Oh boy, I’ve debated over posting this but fuck I think it’s funny (and deeply satirical, so not just offensive or cruel) but I’ve been watching some of the Onion’s News Network, and their autistic reporter, I think, is brilliant;
Like the majority of the print version it’s a little hit and miss, but it still manages some moments of brilliance…..
One of the great pleasures of festivals is taking a chance on something new, of going to see a film sight unseen, a celluloid equivalent of Russian roulette without the potentially lethal consequences. In that vein I decided to go and see You’re Not Here on a hazy Sunday morning, I did have the deja vu inducing The Double in my headlights but I can slot that in further down the line – it looks like its worth a double-take;
With the benefit of hindsight I kinda wish I’d evaluated You Are Here beforehand as it would have warned me off such lunatic risk-taking, as this was an exceptionally flat and tedious film with maybe two mild laughs in the whole two hours, you know there might just be a problem when fellow colleagues are clandestinely exiting the screening around a half hour in. I genuinely shocked that such a run-of-the-mill fare was offered by the creative mind behind Mad Men, I think Mr. Weiner must ave been having a particularly poor day when he committed to that script. Then I thought some horror was required so I braved Eli Roth’s new massacre The Green Inferno, again no trailer has circulated yet despite the film getting it’s World Premiere here today – review here. I got chatting in a bar with a fellow festival goer in a bar when waiting for some friends, turns out the chap is the Film Programmer for the University of Maine and was a good personal friend of Ebert, which gives me an excuse to post this;
A poor day for celebrities number wise, but a personal best proximity wise, I was quite surprised to turn around during this morning queue efforts and seeing Robin Wright Penn standing next to me – she’s tiny;
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?
The first festival trailer has finally dropped, just as the Midnight Madness strand of programming was announced this morning UK time;
I’ve thrown together a Midnight Madness overview which I’ll link here shortly, it just needs a final polish. In the midst of a pretty mental day of errands I also just managed to catch Francis Ha, it’s was s’lright – review tomorrow. EDIT – OK, here’s the link – new Sion Sono? Count me in….and I should probably also point you to this;
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?
Honestly, the things I do for you people. I’m not sure how to start this report from Tuesday’s curious evening at the BFI, other than to say that I loathe John Travolta. Now I have nothing against John Travolta as a human being of course, I’m sure he’s exceedingly generous with charitable donations, loves his wife and kids, and hugs puppies and promotes equal rights for all, what I’m referencing is of course ‘John Travolta’ the screen persona, the actor who for reasons I can’t quite logically articulate or justify I can barely watch on-screen without feeling an indistinct stirring of irritation and mild hatred. I’m not sure why this is, I’m certainly not proud of the antipathy, but I think we all have for some horrible reason an aversion to certain people and public personas who just wind us up for intangible reasons, as I’m betting there is some celebrity figure from the realm of media, entertainment, politics (actually scratch that one, most of them are irritating aren’t they?) whom also riles you up and makes your skin crawl, and you will actively go out of your way to avoid a movie, a TV series, a chatshow appearance or interview which includes this frustrating figure. It was therefore with a mild sense of nausea that I attended the UK premiere screening of his new film Killing Season followed by an exceptionally rare Jonathan Ross hosted Q&A on Tuesday evening, and already the event had irked me as it clashed with a screening of Herzog’s Stroszek which I had to cancel, as in the interests for the blog I thought that this might be of a slightly higher film culture visibility than one of Werner’s suicide inducing screen ballads. In any case it was quite a curious event, so let’s begin with the trailer and a capsule review of the film;
As you may have gleaned from that the trailer the film was terrible, a supposed cat and mouse game between retired US veteran Benjamin Ford (De Niro) and the hilariously incomprehensibly accented Emil Kovac (Travolta) twenty years after De Niro’s UN platoon discovered a massacre during the Yugoslavian war, and decide to take justice into their own hands and summarily execute the Serbian marauders led by Travolta. This ludicrously offensive films begins with a portentous context setting crawl about how serious and solemn the conflict was before hard cutting to an exciting twitchy-cam combat sequence – and this tonal repulsion is only compounded by a script which then meanders through the most pedestrian route of character development and conflict interaction between the slumming leads. You know a film has rejected any semblance to credulity or emotional engagement when in one scene one of the characters instructs the other to stake himself to the ground by inserting a steel rod and tassel through the void created by an earlier arrow wound, and this is just one of the early problems of tis deeply tedious and tawdry film which increasingly obeys the simple ‘I’ve got the upper hand, no a-ha now I’ve got the upper hand’ model of so-called tension and suspense. You can pretty much chart the entire trajectory of the mercifully short 90 minutes directly through to the final shot, and as usual Travolta is just hilariously serious and studious with an approach to acting which finishes with plastering on some make-up, adopting some ridiculous facial features and emitting the worse accent since Don Cheadle’s Ocean’s 13 cockney rhymed Jeremy Hunt. In short, avoid at all costs.
I do like Jonathan Ross as a UK movie culture figure (I haven’t watched any of his chat show stuff in decades) as he clearly has a genuine breath, knowledge and passion for the artform from obscure B movies and exploitation pics out to the established and revered classics, we all remember the fantastic shows he fronted and commissioned back in the 1980’s don’t we? On stage you can see just what a brilliant interviewer he is, he’s quite disarming and isn’t afraid to prick that self-important celebrity bubble when the occasion demands (‘John, exactly what accent was that you were using in the film?’) and he asked the more serious instructive questions on Travolta’s collaborations with De Palma and Malick alongside the inevitable attention lavished on the likes of Saturday Night Fever and of course Pulp Fiction. I thought Travolta was quite a guarded persona despite his batting away Wossy’s most direct questions – ‘You’re seen as something of a remote figure, do you take refuge behind any screen persona? – with a simple ‘This is me, what you see is what is get’ reply, although of course he did shy away from any Scientology queries or indeed any reference to the classic Battlefield Earth which curiously was also omitted from a ten minute context setting montage that the BFI threw together to inaugurate the interview.
There were some reasonably smart questions from the audience as well, one asking his insider opinion on the current state of the industry which he lamented for the move toward spectacle and away from character driven pieces. Well, this is course a perfectly fair point and it’s all very well bemoaning the lack of character based vehicles in todays American marketplace but when you’re actively producing unimaginative, formulaic dreck like Killing Season which from its script stage must have blatantly obvious that it isn’t delving into anything other than Hollywood archetypes of conflict equaling character, of violence eclipsing any other solution to progress (which is exactly the point the film is so wistfully and therefore hypocritically espousing) then you really don’t have a wounded leg to stand on, not to mention how you’re devolving an incredibly complex array of social, historical and political forces which led to the conflict down to two guys violently fucking each other up for an hour without any real consequence or physical cost. Still, I did warm to Travolta a little when he got on to the fun they had shooting Face Off between Nick Cage and John Woo impersonating each other, I must give that another watch as that was a fun action movie and there was a fairly amusing running gag about how Richard Gere essentially wouldn’t have a career if he didn’t seize upon the parts which Travolta had rejected like discarded crumbs from his table (American Giglio, An Officer & A Gentleman, Days Of Heaven), although I was surprised to hear that with the latter Travolta was Malick’s first choice for the male lead, and it was studio machinations to award Gere the part which heavily contributed to his disgust with the industry and self-imposed Paris exile for the next twenty years. I was also just as intrigued to see Travolta’s wife Kelly Preston in the audience a few rows from me, she’s an actress in her own right which you may recognise from the likes of Jerry McGuire, Twins and the yuletide ‘classic’ Jack Frost, I have some slightly more formative adolescent memories of her from the movie Mischief which I’m sure some of you hairy palmed perverts will also fondly remember…..
Memo to Death – can’t you like, take a fucking week or something you cretin? Every week we seem to hear of another mournful passing, and alongside Harryhausen we’ve just lost our second titan of speculative imagination in 2013, and that’s without counting the fantastic Iain M. Banks on the purely SF literature level – this is a film blog so I prefer to keep these sections partitioned after all. I have enormously fond memories of my brother anxiously ordering a copy of I Am Legend through our local library as for some reason it was quite a rare, out of print book in the UK back in the midst of the late 20th century, so when I finally staked my prey and read the damn thing is was quite an experience. As a SF & horror acolyte since adolescence I knew whom Matheson was of course from his numerous credits on The Twilight Zone, his involvement with X Files precursor Kolchak The Night Stalker and numerous movie credits, his passing has a curious timing given that one of his abominable creations has morphed into a particularly virulent cultural meme which is currently infesting big screens around the globe – such a shame that the movie isn’t even remotely qualified to shine in his shadow. So, like Matheson’s writing I’ll keep this obituary succinct and polished, with a warm vein of humanism running underneath the placement of his protagonists in fantastical themed jeopardy – here is an absolute classic which always crosses the mind when I take to the skies;
Yeah, we also love the 1985 George ‘Mad Max’ Miller remake with the bug-eyed John Lithgow as well. Not a bad footnote to your career to having one of Spielberg’s first ever efforts culled from your source material;
Now I haven’t seen this in many years, but I’ll always remember this crazy, existential ending – so yeah spoilers for a 50+ year movie – a film which has quite amusingly been read as a response to the emasculation of expanding feminism of the 1960’s – interesting point;
If that hasn’t blown your puny mind then how about this news, apparently it was Richard’s brother Chris Matheson who wrote Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure – awesome. But let’s close with two all time SF and horror classics, first of all the ultimate Communist metaphor;
One modest interview and finally a Menagerie favourite which I’ve covered numerous times before, easily the best version og his immortal tale of a man alone among the monsters, until he realises that maybe they aren’t the monsters…..
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….
Whilst we in the Western World take a few days off the Grim Reaper never takes a holiday, and he’s snatched three differing figures over the past few days. First up, the inquisitive Jack Klugman, the last surviving cast member of the courtroom classic Twelve Angry Men, however in this age of the Internet he is perhaps best known for this amusing slice of history which did the rounds on social media sites a couple of years ago;
Much sadder to me is the passing of the brilliant Charles Durning, his obituary is quite a read. I much prefer my actors and actresses to have had vivid and powerful lives before turning to the screen or stage, they are usually much more interesting performers than scions of Hollywood royalty whom are raised in the Tinseltown bubble. He’s been lauded for memorable turns in the likes of Dog Day Afternoon and the misunderstood The Hudsucker Proxy, when I heard of the news I immediately thought of the criminally underated The Music Of Chance;
“I was crossing a field somewhere in Belgium,” he said. “A German soldier ran toward me carrying a bayonet. He couldn’t have been more than 14 or 15. I didn’t see a soldier. I saw a boy. Even though he was coming at me, I couldn’t shoot.” They grappled, he recounted later — he was stabbed seven or eight times — until finally he grasped a rock and made it a weapon. After killing the youth, he said, he held him in his arms and wept’ – Wow. Finally Gerry Anderson whom is more of a TV than film figure, can’t say I’m a big fan but I was raised on a diet of Captain Scarlett, Thunderbirds and Space 1999 so I think he deserves a quiet nod of appreciation;
We continue with all things batty, new readers may wish to review part one of my two-part retrospective of The Dark Knight which can be viewed here. I didn’t think I’d get the time to complete this before the opening of The Dark Knight Rises but I don’t have any other reviews outstanding at the moment, and all the smart distributors have pretty much cleared their release schedule as none of them are brave enough to programme any of their offerings against what is certain to be this years second box-office behemoth, so there won’t much else going on review wise for at least a month. I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t link to this, it’s 13 minutes of behind the scenes material for the new film, I am not going to watch it or anything else until the 20th as I’m not risking any more spoilers, your self-control threshold may be weaker. Anyway, enough of this procrastination, let’s pick up events where we left them, after the climactic confrontation between our hero and his lunatic nemesis, I’m not sure why but I simply love this moment, it’s a rare shard of reflection when the films engine isn’t accelerating along at a breakneck pace, and in many ways encapsulates the film in one brief moment, of those yapping ‘dogs chasing cars’;
There is a glaring editing failure in the preceding sequence where the Joker taunts his captor in an unusually cruel dialogue exchange, a shivering piece of writing which demonstrates again just what a nasty and wily piece of work he is. Suddenly through the frantic cross cutting of Bruce racing to Rachel’s / Harvey’s side and the revelation of the internalized IED’s implanted in the Joker’s goons - another War On Terror® reference of course – at the police station we suddenly see Detective Stephens (Keith Szarabajka) as hostage, the Joker with a knife to his throat, presumably the same blade that he has concealed in his shoe from the earlier champagne reception crash or maybe Nolan’s just a fan of Rosa Klebb and decided to throw in another Bond reference to go along with his wholesale sacking of OHMSS for Inception. So the bomb goes off, Rachel is killed, Two Face is forged in the cauterizing inferno and the Joker’s dastardly scheme continues apace. I was quite shocked by Rachel’s death I have to say, the filmmakers had taken the time to establish her as a feisty, independent, professional type nor merely hostage / arm candy – well, apart from the champagne reception bit where she and Bats implausibly fall several hundred feet but we’ll just forgot about that - which is a rarity in itself for today’s action blockbusters, but to actually kill off a major character is almost unheard off, and this time there is no cinematic sleight of hand to bring her back as they did with Gordon’s expertly arranged feint, thus the stakes are established and the audience is distressed to understand that all bets are off, I mean it’s not like they’ll be bombing hospitals next or something (nervously laughs), right? Oh…..
I’ve mentioned in previous pieces that Gotham city itself is a defined and central character in the films, a formless vortex of myriad citizens, corrupt and decaying institutions on both sides of that porous veneer of legality, the huddled masses suspended in an urban thrall which both Batman and his repeated opponents seek to manipulate and cajole, from Ra’s Al Ghul & the Scarecrow in Batman Begins, from the Joker in The Dark Knight and I’m sure Bane will have the same objective in The Dark Knight Rises, the fight is always for the soul of the people and this is no more acute than in the second and final acts of this film, where the fascistic drive of the film becomes fully acute, speaking from a strictly academic, dictionary definition of the ideology*. Crime fiction has always been a rich artery for channeling the anxiety of the day, operating as it does on the cusp of legality and the transgressive, and although the film was widely interpreted as a cultural manifestation of the War On Terror® Bordwell says that Hollywood can be strategically ambiguous about politics, as he argues against the zeitgeist theory in his usual erudite and convincing fashion, I’m reminded of the scene in Jarhead where the Marines unironically enjoy watching Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now as exciting war films, not as the complex works which on the immediate surface are not flagrantly anti-war, but operate more as obtuse texts with different ideas and images leading to different meanings and conclusions to differing alternate individuals. Therefore the credo or dogma of the film is further obfuscated by the elevation of Nolan and his immediate companions – Michael Bay, Peter Jackson, Spielberg, Lucas and the bombastic others – into being the chief proponents of so-called ’Shock & Awe’ cinema, deploying intense sound and visual material to literally befuddle and deafen the audience into a numbed obsequious servitude, with 3D, motion capture and IMAX being the latest weapons in their cinematic arsenal – the volume drowns the message.
Whilst we’re on the subject of critics some of the mediums more insightful sophists such as David Denby have remarked that The Dark Knight operates in a state of almost hysterical ’constant climax’, a phrase which alludes to the exhausting combination of pummeling and deep edit rhythms, heightened performances, an emphasis on melee and confrontation, and the high-pitched strings from Hans Zimmer’s vociferous score, an analysis which mirrors the Shock & Awe assessment propagated by Bordwell and their ilk. It’s an observation which I broadly accept as it’s obvious that this is exactly the effect than Nolan and his team are striving to achieve – unlike his contemporaries he insists on shooting even the largest action sequences with single fixed cameras, such is the level of pre-visualisation he has already mentally constructed before building or scoping sets, instead of arranging the scenes from a plethora of sources in the editing suite, and the film has an undeniably pulsing, coruscating rhythm and aura throughout its second half with perhaps a few too many plot strands to be competently weaved together. The conflict arises as to the opinion of this being a legitimate and desirable evolution of cinema, of whether potent ideas and commentary can simmer under the surface of what is ostentatiously a commercial, fiscally attuned cinema, but I’d argue that from Intolerance to The Wizard of Oz to Singing In The Rain to The Godfather - to use some widely acclaimed and loved examples across both historical and genre palettes – cinema is spectacle, it is grandiose and accelerated, overbearing and in your face, in certain cases this is what distinguishes it from TV or theatre, from live music or gaming, and sometimes I think the critics lose sight of this when assembling these critiques, just because they are genre pieces the message and interpretations are just as valid in a Nolan film as they are in a Kiarostami film.
One of the more amusing theories I’ve recently absorbed refers to Nolan’s work being a detailed treatise on what it means to be a modern human in a post-religious world. In Batman Begins for example Bruce Wayne, as the primary audience avatar, must face his intangible, superstitious demons and self-actualize his fear, with such emotional paralysis being a major component of the film on a host of different thematic and narrative levels. In The Dark Knight, the second stage of development in the pursuit of the elusive self-actualisation is to define a framework of ethics and social order, or chaos results. In The Dark Knight Rises - who knows? Perhaps it will be the conflict with other self-actualized beings and their definitions of self, order and ethics? Will Bane as a Oedipal ’other’ be seeking to usurp the city and indoctrinate its citizens to his Occupy themed socialist ideology? Will Catwoman be the franchise’s first signal of overt sexuality, liberated by the death of Rachel, Bruce Wayne’s childhood sweetheart from the previous film? In Batman Begins our orphaned hero defeats the Scarecrow as a childhood boogeyman in the first stage of development, and Ra’s al Ghul as the Oedipal father is rejected and defeated to ascend to the next psychological threshold. In The Dark Knight it’s the Joker as the malicious id who fosters the birth and drive of Two-Face as the mirroring ego, with Ra’s al Ghul now the intangible, overarching super-ego, invisibly fostering the drives and desires of the schizophrenic Batman to conduct the greatest sacrifice, the destruction of his ego (Two Face) to thwart the ruinous desires of his id (Joker), assimilating the shattered remnants of his own, better, manifest self (Harvey Dent) at the apex of the film? With both the id locked away in Arkham Asylum and the ego subdued the arrival of Bane and Catwoman in the new film activate a new neurosis, they are just as good as Batman, if not better, at simply being who they are - competent, goal-oriented and already self-actualized – forcing his return to the alter-ego? Or maybe I’ve got too much time on my hands and I’ve been reading far too much psychoanalytical theory dossiers. Well then hmmm….
So we finally arrive at the hospital scene where the Joker gets his most revelatory scene. Heath Ledger’s performance throughout this controlled, asceptic film as the fractured, disembodied Loki figure with his unreliable and ambiguous origin stories are quite simply breathtakingly audacious, it breaks every Hollywood screenwriting rule where you must have a clearly defined antagonist from which the hero can ricochet in full dramatic glory, and full marks to both Jonathan & Christopher Nolan for not even giving us a final act resolution to his origin or psychological purpose. Such an approach really makes him some sort of free-floating insurgent agent of anarchy, and Ledger really captured the zeitgeist with his performance whose charismatic chaos speaks to some of the disenfranchised generation X, Y’s and Z being expressed in that speech, the mouthpiece of frustration of a segment of society (in their view) under the thrall of absurd, corrupt and ineffectual systems of control, a catalyst which viewers can chaotically indulge in some of their more disorderly fantasies. It’s curious then that Nolan operates at societies nodal points throughout his movies, he frequently arranges scenes in the airports and the cities, in City Hall or police stations, on aircraft or in hospitals, throughout the works the march of civilisation is centered, and then there is the insane court jester whose role throughout history has always been to speak truth to power and disrupt and lampoon the perilous position of the elite, it’s maybe an instinctive choice of apparatus that we all, commonly, subconsciously realise and loathe. Ledger, in his tragic final performance was throughly brilliant; twitchy but not overwrought, malicious but not cartoonish, even in that scene above – in drag as a nurse for christsakes - he simultaneously comes off as deranged and dangerous, even during a narrative snapshot that could so easily have descended into farce. The Iraq allusions are overwhelming with an opponent using asymmetric warfare against a homogenic foe, sending scratchy, out of focused shaky footage which hints at unseen atrocities, in an identical manner to the fanatic self-proclaimed ’Islamist’ brigades who continue to blaze a bloody vengeance across the Middle East. The film drips with an ichorous nihilism which again tapped a chord with its vast audience, a darkness which can have only been intensified with the tragic death of Ledger and his posthumous Academy Award, is it not one of those cruel twists that a millionaire and critically acclaimed film star, supposedly a figure of adoration the world over, one of the lucky souls who through a difficult conflation of luck and talent ascended to the movie star pantheon yet still led such a wearisome life that he was wedded to the crutch of numerous legal drugs to simply face the next day? That’s no joke….
But the center rings true, at least for the moment. Some cultural theorists, acolytes and other academic cinema types have identified a genre of film that emerged in both the wheezing, dying breaths of the past millennium and the birth pangs of the new, through a series of American movies whose purpose was to separate an illusory reality from the allegedly more authentic ‘real‘, a sequence that was immediately guillotined by 9/11 and replaced with texts positing the simulation coming under attack from overseas, from sources very much alien in both senses of the word from the prevailing ideology. I’d argue that The Dark Knight is very much the next logical development in that sequence with the disembodied threat being supplanted with indigenous foes, the paranoid surveillance state engaging in widespread doublespeak and triplethink, an enemy within responding to maelstroms of cultural contradictions which is the very essence of the ludicrous and terrifying notion of a ‘war on terror’. With the exception of Wayne, Gordon and Rachel everyone in The Dark Knight is susceptible to being perverted, corrupted and turned, from the men and women of law enforcement to the crusading district attorney Harvey Dent, solidly portrayed by Aaron Eckhert who never seemed to get the kudos he richly deserved for a difficult performance that is foreshadowed with just enough seething rage to make his final descent psychologically convincing – well, I mean convincing for a tent pole Hollywood movie, this isn’t nor is it trying to be Strindberg or Ibsen – and just a quick word on Gary Oldman – he’s just fucking great isn’t he? Another unimpeachable foundation stone in the series success, alongside Michael Caine noble Alfred, who I’ve never fully appreciated until I caught the films back to back yesterday.
Screens and surfaces, media and manipulation. Before seeing the film again I was sympathetic to the captious claims that the final confrontation, the climactic set-piece with the ferry booby traps and moral gauntlet proffered by the Joker felt just a little ‘forced’, another sequence in a slightly obese film with the sonar enhanced melee becoming a little tiresome by dredging out a blockbuster movie to an unnecessary two and a half hour run-time, a complaint that was compounded by the fiscal fallacy circulating Hollywood at the time that more villains equalled more thrills, so merchandising minded executives urged screenwriters to insert redundant threats ad nauseam to pointlessly elevate the dramatic ante, but with another visit to this movie the criticism simply doesn’t hold water – Spiderman 3 however is another entity. I’m happy to be proved wrong but if memory serves The Dark Knight is the only movie where the villains actually seem to functionally operate in the same film universe, to recant and reflect upon each other in a clearly logical and dramatic sense, the Joker’s murderous creation of the dually horrific Two Face is perfectly played and serves at the final checkmate move of his increasingly convoluted and perhaps absurdly contrived master plan, yet it makes narrative sense as his final coup de grâce in potentially disrupting the moral imperatives of Gotham’s citizens, which was anarchicaly expressed as his ultimate goal in the hospital scene. Although the film’s editing gets choppy and slightly confusing with the cross maneuvers urging a rather confrontational reaction – again the ‘constant climax’ exhaustion comes into play and this is perhaps Nolan’s occasional stumble throughout his cluttered storytelling style - yet the meridian of one opponents defeat is expertly despatched;
So here is some more of Nolan’s gravity defying camera techniques that he went on to explore more fully with Inception and judging by the prologue to The Dark Knight Rises we will be seeing more of those unusually inverted movements. The Joker gets his final speech alluding to the similarities between the two symbiotic nemesis ‘dragging Harvey down to our level’ before he gets one final maniacal laugh to haunt us as he pushes off into the ether, as in one sense he has won and pushed the hero into his personal Gehenna, as a common murdering criminal that ignited his nocturnal crusade in Batman Begins. I really like the way that the Nolan’s have almost written themselves into a corner by maintaining the heightened realism and cast Bruce as a murderous vigilante, and in just a few days we’ll know how they’ve extracted themselves from that potential narrative cul-de-sac.
Cue applause, house lights up, long exhale – we’re almost done. Some of the success resides in the little touches – Bruce playing playboy and ditching the champagne on the veranda as he must remain focused and in control, the Joker responding to accusations to being crazy by nervously muttering ’no…no…no I’m not…’ as if he’s having to convince himself, Bruce effortlessly dispatching a goon and dismantling his weapon as he walks toward the panic room in the party scene, the Joker’s hand-washing moment in the hospital, that evocative moment of Bats musing over his failure in the smoldering debris of Rachel’s homicide - they all add up to a textural pattern which displays a tangent of filmmakers completely in control of his material, and judging by the early word on The Dark Knight Rises that vice like grip continues into the final installment. I’m not the only one to have been immediately reminded of the ending to Shane with the close of Dark Knight, my esteemed colleague Philip French noted the same thoughts during his review back in the day, it’s a final allusion to the mythic grandeur that cinema can provoke for its eternal celluloid heroes when manipulated by the right hands. So whats next ? Watching the first two back to back reminds me of just what an outstanding narrative arc they have developed for the franchise, of the psychological allusions and confusions, I’m certain we’ll see more of the same in Rises but I was also struck by just how emotional the films are, there is a real heart and spirit churning under the action sequences and gadgets, a real sense of threat and struggle beyond the pyrotechnics and intellectual shadow-play, and this I think is what has elevated them above other superhero and blockbuster fare, and if early reports are anything to go by then we’re in for some intense material for the final chapter – I have my suspicions of where certain things will go but we’ll leave that Pandora’s box firmly closed for now. Looking beyond the weekend you Bat-fans will also be excited to hear of this bat-project which I stumbled across during my research, but for now let’s just calmly convalesce and wait for Friday, and see just how the Nolan’s and Bale, Caine and Freeman will finally wrap up this outstanding, incredible series of films – are you excited yet?
* OK, I’m not suggesting that Nolan are Fascists or anything, I’m merely pointing out if you look at the strictly academic view of what that political ideology ia, then apply that to millionaire Bruce Wayne’s ideology and activities and well….
You might have heard of this, it was a little project that Warners put out a few years ago, having been reasonably successful (over $1 billion in worldwide box office alone), it’s got itself a sequel this year. True to form after promising a write-up on this as part of my ancient Films of 2008 entry I’ve finally managed to fulfil this promise a mere four years later, punctuality evidently being my strong point. Why the delay? Well, initially I wanted to give it yet another look after the two cinema visits and a couple of Blu-Ray revisions, but after the rabid exposure the film and its potential sequel engendered over the subsequent couple of years I frankly got a little sick of the movie (although that’s not the films fault), there must have been some tangential news story in the on-line press almost every day during the first couple of quarters of 2009 so I really wanted to go away, take a breather, then come back to the movie fresh and attempt to explain why I think The Dark Knight really touched a nerve with not only the rabid fan-boys who went to see it four, five, even six times at the cinema (which of course explains some of that box office) but also the appeal to the more mainstream punters who visit the cinema maybe once or twice a year. Of course the interest and speculation has continued to swirl unabated around what we know as The Dark Knight Rises over the intervening few years, as its 20th July release date inexorably marches forward it’s finally time to step up the plate and push some thoughts out there prior to the release of the historically difficult third movie in the trilogy, be warned as this may very well be the most absurd, lengthy, fanboy inspired nonsense I’ve ever fabricated so I’m preemptively blaming the pain-killers. It’s an obvious allusion I know but I’d argue that The Dark Knight is the quintessential film of the last decade, with its domineering leitmotifs of entropy, corruption, instability and insanity it is the primary exemplar in reflecting and illustrating many of the crumbling structures that are under assault by a panoply of threats - fear, anguish, destruction, hypocrisy, paranoia – that have perverted the citadels of the West as their hegemonic stranglehold exigently slips away, as the moral lines are increasingly obscured as independent, ideological driven groups fight for their interests by violating the margins of the status quo and established, increasingly redundant and rejected political methods are superseded by direct action, and it’s also got some kick-ass action sequences so where better to start than with the introduction of the films hero, and I ain’t talking about some nocturnal psychopathic vigilante;
Click on the top left link to catch the final moments of that opening, alas I couldn’t find it in its entirety. Firstly, this obviously serves as the second part of a trilogy with the opening blue flame hued bat symbol – we’ll seeing that more of that temperature in the film of course – serving as a thematic and design continuation of the opening of Batman Begins and its auburn hues which both dispense with any titles or credits, both serve as semiotic glimpses of the tale that follows and its cinematographic palettes. An expansive helicopter mounted dolly penetrates the world of the film, the modern urban environment, its briefly tranquil atmosphere shattered as the goons rupture the status quo as they prepare their aerial assault that is immediately reinforced with a cunning character introduction, an empty mask shown in silhouette with the unidentified character turned away from the camera lens, a presage of the fruitless search for identity, reason and morality that gravitate around the films real protagonist – The Joker – whom subliminally mocks the film’s title. He is a void, a vessel for the audiences fears, a mysterious agent of chaos and entropy with a constantly shifting origin and history (does he even know his own back-story?) but I’ll delve fully into that in part two of this brief series. A meticulously planned robbery ensues, cut to the tempo of Hans Zimmer’s shrill and stretched score, a criminal inauguration which simultaneously references The Killing (there, didn’t take long for the Kubrick mention did it?) with similar nods to Heat via the casting of William Fichtner, signaling Nolan’s impeccable influences and inspirations. I love the nonchalant shooting of the bus driver and the grenades imposed on the trembling bank customers, we’re clearly dealing with a meticulously prepared and efficient psychotic (unusual for a PG13 movie for obvious reasons) whom immediately obliterates the scenery chewing antics of Nicholson, reinforced with the callous execution of his comrades and the grenade smoke bomb gag which acquaints us with this clown prince of crimes nebulous attitude to life and death. This merciful introduction is inverted with a shock a few minutes later in which writers Jonathan Nolan and David S. Goyer perfectly pitch a moment of terrible violence with splenetic humor, a grim yin-yang that reverberates throughout the film, both times I saw it with an audience they went fucking wild and that’s cinema right there, the shared experience that nothing can equal. So the films temperature and temperament is independently established away from the usual carnage saturated action-film context, it’s afferent inductions functioning within the narrative, not being a function of the narrative, not merely an excuse for kinetic deviations that leapfrog the recital to the next ballistic set-piece - in The Dark Knight they are intrinsic designs and conceptions that embed the characters psychology and environment – the oppidan and urban, the criminally lunatic, the dispassionately violent – at the core of the films anfractuous ambitions.
After this bravura prologue the film settles into its rhythm and the major plot lines emerge, Harvey Dent is introduced as the passive reflection of Batman, the principled idealist who is committed to make a difference, battling the crime and corruption of Gotham city within the confines of the system rather than following an individual, morally suspect, unhinged nocturnal crusade unfettered by such ridiculous notions as civil rights, presumption of innocence and trial by jury - in a word, Guantanamo. The political praxis is set, the City Hall and legislature machinations are placed in dichotomy with the criminal syndicate operations, as Gotham City itself is established as a living entity with enough sparse sociological dimensions to serve the plot developments in the films succeeding acts, a pivotal stroke as Nolan and his screenwriter accomplices understand that the city is as crucial a character in their legendarium as Bruce Wayne or Alfred, Lt. Gordon or Harvey Dent. Maggie Gyllenhaal replaces Katie Holmes from Batman Begins as the romantic plot device, as Rachael is re-contextualised from the first movie as Bruce’s most significant personal sacrifice – a totem which shortly becomes mortally intangible - a love requited but impossible to consummate given his psychological demons and the potential of an Achilles heel should a particularly fervid villain learn of their secret affections. After an entertaining (although rather redundant) sojourn to Hong Kong and an escalating body count the narrative reaches a second plateau, the preceding hour or so is undoubtedly the films weakest section, I don’t want to belabor the point but the frantic cutting of editor Lee Smith can leave the viewers a little confused and a few redundant threads are raised – the copycat vigilantes, the blackmail attempt from a suicidally ambitious Wayne Industries executive - all of which seems a little forced even as it inevitably links in with later developments in a rather overly complex*, serpentine script. All of these maneuvers are presented in the usual single character frame shots, spiced up with a creeping track-in camera movement as characters spin out some occasionally portentous dialogue, all punctuated with Nolan’s beloved cityscape establishing shot transitions, before we are relived of this flagitious framing with a rather memorable soirée amongst the higher echelons of Gotham society;
What’s that? No, no we erm don’t talk about what subsequently happened back at the party as that seems to be quite a serious omission from the cutting room floor, given that the narrative moves along without resolving the threatening incursion upon Gotham’s 1% one assumes that the protracted run time urged some serious snipping of the editors cruel scissors. Anyway, note the swirling, circling camera moves as the Joker expresses his fluctuating origin story, a simple but efficient tool to suggest the disorientation of having that mentalist literally in your face with a knife in view, as the threat moves from the abstract to personal for both Bruce and Harvey as the competing paramour of moon-faced Gyllenhaal. I think both Wally Pfster and Nathan Crowley have been somewhat overlooked in favour of Nolan’s and Ledger’s achievements on the movie, both these talents evidently worked in harmonious tandem, populating the film with a metallic sheen of reflections in the architecture of the film and embedding stark, regimented angular designs for the forces of order and control whose arrogant perch is assaulted by the explosive campaign of the Joker. Note that the native, primeval lair of the original Batcave has been exchanged for the rigid geometric order of the Batcave 2.0, the gothic and elemental superseded with the mechanised and controlled, the new nest of our nocturnal paladin sporting a sleek, cool and fetishistic sheen (as does his weapons, vehicles and armour), a sharp contrast to the primordial, instinctive tools of his opponent, as simple bombs and knives are the inventory of his anarchist adversary. The next sequence of note is the terrifying Al-Qaeda video inspired moment when the first hostage demand is transmitted by the press, I still can’t quite believe this sneaked into a 12A certificate film as it is numbingly nasty and genuinely unsettling, both times at the flicks the patrons were shocked into a dumbstruck silence, as cunningly Nolan cuts to an overhead shot of Gotham as a chance for the audience to catch their breath and compose their spirits, a lull in the storm before the next action sequence ignites;
After this meandering we come to the central action set-piece and the film never looks back. I’ve been somewhat beaten to the punch by this widely circulated analysis of the sequence which has its merits, although I think having issues with the 180° rule being consistently violated is somewhat missing the point – if it convinces, if it excites and thrills then it’s job is done, regardless of any arbitrary academic transgression, and the claim that this is just sloppy film-making and is not intentional on the part of Nolan and his editor is frankly ludicrous. The ominous and subtle joke of the fire engines ablaze is another nice touch, the shift from diagetic sound to Zimmer’s (quite literally) highly strung score easing us into a frenetic, brilliantly conceived and executed action sequence which stands above its peers by virtue of being, well, real. That’s real vehicles doing real stunts with real human beings, I’m not naive enough to think some of it wasn’t tweaked back in the labs but there are real visceral thrills in the sequence which does not rely solely on CGI domination (perhaps a little too real as a stuntman was killed during production), rather than using your cornea as a punching bag the concatenation has a drama, a lift and a presence through the characters and the parallel cutting techniques, and I’d argue that the entire film strives for a slightly disorienting, anxious ambience, embedded through every level of the film-making from the costumes to performances, soundtrack to set design. For all the films submerged depths and edifying intricacies it also delivers on the action and excitement front – let’s not forget that this is a $250 million Hollywood movie and as such it has some obligations to the cultural tropes of that breed of cinema – and this scene works as a microcosm three-act embezzlement of the form with its set-up and establishment of the characters in relation to the physical universe, the underground tussle and mêlée, and a final triumphant revelation of the Bat-pod and Westernesque showdown, all crowned with the twist reveal of Lt. Gordon bringing the maniac martinet to justice. I’ll admit I was suckered, I honestly thought Gordy had been killed earlier on so when he was revealed as the arresting officer on scene I was mentally punching the air in triumph along with the audience members who clapped and cheered along with this disclosure, a superb finish to what can roughly be parsed as the mid-point of the film, but not before we interrogate one of the more critical scenes of the entire movie;
There is nothing I can add to what already been expressed about this by Nolan here, it’s an illuminating interview, and you can see from that piece how the film works at an iconic level, he and Goyer and his brother got it and understand that the symbiotic relationship culled from the more mature Batman & Joker graphic novels are what makes them so intriguing and psychologically charged, this scene being the crux of the entire movie from which all the tendrils and all the other themes and events coalesce to lurk in a slithering, quivering mania. How can a force that thrives on conflict and degrading its opponent to its level ever be defeated? When do the ends justify the means in the face of illogical and indiscriminate brutality? When faced with the dispassionate, indifferent cruelty of the world and its hollow and hypocritical moral structures isn’t the only sane response to go insane? On that charming note let me draw a veil over part one of this reprise, giving me a breather to compose part 2 where we’ll get into the remainder of the film along with the performances, with some of the more virulent adumbrations and crucially how the film slots neatly into Nolan’s wider worldview, it’s all to come in a couple of weeks after this apprehensive musical interlude;
* Here is my favourite, most sarcastic appraisal of one of the films most glaring flaws – ‘I especially like the part where he (the Joker) had arranged to have two guys named Harvey and Dent killed so as to draw Batman’s attention to a bullet fired into the brick wall at the crime scene knowing that bullet would shatter but that Batman would recover it and take it to an improvised crime lab where he would then discover a way to model the shattered bullet on his computer and virtually reassemble the bullet in order to discover a fingerprint belonging to the minion who put the bullet in the gun and in whose apartment Batman would then discover that the funeral guard for Commisioner Loeb’s funeral has been bound and gagged and as Batman walks to the window to discover that the apartment overlooks the funeral of the commissioner, he fails to notice that a timer has been set to snap the window shade up at exactly the second that Batman arrives at the window, causing the snipers covering the funeral to fire at the window and allowing the Joker to make his next move! That is tight planning! I can see why audiences were so swept up by this story, which was not at all horseshit’….
Paul Schrader has synthesized a segregated career writing of the escapades of his disenfranchised, damaged masculine anti-heroes, from disturbed servicemen to aged drug dealers, from pseudo-fascist Japanese playwrights to frigidly isolated lawmen, uncertain shamans to hollowed healers, it’s a compelling, challenging and consequential body of work which reached its critical apotheosis with the bruising, destructive machismo of Jake La Motta in Raging Bull, widely considered as one of the greatest American films of the past fifty years. But before Schrader connected his virile, written rage with Scorsese’s variegated direction he cut his teeth in an alternate entry to the ‘return from Nam sub-genre’ which was released as Coppola finally introduced audiences to his oriental heart of darkness and Taxi Driver also hit screens, the final component of a trio being the cult classic Rolling Thunder which has just received a 35th anniversary Blu-Ray release from Studio Canal. Exploitation fans like yours truly have endured a tortured, prolonged delay in getting our medical claws on this desolate snarl of a movie, quite apart from its championing from the likes of Tarantino who not only named his short-lived 1990′s cult movie distribution company after it he also included the film amongst his top
ten twelve all time submission to Sight & Sound back in 2002, but don’t let that put you off as this is a provocative blast of retribution, here’s the opening titles;
Taking its turbulent title from a notoriously indiscriminate and criminal bombing campaign of the Vietnam quagmire Rolling Thunder opens with two veterans returning home to small town Texas after seven long years in a brutal communist prison camp. Major Charley Rane (William Devane) has internalized his suffering to a paralysing numbness, barely registering the growth of his young son from baby to child or the infidelity of his distant wife he prowls his dimly lit home, unable to sleep or re-integrate into civilian life as PTSD afflicted nightmares offer him nothing but insomnia and a glazed detachment from the real world. After being awarded a financial tribute from the town council, a bounty curiously expressed in a suitcase full of silver dollars some local goons are drawn to the scent of criminal opportunity, inducing a home invasion these Viet-Cong surrogates steal the treasure, execute Rane’s son and wife and for good measure shove his hand down the garbage compactor. Mutilated, bereaved and left for dead Rane’s second ordeal prompts a cathartic, lethal purpose – and this is where the film starts to swiftboat into waters marked transgressive - he teams up with local barmaid Linda (Linda Hayes, a blonde version of Karen Black) and fellow veteran Sergeant First Class Johnny Vohden (an early sighting of Tommy Lee Jones, he’s almost expressive) to hunt down the scum who have wiped out his family and abrogate a terrible vengeance – it’s not pleasant;
It’s a little strange to revisit a grimy, faintly squalid exploitation piece through the lens of a 21st century digital upgrade, this transfer works by retaining some of the grainy bubbles of the master print which is incorporated with a crystal clear bursts of colour amongst some gloomy interiors, awarding the enterprise a coarse and brittle, sandpapery visual texture that complements the movies grim catenary. William Devane is hewn from the same formidable Mount Rushmore stone as James Coburn, Charles Bronson or Lee Marvin, as stoically impassive and deceptively cool as an obsidian memorial wall, an emotionally void vessel of pure vengeance who barely registers his son or wives casually presented execution whom are barely warm in their graves before he has shacked up with Linda whom he subsequently employs as bait for the lecherous degenerates that will soon face his ruthless wrath. I don’t know what it is about the era but it harks back to the aged sense of a silent ‘man’s’ man, before the action film pyrotechnics of the eighties were punctuated by exploding infrastructure and groan-inducing puns, or the sensitive warriors of the nineties and noughties battled to reassert the equilibrium of the family or to protect a fledgling, sensitive romance, give me these homicidal, morally vacant psychopaths any day of the week rather than those pussy whipped, organic baguette purchasing, exfoliating cream sporting ladymen. It’s the unspoken bond of honor between Rane and his fellow serviceman Vohden in one of the most celebrated moments of super-cool exploitation cinema that really lodges this in the celluloid cranium, when Rane nullifying exclaims that ‘I’ve found them, (sic) the men who killed my son’ to which Vohden immediately replies ‘I’ll just get my gear’ – there is no debate, no question of going to the authorities, the mission is clear as these moral and spiritual vagabonds finally find the violent purpose and distorted moral mission in life that was inculcated in the hellish jungles of South East Asia. Here is the fantastically orchestrated, transgressively cathartic final show-down, so yeah here be spoilers;
As well as providing a paycheck for Schrader Rolling Thunder also signalled the arrival of other talents behind the camera, with cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth cutting his teeth with some dimly orchestrated shadowplay before he went on to light the likes of Altered States, Cutters Way, and Blade Runner a few years later. His expressive lighting schemes and Schrader’s submerged iconography elevate the piece above the grunts in the vigilante league table, perhaps the most famous being the Death Wish series, The Exterminator, Straw Dogs and its feminist incarnations such as Handgun or more recentlyThe Brave One, although you could convincingly trace the genre back to Bergman’s The Virgin Spring which of course also birthed Craven’s uncomfortable The Last House on The Left. It’s always been a slightly sour, right-wing aligned strand of movies down from Dirty Harry through repeatable decades of cycles, with a recent UK strain including Harry Brown and the hilariously reactionary, cheap Clerkenwell cocaine cut Outlaw. Rolling Thunder offers much more than mere rabid tabloid attuned umbrage, it has an aura of a Cormac McCarthy short story invested with some rare codes and symbols, giving our ‘hero’ a case full of silver dollars has to be one of the more unusual financial McGuffins that lures in the murderous opponents, in an early scene Rane lovingly explains to his son how when incarcerated in the Viet Cong gulag they secretly stitched together and coveted a face-cloth sized American flag (which simply must have inspired this), even his symbolic castration which prompts his blood spattered spree against his fellow countrymen - and note that he doesn’t return to the jungle to liberate his similarly incarcerated comrades which was the purpose in the whole rehabilitation Nam movies of the eighties such as Rambo, Missing In Action, Strike Commando etc. - he’s at war on home turf which marks this as a treatise on the ambivalent and hostile response that the veterans suffered when they returned from their terrible tours of duty. If you think I’ve over thinking things then just remember that Schrader is one of the more academic scribes out there, the author of Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson & Dreyer, but for all the submerged academic posturing this film is as entertaining and straightforward as any other exploitation film, mapping to the genres definitions with a swift set-up, a cathartic plot driver, ferocious investigation and excessive execution, all played out in a brutally compact 95 minutes. One of the great 1970′s movies that rises from the critical swamps of its abused collaborators, Rolling Thunder is a renegade, blistering blast.
I sacrilegiously missed honoring the 30th anniversary of the death of the indomitable Warren Oates yesterday, here’s a fine documentary to bring you up to speed;
Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia, The Wild Bunch, Badlands, Two Lane Blacktop, Cockfighter and Dillinger would be quite a roster on any actors CV, he was by all accounts a hard living, image fulfilling growling bastard, anyone who survives three or four Peckinpah pictures is worthy of admiration. A loosely related 1970′s attuned film review is being constructed, watch this space….
I’m conscious of turning this into some trailer blog which isn’t my intention, but when it comes to remakes of widely admired SF pictures of years past I’m kinda in my area of expertise, thus I’m almost contractually obliged to post this;
My thoughts? Well, since you asked I’m not utterly mental about the original but it was great fun, I remember seeing it at the flicks and having a good time, this looks like it could veer from mediocre to above average as long as they retain fidelity to the paranoid instincts of the tale alongside the overwrought set-pieces and bludgeoning SFX – holograms and hover cars eh, was this film made in 1989? – and the distinct lack of one ferrying one’s ass to Mars is also a concern. I find it more interesting that today’s action stars are the likes of Colin Farrell and Matt Damon, as opposed to the likes of Ahnoldt and Sly and Chuck and JCVD and akido wielding ecological terrorists, what does that say for the state of modern masculinity? Just shoot me but I miss the quips….
What a crazy year – a devastating tsunami, indigenous riots, distant earthquakes, lethal hurricanes and militant uprisings, and that was just my reaction to Transformers 3 (distant cymbal crash). As usual its been a mixed bag on the small and larger screen, another dismal summer mildly off-set by the likes of Super 8 and ROTPOTA, which were both good fun but are hardly going to storm the films of the year defences, I have to say that blockbuster season is swiftly becoming my least favourite portion of the year although 2012 is looking much more attractive with its xenomorphic threats and nocturnal vigilantes promising the release of some stratospherically anticipated projects. I had varying degrees of success with three festivals, my LFF was probably the best coverage I’ve managed yet but I didn’t manage to see everything I’d like at the Australian London Film Festival, and Empire’s Big Screen in the final analysis was simply too mainstream for my current palette as I really don’t have any interest in seeing advance footage of Real Steel or Anonymous which is the sort of movie they excel in promoting these days – nothing necessarily wrong with that, I’m just saying it ain’t for me. The Autumn and Spring of 2011 brought the delights of the films that the studios aren’t quite sure what to do with, including the award friendly, strategically positioned, independently minded fare of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Blue Valentine and Drive which were all delicious banquets of differing ingredients, and the likes of Hugo and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo have provided some festive fun from differing ends of the age spectrum. I can’t say there is much of a thread throughout the films although the LFF was infected with a variety of films that concerned psychological fractures, cultish lunacy, atrocities, solitude, violence, death and madness, make of that what you will but our glorious leaders austerity measures did begin to bite this year – this already fills me with a palpable sense of illness and dread, as the iron lady gets a hagiography which is bound to provoke a litany of documentaries and articles on her sickening legacy and ‘the good ole days’ – urgh. Technically speaking the news that film stock lines are being further discontinued and that the shift to digital projection avalanche ignited by Avatar closes 2011 with more digital equipped screens on the planet than those equipped for 35mm analogue proves that an era of the art form is passing with a quiet solemnity – all those fans of flickering prints, cigarette burns and a grainy luminosity are in silent mourning. On the flip-side it was fun to see some of the 3D haters receive a deft uppercut from the likes of Scorsese, Herzog, and Wenders who proved that the technique is viable with the correct level of craft coupled with the intrinsic, artistic thrust of a project, I am becoming so fucking tired with Mark Kermode’s broken-record commentary every Friday that I’ve seriously contemplated abandoning the BBC R5 podcast – you don’t like it, you never will, and people who do like it for certain projects are wrong as he knows better – OK we get it so can’t we move on?
On the smaller screen I’ve been moping up some giallo that got released this year (plus another look at these three Argento’s and a Fulci which was one of the sleaziest films I’ve seen for some time, great title though) and launched brief retrospectives on fellow Anglophiles Nicholas Roeg, Alex Cox (watched this, this and this) and Peter Greenaway, thus I’ve finally caught A Zed & Two Noughts, The Pillow Book and The Draughtsman’s Contract which eluded my glazzies in my mis-spent youth. I’m betting I’m the only blogger who also went on a Harold Becker season, an unforeseen result of a bizarre compulsion to see this which led me on something of a nineties nostalgia trawl through a few older thrillers that stand in marked contrast to the hyperkinetic stylistics and cacophonous narratives that we are currently bludgeoned with at the flicks. I also caught up with the early work of David Gordon Green who has many admirers Stateside, he’s not quite the ‘new Malick’ has some have outrageously claimed but his early films were interesting, with a definite, dreamy texture which he seems to have abandoned in favour of some larger scale comedies that all seem to feature Danny McBride. My insistence on seeing more older films didn’t quite live up to expectations despite a final push on the horror front, I shall make a redoubled effort next year, inspired by the utterly brilliant The Story Of Film which to my mind is the best coverage the art form has received since Scorsese’s two journeys through cinema over a decade ago. Nevertheless I did manage a triumvirate of Billy Wilder movies in the opening months of the year alongside a few Preston Sturges sized gaps in the viewing history, I’m toying with a Fritz Lang season next year so watch this space. Finally I’m fairly proud of some of the other retrospective stuff I’ve crafted this year which have solidly been accruing hits in the higher three figures, the likes of The Last Picture Show, Apocalypse Now and Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid being amongst my strongest contributions ever. But there’s no time to rest on our laurels as we have plenty to get through, so on with the show;
The Films of the Year
The usual top five in no particular order, not necessarily the greatest films of the year as I can’t see everything, but this is certainly the pentagon that provided the most enjoyment in the menagerie;
13 Assassins - Slightly less impressive on the small screen but still a fantastic achievement, certainly Miike’s best film for a decade during which he lazily released a sluggish 612 other films adorned with oriental finery. Seriously though, the courtly intrigue leads deftly into that brazenly lengthy and beautifully crafted battle sequence, that tour de force alone earns the film a place in the annual Minty pantheon. The second time round it was easier to identify the different characters and better appreciate their personalities, understandably some critics had disliked the fact that all 13 heroes dress almost identically with the same haircut for most of the film which makes distinguishing them somewhat difficult during the mud and blood drenched finale. The final stand-off at the apex of that battle was more measured and textured on a repeat viewing, I didn’t quite pick up on all the story cues and notions of honour versus duty, of moral imperatives swamped by the ruling castes protocols for the empire, all that good stuff that any half decent samurai movie has in spades. The chief villain is a delicious Miike creation with some moments of shocking cruelty that you wouldn’t get in Western cinema, but these moments are earned and provide the context for the final, bloody blitzkrieg. Unfortunately I missed Miike’s follow-up which screened at the LFF, hopefully it will get a limited release next year so I can see where he’s taking this historical strand of his work next – and being the dictionary definition of prolific he’s also managed to slot another film in as well….
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy - Guaranteed a covert swipe of the gongs come awards season (although it seemed to get overlooked at the UK Independent Spirit Awards) this opening skirmish between those 20th century foes – the Soviets and the West – has already generated a sequel of sorts, in the form of the next book in Le Carré’s Smiley series getting an unsurprising green light toward the end of the year – I wonder who they’ll get to play Karla? Probably Michael Gambon or some other heavyweight British thespian I suspect. Maybe Brian Blessed? I’m joking. Maybe. Anyway this warrants a second viewing early in the new year, it’s good to see the UK punching above its weight and showing the world how you craft a superior, cerebral thriller, even if it was deviously helmed by a Swede. Brilliantly directed, impeccably acted, Le Carré’s tale of betrayal, subterfuge and deceit seems to ripen with age and Gary Oldman back in a leading role – what’s not to like?
Martha Marcy May Marlene - Innovative, left-field and unpredictable, the very definition of a successful Sundance movie. This has retained a position in the top five I think due to that marriage of subject matter and cinema technique, and having the skill to mesh the two together to produce such a spellbinding and dreamlike aura, achieving that drone (in the best sense of the word) of atmosphere is a difficult task to accomplish and it normally takes someone with the prowess of a David Lynch to pull it off. A remarkable performance from Elizabeth Olsen and I’d wager that we will be seeing interesting things from first time director Sean Durkin in the years to come, it’s just so wonderful to watch a film where you have no idea of where things are going, or how the drama is going to be resolved – or if it need be resolved at all. Another fine addition to the cinema of 21st century nervosa that is percolating at the moment, with both absolute truths and reliable narrators quivering on increasingly shaky ground. Now, speaking of cult films (groans);
Drive – Whilst some people didn’t like it this years certified breakthrough cult film pulled off a minor miracle, the brittle and skeletal husk I call a heart has been near warmed by the adoration and praise heaped on this nice little mover. Ryan Gosling has had a remarkable year, a 2011 only equalled by Michael Fassbender who also delivered three acclaimed performances – Drive, Blue Valentine and The Ides Of March versus Shame, First Class and Jane Eyre – in a trio of acclaimed films from both the arthouse and blockbuster sides of the business. Refn has suddenly become hot property with a $60 million return on a modest $15 million outlay, I can’t wait to see his version of Logan’s Run which is reputedly his next project, that should be an interesting take on another cult property with a SF twinge. For all you completests out there can I recommend Fear X, Refn’s first American film from 2002 which is worth a look? It’s not totally successful in its sub-Lynchian tone and approach, but any film with a screenplay by Hubert Selby Jr. and a Brian Eno score is worth a look, especially as it fits into that paranoid urban CCTV noir sub-genre that someone needs to write an article about. Must I also remind you again to beg, borrow or steal copies of his opening trilogy? No? Good. The final word is that anyone who still doubted that European auteurs could work within the American genre paradigm and not produce something extraordinary need to shut their mouth before I kick their teeth down their throat and shut it for ya.
Tree of Life - Originally I’d written over a thousand words on this film alone but sanity has got the better of me and I think I can cut things down to one amusing anecdote and a scattering of thoughts on the undisputed Minty film of the year. Malick’s return to the big screen provoked lofty levels of expectation and fervour amongst the cineaste community, and consequently some of us (myself included) were slightly, just slightly underwhelmed on a first viewing. After that initial experience was percolated, after the banquet was digested many of us returned to a second bite of the celestial fruit in the cathedral of cinema and one podcaster reported that although he loved the film he felt that something was missing, such were his ludicrously high levels of expectation. So he sat down for a second viewing, calmly looking forward to a duplicate journey through the celluloid cosmology, and promptly burst into tears as the first hesitant flickering titles of the film ignited on-screen. Tree of Life got Sight & Sound’s film of the year and who am I to argue, already some fascinating stuff has emerged in the subsequent months concerning production stories and critical analysis – they filmed a tornado scene where the town was ripped to pieces, initial cuts were around four hours long, a side IMAX documentary piece is still in the works. What’s the deal with the kid with the burns? He’s never explained and some other strands that I missed on the first pass include Sean Penn in the elevator going up and then coming down during the final movement (which sounds trite and forced when it’s written down but works in the context of the visual language of the film), and on the soundtrack a heart monitor is forward in the sound mix, I did notice this on the first viewing but it becomes more centred on a second pass. S&S correspondents discussed the film with a half-dozen US critics at Cannes who grew up in that period and they felt that Malick had got that aura absolutely spot on, from the romantic lighting and credo to the underlying arguments and domestic unease, and also the suicide of Malick’s brother back in his adolescence and the alleged death of his second sibling during shooting makes this one of the all time great cinema autobiographies. Not one, not two but three new films are in the pipeline, one of which has lensed and another two which are scheduled for 2012 shoots, given his languid editing process I expect to see all three of them sometime around my retirement age. What a strange career, with a duo of masterpieces in the Seventies and an enormous hiatus, then a return with a late burst of ambition and fervour that would challenge men half his age both creatively and financially. A film that is certain to be discussed, argued, pondered and praised in another fifty years.
Close nominees include Blue Valentine, Animal Kingdom, Cave Of Forgotten Dreams, Shame, The Descendants, Super-8 and We Need To Talk About Kevin, its been another great year with British cinema in particular punching above its weight. I do groan in exasperation when people complain that movies are getting worse and worse and it’s only stupid kids / super-hero movies that get made these days, quite honestly these cretins need to look beyond the summer season and understand that if you pay attention there are great things out there, and if they get the support they need the trend will continue. The biggest misses at the flicks were Meeks Cutoff, I Saw The Devil, Take Shelter and Guilty of Romance (which only played at the ICA for a week whilst the LFF was on, so not really feasible) all of which I have subsequently caught on the small screen and all of which are worth a couple of hours of your time.
Dog Soldiers - No, not that one, this is a 1978 post-Nam character study / crime flick, otherwise known as Who’ll Stop The Rain this is a film that I’ve been meaning to track down for ages, as it’s often mentioned in the same breath as the beloved Cutters Way which got a welcome re-release and wider re-appraisal this year. Some interesting faces – Richard Masur (Clarke from The Thing), Michael Moriarty, early Nolte, Tuesday Weld and the politician from The Dead Zone are all recognisable faces to the Seventies movie crowd, directed by Englishman Karel Reisz it’s a foreigners take on a jaded, apoertic and weary post Watergate America just before the success of Star Wars and its ilk wiped away the majority of adult drama and political commentary in Hollywood cinema - this crew ain’t dealing cause they can do, but because they have to. The main characters are flawed and interesting human beings – our ‘hero’ is a psychologically scarred smack dealer – and the film has a pulpy, Elmore Leonard vibe which may or may not be your cup of tea. I’ve always thought Tuesday Weld was an interesting actress who hasn’t appeared in enough movies, and Nolte has a cracked and grizzled quality that reminds one of Mitchum or Bogart, a real hulking on-screen presence whom provides a genuine authenticity to the macho posturing and direct, unvarnished violence. Based on the novel by Robert Stone it’s a picture that stacks up nicely with the likes of Straight Time, Thief, The French Connection or any other decent crime drama of that decade, and if you like that strain of cinema then this needs to be on your playlist. OK, whilst we’re here can I also recommend Reisz’s previous US film The Gambler? It’s another terrific character study of those who operate on the margins of society.
Shoah - Just to keep things cheery here is a film which singlehandedly proves the power of cinema and its repercussive efficacy, no-one who has ever seen it should or will be the same person again. At a gruelling nine hours it is of course a documentary that you need to split into multiple sessions – and given the grevious subject matter this is something of a relief – as Claud Lanzman takes us through the unimaginable horror of the holocaust. The whole thing is here and just to dip into the clichéd waters it’s a masterpiece documentary that everyone should see, what is most remarkable is that it doesn’t rely on grainy black and white footage of goose-stepping Nazi’s or any selections of Pathé or March Of Time newsreel footage, it goes straight to eye-witness testimony, from camp guards to Polish observers, from historians to surviving Jews, and some of their recollections and anecdotes are amongst the most horrific things you will ever witness. Cinema as document, Ebert nails it here, and I can also recommend Sarah’s Key which got a quiet release this year, it’s a skillful weaving of contemporary investigation into a suppressed French implication in the atrocities, twinned with historical reportage through a childs eyes first person take on these horrendous crimes, her fate, despite her surviving the holocaust, is absolutely heartbreaking and submits the notion that such abominations echo throughout the ages. Well crafted, moving, adult drama with Kristen Scott Thomas quietly remaining one of the best and most overlooked actress working today.
Female Prisoner Scorpion 701 – Or the film that Sucker Punch wanted to be, if Snyder had a single molecule of talent and the strength of his juvenile convictions. If you’re going to make a lurid, exploitative, violent revenge flick then make a fucking lurid, exploitative, violent revenge flick, not some embarrasing insight into your cocaine fuelled, sweaty palmed, adolescent daydreams. Joshuu 701-gô: Sasori on the other hand is the real deal, it’s transgressive (for its period), hallucinogenic, sleazy filth, and that’s why we cult movie weirdos love it so much. If you’re going to have skimpily dressed young women rebelling against their patriarchal oppressors then at least break a few boundaries and disturb some viewers bourgeoise attitudes whilst you’re at it, have these lethal little sirens coquettishly giggle as they disembowel, bisect and behead their persecutors, igniting arching rivulets of their coercers blood to soak their heaving cleavages and cotton white panties, don’t inflict us with some tediously overproduced, steam-punk derived backdrop to your barely concealed girls in uniform fantasies. Actually, Female Prisoner Scorpion isn’t that bad by todays standards, it’s actually quite a good little revenge flick with a bit of lezzing up and some ferocious bursts of action to spice things up, plus it’s a got a great soundtrack (as opposed to pilfering the most pedestrian, sub X-Factor vomit inducing covers of great tracks that Snyder has polluting his ipod) and a genuine, deliriously deranged phantasmagoric flavour that the best of these Japanese genre flicks have in spades. Here’s a trailer as a taster, unfortunately some killjoy has taken down the other clip I had secured, if you’re interested this is the first of a series of four Scorpion movies which all have their own exaggerated and vivid charms.
House Of Bamboo - Snarling Sam Fuller directed this displaced Technicolor film noir back in 1955, it’s the tale of washed-up GI Eddie Kenner (Robert Stack) infiltrating a Tokyo crime syndicate, only to find that fellow American ex-servicemen are behind the shake-downs and packinko protection rackets, all led by the brutally brilliant Robert Ryan. Fuller was always more attuned to those on the margins of society, the criminals and crazies, the hookers and hooked, with his journalistic, surly and cynical newspaperman instincts his is a cinema of tabloid sensation with a worthy purpose – a lost art it seems - wielding his camera as a stiletto blade through the heart of American triumphalism. Godard cast him in Pierrot Le Fou, one of the greatest director cameos in cinema, and House of Bamboo is worth seeing for its set-piece climax atop a rotating Tokyo theme park ride, it’s no surprise to see Spielberg reference the same scene in Minority Report and bonus trivia – Oliver Stone nicked his idea of signalling the start of each take of the riot scenes in Natural Born Killers by discharging a firearm directly from Fullers threatening approach to inspiring his cast on the likes of Fixed Bayonets! Great interview here.
Demon Seed - I realise that on first appearance this is a very strange-looking, almost sexploitation themed movie with the notion of a computer forcibly impregnating a woman in order to realise the next stage in evolution, but beyond its absurd premise and dated SFX this is an extraordinarily prophetic film from 1977 which prefigures the surveillance state and the infiltration of the computer in every facet of 21st century life. Donald Cammell is something of a cinematic Aleister Crowley (speaking of which why hasn’t anyone made a decent bio-pic of his colourful life? That could be amazing) given his interest in the occult, in other dimensions and the psychoactive expansion of ones horizons, and the film reflects many of these arenas through a spiritual techno-fetishist prism, a mirror to the then infant Silicon Valley developments that grew out of the hippie and protest movements of the preceding decade. Proteus IV is spookily voiced by Robert Vaughan and it seems as if HAL has gone suburbanly broody, the film reminds me of one of Bill Gates early predictions that computers would be running our households – opening the curtains at seasonally programmed parts of the day, ordering the milk from sensors in the fridge, running our baths to perfect temperatures – which hasn’t quite yet come to pass but travel on any form of public transport today and show me anyone under the age of 50 who isn’t besotted with some form of electronic device, browsing their twitter feed, clearing their e-mail or playing Angry Birds, and already they are starting to answer back. It’s also amusing to see what these films got wrong – in one word miniaturization - as computers in this period are seen as being powered by enormous hulks of flashing and beeping hardware, rather than the slightly more efficient phone in your pocket or plastic box in your study. Spoiler laden clip here which should give you a flavour of Cammell’s prophecy.
Films for 2012
An epic year is in store, I don’t think we’ve seen such a mouth-watering pentacle of anticipation since I started this blog a shocking five years ago, given the return of three fantastic franchises (well, maybe two but you’ll get where I’m coming from) and a couple of other essential contemporary talents back in multiplexes. Let’s begin with the obvious;
The Dark Knight Rises - Occupy Gotham!! Maybe in the current climate the prospect of an idle billionaire beating up poor people might be a little too much to handle – and don’t get me started on the Ivy League educated denizens of Inception using psychological financial instruments to surreptitiously influence the streams of corporate capital through the application of military technology – seriously, just don’t. Anyway, as someone with a reasonably vibrant movie based twitter feed I’ve seen links to spoiler details and set photos recede off into infinity over the past twelve months, it’s one of the facets of 21st century movie fandom that I find most exasperating as I really do prefer to see the trailer as a first exposure to new projects, but its been simply impossible to evade news of the eight year hiatus between issues two and three, or the frankly shocking photos of Hathaway in costume which still leave me slightly concerned. I did have a bad feeling about this one, I did suspect that Nolan would not be able to evade the dreaded third film of a trilogy syndrome but the six-minute intro attached to Ghost Protocol has allayed some of these concerns, despite the usual choppy editing and I’m afraid those nervous Warner Brother executives are correct (I couldn’t understand a fucking word Bane was saying) this is beginning to look like a worthy successor to The Dark Knight. Speaking of Bane (the villains are far more interesting than the hero, right?) he’s still an alien concept to me, he made his debut after I’d stopped reading comics regularly and just to be a grouchy old man I would still prefer to see an updated take on the Penguin or the Riddler given how successful and now iconic Ledgers portrayal of the clown prince of crime was back in 2009, then again that prologue seems to promise a worthy nemesis for the concluding meridian of a fantastic series of films. Here’s a nice little appreciation of Nolan which teases out some of his visual anaphora, July 2012 can’t arrive quickly enough;
So from one mega franchise to another;
The Hobbit - Another catastrophic shock I’m sure, this hardcore Tolkien nerd might just be a little, just a little excited about Jackson’s delayed return to Middle Earth, given the torturous and prolonged production history its a little bizarre to see that these films exist at all. I’m still a little hesitant about some of the casting decisions but the Kiwi did us proud with the trilogy, it would have been nice to see some Mirkwood spiders or just maybe a glimpse of Smaug in that trailer although I concede that said material has probably not been captured yet - 10 to 1 the first film ends with the first appearance of that scourge of the frigid north. I’m sure I’d be a bit more up to speed if I’d seen some of the background video blogs but I’m pulling an epic embargo on this one, nevertheless the news that the two films will be padded with the broader details of the epic legendarium has been absorbed and excitedly received. Quite apart from the source material this will also be fascinating from a technical, industrial standpoint given the extensive use of the state of the art red cameras and the 48 frames per second photographic ratio – which will bleed into Avatar 2 & 3′s dimensions - this quest is therefore unmissable on every level. It can’t be worse than this.
Prometheus – It’s the soundtrack, stupid. It’s not often but sometimes a trailer can literally make the hairs stand on end, I fully agree that Ridley has been churning out sub-par material since his so-called regeneration with Gladiator back in 2000 but sometimes the stars come into alignment and a visually brilliant director secures material that might just assimilate perfectly with his overwhelming strengths. The echoes that this has with the original trailer are incendiary, that howling score is simply phenomenal and the texture and design looks stunning. A terrific looking cast, one of the worlds finest visual stylists in the cockpit, plenty of references and echoes to the original films to keep us nerds happy – it’s certainly in the same universe as Weyland-Yutani logos are all over that trailer - and heck, just the prospect of a Sir Ridley film in 3D is enough to get my money, and just who is that guy on the right?*
Gravity - We SF fans are in for another supernova treat as Cuarón’s galactically ambitious new project wrapped principal photography this year, this has a November 2012 release date to spend a whole year on SFX development, including an opening 20 minute single take sequence which could make the single fragments of Children Of Men seem primitive in comparison. Any director taking on a big, ambitious SF movie obviously hits my radar but this could really be something else, with George Clooney and Sandra Bullock the only actors in the piece I’m intrigued at what the film’s premise might be – I’m sure it’s out there on the web but again I’ll just wait for the trailer. It’s obviously partial marketing guff from Cuarón’s best mate Del Toro but his claims that the film ’is pushing a new boundary in film-making’ raises my eyebrows, mark my words 2012 is going to be quite a year for technical innovation across the board.
The Master - Any new Paul Thomas Anderson project prompts immediate jubilation and this plot summary – ‘After witnessing the horrors of World War II, a man (Hoffman) returns home to rediscover who he is in post-war America. He creates a belief system that catches on with other lost souls’ – fills me with deistic joy. I’ve been fascinated, as in repulsed, by Scientology for many years and anyone willing to kinda take them on given their litigious impulses gets an immediate gold star, when it’s one of the finest directors working today behind the subversive assault then even I’ll sing hallelujah! It fits neatly into Anderson’s career long analysis of West Coast American culture and history, and as expected a densely heavyweight cast – Phil Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Laura Dern - promises an acting treat if nothing else . The news that Anderson abandoned initial rehearsals earlier in the year before approaching the project from a different angle casts a potential shadow, one hopes he’s found his mojo for one of the most eagerly anticipated projects of the year. I’ve also just heard that Johnny Greenwood is back for scoring duties which is also fantastic news, I just hope he doesn’t get crucified for not necessarily racking up against Blood which is still considered one of the finest films of the young century.
In terms of genre material the paddock has a number of potential thoroughbreds nervously cantering around the compound, waiting to stretch their legs, in no particular order I’m looking forward to World War Z – Yeah, yeah, I know, I’m fairly tired of zombies as a cultural trope which seems to intensify and not diminish over the past few years, and revelations such as this have got the internets in full-blown spittle flecked invective, but it still could be an intriguing take on the inevitable undead apocalypse, anyone who’s read the source book understands that this could be great. Iron Sky could also be fun – as long as Snyder hasn’t killed any appetite for steampunk Nazis - the sight of Udo Kier (whom I forgot to mention was hilarious in Melancholia) means that die zungen is thrust firmly in the wange, and whether you worship or loathe Tarantino (I’m somewhere in the middle) Django Unchained promises to be an event just like every one of his pictures. Soderbergh goes Haywire, The Innkeepers finally rents a room, The Divide has got some praise and of course a new Haneke and Audiard will be slightly more hilarious, heartwarming fare. I try not to be too negative on the blog, hence the lack of redundant exercises such as ‘the top five worst films of the year’ but I have to say that both Spiderman and Judge Dredd leave me permafrost arctic cold, but I suppose if it’s a slow weekend and there is nothing else around I may pay them a visit and Dark Shadows doesn’t punch my buttons, although the presence of Eva Green, Helena Bonham Carter and Michelle Pfeiffer in the same film with Burton’s gothic visuals is sure to invoke the same flushing swoon as a Victorian glimpse of a naked female ankle in some quarters.
The herculean efforts I made on the London Film Festival, a combined total of 19 reviews which I feel represent my best collective effort thus far hopefully means that I’m a little more embedded in my press credentials for next year, I really hope I manage to get a pass for Sundance London as that’s sure to be a big deal amongst the capitals celluloid community. I appeared on my first podcast (I’m simply too embarrassed and loathe the sound of my voice too much to ever listen to that) so now that the dust has settled let’s see what coverage I can lever in the new year, I’m also aiming for the London SF Film festival, (day-job schedule permitting), I’ll be retrospectively reviewing Leone’s dollars quartet, the BFI are hosting a David Lynch season in February - why couldn’t you programme at least one screening of The Elephant Man in NFT1 Southbank people? – and a certain punk masterpiece is getting a limited re-release around the same time – shrimptastic. So that’s that, thanks for playing, I normally close these posts with a nice montage or look back at past achievements, this year let me revisit the most awe-inspiring and magnificent sequence of cinema I’ve seen in years, proof positive that the medium is as vibrant and astonishing as it has been over the past century and change, as the great Stanley K said ‘if it can be written or thought, you can film it’;
*Asterixed for potential spoiler carnage, if you’re interested then look here.
Literary adaptations can be difficult beasts to navigate. On the one hand studios love them, realising that they are buying into a pre-existing, previously attuned audience who evidently liked the tale enough to buy the property in droves in dead tree or kindle format, thus guaranteeing some modicum of financial return. The flip-side of this of course is getting the adaptation wrong in the eyes of the consumers, of visually realising characters and settings that will sit differently with the mental images of the properties fans, with the inevitable backlash and internet discussion board rage that such mis-steps can engender. Things get even more complicated when the American adaptation follows an existing and well-regarded foreign film, with conceited critics such as yours truly lamenting cinema-goers supposed antipathy to subtitles and the whole homogeneous Hollywood sensibility to proceedings – a three act structure, diluted sex and sexual themes, star wattage dominating characterisations - all of which leads us to this weeks release of David Finchers version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, a project that roars into multiplexes a mere two years after the Swedish language adaption of 2009, a rare instance of Hollywood excelling the original with a far superior transition from page to screen for reasons I’ll get into shortly. I quite liked the original film which I did take the time to see at the flicks, it was always going to have a head start with me as I’m an easy mark for blood-spattered procedural pictures, and the original source text has a strong, compelling and well crafted mystery at its core . The issue I have with the original is that it wasn’t particularly cinematic, it and its increasingly inferior two sequels provided diminishing returns that have a constitution of an above average TV movie with perfunctory attention played to core cinematic components such as the photography, the score or production designs, but to be fair a $100 million budget would tend to attract a higher calibre of craftsmanship to any of these essential ingredients. The 2011 version still has its problems – screenwriter Steven Zaillian quite clearly couldn’t evade some difficulties with structure as the languid twists and turns of a novel are compressed and distorted to slot into the cinema template, but for the most part this is a terrific film, a smart, thrilling, electric journey into a heart of darkness, like the recent Mission Impossible installment when you marry the correct talents with the right projects Hollywood can still deliver hugely entertaining and visceral results.
Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig, never better) is a Stockholm based investigative journalist who has just lost a crucial libel case against billionaire industrialist Hans-Erik Wennerström, a figure whom has cleared been modeled on the strutting media plumage of Wikileaks Julian Assange. Desiring to avoid the attendant media hoopla Blomkvist is summoned to the home of another powerful capitalist, Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) whose populous and twisted family history and commercial activities bleed into the founding of the modern Swedish state. Henrik wants to solve a mystery before he departs this mortal coil, to uncover the fate of his niece Harriet who disappeared from the families isolated island compound forty years ago, and promises not only financial remuneration to a now bankrupt Blomkvist but also deeper secrets and submerged transgressions that will enable him to repair his tattered professional reputation and ensure that Wennerström receives justice. Enter Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), a fractured hacker goth-punk savant with little in the way of social mores, after her elderly guardian suffers a stroke her new ward Bjurman (Yorick Can Wageningen) is soon revealed as a sickening rapist, blackmailing her for sexual favours in return to access to her own financial inheritance, the horrendous escalation of which leading to one scene which has to be one of the most uncomfortable sequences in any $100 million production for quite some time. After Blomkvist requests the services of a research assistant from Vanger’s lawyer Frode (Stephen Berkoff) he suggests Salander as a talented candidate, and soon the duo’s investigation into the poisonous Vanger clan unearths a litany of vicious violence and sexual abuse, with a number of potential culprits behind Harriet’s potential murder….
The tagline boasts the claim of ‘the feel-bad movie of Christmas’ and I couldn’t agree more, this is a Siberian vision of human relations mediated by commerce and pathological cruelty, where the wealthy and corrupt wield their unimpeachable power with sickening results in a diamond fibrous procedural thriller. It’s a film of process and forensic fidelity as these wounded characters navigate a cosmos which would have Nietzsche fumbling for the prozac, often brutally violent this is an adult film made for an adult audience, occasionally distressing but appropriately so, as it pulls no punches in a grim portrait of the men who hate women. Noomi Rapace’s portrayal of Lisbeth received widespread acclaim from the original film in a justifiably memorable performance, but Rooney Mara is equally brilliant in her slightly softened but no less beguiling portrayal of a terrific character, and it is her experiences and arc that forms the spine of the film which is a welcome alternative from the patriarchal bend of most American fare. Craig is excellent as the flawed yet perceptive newshound, and an admirable parade of strong character actors – Joely Richardson, Stellan Skarsgård, Robin Wright, Geraldine James - all raise questions and suspicions around their masked behaviour. It took me a few seconds to place him but the film also boasts the much maligned Julian Sands as a young Henrik in the flashback scenes, so this is a great movie with Julian Sands in it - was someone having a little joke involving another film about men possessing women?
As you’d expect from a Fincher movie the visual texture is a joy to behold, with frosty whites clashing with dense, inky blacks and a distinctly chilly and austere production design, it has an unforgiving, razor-edge mephitic gleam to events, conflicts and developments, a hyperborean viewing experience that will have you reaching for a cardigan. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross arrange yet another discrete, throbbing and crackling electronica score which surreptitiously signals a pervading sense of dire apprehension, a seething ambience that is brilliantly assaulted with the introduction of the most incongruous of choices – Enya’s new age feely Orinoco Flow – in a core moment in the heart of darkness, it’s almost up there with the close of Fight Club and was apparently suggested by Craig on set in a moment of near genius*. Treachery, blackmail, violence and misogyny swirl in the miasma of the film, and even our supposed heroes are deeply flawed human beings, Blomqvist for example clearly has his issues with his narcissistic conduct with the fairer sex and Lisbeth isn’t exactly marriage material that you’d bring home to meet Mum and Dad over Christmas dinner.
Tiptoeing round specifics to avoid potential spoilers I’ll just say that a certain confrontation is devilishly orchestrated and implacably played by a genuinely chilling villain, and a final emotional resolution was genuinely moving, two qualities that for me were absent from the Swedish language version, the latter being the controversial change to the source text which is far more fulfilling, giving the whole enterprise a satisfying closure. From that triumph however springs one of the problems with the film which I assume was deeply embedded in the core novel, as an earlier plot strand is revisited in a lengthy 20 minute finale which feels muted and superfluous after the main thread has been concluded, on reflection it does deepen some of the core themes and in particular Lisbeth’s character trajectory, but it did disrupt the pacing and kinda threw the whole algorithm of the film out of pitch for me. Nevertheless this is a dark vision of human relations that fits neatly into Fincher’s bleak nebula, the procedural processes and investigations that we saw him master in Zodiac and Seven continue to dazzle through masterfully composed montages and reveals, as a loose trilogy it will no doubt generate further appreciation of one of the most consistently brilliant American directors working today. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is amongst the 1% of American film-making, with a consummate intelligence and voltaic style, I can’t imagine a better way to end the year so here’s the eight minute overview and with echoes of this it also has the years most paralysing title sequence – turn it up;
*Apparently this suggestion had the cast and crew literally stumbling around the set in hysterics, these are clearly people who share my sense of humor.
Like a premature ejaculation suffering Santa these seem to come earlier and earlier each year, yes it’s time for the Annual Round-Up Of The Year Movie Montage® and this year’s is a cracker;
I do wonder who puts these together – bored Final Cut pro acolytes or semi-professional editors looking to expand their showreel? – either way they’re pretty damn good fun and usually remind me of the films I’ve totally overlooked in the run-up to my annual films of the year super-post. It’s also further whetted my appetite for Dragon Tattoo which I’ll be catching in foreign climes, in fact it’s quite nice to see the light at the end of the tunnel as far as reviews go as with the exception of Hugo which I saw last night those last two posts are gonna be my last major contributions of the year – sorry Another Earth, I’ll see you on Blu-Ray. Speaking of reviews here is the background and here is the latest controversy sparking piece, I’ve not read the latter but I understand it gives a positive spin, a bleak and glacial close to another year of movies.
Jolly excited about revisiting this over the weekend, it’s a strange 1970’s SF from a genuinely cult director – Donald Cammell – who only made a handful of unique films before sticking a slug in his skull back in 1996, reputedly due to studio interference with his final film Wild Side. I always remember Demon Seed being a very odd SF fable which seems prescient in relation to some recent rumour and innuendo;
Self aware machines, can’t wait for that singularity to be reached eh? Either that or the melting ice caps will get us first, so don’t fret. Way before the Terminator movies you had a whole ‘technology gone astray’ sub-genre in the likes of Westworld or Clonus (cloned politicians? god help us all) and my personal favourite Colossus: the Forbin Project, a staple of post school BBC2 mid-week viewing. In other news, after many, many years I finally got round to seeing one of the Andy Warhol horror adaptations this week, it was fairly interesting to see with a particularly amusing ending, but not really my cup of tea – a bit too camp. I prefer abominations such as this which I’ve also got on the viewing list for the weekend, with a title like that how can I go wrong?
Here’s David looking back to his earlier lunacy in a trailer he was commissioned to make for the Vienna film festival this year;
It’s been interesting to read that amongst the international critics that a lot of the British fare that got glowing applauds this year from the indigenous and American press have been shunned by continental Europe at ‘second tier’ festivals like this, with the likes of We Need To Talk About Kevin, Wuthering Heights and Shame getting the cold shoulder, according to some of the reportage in this months Sight & Sound. In response they have just published their films of the year list, a collation from contributors votes from around the world, which seems reflected in a global scope of nominees and probably stands as the first time I’ve actually heard of all the winners, even if I haven’t seen them all – 6 out of 11 this year which ain’t bad.
After that dark and brooding take on Australian psychopaths let’s have some amusement to raise the spirits, I’m not usually one for tiresome nostalgia trawls but I must share this;
….so I can share this cluster of unmitigated, concentrated, sweded awesome;
Now there’s a kids TV show that would benefit from a 3D CGI heavy update. Speaking of kids stuff Hugo has been getting some amazing nods from the summaries I’ve skim read – one doesn’t read reviews until they’ve seen the film and one has collected ones own thoughts – but it looks like it’s visually dazzling and has a lot of submerged film nerd details to munch on. I’m really looking to forward to this now, thank god that horrendous trailer doesn’t (allegedly) reflect the final movie. We shall see….
I know, I know, it’s been quiet around here recently. Well, I and colleagues are in the midst of a critical period at work which has involved some precarious negotiations (and the attendant long hours), more importantly this came out at the weekend and I am thoroughly addicted;
I haven’t got my teeth into an utterly riveting, sandbox game since Red Dead Redemption but Skyrim is another injection of digital heroin that can easily absorb a couple of ten-hour sessions over a weekend, especially given the increasingly ominous weather which posits an outside sojourn as tenuous at best. This comes at an interesting time in terms of my reviewing commitments, I do have a couple of things in the pipeline, I’ve just revised a previous review, I did manage to drag myself away from the console to see Snowtown last weekend ( I hesitate to use the word ‘good’ but its an assured piece of work) and I also have the BFI Halloween trilogy to finish. I kind of wish it was a quieter time of year if I’m honest, I didn’t manage to see this, this is out this coming weekend and is supposed to be terrific then Hugo is out the week after then a certain prequel hits the week after that – gimme a break, huh? Still, Christmas beckons and I’m definitely going away again, I just need to confirm if I’m jetting East or West out of the country come mid- December. In the interim you may recall I expressed surprise at some audio of Stanley discussing The Shining being broadcast on Movie Geeks United, well they actually got in touch and gave me a welcome referral;
Thanks guys, plenty of YT links to follow from that – it looks like a new Italian documentary is out there in the wild and must be acquired. Anyway, I’ll be back before the end of the week with another review. Promise. As long as I’m not tempted to just watch the world go by;
Let me be upfront about this gentle reader, I tried my best to approach Alien Resurrection with an open mind, I really did. I’ve seen the film maybe once since its initial cinema outing in 1997 and I distinctly remember feeling sorely cheated and throughly unimpressed on first absorption, in particular the terrible iteration of the titular creature toward the end of the film heralding a rock bottom low in the DNA of the franchise. After the lacklustre critical reaction and more crucially the sharp decline in box office returns mustered byAlien 3 I had to give the producers some kudos for what on paper this could have been an interesting direction for the series, committed as they were to a hot new genre writer – Joss Whedon* – and retaining a solid commitment to visually arresting helmsmen, in this case the Gallic provocateur Jean-Pierre Jeunet who was a hot property after the success of Delicatessen and his follow-up The City Of Lost Children. Sigourney was lured back with a lucrative cheque and a genre attuned cast was assembled (no pun intended), including the likes of Ron Perlman, Dan ‘Wolfman’ Hedaya and Brad Dourif, not to mention the surprise casting of Winona Ryder whose star has waned somewhat over the past 15 years, but in 1997 she was at the height of her geek seducing powers – witness the equal billing on the poster. But where did it all go so wrong?
To continue the rigorous compliance of this pet project I opted again for the directors cut of the film and this was the first time I’d ingested it, and boy did that not improve the experience. These iterations of a movie can pollinate new facets and ideas that the filmmakers originally had, it can provide insights into abandoned concepts or deepen the thematic concerns of a vision hampered by time and budgetary constraints, in the case of Alien Resurrection I have to say that this version is ever worse that the standard cut, with an unnecessarily tacked on holocaust earth ending – complete with cliché abandoned world-famous landmarks – redundant, immaterial inserts to existing scenes and a horrible, sub-par direct to DVD opening which is a cheaper than a pound shop discount sale. Like Ripley I think I must regard myself as something of a survivor after clambering through roughly fifteen hours of documentaries, featurettes and interviews throughout the whole gnashing quadrilogy , and as per the hosts pedigree the quality of those elements for Resurrection is also inferior, with not a great deal of insight into the projects genesis, evolution or expulsion, apart from one lengthy piece on the construction of perhaps the films only really successful flourish – but we’ll come back to that.
I’ll start with some its strengths before we descend to the brimstone depths, as you’d expect from Jeunet the film does have an dementedly quirky, loose and breezy future steam-punk aesthetic which is nervously captured by the glutinous photography of DP Darius Khonji, it brings to mind the Victorian stylistics of a diluted Jules Verne funnelled through the clockwork, metronome beats that Jeunet excels at with his humorous, distinctive montage flourishes. The use of distorting, wide angled lenses also betrays an instinctive grasp of the hybrid genre and its visual grammar, with the hexagonal corridors being probed by a prowling camera, and the tempered design does seem to acknowledge a future world that has advanced beyond in years beyond the designs of Alien III. There is also one sequence that I’d mark out for distinction, the underwater chase at the start of Act 3 gives the xenomorphic critters a new environment to infect and the introduction of the membrane covered ‘air pocket flanked by eggs’ set piece is a nice touch, the sequence also has a historical element in that it’s probably one of the last pre-CGI physical element shoots with real actors, actress and stunt-people in a genuine multi-million gallon water tank – more here – before the digital specialists came in and made the Health and Safety executives happy and the aquatic celluloid daredevils out of work. Titanic was to come two years later of course but I’m guessing that that behemoth was the near swan song of such practical expertise, as the new decade ushered in the CGI revolution. Consequently the chase and frenzied scramble up to safety has an aura of weight and dread in its execution, and marks the only really exciting thrill packed contraction of the movie – I’d provide a link but there is sod all permitted excerpts on the YT I’m afraid. The aliens sacrificing themselves to escape via their acidic blooded shows some intelligence and the early montage of Ripley’s clone moving from chrysalis to birth is also paced and scored well, but that’s about it.
The major problems in Alien Resurrection boil down to those usual ingredients that always prove so elusive to secure in a qualitative sense – characters, plot and narrative. The group dynamics that Whedon seemed to excel at in Buffy, Firefly and Angel are absent here, with a rag-tag crew bereft of amusing quips, compelling attributes or any sense of a measured group ensemble although I guess some of them have some unique weapons if that’s your sort of thing. There are no definitive stakes at play as the anti-heroes meet their fate, a problem mirrored with the corporation crew who are unsympathetic corporate drones, not even a leaden Winona can save proceedings who is so obviously (gasp!) an android from the opening frames that you wonder why they bothered as this human / alien function of the milieu is not explored. This is compounded by the films biggest problem, the explanation and inflection of Ripley as an Alien chromosome clone, thus rendering her as an aloof super heroine with no empathy emanating from the screen – you don’t care she’s back, neither does she, and there is no character arc. I appreciate that after jumping into a molten industrial smelter in Alien III the scriptwriting department would face some significant problems terms of convincingly resurrecting her, but apart from some time travel machinations I can’t think of a more lazily inspired solution other than ‘err, she’s a clone?’ spit-balled solution. Clumsy, unironic dialogue exchanges along the quality of ‘Don’t make me do this?’ to which the retort is ‘Don’t make me make you do this?’ doesn’t exactly help matters.
The film evidently had some problems when Jeunet was brought aboard as the budget was incrementally shaved leading to the loss of some potentially imaginative scenes (a fight through an Silent Running inspired eco-dome, that opening pull-back montage that lightly mocks the likes the SF ‘epic’ pomposity of the Star Wars opening for example) but if the production wasn’t slightly curtailed and improvised solutions weren’t executed on the spot then it wouldn’t really be an Aliens film now would it? In simple, direct terms the twisted elegance, the sleek style and visceral bite of the first two movies, taken on either a pure horror or action movies basis is sorely lacking in Alien Resurrection. It’s the same breathless meander through a smoke choked bulkheads with characters we care nothing about, there are no new thematic threads to follow and even simple inversions like the ship’s computer gender switch from ‘Mother’ to ‘Father’ seem forced and lazy. The film has the ambience of standard fare SF studio films like Event Horizon or any Stallone or Schwarzenegger tent-pole piece of the Nineties, with no alien habitat to explore and the same dark chases through bulkheads and strobe lit corridors is just so tired by 1997, but then as the film moves out of its second act chase structure and accelerates up to the final dénouement on the escape ship we finally see the real stupidity on offer. There is no real contextually, the narrative is not taken into any particularly new thematic territory concerning parental fears, sex and death, birth and pregnancy or any other strand you can extrapolate from the other franchise entries, what we get in Alien Resurrection is some reborn alien ‘daughter’ of Ripley which looks terrible, in a plot strand not even activated until into deep into the film, which subsequently concludes on a shoddy anticlimax containing the worst prosthetics of the series – whoever signed off that final creature design needs to take a one way jaunt through the nearest airlock. Yuck.
So that’s that, I can finally wash my hands of all this gelatinous slimy detritus and move onto pastures new for 2012, it’s not so much that I disliked Alien Resurrection its more that I was very very disappointed, like a harassed parent scolding an itinerant runt. Jeunet was potentially a great choice – Danny Boyle was also on the shortlist at one point which could have been interesting – but he doesn’t seem to care in the final product or the numerous featurettes on the disks, when you consider that some of Mobius designs informed the genesis of the project it could have come a full gallic circle but here we are. Still, in terms of one of the best Blu-Ray box sets out there I can’t recommend the Quadrilogy enough, two terrific films and exemplars of the genre, two mis-steps with some intriguing elements, and an overwhelming background of DNA to each of the episodes incubations, insertions and explosions which should keep even the most ravenous cinephile sated. On a final charming note I have to say that Producer David Giler come across as a total fucktard throughout all eight hours of background material - I’m annoyed to see him on the credits of Prometheus I have to say - but let’s hope that Ridley’s return to the SF genre matches the lofty expectations, more on this with the annual round-up and look forward to next years potential cinematic treats. Speaking of which what’s next years side project I hear you ask? Well, I’ve mulled over a few potential series for 2012, I even got a request to do the Three Colours Trilogy which has been superseded by this, but I always had a pockmarked ace up my sleeve, all together now ‘WHAAH A WHAAH A WHAAH -WUR WA WA….’
*I quite like Joss Whedon and he has his acolytes, but when people talk of The Avengers naturally being brilliant because he’s occupying the directors chair they really need to take another look at this runt.
Based on the game, this short film is doing the rounds and I was pretty impressed;
Walkthrough here – I think I might buy this game.
Oh man, talk about getting the week off to a good start. I know I should save this until the prequel or whatever it is deforms screens in October, but this is just too good not to share and besides I’ve already assimilated some chilling links to share with you in that upcoming review. Today we’re going to digest a detailed and reasonably convincing analysis of one of my favourite film dénouements;
There is a simple trick there, to keep the ending ‘open’ and prompt speculation and debate decades after its initial release, (Inception anyone?) I must have seen this film twenty, thirty times over the years and I’d never noticed the different jackets or the keys – this guy is pretty damn observant. Now of course these can be attributed to mere continuity errors and genuine mistakes which the former may well be, but isn’t that half the fun sometimes, when the inconsistencies actually interact with and enrich a film’s ambiguous qualities? It might be over thinking and attributing designs that weren’t originally intended, but heck that’s what we movie lovers enjoying doing, sometimes it’s more fun that watching the film again in some cases….
So what would you do in MacReady’s situation then? You’d have to torch Childs right? Just to be sure? Either that or you’re running the risk of civilisation falling and your comrade’s deaths being for nothing, I mean you’re both going to freeze to death anyway, whether he’s human or not his fate is sealed. So, you know, you get to spend the last moments of your life freezing to death with the haunting realisation that you’ve just immolated a perfectly fine, heroic colleague, or you save civilisation but the investigative team will probably conclude that you went postal and torched your colleagues, then the camp – now that’s horrific….