi, the very fact that the Wachowski’s got this made at all through private funding – one possible reason for the lack of screens and poor advertising hobbling the films opportunities – is a minor miracle in itself. I just hope that with their supposed disregard of narrative continuity that they haven’t thrown the baby out with the proverbial bathwater.
What does next year hold in store retrospective wise? Well the BFI are hosting a Polanski retrospective in January which I’m musing over, and I have this rather strange urge to revisit the Hong Kong John Woo gangster films of the Eighties and Nineties, I have no idea where this impulse has sprung from but I like the idea of also seeking out ancillary material by other filmmakers of the era, a period of genre cinema I’m not entirely au fait with. I’m also going to see what I can do about covering more festivals, I’ve had opportunities which I failed to follow-up on due to sheer laziness (the Nordic Film Festival, the South Korean Film Festival), and certainly Sundance O2 which returns to the UK in February. The two biographies Hitchcock and Lincoln are of course on the playlist as is the new Malick picture To The Wonder and Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, on the genre front I’m also looking forward to The Canyons, Neil Blomkamp’s Elysium, a Cruise to Oblivion should be surpassed by Del Toro’s thundering Pacific Rim, the Star Trek sequel should be fun, romantics will get woozy as Linklater concludes his international romanticism with Before Midnight and the epic Cornetto trilogy closes with World’s End, hopefully a re-teaming of Frost and Pegg with Edgar Wright will actually, y’know, make them funny again after the horrendous failure of Paul.
So finally let’s wave a melancholic goodbye to analogue film which is certainly what 2012 will be remembered for, with Kodak ceasing major production of film stock and theatres now all but abandoning 35mm projection, I’m no Luddite as I do embrace the technical marvels of 3D and CGI when used effectively and appropriately, but I can’t help but feel that something tangible has slipped away, a physical capture of reality through a tactile storage and delivery device. Holding a frame of 35mm or 70mm film stock up to the light to judge its contents is obviously more romantic and idyllic a symbol of the magic of the movies, of letting light pour and permeate through an image to illuminate a fantastic illusion is infinitely more affecting than plugging a hard drive into a throbbing bank of hardware but that’s just me, a digital beeping of zeroes and ones simply can’t cut it as the world shifts to a more impersonal and diffused fashion of communication, ‘social’ media be damned. The format won’t completely die out of course, certain films will continue to be shot photo-chemically on a probable sliding, declining scale – I’m not entirely sure what the status is with shooting practices away from Hollywood in the likes of Bollywood, in the strong indigenous industries of Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong, or even the recently emerging powerhouses such as Nigeria – but commerce is always the watchword and if costs are reduced in the never quenched search for product then the writing is clearly on the wall. I think there will always be some movement of analogue lovers who demand traditional projection from original, physical masters and dupes, maybe like formats such as vinyl it will become increasingly marginalised but that loyal and rabid fan base should stick around for another generation at least – so farewell film, Rest In shattered, indiscriminate Pieces;
OK, can someone please explain exactly how this stealthily jammed my cultural radar? How did the full trailer (I did detect the teaser) evade capture for so long?;
If I have one reservation then it’s the possibility for some nausea inducing, jingoistic flag waving but initial dossiers from the US suggest this is not the case, I’m just excited to see the team behind The Hurt Locker - screenwriter Mark Boal and Menagerie favourite Kathryn Bigelow – deliver what looks like a slick, chromatically photographed thriller which now occupies one of the chief positions of 2013′s Most Wanted.
I’m just back from seeing End Of Watch, the new LAPD cop film which stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena as a couple of hardcore South Central beat cops, whose day-to-day patrol activities stumble across a wider conspiracy with deadly results. Alas I am committed to orchestrating a full review to my other writing project which is still in testing mode, but since the film is currently out and I don’t know when my alternate review will get published I thought I’d throw something together, as this was an unexpected treat that demands to be apprehended;
First of all don’t let the ‘found-footage’ gimmick put you off as it did me, it’s a little clumsy and inconsequential during the opening scenes but once the movie gets rolling it slips into the background as the gruesome story comes to the fore. There’s a good chemistry between the leads but the films real strength is its brutal, sun-bleached authenticity, from the street argot (both on the cop and gangbanger sides of the divide) to the pedestrian locations, from the harrowing violence to the black comedy coping ethos, this is the film that the James Ellroy scribed Rampart wanted to be, but fell far short off. As the wider picture becomes exposed the film turns down some wrenching dark alleys, concluding with a (NO SPOILERS) confrontation which prompted me to utter a verbal ‘FUCKING HELL’ which is pretty rare for a film to achieve these days. For aficionados let me be clear, this is the best LA crime film since The Shield turned in its badge.
Now I know I’m keeping back material at the moment but stick with me, next week is shaping up to be my most productive phase for quite a while, with Sightseers to see over the weekend, then a BFI visit – my penultimate of the year – and an unexpected press screening on Wednesday I’ll be throwing all the material up here (if you’ll excuse the phrase) as I’ve been neglecting this site for far too long. Then of course there’s the end of year review which is already getting out of hand as usual…
I’m still on something of a documentary thread, I kicked this week off with a rather odd Eastern UK mood piece, constructed by one of Radiohead’s acclaimed promo directors – here;
Well, this was a rather melancholic start to proceedings as we shift into Christmas time (shudders), not a bad piece of visual psychogeography but I must admit my attention wandered. Worth a look though, Iain Sinclair and other doyens of that movement plus fans of this unappreciated writer are featured, so worth an hour and a half of your time. Much more successful was a viewing of this last night, a true celebration of the wonder of movies and their academic crowd sourced inception into the American National Film Registry;
Best film documentary I’ve seen for a while, querying how and why visual images from all its multitudes of genre and movement should be preserved for future generations as an example of the preeminent 20th century art form, before arguing an agenda for its continuing relevance in the fractured new millennium. Well paced, it moves successfully through the crucial and various central aspects of visual representation with grace (gender, identity, advertising, home movies, conflict, politics, the obvious classics and why the more hidden should also be restored and maintained for future generations) which finally leaves you with a satisfied grin as to why we love moving pictures so much. Highly recommended.
Maybe it’s the post Hitchcock & LFF hangover but I must admit to finding it hard to muster up the effort to publish much new material here at the moment, a problem compounded by two specific problems. I fully realise that the site has turned into trailer and news speculation central here at the Menagerie, but there simply hasn’t been much of anything to see recently, having already reviewed the likes of Amour and Argo which are currently playing – and are both recommended I have to say – I must obey the crucial laws of web protocol and rightly let them lie at the alternate site whom supports my musing meanderings. Now, yes I saw The Master again last weekend but I intend to feed that experience into my end of year wrap up, and earlier today I saw Silver Linings Playbook which was much more enjoyable than I anticipated, mostly due to its quiet perversions of the traditional rom-com machinations and some strong performances from Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, but my opinions on that are already dedicated to another project which is still in its testing phase, I’ll be sure to send you that way once things get properly going. However I have gone on something of a documentary bender recently and have struck gold with a rich seam of non-fictional material, courtesy of one of those naughty sites whom shall remain nameless, so here are four strong recommendations which curiously harvest a stream of current concerns, if you have the means and skills to check these out then you won’t be disappointed;
The Imposter - Truth is indeed stranger than fiction with this credulity stretching tale of an American family whose adolescent son simply disappeared back in 1994, only to miraculously surface in Spain three years later, allegedly the victim of an international kidnap conspiracy. The title gives you an impulse of where this incredible tale may turn, as Nichols returns from the dead and hoodwinks not only the European and American authorities, despite visual and physical evidence someone occupies his cherished position and when the still grieving family find their illusion challenged they refuse to accept the truth. It’s just a staggering tale which is all the more mystifying and remarkable for being completely non-fiction, and you will stare at the screen in unbelieving hypnosis as the family embrace this interloper whom is so obviously nothing to do them genetically speaking (this is no spoiler, its apparent from the documentaries opening gambit) and then like all memorable tales the unbelievable twists to a darker, more unsettling avenue. Memorable to say the least….
ReGeneration - This Ryan Gosling produced and narrated documentary on the alleged apathy and disinterest of American youth in politics, culture, the environment and general concern with their fellow citizens domestically and internationally is a sobering tale, and serves as a template for a wider malaise of paralysing apathy that poisons the wider so-called ‘first world’. As a supposed member of Generation
X/Y/Z (delete as applicable) myself – because of course every generation has to be compacted, diluted and packaged by the marketing arm of global capitalism so then they can sell their beautiful, fucking hypnotic shiny products to me (I am just as hypnotised as everyone else as I am yet to acquire an ipad which I’m sure would make constructing these posts more convenient as opposed my ancient PC) I found this documentary an essential watch, whilst the I can lose myself in the movies and pretend it’s all OK…right?
Side By Side - What’s that you say? A documentary featuring the musings and speculations of many of the worlds leading film directors and cinematographers discussing the inevitable shift of the art form from tangible, romantic celluloid to the binary blockiness of digital capture? A combat of advocates and enemies of this revolution mustering the likes of Scorsese, Soderbergh, Nolan, Lucas, Linklater, Rodriguez, the Wachowski’s, Von Trier, David’s Lynch & Fincher and James Cameron on the directorial side, combined with legends and artisans such as Walter Murch, Michael Ballhaus & Chapman, Anthony Dod Mantle, Storaro, Dick Pope, Zgismond and Pfister on the cinematographer side, both groupings assessing, rejecting and embracing this impact and potential deteriorating or enhancement of the image with equally illuminating dexterity? (takes a deep breath)…..Yeah, I’m in. This is a fascinating documentary, one part technical summary to two parts musing over the technological and cultural shifts that the cinema business is enduring at a DNA level, a transformation at every level of production which this piece grazes (production, distribution and crucially exhibition) but to be fair it is such a seismic change than no-one can fully anticipate the final results, so whilst Keanu Reeves as the centrepiece interviewer dosn’t always plunder the core he at least provided access to many of the central figures of the business, whilst it might overlook the impact on ancillary elements such as independent creation. Some of the opinions and reflections are priceless – Scorsese musing over the ability to watch back takes on a scene in real-time being exceptionally convenient but denying the ability to sleep on a sequence until it arrives the next day after processing versus the interference of actors paranoid of their performance and demanding another take, not to mention the mystique of a DP’s skill having a pipeline of manufacture which can only be appreciated further down the line, mirroring the wider cultures demand for immediate results and impacts which are now creeping into an industry whose artistic expression is considered more nuanced and superior to the likes of TV and advertising.
Alongside the increasing visual qualities of these new digital cameras – mostly the RED strain and their 4K and now 5K capabilities almost equaling the visual density of traditional film stock – fans of that grainy texture which can ameliorate a stories intrinsic qualities will be howling in despair – Side By Side is also film studies 101 from a tech perspective, have you ever wondered what a Colour Timer did or does? How digitally that time restrictive process has now been destroyed? Or just how a final print expensively arrives for exhibition around the world alongside the associated costs and implications? Of just how (and this crucial) that these new technologies can change the very way that movies are produced, at every level of the financial, logistical and artistic production, not to mention the exhausting exercise of capturing fragments of time on-screen to build a story that can inspire, influence and infuriate audiences around our fragile globe? All these queries gain traction, with the documentary alighting on another myth, that from a position of retention for future generations you’d imagine that digital capture is perhaps more agreeable and convenient than the traditional rendering of expensive film stock – alas this is not the case as already various formats and systems are already lost, as zeros and ones are just as prone to loss as those bulky, heavy film blocks, especially when there is no agreed common format which film secured as a global template back in the early 1910′s. This is just a terrific work which admittedly raises more questions on some crucial issues of the day from a technological and artistic standpoint than it answers yet one thing is clear, film – and the very notion of calling expressions of the art form as ‘film’ – is evidently becoming increasingly redundant and is now in its final, fading past, so what does that mean?
We Are Legion - And we save the most speculative sermon for last. As a grizzled old cyberpunk fan it will be no surprise to you that I have been monitoring the activities of Anonymous over the past few years with a detached combination of fascination and diluted glee, those 4chan pranksters maturing from juvenile cyberspace goons to an embryonic political force, this appreciative documentary charts the history of the movement from its lurking genesis to its fractured current frame, and who knows what it will mutate and transmogrify into next – and isn’t that kinda the point? With certain reservations of their methods and inspirations I find this movement increasingly curious, just to play the obvious card it is William Gibson speculation now rendered corporal, with their crucial support for the uprisings in the Middle East and connections to the likes of Occupy and other movements whatever your politics and ideology this is an examination of this fascinating nexus of technology, culture and futurism which sounds to me like the prelude to 21st century society – and thus essential viewing.
We don’t normally do Television here at the Menagerie, but for a series that looks this intriguing with David Fincher in the directors chair I’ll make an exception;
Beautifully lit huh? I loved the original UK TV series with the rattlesnake charming Ian Richardson in the central role of scheming, murderous politician, it looks like Spacey might be up to the task for this US centred remake.
Well thank fucking christ for that eh?
Nice speech too, don’t fuck it up….