Tom Hank’s cunning pincer movement to net another best actor gong is represented by two films this year, the Disneyfied courting of the author of Mary Poppins in Saving Mr Banks, and as the distressed ship’s captain facing down ruthless Somali pirates in Captain Philips - I’m not sure which is more terrifying. Personally speaking a cruel elixir of Disney and Mary Poppins is likely to induce a sea-sickening nausea in yours truly but I’m more than happy to board Paul Greengrass’s hulking political metaphor, as in the Indian sea a vast shipping container attracts limpet criminals to a capitalist whale, overflowing with an abundance of goods and products and the prospect of mercenary material gain. I quite like Hanks, in interviews he always comes across as an extraordinarily friendly and genial sort in interviews and junkets, a genuinely nice guy whom over the years he has moved steadily and proficiently from the frat-boy humor of his early roles to the towering seriousness and Oscar pulsing bait of big ‘important’ pictures. He has a definitive screen charisma which anchors an American pragmatism in both his historical and contemporary roles , a modern Henry Fonda you’d enjoying grabbing a hotdog with or maybe a less remote Gary Cooper you could grab a beer with, I can even forgive him for the offensive politics of Forrest Gump but that, as they say, is another story. But maybe, just maybe there is a black-hearted career driven psychopath beneath that genial carapace which would throw his own mother under a bus if it furthered his career*, as I think you can never fully trust a man who sports two christian names - think George Lucas, Bruce Willis, Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, or Prince Charles.
Based on a true story whose authenticity is inevitably being questioned – apparently the non-fictional counterpart was allegedly a lot more renegade with his crews and passengers safety – the film is lifted from a 2009 incident where the Maersk Alabama , a civilian cargo ship was assaulted by a desperate group of Kalashnikov wielding Somali’s, their khat chomping leader Muse (Barkhad Abdi) and his erratic henchmen being briefly sketched as rather desperate young men driven to such extremes by the desperate socio-economic conditions of their broken country in an opening, context setting sequence. In fact the film is a surprising two-hander with Philips and Muse’s positions being given almost equal station, Philips remarking to his wife (Catherine Keener in roughly 90 seconds of screen-time for some odd reason) in a similar first act manoeuvre that ‘everything is moving so fast these days’ and ‘our children must learn to navigate a very different world’ which flares the directors thematic intentions, of desperate and confusing times presaging increasingly desperate measures.
Screenwriter Billy Ray has based this tense testimony on 2010′s breathless A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea and as you’d expect from a filmmaker with the adrenaline pumping calibre of Greengrass after that opening the technique is urgent, nervous and as choppy as the waters under which the drama unfolds, but I am simply tired and exhausted of his now distracting roving camera and frenetic editing rhythms, what once could signal an urgent momentum to his pulse racing narratives is tedious, alienating and confusing, he really needs to evolve as a filmmaker as he’s starting to resemble a clichéd bore. Speaking of dinosaurs this is might be my mood but I could not generate one iota of sympathy for the hi-jackers despite these submerged intentions, I wanted these violent idiots to be executed as swiftly as possible, and some rather signposted lulls in the action are exploited to punch a political message which falls well short of pathos or potential. Of course Greengrass is slightly more mature than the likes of a Michael Bay, a McG or other action directors of that ilk, and although he doesn’t get Hanks to hip-check a pirate into the drink, grasp his AK47 and begin pouring down a holocaust of hot leaden vengeance on the hoodlums he does have something of a hard-on for the military hardware once it arrives to muddy the waters, whilst I’m a bloke who enjoys exterminating faceless goons in computer games such as Military Industrial Recruitment VI: The Clones Of Saddam as much as the next Neanderthal this quiet acquiesence to overwhelming American force stands in an odd displacement to the previously deployed thematic depth-charges.
Hanks is desperately convincing as the terse Philips whom is just about keeping his head above a swamping sense of panic as the situation grows increasingly desperate and claustrophobic, and I must admit that the final sequence is exceptionally arranged with a terrific final scene which is just about worthy of the preceding two hours of uneven and turbulent intentions, but it takes a long time coming so for me I find it difficult to recommend this other than a home viewing option when it lands on disk sometime in the new year. Maybe I’m slighty miffed as evidently commentators with swifter pens than I have identified a trend of survival movies this year – I had already plugged this observation into my gestating and increasingly mammoth Films of The Year post (which is marinating very nicely thank you) so whilst for me this doesn’t assail the urgent heights of Gravity or All Is Lost your fathomage may vary, but make sure you reserve some resources to see next weeks major interstellar release;
* Yes I’m joking of course, my favourite Hanks story is this – on the pre-production of Saving Private Ryan as directors like to do Spielberg sent the entire team on a brutal regime of basic training to manufacture a sense of a group who lived together in an intense combat situation, to create a sense of close camaraderie. That big, burly tough-guy Vin Diesel led a revolution against the programme after 24 hours claiming that the exhausting process was pointless and stupid, and it was Hanks who quietly took him aside and instructed him to ‘man-the-fuck-up’ as they were representing heroes who had made the ultimate sacrifice for Europe and America – they all meekly reported back for duty the next day.
Fuck, I don’t normally post much music stuff here as frankly those interests have waned over the years in favour of the movies, but now and again a figure will fall which makes me incredibly sad. Lou Reed was a vague favourite of mine back in the day, obviously for the groundbreaking, statis exploding Velvet Underground, and I also followed his solo career with a mild interest in both his solo and collaborative projects over the past few decades. It’s probably obvious to note that he was always one of those mild musical heroes I figured I’d see live eventually, just goes to show you should make an effort while you can. So here’s a few personal favourites, nothing too idiosyncratic I’m sure but just a small, modest tribute;
Yes I know, blatantly obvious for a Velvet’s choice, but that track is just as stunning as ever to me – sometimes going back to those old albums – Bowie, Floyd, Zeppelin etc. can illuminate where we are now I think. Name me one band of note who were not impressed with this sensibility and reactive approach that are worth remembering from your teenage years and I’ll kiss the boot. Next I have this album – like on actual vinyl and everything – and this opening may seem staggered now but listening again it still sounds great to me when it finally kicks in;
Here’s some slightly more esoteric material which is perhaps more leftfield and worthy of the era, with the links to Warhol, the wider art scene including of course, cinema;
Now, a movie connection – a soundtrack contribution to a Wim Wenders piece – always liked this track;
I spent some time of my formative years with a crew who considered the still hilarious Metal Machine Music as some kind of musical grail of ownership, I kinda miss those days when such texts – films, music tracks, albums, books, comics, graphic novels etc. would actually be genuinely rare and had an aura of obsession which the web, for all its progress, has obliterated by proliferation. Ah well, I guess that’s progress eh? Maybe I’m showing my age but I got this album upon the week of release;
Not sure we needed that period specific Sax solo eh? But hey, things movie on. So finally we come to kinda one of my favourite albums, like in the top twenty or something was the tribute to Warhol that he crafted with Cale – Songs For Drella:
I assume a suicide watch has been drafted over Camden and Q readers around the globe. I think I’m gonna fire up a VU medley and get started on some of the finest wines known to humanity, so goodbye and swift travels you magnificent bastard;
You may recall that some time back I remarked that I would be attending a wedding – well, I was getting a little ahead of myself as before we meet that iconic electro haired mannequin we must turn my Universal Monsters series to more intangible matters, and identify the manically screeching Claude Rains as the blink and you’ll miss him The Invisible Man. Now just as a reminder we are following the core texts of this Blu-Ray investment rather than the officially recognised canon as frankly I’ll be in my grave long before I manage to craft reviews of all seventy-odd films in the series, but who knows how many of those other creatures which go bump in the night might be covered through alternate programmes and initiatives in the mist drenched decades to come? In any case I was anxious to get this series up to 1933 so it could dovetail nicely into a big screen event which is part of the BFI’s imminent Gothic season, including a special guest whom hopefully won’t be rising from beyond the grave. But before that let’s get our claws on the next slippery sucubi of this severely serrated series;
In terms of a synopsis I don’t think we need to devote too much time, in an archetypical chilly and winterswept village a gauze garbed stranger arrives at the local Inn and demands a room with complete privacy and to broker no interruptions. Barking order to the frightened locals he doesn’t exactly inherit their sympathy, and the local law enforcement become suspicious that this interloper may be up to no good.The bandage slathered lunatic is Dr. Jack Griffin (Claude Rains), a chemical genius who has unearthed the miracle compound monocane which when injected into animal turned them insane, as revealed by his compatriot Dr. Cranley (Henry Travers) and Dr. Kemp (William Harrigan) through a rather clumsy cutaway scene. The elixir does produce a rather impressive side-effect however as it renders the subjects partially invisible, and Cranley has further reasons to swiftly unveil the whereabouts of his companion and colleague as his daughter Flora (Gloria Stuart) happens to be madly in love with Griffin, so the race is on to save the newly anointed megalomaniac from himself and scupper his grandiose plans to clandestinely take over the world…..
The Invisible Man hasn’t quite been etched into popular culture like Frankenstein or Dracula of course perhaps in part due to his inherently intangible nature, but I have very fond memories of seeing this for the first time when these movies were aired in the early evening on BBC2 here in the UK. It’s almost impossible to comprehend but back in those primitive media days there was only four TV channels in the entire country (maybe three if it was pre-1982) and schedules starved of material would populate airtime with movies from across the early Hollywood era as well as Harold Lloyd and Laurel & Hardy shorts, it’s a resource of film history the likes of which is simply incomprehensible these days when we can repeat old game shows, soaps and lifestyle enhancement nonsense – it makes me wanna take over the world. In any case The Invisible Man does have its champions and I kinda like it from a historical perspective, tyrants boasting of their inherent mental and genetic superiority obviously had quite a resonance in 1933, and as a mystery story its one of the better arranged films of the era, setting up an initial question and then skirting around the narrative in a perpendicular fashion - there is one skilfully arranged montage of the terrorized locals which deftly moves throughout the space as our incorporeal anti-hero prowls through the village, lumbering from smashed windows to petrified children, from glum boozehounds to steadfast law officials, in quite freeing and canny fashion in the era of locked down cameras and restrictive sound recording equipment.
The special effects for the period must have been akin to the Avatar of their era, boasting a similar ‘Holy fucking Jesus Christ in a sidecar, how did they do that?’ reaction among impressionable viewers who were hitting their adolescence such as Ray Bradbury and Ray Harryhausen when this invaded screens, not to mention disarming a whole new generation of wide-eyed viewers when these films went into rotation on network TV in the 1950’s, formulating a fascination with the irrational and fantastique in the minds of your Spielberg’s, Zemeicks, Lucas, Landis and Dante’s. It’s obviously primitive in the light of todays CGI hallucinations but those optical printing techniques are envelope pushing for their time, with some imaginative deployment of wire work and other camera tricky, they have really stood the test of time until the 1990′s when of course these effects would be manufactured in a computer rather than manipulating a group of celluloid strips back in the beaker bubbling lab;
There is something captured in popular psychology linking back to Homer of a man invisible being divorced from the rules of society, of becoming in his mind a virtual omnipotent god with access to the secrets places and facts of the world, with access to forbidden . In the film – quite prescient now given recently developments – Rains roars on his ability to pull down the existing power structures, of revealing the clandestine deals and operations conducted by the elites, even of re-distributing wealth and of levelling the social pecking order – clearly this prototype Assange / Snowden is absolutely insane? It’s something Verhoeven also flirted with in his underrated Hollow Man of 2000, turning his good scientist bad when unshackled from the chains of societal constraints, although that film did have to resort to textbook pyrotechnics in its final act rather than plunder the provocative premise. They sure didn’t trust scientists in those days eh? Those pretenders and plundering of gods plateau, manipulating the levers of physics and reality and reaping a biblical whirlwind in response, it’s a contrast to the studious presentation of science in the nuclear nightmare of the 1950’s where they solemn intone back story with exposition laced dialogue, cradling a smouldering pipe and bringing a rational, neutral idiom to the nightmares they have unleashed.
In terms of Hollywood lore you may recognise Dr. Cranley as Clarence the Angel from It’s a Wonderful Life, and Claude Rains only secured the part due to numerous other actors turning it down because of course, yup you guessed it – they would barely be seen on-screen. Nevertheless it boosted Rain’s profile through his persuasive vocal tones, and one imagines his immortality is assured in the annals of screen supremacy given his significant role in a certain North African wartime romance. Also look out for Gloria Stewart which some of you may recognise from some modest disaster movie of 1997, but who cares about that sunken stinker? This film ultimately dissolves into a farce with a Keystone Cops rejoinder, rather than pure sanity shredding terror which might be one of the reasons it doesn’t lurk as effectively as reanimated boltnecked cadavers or aristocratic blood swilling vermin, but it was another hit for Universal as these films were pretty much the lifeline to solvency during the depression, as audiences flocked to the opulent escapism epics of MGM they also loved gazing into the darker recesses of society and psyche. Naturally Universal stripmined the premise for as many sequels as possible, including The Invisible Man Returns, inevitably The Invisible Woman, grappling with the Nazi scourge in The Invisible Agent before claiming vengeance in, erm, The Invisible Man’s Revenge. Now hark, I do hear the sound of ominous distant wedding bells, so let me blow the cobwebs off my tuxedo and pin a decaying boutonnière to my mouldering frame as you are cordially invited to a special BFI hosted union of The Bride and Frankenstein….
I can’t imagine a more explosive finish to the LFF for me, this is my last film for this annual cycle of the festival and it was phenomenal – here’s a reminder;
NO SPOILERS but I must say this, even though you’re waiting for it through clenched teeth there is one scene in this film toward the end which is one of the most powerful pieces of cinema I’ve seen in quite a while, in general the last half hour or so is just……..phew. I can also see why it has one objection of a political nature which has offended some viewers, and mark my words those concerns will be amplified when the film goes on general release, but given that the film is lifted from a true story, and presumably that element is truthful, then those concerns are a little redundant if mildly understandable. As it hits all those Academy favourite elements there will be Oscars galore – male lead and support, direction and best film, although Gravity must be a lock for all the technical awards. Now where’s the number of my bookies?…..
In other news of a LFF variety certain ‘bovine’ comments in this review have caused some consternation, and in general the film has got a lot of flack from the Sight & Sound paddock of critics, even the normally genial Mr. Cousins has got quite upset over the alleged ’leering sex scenes’. I haven’t seen it so can’t comment, but it’s always nice to get a bit of a spat going isn’t it?
It doesn’t take long does it, to return from a holiday and get back into the grove of everyday life, it’s all bit like going from the starstruck purlieus of a Sofia Coppola picture into the stark tedium of a Mike Leigh drama – welcome back to local government. Still, at least my staff have made some strides with some projects in my absence, and I get to ask Boris for £7 million squid for a scheme I’m leading on next week, the chaotically coiffeured cretin. Until then movie visits are looking sparse so tonight’s entertainment will be of the home variety;
The phrase ‘amongst the best Russian action films ever made’ doesn’t get bandied around a lot, but I’ve good things about this evocative tale of a ghostly German tank which haunted the Western front back in 1944 – something a little different, comrade.
Then I figure it’s time to revisit an old friend, partially inspired by that BBC4 Soundtrack series I thought it was time to take a wander down to an early Scorsese joint, a film I haven’t seen in years. it’s been pretty slow trailer and news wise over the past week or so hasn’t it, but I guess I should link to the full preview for one of the best of the year – we shall speak no more of this until the end of the year.
I′m a big fan of symmetry, so it seemed apt to conclude this epic expedition film wise in a manner similar to how we opened all those movies ago – with another four hour documentary. As one of the all time great documentarians Frederick Wiseman′s At Berkerly may not appeal to everyone′s taste, but I found it be a fascinating peek behind the scenes at one of the learned centres of our civilization;
So that is indeed that, I have a day of shopping and maybe taking in a couple of museums tomorrow – I′m skipping Niagara Falls as the logistics are to irritating and I suspect I′ll be back here in the future anyway – before a stopover in Montreal for one night and then back to blightly and the return of the real world, can′t say I’m looking forward to that. I′ll probably write my general festival overview on the flight back to keep me distracted, especially as I′m back into the fray with the day job straight away and there has been some potentially interesting developments on that front whilst I’ve been away, but let′s not jinx that with any details here shall we?
So we final enter the final stretch, as the press screening schedule declines precipitately after today so I may resort to some sight-seeing to fill my remaining days – what a tough gig. I see from my Twitter feed that the usual problems with public bookings for the LFF are causing the usual frustrations, with the exception of Nebraska and Inside Llewyn Davis all I′m interested in is correcting some of the films I couldn′t slot in here – Only Lovers Left Alive, Blue Is The Warmest Colour, The Double and 12 Years A Slave. Oh, and of course this;
Can Terry give us a updated Brazil? It got slated at Venice though, but what do we stupid critics know eh? Anyway, back to Toronto, and an evening double bill began with this paranoid thriller;
Very good it was too, superbly edited and a fine thriller which zips around Seoul with a Tony Scott hyperkinetic speed, it also had a finely detailed use of the technology and modern surveillance techniques used to combat a genuinely badass nemesis - unsurprisingly its already been picked up for US
rape remake. I′ve desperately wanted to find at least one good horror film here given the thin offerings of Inferno and Cheerleaders so I took a chance with Oculus, a film I knew precisely zero, zip, nada, nil point etc. about, again no trailer for the film but I subsequently found this which is a glimpse of the short that the film was expanded from;
Wow, I cannot stop raving about this film, its the best American horror film I′ve seen in a decade at least, up their with Excession and Orphan as simultaneously inventive, unusual, and genuinely creepy. The premise sounds ridiculous on paper – oooh, a spooky haunted mirror – but believe me what newcomer Mike Flanagan manages to achieve is worthy of comparison to early John Carpenter with serrated fragments of The Shining – this my learned friends is praise that is not given lightly.
Final movie day tomorrow, we’re winding down now….
This powerful but rather muddled documentary hit London in a limited run over the weekend, my review here;
Also, some further Tiff announcements here, only a few weeks now, and the new Miyazaki has got a lot of folks excited;
A little twee for my tastes, but given his popularity I’ll try to take it for a spin. Now, lets see, now that I have your attention can someone please explain to me how the living fuck I’ve only just realised that the Channel 4 series Southcliffe which just finished airing here in the UK is in fact the very same Southcliffe that was announced as Sean Durkin’s directorial follow-up to Marthy Marcy May Marlene? Jesus Christ in a sidecar, I’d best get on the case with that then eh?
You can almost set your watch by it. Every few years, some periodical of note will publish an article provocatively proclaiming the ‘Death of the Western’, laboriously lamenting the passing of a great American icon, as apple pie as Jazz, fast food gluttony or the occasional, utterly avoidable school-yard massacre. Here’s the latest addition to the roster, a unsurprising polemic given the proximity of one of this years bond-fide cinematic catastrophes, a film whose exhausted cantor has been accompanied by a limited re-release of one of the most notorious film fiasco’s in American cinema history – the studio slaying Heaven’s Gate. Now obviously the Western is not a genre that’s been in the ascendant since the waning shadows of the studio system, but it tenaciously hangs in there and every couple of years a valid new addition to the paddock comes trotting along, just off the top of my head we have all enjoyed the nicotine stitched likes of Rango, The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, Django Unchained, Brokeback Mountain, Cold Mountain, True Grit, Meeks Cutoff, 3:10 To Yuma, No Country For Old Men, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada and The Proposition, whilst the small screen has executed the likes of Deadwood or the genre melding likes of The Walking Dead, Justified and Firefly. These are just the good ones which have stuck in my craw, I’m sure there are many others which got a hoedown of sorts, and I’m not even hurling the lasso to hogtie foreign interlopers such as Sukiyaki Western Django or The Good, The Bad, The Weird. Distant smoke signals hint at the continuing scalping of the Stephen King scribed The Dark Tower series which continues mosing down the path to greenlit activation, and the long rumored adaption of Cormac McCarthy’s visceral Blood Meridian still oscillates through A list directors production companies hands. The point is that the announcement of this death has been greatly exaggerated, whilst the studios may not be churning out the horse opera two-reelers as they were a century ago they are not complete box-office poison, and even enormously maligned examples of the genre can receive something of a critical resurrection despite initial scathing reviews and financial performance which can moderately be referenced as a ‘holocaust’, a decade or three after they initially hit the wilderness trail.
Given the films astonishing cast of Menagerie favourites I guess it’s not completely surprising to learn of my mild adoration of the picture, with early turns from a hood eyed Christopher Walken, a bespectacled Brad Dourif, a polish Jeff Bridges and a blink and you’ll miss him Willem Dafoe in his first, uncredited screen appearance. The film is a love triangle arrayed between Walken’s reluctant assassin Nathan Champion, his beloved French madam Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert in her first international role) and main lead Kris Kristofersen as the disillusioned James Averil, these melancholy matters of the heart given a dusty bruising against a brutal oppression of the proud yet poor immigrants scrabbling for survival during the final fading of the frontier. Cimino was inspired by the real-life history of the notorious Johnson County Wars, opening with context setting 1870 Harvard prologue the film presents Averil and his graduate colleagues as blazing with an optimistic fervour for the future, a sense of the nation on the cusp of change and opportunity, gracefully arranged in a balletic dance which you can see below – we’ll come back to that. Twenty years later and this spirit of bold curiosity for the adventure ahead has been crushed out of existence, as the realities of the country and its arrangements of strata and power eclipse the promise of the American dream, with the indigenous native people suppressed to the point of near extinction – and curiously no native American makes a single appearance in this film – the capitalist elite now turn their caracal attention to the immigrant threat who are compromising their widening profit margins, by having the temerity to feed upon the natural resources of the widescreen country in a proud but not entirely legal hand-to-mouth ingenuity. The instructions to initiate a war of terror among the population are personified in an unofficial kill list of 125 victims, quietly sanctioned by the government through the sinister machinations of the wicked Frank Canton (a superb Sam Waterson), as another gentleman of Harvard he and Averil share a soused mutual friend in the scotch swilling William Irvine (John Hurt), this second triangle representing Cimon’s vision of the country as the century moved from the 19th to the 20th, from the rural to the city, from exploration to industrialisation; the jaded idealist, the righteous plutocrats, the lamenting jester.
The production anecdotes are legendary, with dark murmurs of the set being swamped with enough cocaine to fuel a Medellin cartel consigliere’s Studio 54 themed birthday celebrations. Cimino was flying high on the enormous commercial and critical success of The Deer Hunter and bristling with a clutch of Academy Awards, yet hubris is a wicked foe, as his directorial demands violated any sense of scale, fiscal responsibility or even on occasion crew safety – allegedly. Actors and extras were in genuine fear of the life during the closing battle when the Johnson county natives face off against the mercenary enforcers, as horses and carriages careened wildly around the expansive set in undisciplined and dangerous maneuvers, and many of the quivering witnesses cite that it’s a miracle that no-one was killed or seriously injured. Insisting on the absolute perfect environmental conditions Cimino even had the temperament to grapple with the weather, leaving the entire cast and crew loitering at a cost of $200K a day until the mercurial megalomaniac solemnly pronounced that the light was right in order to commence shooting on the next fragment of his undisputed masterpiece. Perhaps most infamously Cimino instructed that the enormously elaborate set of the frontier town of Casper be demolished and rebuild to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars in order to widen the dimensions of the central avenue by a mediocre six feet, an insistence born of his striving for historical fidelity to the architectural fashions of the era. When his production designer suggested only destroying and rebuilding one side of the set, and rebuilding it six feet in alignment to one of the standing sides Cimino exploded and demanded that both sides be extinguished and each widened by three feet – that’s just sheer tyrannical madness.
Yet it’s in that perfectionist attention to historical detail and the elaborate and impeccably researched production design that the film really breathes, that astounding set crafted for the frontier is where the film leaps some twenty years alter after the Ivy League prologue, and it’s in this environment of Wyoming that it remains for the remainder of its gruelling ellipsis. Arguably the recreation of a different period of history is among one of the highest achievements of sheer production craft that Hollywood has ever constructed, the lavish costumes, sets and props suffocating the vibrantly cluttered sepia hued frames, the hustle and bustle of the 19th century resurrected with a craftsmanship equalled to other undisputed masterpieces such as Gone With The Wind. Despite the alarming rumour mill the nervous United Artists executives gave Cimino the benefit of the doubt once the ravishing dallies began trickling through, with anticipation of a film being compared to the epic ilk of David Lean’s historical odyssey’s they turned a blind eye to the increasingly vortexing schedule, and the production budget ballooned to an unprecedented $44 million against its initial $11 million agreement. Just to put that transgression in context this catastrophe is the equivalent (strictly conservatively estimated) of a contemporary $120 million project going four times over budget, so even if they (again very conservatively estimated) saddled up a paltry $20 million marketing budget you’re looking at a $500 million production budget, which in turn means that given the vagaries of the exhibition and distribution models of gross shares the film would have to bushwack a staggering one billion dollars before actually breaking even, and back in them olden days the alternate revenue models of VHS, DVD or Blu-Ray simply didn’t exist. On its initial run it received an unprecedented critical savaging with even the respected Village Voice critic Vincent Canby branding the heifer as an ‘unqualified disaster’ and pushing aside the rather thorny issue of critics being perceived as some sort of influence on the box-office which again has arisen with the foolish and petulant remarks from Messers Depp and Bruckheimer the public stayed away in droves, the film scrabbling for a pathetic $3.5 million, subsequently bankrupting its overextended parent studio United Artists and exiling Cimino, Icarus style, to the darkest depths of artistic and financial exile.
Quite apart from the restoration of the excised material – over 70 minutes of footage which harkens back to the directorial castration of Von Stroheim’s Greed or any of Welles butchered masterpieces - the new print has received the requisite digital scrub, with emulsion damage and frame gate misalignments corrected to produce a perfectly aligned and centred image. More unusually and with a truly sacred adoration the restoration team have retained much of the dense, grainy veneer of the picture, embalming the frequently brilliant Vilmos Zsigmond’s amber hued illumination of the elegiac odyssey, preserving the nostalgic and shadowed glow of the film which feels that it was illuminated with a single, stuttering, gas-fired hourglass lamp. The dialogue and ADR remains muddied in the opening sequences which should urge the elderly to deploy their earhorns in a redundant effort to apprehend some of the exchanges, I’ll never forget being quietly amused when a fellow punter stormed out of the confines of the NFT2 screen back when I first caught this at the BFI back during its initial distribution in 2005, the stuttering clod angrily alerting the authorities to errors with the projection, but this was exactly how Cimino wanted the film to sound in order to enunciate the chaotic patina of frontier life, the smothering of interpersonal relations drowned by the relentless march of commerce, the endless procession of industrial movement and battered yelling, of life and love in flux and motion. This chaos and confusion stands in contrast to the stark civilised beauty of the Harvard sequence, as the first dancing sequence elegantly elucidates;
Whatever the films perceived merits or misgivings of Heaven’s Gate it is sequences such as this which are transformative on the big screen, simply for their pure, unadorned immediacy – this scene was staged at a huge cost to house, feed and costume all those extras, to arrange them in that orchestral movement through the frame, the choices of film stock and delpoyment of lenses to capture the moment in the correct light, of lightning trapped in the viewfinder. It a far and mournful cry from the current riot of pixels and polygons whose weight remains intangible, whose scattering across the screen yield no romance, I don’t wish to sound like some grumbling old grouch but they simply don’t make ’em like that anymore. On that level this film can be taken as a melancholy ode to a form of cinema no longer financially viable or deemed desirable, with spectacle now programmed for suffocation not seduction, the medium in equal flux as it was from the transition from silent to sound as it is from chemical to digital.
I think there’s a great book to be written which compresses four films as a cohesive tetrad of the era which all encapsulate and in totality square the account of America’s bloody genesis, along with Heaven’s Gate you could cattle prod Once Upon A Time In America, Days Of Heaven and Apocalypse Now into a ring-fenced paddock of movies whom overlap each other in a Venn diagram of repetition, whether it’s the directorial excesses, uncompromising runtimes and lofty artistic ambitions – Leone, Malick and Coppola all expressed the self-centred belief that were making the American masterpiece of the Seventh Art. Then there are the metaphors of our socioeconomic masters gorging at the trough, human life and agency reduced to cogs in the political, criminal or military machine. Three feature a central love triangle which gives the films a narrative engine to explore yearning and loss through their amorous pirouette’s, and they all resulted in hyper inflated budgets and in some cases critical bloodbaths which drove their respective directors into the wilderness, in Malick’s case not to return to the screen for over twenty years. I’m sure there are other themes, they all had European cinematographers so you could probably make some aesthetic linkages through that, naturally for American cinema they climax with a bout of violence which in this era curiously despatches a protagonist rather than the antagonist, but for now lets press on with another dance;
Isn’t that such a beautifully chaotic counterpoint to the rigid ballet of the 1870 Harvard prologue seen above? More bustling energy, less mannered and stuffy, energy trumping elitist elegance. Like Barry Lyndon this is a film whose definitions and dimensions ripen as the decades cantor into the horizon, reading this today it’s a film chiefly concerned with class and strictures, of the little man and woman of the immigrant experience transplanting their culture and traditions from persecuted Europe into the fulcrum of the American womb, a stark contrast to the cold, controlled and sneering bourgeois viewing the labour backbone of their country who are literally building the myth from the soil up, considered as little more than vermin by the overarching elite.
So even in its restored format Heaven’s Gate is gloriously chaotic, it’s fractured and muddied, even in this exhausting 219 minute cut of the film there are confusing omissions and transitions which reflect the fading of a ravishing dream, of half glimpsed memories as elusive as a dissipating cloud – and that’s what I think it’s true devotees really cherish about it. It certainty feels the length of its draining three and a half hour lexicon but I don’t necessarily mean that in a derogatory way, its more the sense of folding into a truly epic and epoch spanning story which demands these exploded dimensions to fully realise its ambitions. Like all Westerns the allegories are contemporarily clear and unimpeachable, Watergate was still cresting high in the cultural climate so official corruption and the notions of absolute power corrupting absolutely were firmly set in the American cultural psyche, of compromising your ideals and dreams to the officious functions of the state seen in John Hurts ravished and weeping Irvine, of watching lofty dreams and ambitions wither and wane in the coruscating Wyoming sunlight. The closest screen genre analogies are just about any Peckinpah of the early Seventies and Altman’s McCabe & Mrs Miller, if you’re interested in learning more of the fascinating production fiasco then this is the definitive documentary. I’m sure moments will wax and wane as I revisit this favourite over the years but from this screening I was most struck with this glorious sequence, the central figures trapped in historic amber, a glorious flourish of sculpting in time, of the impalpable beauty of fleeting moments and their inexorable passing into our personal legends and myths;
Clearly someone is fucking with me from above as the old-fashioned good news / bad news dichotomy strikes the menagerie with a vengeance. So I got my Toronto press accreditation confirmed today - not bad for a first time try – and I’ve just had my day-job assignment terminated at the end of next week. It makes you wonder just what sense of humor the alleged pranksters upstairs may have;
To be fair this has been on the cards for a while, it was supposed to expire at the end of last month but my leader managed to get a modest extension, alas significant – and I mean significant - budget cuts are again about to rape local government, mark my words there is going to be blood on the streets. Anyway, I like to take solace in fictional worlds as per the proverbial ostrich sticking its head in the sand, so I guess I’d best start looking for some funds for the flight and accommodation then eh?
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 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 it’s 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, so 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;