Hmmm. I was born in Woolwich y’know, although my family moved to East Anglia when I was a few months old, so I don’t really have any emotional connection to the place. Nevertheless yesterday’s events are quite odd to behold as a Londoner, and the inevitable groups across the political spectrum exploiting the murder is truly nauseating, so I could do with a bit of laugh this morning – this did the rounds a couple of weeks ago but it still makes me chuckle, eat your fucking cereal Ryan;
I wonder if Rodriguez is holding emergency marketing talks ahead of the release of his sequel?
Sick of the summer stupidity yet? Tired of tedious comic book movies aimed squarely at the attention deficit afflicted youth market quadrant? Do you yearn for a film, as opposed to a movie, which doesn’t have a number in the title or ten minutes of end title crawl listing enough CGI rendering agents to populate a virtual village? Then come with me gentle reader as we plunge into the fathomless deep waters of art-house pretension, as a palette cleanser to all the blockbuster bombast I can’t imagine a more diametrically opposite strain of cinematic communication than the austere alchemy of Robert Bresson, one of the most impassively displaced filmmakers to ever freeze the silver screen. Bresson is perhaps best known for his two films A Man Escaped and Pickpocket whose sparsely arranged, emotionally neutered dimensions often find themselves as prime examples of economic storytelling on a film art syllabus, as the ultimate practitioner of how information can be imparted to an audience with the absolute molecular minimum of information or inference. His films are almost wilfully obtuse and alienating, all emotion and empathy is quite deliberately parsed away by techniques I will get into shortly, but for context let me explain that we’ll be looking at L’Argent which was his final film from 1983, his 13th feature in a forty-year career which incidentally mirrors Kubrick’s final tally – there are many connections between the two. This rare screening as part of the Monday night film programme of education known as Passport To Cinema is one of the central strands of BFI support of London’s film students, screening a broad spectrum of material across genre and country, era and style, presumably to give them as wide an appreciation of the form to draw upon for their pieces and dissertations. As my fellow audience members shuffled out of NFT2 after this brisk 80 minute screening the overall mood was of quiet shell-shock, as this rather draining piece is quite a demanding watch.
The plot, if you can honestly call it that is based on Tolstoy’s short story The Forged Coupon, updating the social and cultural environment from 19th century tsarist Russia to modern nation-state European capitalism. A young, unnamed man receives his allowance from his father, and requests funds from his mother when he explains he has a debt at school to fulfil – both parents dismiss his entreaty to exceed his fiscal allocation. In exchange for a forged 500 franc note the man pawns his watch, which he then exchanges in a Parisian retail shop for a modest picture frame. Once the subterfuge is discover the shop owner scolds the retail assistant, and instructs her to pass on the note to the next appropriate customer, which just happens to be the doomed Yvon, a blue-collar worker with a young wife and child. Retiring for lunch Yvon tries to pay a restaurant tab with the unknown to him forged note, but a eagle-eyed waiter spots the counterfeit and calls the gendarmes. Yvon is arrested, but avoids a custodial sentence due to his previous good character; nevertheless his loses his job. Desperate and facing destitution with mouths to feed he makes a fateful decision and acts as the get-away car driver for a friend’s bank robbery. The robbery is a failure and Yvon captured and sentenced to three years, due to his previous interaction with the authorities. During his incarceration his daughter dies and his wife writes to him that she is leaving him to start a new life. Then things start to get worse……
If that summary of the plot sounds mechanistic and reduced to the facts then that’s my intent, as this is exactly how the plot mechanics of this deeply pessimistic film unravel, with the elegant perfection of a swiss watch’s relentless movements it charts with an intergalactic weight of dispassion just how one quirk of fate can obliterate a life. A lot of critics and commentators find Bresson an obstinate, implacable cliff face to navigate, his utter disregard to trade in emotion or even a social or political credo can be deeply divisive in that all elusive search for meaning amongst form, but I love this style of filmmaking where the various elements are manipulated in perfect concert to build a deeply affecting, distressing and yes I’ll go there depressing diatribe at modern dianetics, where the systems and processes of civilisation have come to overwhelm their originators, truly the lunatics have taken over the asylum. Bresson always utilised non-professional actors – the sobriquet of ‘acting’ being one he abhorred – whom he termed as his ‘models’, manipulating them like some perfectionist puppet master to be the marionettes of his frigid passion-plays, divorced of emotion, bereft of sentiment. His collaborators were instructed to repeat the sparse dialogue, twenty, thirty, even forty times until every molecule of emotion had been obliterated from the line reading, its no wonder that the vast majority of his models never went to appear in other films, such was the trauma of their experience. The narrative has the economy of a 21st century high-end gadget instruction manual, developments and points are illustrated with the bare lip service of sequential convention, for example in L’Argent a double murder, surely an enormously dramatic and potentially powerful sequence is parsed down to one shot, of a figure washing his hands in the sink as the water runs red. A breathless, nail-biting jailbreak is signalled with a light curling under a cell door, and the distant sounds of movement and friction. This rejection of the normative functions of shot reverse shot & continuity editing, the wholesale ignorance of character depth or development through dialogue and performance push Bresson’s cinema into densely metaphoric realms, the absence of those grips on which to purchase a translation of the film cause the emphasis to alight from the normative to the transformative, as we begin to coalesce what Bresson is actually concerned with – this is the world as it stands parsed back to reveal its true functions and dimensions, and it is inhuman and nubilously ugly.
We were warned beforehand that the print was somewhat distressed but it wasn’t as bad as I anticipated, as usual around the regular reel changes the image could jump and become misaligned to the axis but this wasn’t too jarring, and the films cavernous lack of a soundtrack wasn’t interfered with by any hissing or scratchy glitched transitions, usually it’s the interruption of the soundtrack or clipping the dialogue that can throw you out of the picture with these retrospective screenings, but Bresson’s sparse aesthetics are immune even to the inevitable decay of photo-chemical film stock it seems. When I first saw the film on BBC2 back in those crazy days when the Beeb used to transmit art-house fare I remember being somewhat mystified at the concrete tone and ruthless frugality of the film, this was probably one of my first exposures to such relentless arrangements of form and structure, and then the final sequence arrived and I experienced a palpable rush of blood to the celluloid head with this extraordinary arrangement, like Roy Batty’s tear swept speech or Marlon’s mumbling ’the horror’ this has been indelibly etched on my memory;
Pure, unadulterated existential terror, no lurid sweeping gaze at oozing entrails or the glassy-eyed visages of the recently expired, no weapons lunging into fractured flesh or crescending screams cut short, just a calm reportage of fragments of the event, as Yvon executes his family without any rhyme or reason, other than for the cold, detached and unstoppable march of acquisition and commerce. Butchered for their money the sequence appropriates the ruthless rhythms of capitalism, the howl and turn of the turbine, the eternal crawl of the production line, the mechanical cosmetics of that illusion which allegedly makes the world go round, dwarfing any alternate tenet of a shared humanism or spiritual succor. I remember audibly gasping at the cut to the bodies clustered at the top of the stairs, that sound all the more amplified as barring one brief sequence of Bach which a character plays on a piano L’Argent has no non-diagetic music whatsoever, it plays to the rhythms of real life with distant hums and echoes of activity, as the automatons walk through the motions of Bresson’s reformation fresco’s.
Throughout the film compositions are framed around entrances and exits, doorways and alleyways, cells and shops, in broad cinematic language these structures are a potent signifier of transition, of development and movement as characters egress from one scene to another through the cinematic space, driving the narrative and plot forward through a sequential process of physical displacement. Bresson perverts these conventions with a perturbing precision, through unconventional pacing a curious effect happens as the camera frequently holds the shot and lingers with a strange curiosity on these points of entry and exit long after the ‘model’ has departed the frame. It’s difficult to grasp what purpose Bresson as driving at with this glitched chronology but I will say it incrementally builds an intangible, formless anxiety which is really quite strange to behold, why are we looking at this? Why is he cultivating this vandalised canter? When absorbed in conjunction with the command of the other cinematic tools – the void of diagetic music cues, the obliteration of character and empathy – the physical space has become prime real estate, emotional or humanist discourse reduced to the simple and unimpeachable act of the transaction, the exchange, the barter. Cinema, or more specifically Film is fundamentally an industrial process, chemical solutions reacting to light, whirring gears and peering lenses, time and space sculpted and frozen in time, and Bresson’s figurines moving through that manufactured and constructed space at a formal level bridge half constructed thoughts of how the world is, how our society functions at its more abstract definitions, with an inhuman symmetry to the enlightenment virtues of scientific rigour and progress, of rational reasoning – and crucially what has been lost.
That’s not to say that the film is working any overt political or social manifesto, what makes this scale the highest pantheon of art-cinema is its operating above such tangible concerns, as the Communists embraced cinema as propaganda through the building blocks of montage, or the Americans seduced the masses through form as commerce, Bresson espouses his strict Catholicism through his clandestine formalism, with a hint of redemption and a paradise beyond the veil of tangible earthly temptations. Some critics have sensed a transcendence at the film’s climax which you can see here, I can’t say I see it myself as Yvon’s confession merely completes the circle to the inferno which was set in motion with that initial plea for commerce, as the film unceremoniously guillotines to black with no credits, a genius stroke which crowns a severe, his forty-year career. It’s the cutting from abstract forms and shapes to another shared symbol of our experience – from feet and hands, from tools and instruments – these functions severed from the body, isolated as mere corollaries as cause and effect supplant faith and charity. None of the ‘models’ obtains a single close-up as the machinery of civilisation is favoured by the implacable camera, the blood greasing the yield, as money, documents, tills, contracts and various media are presented with a solemnity evocative of a 15th century ascension triptych, our new figures of worship and power replacing the divine with the decimal. It may feel at times like being lectured by a particularly stern Marxist theologian and its obvious that Bresson is a progenitor of more recent world cinema figures such as Haneke or Bela Tarr, they share an absolute steeled command of cinematic language, a devoted sparseness of performance, an almost insulting disregard for the conventions of audience sympathy and comfort. For me it’s within these eyries that true masterpieces are formed, and that marriage of rigid formalism and technique elevates material to the rapturous, with a total disinterest in the social conditioning that can drive a man to ruin and barbarism through one malfunction of the capitalist machine L’Argent is nothing less than a macro level lecture on the disease of modern life, a sermon for the sacred over the secular. If all cinema is alienation, a rejection of reality in two-dimensional space, then Bresson is its most sanctified curate, the Archdiocese of apostasy;
*For you real completests I’ve just found this, his 1971 film which has never been released on VHS or DVD due to complex right issues, a film I’m sure will fill a long Bank Holiday weekend with mirth and joy? Yes, yes I am kidding – I’ve bookmarked that for later. So I’m off down to the South Coast myself for a well-earned break, consequently things should get a little quiet around here until next week, in the meantime doesn’t this sound particularly promising?
Can Ben Wheatley, one of the rising hopes of British cult cinema go three for three after the brutal charm of Kill List and Sightseers with his new picture? Here’s our first chance to decide;
I’ll obey the masters cat ‘o’ nine tails and keep quiet for my full review as obviously this is on my ‘Kill-List’, but a couple of years ago Sight & Sound published a retrospective article which was devoted to that weird little sub-culture of British cinema which revolves around our bloody pagan roots, citing movies such as The Wicker Man, Witchfinder General or Blood On Satan’s Claw, Mark Gatiss did a good job of covering the same ground here - I wonder from which well Mr. Wheatley drew his deep mystical inspiration?
I think it’s fair to say I’ve had more memorable weekends, finally shaking off this stupid cold has necessitated a hermit like existence, only leaving the flat for absolute essentials. Not that there was, well, anything to see at the flicks anyway, you’ll be shocked to hear that The Fast & The Furious 6 wasn’t on my radar (in fact I’ve never seen any of that franchise, not a single frame) and having seen everything else I had to make up my own entertainment at home. The well-timed Ray Harryhausen documentary was probably the highlight, and I also revisited Saving Private Ryan last night, that really must be Spielberg’s most frustrating film, containing as it does some of the absolute best and worst elements of his entire career. So this will be another trailer post, there are a few things floating around which may pique your interest as they have mine, and from Cannes is sounds as it Inside Llewyn Davies has seduced the notoriously tough crowd, with some critics even comparing it favourably to Liebowski - hmm. Speaking of Cannes psychonauts beware, Jodorowsky’s back with his first film in 23 years;
Looks fairly bizarre, not that we’d expect anything less from one of the true real lunatics of film culture. I’ve heard there’s a remarkable sounding documentary on his aborted attempt to make Dune which also premiered at Cannes, that should be a fascinating glimpse at what might have been, one of the great unmade films of all time.
Europa Report looks kinda interesting, no? A medium budget SF movie is pretty rare these days, and io9 are usually on the ball so this might be a fun little prelude to Gravity. Finally, I’ve been loving the Red Letter Media gang’s Z list movie review show Best Of The Worst, if you see nothing else then forward wind 24:10 for the best rocket launcher / blow-up doll scene in cinema history;
As some of you expressed an interest in the event here’s the BFI coverage of the interview with Zod and the deliciously evil Ursa;
So Cannes has started, and it sounds like it’s off to a wet start, but we don’t care about that arty foreign nonsense now do we? DO WE? Here’s some robots instead;
As it happens I’ve got one of my most challenging ‘art-film’ retrospective reviews on the horizon after a particularly leftfield piece I caught on the BFI on Monday, but I’m ill and ain’t feeling up to it at the moment – just writing various things at work is tiring enough at the moment. So for the moment let’s look forward to giant automatons battering the fuck out of each other, that’s about the size of the intellectual challenge I can muster at the moment…
Unless you’ve been blasted into deep space from your disintegrating planet due to its imploding sun you won’t have missed the imminent re-boot of the Superman film franchise, Warner Brothers committed attempt to forge a new, profitable bout of super-heroic shenanigans following the conclusion of the Nolan brothers galactically popular Batman trilogy. Next month sees the release of Man Of Steel, the Zack Snyder helmed reformatting of the one of the most if not the most famous superheroes following Bryan Singers lacklustre 2005 outing, and early buzz is incrementally growing following the unveiling of a series of fairly impressive, cautiously tempting trailers. Within that context when the May programme for the BFI shuddered through my letterbox I was intrigued to see that a Terence Stamp season was on the cards, and it struck me that it might be interesting in a context setting exercise to revisit Superman II, probably the most fondly remembered issue of this inaugural five-part, limited collectors edition sequence of kiss curled courage. Whilst I remember quite vividly seeing Superman III at the flicks with friends I think I was a little too young for this 1980 outing, and of course Stamps barked performance has won its own cult appreciation over the years, it is probably the highpoint of the series if you find as I do the original film a little dull with Luthor’s cartoon schematics and the rather flimsy plotting difficult to swallow, although there is something to be said for the rather skilled handling of Kal-El’s origin story. When assessing the actors who have challengingly worn their pants outside their tights Christopher Reeve’s portrayal of the Jewish immigrant metaphor is still the benchmark to beat, he hasn’t been bested as the face of Superman on either the large or small screen, one wonders if this new upstart Henry Cavil is as terrified of the curse of the cape and might be shaking in his crimson, knee-high boots.
I guess the first thing to say is that this was a screening of the Richard Donner cut of the film, from the restored and re-edited 2006 re-release of the film, as you aficionados will know the second film in the series suffered from some quite significant production obstacles with producers firing directors and appointing other helmsmen, so let’s not waste space as the wiki has a pretty good synopsis of the history here. Quite unusually despite the presence of the DVD the compere announced that this was the first ever theatrical projection of this more complete cut of the film ever, thus awarding the evening a rather special halo, and Terence Stamp himself and called the CEO of Warner Bros. to assemble the film in as complete a format as possible, including soundtrack elements and deleted scenes which were culled fron the original 1980 release. I was also interested in revisiting this in line with current blockbuster aesthetics and techniques what with Superhero movies dominating the multiplexes – Iron Man III has repulsor blasted a colossal $950 million as I write this - as generally speaking this krypton averse series can be considered the first strain of ‘modern’ superhero cinema, if you disregard the campy sixties Batman nonsense or the cult contortions of the likes of Danger Diaboik, as prior to the Sixties super-screen heroics were mostly contained in the Republic serial two-reelers or Flash Gordon shorts. Of course this deviant, strange sub-genre of SF cinema eventually morphed into Burton’s broody vision of The Dark Knight before the genre really gained its momentum in the 2000’s, and now cape sporting, fetishistically garbed, freaky monologing mutants seize the screen every summer, as the purse holding executives dredge the deep waters of the Marvel and DC universes for the most peripheral of characters in order to secure a new potential money spinning franchise – Shane Black’s take on Dr. Savage could be next , plus there’s a reboot of The Fantastic Four in the works, although I personally can’t wait for the Skateman picture.
Do we need a synopsis? Really? OK then, three traitorous criminals are imprisoned in the Escheresque Phantom Zone by Jor-El (Marlon Brando) and exiled to deep space from Krypton before the planets unfortunate destruction, their dimension defying spinning prism prison shattered decades later by an errant nuclear weapon thoughtlessly hurled into its flight path by Superman as he thwarted Lex Luthor’s (Gene Hackman) nefarious plot to nuke California in the first movie - Superman eh, what a littering jerk. Like Kal-El these marooned marauders from Kryton are also blessed with superhuman powers under our alien yellow sun, and soon Supes is battling the hulking mute Non (Jack O’Halloran), the jackbooted, SS guard inflected Ursa (Sarah Douglas) and their tyrannous leader General Zod (Stamp) whom have rather less benevolent ambitions than straight laced Clark Kent, and with their newfound superpowers decide to take over the plant for a bit of a lark. The subsequent sanity deprived Margot Kidder is back as Lois Lane and Hackman reprises his role as the ‘greatest criminal mind of the planet’®, in this broadly comedic, for its time astonishgly expensive slice of caped crusading . After thirty years of age and as an action / fantastical film the film is quite a curiosity, it is postively geriatric in its pacing and dtempo when compared to today’s bewildering antics, as a starter for ten this is probably my favourite sequence;
Things have moved on somewhat when it comes to aerial fisticuffs, I think it’s fair to say. I’m not particularly qualified to comment on the alleged strengths of the Donner cut over the Richard Lester original as these aren’t films I’m particularly au fait with, but my initial impression was of a far stronger ‘epic’ opening, less emphasis on the rather tedious ’humourous’ slapstick asides that was emphasised on the original cut, although even this iteration of the film has an underlying comic smirk which only really comes to the fore when you see it with an appreciative audience – this was pretty darn funny, although perhaps not always intentionally so. Whilst I can find John Williams syrupy scores wretch inducing at the best of times I think you have to applaud him for the soaring triumph of his triumphant theme, alongside Jaws and Star Wars this is hard to beat in terms of sonic awareness, and their aren’t many compositions that you could play to any Non, Ursa or Zod in the street and they’d instantly be able to identify the movie.
From a purely technical level a compare and contrast exercise with contemporary product is as illuminating as it is amusing, like some celluloid archeologist I found the film primitive, I don’t mean that in a derogatory way it’s just that my today standards its SFX techniques have understandably dated, and its really not that convincing in hoisting around the principals in making us believe that a ‘man can fly’, and the editing speeds momentum doesn’t quite build any real sense of urgency or attention. There’s plenty of wire work, optical configurations and matte obscuration, when compared to the heavy CGI evident in the blockbusters of today then no if doesn’t fully convince, but there is an odd DIY charm to the artistry which terabytes of processing can’t surpass. I really like the Krypton footage for example, it’s just much more sparse and symmetrically alien in comparison to the visual pollution we’re subject to today, and there is a sense of density and reality to physically standing sets, there’s a solidity that even when parsed through a 16:9 frame on a 2D surface seduces the brain. I quite surprised myself at also quite enjoying the campy comic book origins of the ‘gee-golly’ dialogue, the cardboard characterisations and linear plot, of course this film was inked a few years before the likes of Alan Moore and Frank Miller reconstituted the comic book into the rather more pompous ‘graphic novel’, transforming the artform with a more adult and psychological approach to themes, drives and a more mature presentation of worlds in which such titans would actually exist, so in a relaxing sort of way this was quite a light, breezy antidote to the dour severity of Nolan’s trilogy or this current penchant for making things ‘dark’ and ‘moody’, and as I said with the special guests and a sold out crowd this had quite an atmosphere, and was consequently much more fun than I anticipated.
I was silently crossing my extremities for some potential special guests – not Stamp as I’ve already bumped into him and the Sheriff of Nottingham in the Piccadilly Apollo a few years ago if you remember - and my wishes were fulfilled by the good old BFI who evidently exerted their influence and persuaded the panther eyed Sarah Douglas to introduce the movie, a figure who may have tickled some dormant pre-adolsecence unusual thoughts about how girls aren’t always completely gross back when you were in single digit years of age. Never wanting to avoid the limelight however Stamp turned up anyway, and both figures took us through the films tortured production history, where initially both films were shooting back to back when panicking producers saw the spiraling budget and ordered Donner to complete the first film in order to get it into theatres and re-coup some money, and after he professionally obliged he was fired (without anyone on the cast or crew being informed) and Richard Lester tuned up on set when shooting commenced a few months later. They both seemed to have a genuine affection for Donner although they liked Lester as a colleague, he was just placed in a rather uncomfortable situation as the crew and cast had already bonded as an entity (which as Stamp remarked is rare but is wonderful when it happens), hence their persuasive efforts in lobbying Warner Brothers to get Donners original cut out there for fans to digest. Stamp was also quite amusing when recounting how the movie turned his career around, after a decade of the phone not ringing after his Sixties heyday he had retreated to an Indian madrassa, and was completely shocked when one fateful morning the local telegraph office announced they had a comminuqe from Hollywood asking if he would consider flying back to London in order to star in a movie with Marlon Brando. So that is as they say that, I must be some kind of superhero as I can’t believe I got through a full retrospective review of Superman II and I didn’t mention KNEEL BEFORE ZOD once and – oh fuck…
For the record as a cinephile I can die happy as yes he did say it for us, and added the slightly more 15 certiticate sobriquet by yelling ‘KNEEL BEFORE ZOD YOU BASTARD…..’
One of the more successful recent Hollywood plundering of stale franchises was J.J. Abrams 2009 resurrection of the Star Trek directive, his cosmic concoction of new fangled SFX and iconic SF expeditions successfully navigating that most treacherous of spaceflights, keeping the fanboys happy whilst appealing to a wider summer attuned blockbuster audience. The wise decision to weld dual origin stories of the series most popular characters James Tiberius Kirk and
Mr. Commander Spock paid the appropriate reverence to both the numerous TV series and fleet of big screen outings, whilst toying with the mechanics enough to craft something new and exciting for hardcore and passing fans of new and older generations. Regular readers will recall that I set out my relation to Star Trek back during my original 2009 review, but to paraphrase I’m not the biggest fan but do quite like some of the original films (well, the first two) and some of the TV series (well, ST:TNG), but as context they are not artifacts that I own on DVD or rewatch on any sort of regular basis, although I do have a genuine interest to revisit Wrath Of Khan which I haven’t seen for ages. As such I wasn’t galactically excited at the new film Star Trek: Into Darkness but was intrigued by the trailers, its SF of course which always tunes my tricorder and Abrams is a highly proficient purveyor of big screen entertainment, even if his films are a little hollow beyond the prestidigitation of appropriating previous genre mainstays – Mission Impossible, James Bond with a female twist, Seventies era Spielberg, or The X-Files in a post 9/11 parralel dimension. It is a pleasure therefore to report that 2013′s blockbuster season has finally warped in its first triumph, after the mildly diverting likes of Oblivion and Iron Man 3 the gauntlet has well and truly been thrown down with Into Darkness, and very mild, general, non-specific spoilers follow, so consider your hailing frequencies well and truly warned.
Opening with what upon reflection is a rather clever context setting scenario which ignites the themes and conflicts of the rest of the movie the full crew contingent is back, as Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) and growling medical officer Dr. ‘Bones’ McCoy (Karl Urban) flee a primitive race on a scarlet hued jungle, a chase sequence with more than a hint of an aroma of Indiana Jones raiding lost arks – haven’t you got your tractor beams set on enough franchises Mr. Abrams? After making a crucial choice to violate the prime directive to save a colleague the impetuous Kirk is demoted to first officer, spiraling him into an emotional chasm which is soon obliterated by a terror campaign orchestrated by rogue Star Fleet assassin John Harrison (a predatory, Übermenschian Benedict Cumberbatch) who has a burning grievance of vehement vengeance against the United Federation Of Planets. Fleeing to a distant moon where he assumes that Star Fleet will be unable to chase him due to plot points I won’t spoil Kirk is reinstated and ordered on a clandestine mission to hunt down and apprehend the marauder, accompanied by his loyal crew of Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto), communications officer Lieutenant Nyota Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Lt. Commander Scotty (Simon Pegg with much more to do, after MI:III his star is certainly rising) and the international duo of Lieutenant Hikaru Sulu (John Cho) and Ensign Pavel Chekov (Anton Yelchin).
Mentally dissembling its constituent parts during the walk home yielded plot faults which materialise with the snarling ferocity of a Klingon assault team, but it powers through its mission at such hyperspeed that these malfunctions quickly recede to the event horizon, as a constellation of exploding volcanos, EVA antics, ferocious fisticuffs and nautical mêlées are beamed into the cerebellum. Once the film gets up to full-speed at around the halfway point it warps the pyrotechnics up to eleven, and I was grinning like a lunatic for the rest of its breathless, relentless blockbuster ride, it has a genuine sense of sleek swashbuckling adventure, and pinpricks of universes in-jokes and references sprinkle the canvass like distant stars upon a cloud free, diamond studded night sky. Pine and Qunito reprise their roles with the deft lightness of the previous installment, and all the supporting players get their requisite character action beats and moments, its something of a masterclass in blockbuster assembly and juggling an ensemble cast, as it ejects the usual set-piece / character development binary chain of repetition and plays more as first half set-up, second half supernova detonating action sequence. The film stays closer to terra firma by obeying the first golden rule of blockbuster screenwriting, namely that your antagonist villain needs to be as interesting, nuanced and genuinely threatening as the heroes overcome increasingly insurmountable odds, Cumberbatch gives a controlled performance as a shark-eyed nemesis whose origin springs from a celebrated episode of the original series, I’ll say no more as I don’t wish to be confined to quarters. One thing I do admire with Abrams is that he understands that mystery and reveals are extremely important to the success of genre films and the cinema experience, he’s a master poker player when it comes to marketing his movies, keeping his twists and turns secret and surreptitious and unlike the recent entry to the Bond franchise his collaborators feel confident enough to operate in a post Nolan world, and don’t resort to sacrificing thrills and threats to ludicrous master plans or implausibly conceived and contrived plot mechanics.
The original Sixties TV series and its brethren has been re-evaluated and praised for its humanist scope, camouflaging sociological commentary of the era with its vision of a progressively attuned post racial society, as it was transmitted to American homes against the backdrop of civil rights struggles and slain students across the cultural battlegrounds of that revolutionary decade. Like any memorable SF the genre can function as microscope of its contemporary construction, and it you want your sensors to detect elements of drone bombings, interference with other cultures and the all-pervasive phantasm of domestic terrorism then you may find some small morsels of commentary here, not to mention the still haunting spectre of aerial vehicles devastating urban metropoli can’t help but invoke memories of that fateful September morning. These observations however feel more of a general cultural percolation into the screenwriters unconscious rather than any specific moralising or political soapboxing, these semiotics arising more through association than specific design, as I think Freud once said sometimes ‘a photon torpedo is just a photon torpedo‘.
I found the special effects dazzling, immersive and spectacular, with a phenomenal blending of wide CGI galaxyscapes dollying into live action elements, and yes the streaking lens flare aesthetics are embraced as never before, the cinematography has become something of incandescent strip to beat Abrams with, but I honestly don’t see the problem as it gives the films an appropriately sleek horizontal intangibility, a perfect visual metaphor for his strikingly made, scintillatingly swift, alveolated entertainments. Star Trek: Into Darkness also falls squarely into the positive use of 3D camp, with barreling vessels and gravity malfunctions resulting in some vertiginous derring-do, the usual complaint of etiolated images is fully disintegrated as the frame is brightly and clearly delineated, shorn of the visual clutter which plagues many of these SF motherships. I also particularly loved the ship designs of a certain species with whom we experience a first contact of sorts, and it was quite an ambitious move to reconstruct perhaps the most iconic, memorable and successful sequence of the original movie series which I for one thought they pulled off superbly, although I wouldn’t be surprised if that didn’t incur the wrath of certain sanctified strains of the committed Trek community….
It has its molecular problems, one ’prime’ predictable appearance is rather shoehorned in for fan service which really wasn’t necessary, the faux seriousness of the alleged ‘darkness’ incorporated into the title never really finds purchase and alas the film doesn’t really have any killer lines other than a smile inducing inversion of a previous escapades ‘classic’ line, but the skill with which writers Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof navigate the requirements of a wide blockbuster appeal while servicing the trekheads is really rather welcome considering some of their previous assignments (Prometheus, Transformers, Cowboys & Aliens), although perhaps a few breathers in the second half to play around with and deepen this iteration of the characters wouldn’t have been entirely unwelcome. As the credits rolled to the confident restoration of the original series iconic soundtrack a weary old soul such as myself may have even felt a neutrino sized spark ignite in his withered husk of a heart, as I may actually be warming to the new iteration of a certain other intergalactic franchise that Abrams will be teleporting into next – the flares is strong with this one;
It’s been seven long years since Children Of Men but Cuarón is finally back, and a first glimpse looks positively stellar;
Looks like someones been influenced by a certain Odyssey, even down to appropriating Stan’s favourite font. I think this might just be worthy of a IMAX expedition, and only a few months until take off. After yesterday’s evening spent at the BFI believing a man could fly another review is en-route, and yes I will be going to see this weeks intergalactic blockbuster, probably on Sunday.
After a long wait and constant teasing from Mr. Wright & Mr. Pegg on the twitters, here’s the first look at the epic conclusion of their refreshing Cornetto trilogy;
I think Pegg and Wright might have made cinema history, with a solid trilogy which includes a fence joke in every installment – one for the history books eh? Can’t say I’m hugely impressed with the trailer but I’m sure it will have its moments considering the pedigree, and when was the last time we had a genuinely good British comedy? Well, I guess Sightseers was amusing but you know what I mean, presumably it will a touch more humorous than this;
Apparently after three years of waiting the first trailer for Gravity will drop in the next couple of orbits, watch this ‘space’……(apologies)…I didn’t realise Lubezki photographed it, this is gonna be a big ‘un….
De Niro & Scorsese, Ford & Wayne, Mifune & Kurosawa, Carpenter & Russell, Gosling & Cianfrance - it doesn’t quite trip off the tounge does it? These masculine pairings have benchpressed a weighty and sturdy cinema, obsessed with stoic notions and very serious gender studies, the director /actor intertwinning to explore notions of duty, honour, heroism and masculinity through the forum of film. With the scintillating fireworks of 2010′s Blue Valentine Derek Cianfrance delivered a powerful and attention worthy debut, coaxing tremulous performances from both his leading lady Michelle Williams and the rising major star in the ascendant Ryan Gosling, with whom he has once again blood brothered with The Place Beyond The Pines, his sophomore movie. The reviews have been somewhat mixed on this one but some major critics have lathered on the praise, and with very little else circulating last weekend I thought I’d give it a chance, and try to discern what’s been hidden out in that petrified forest. What I found wasn’t particularly egregious but I can’t bring myself to fully recommend the film, like Gosling’s tear streaked facial tattoos this is a film which grasps for a solemn scarred profundity, and ultimately comes of as a little cheap and pretentious – just like my aftershave.
You’ll forgive me if I’m vague with the summary as the plot roars into unexpected directions quite early on, but as you can glean from the trailer Ryan Gosling is back in smouldering and strong slash quiet type armour, as the locally recognised circus stunt driver Luke. A brief tryst with local waitress Romina (Eva Mendes) results in an unplanned son which he promises to support and not abandon like his presumably vanished father, Luke only learning of his brood once the circus rolls into town a few months after the boy is born. Work is hard to find however and after teaming with local grease monkey / low rent criminal Roger (Ben Mendelsohn) Luke takes to robbing banks and utilising his driving skills to evade the law, with a taste for excitement that grows with each infraction the road seems certain to run out beneath him before he can swerve back to the right path. Meanwhile local cop Avery (Bradley Cooper) is having some problems of his own, as a recent graduate he finds himself in a force mired in corruption and naked self-interest, with good ole Ray Liotta as the plain clothes ringleader with the eyes of rattlesnake. His imposing father Al Cross (Harris Yulin) as the local judge is urging his son to follow in his ambitious footsteps, and after a politically expedient incident the potential road to the DA’s post slowly becomes a possibility, even if he wants to forge his own path.Both Luke and Avery have newly born sons, and the intertwining of their destinies will forge future enmities and feuds, as the reveberations of their choices and sacrifices reverberate throughout the generations….
This frustrating film has an arc which strives for the spectrum of greek tragedy, with fathers inheriting the sins of their creators and passing these burdens on to their progeny, with a decade spanning narrative which at once seems surprisingly ambitious yet implausibly ludicrous. It’s not a bad film per se, Gosling as always is a magnetic presence with a performance sketched of quiet volcanic glares and tics and nuances, all cobbled together from Drive’s cutting room floor. Despite being the most sleazy man alive I always enjoy absorbing the languid drawls of Ben Mendelsohn, and Bradley Cooper completes the three act structure / three performance triptych with a convincing as a cop wrestling with his competing instincts of patriarchal duty and sense of moral authority. The problem lies at a structural level beneath its snowy canopy, as Cianfrance’s script and design never quite scales the peaks of its solemn inotations, although one can and should celebrate the noble intentions of an epic emotional sweep and studious pondering on the human condition, as these are increasingly neglected areas in star studded vehicles.
I did like the score from Faith No More’s Mike Patton, again it anxiously grasps for some sort of wintry romantici sm by incorporating flurries of the choirsh crescendos of Arvo Pärt’s minimalist 1977 classical composition Fratres - now there’s a sentence which could probably do with a trim, just the film two and a half hour duration. When I say the film has a three act structure I’m not referring to the usual screenwriting parlance of inciting incidents, of clearly defined protagonists and antagonists, of specific plot developments being punched into the plot at specific points in the run-time which so clearly formulates and homogenizes American cinema – no, I’m taking about three definitive portions of time that the film ponderous gaits through, and a major problem is by the time you’re in the final act it actually feels superfluous to the preceding movements when exactly the opposite reaction should be occurring. When an audience is as tired and restless as mine was when you know you’ve got another thirty or forty minutes to sit through you’ve seriously failed in spinning an emotional web, although on a craft level – performance, cinematography, sound, production design – the film can’t be faulted. It’s a shame after that blistering debut as Cianfrance evidently has talent, so one hopes that wasn’t a one hit wonder (paging Richard Donne Darko Kelly?) and that his next project doesn’t get similarly buried in the woods;
A quick aside, as I’m professionally obligated to salute the passing of Philip French’s extraordinarily productive career, he announced his retirement this week after fifty years in the aisle seat, I mean c’mon Philip – nobody likes a quitter. I saw him at the BFI Vertigo screening last year, I’m betting that I won’t look as spiretly and energetic after fifty years of movie reviewing. Here’s his interesting if a tad conventional list of all time favourites, but anyone who shares my affection for the top spot can’t be all wrong.
Not wanting to start on a narcissistic point but there I was thinking that this was a pretty good day for a Tuesday and then the sad news started circulating. The term legend is bandied around in this industry with careless abandon but Harryhausen was a talent equal of the hagiography, a gentle and nice fellow by all accounts who assisted many young protegés to break into this industry. Many of his images are indelibly seared on the imaginations of a generation of filmmakers, and just consider the roll call of cinema behemoths he has clearly inspired – James Cameron, Tim Burton, Frank Darabont, Guilermo Del Toro, John Carpenter, David Cronenberg, George A Romero, Peter Jackson and a couple of small-scale Americans by the names of George and Steve;
As Kim Newman recently remarked and please forgive the paraphrasing but ’contemporary monster or fantastical element movies take hundreds of digital artisans and millions of dollars to craft, Ray did it all on his own and transformed the industry’ – who else has equally that lofty achievement? Here’s his lifelong friends Ray Bradbury’s recent video message, now if you’ll excuse me it’s got a little dusty in here;
I couldn’t possibly best my BFI Tribute report from 2010, easily one of the best events I’ve ever attended at the Southbank, with a genuine and heartfelt sense of occasion and tribute which really hasn’t been equalled since – you can see some of that here, and go watch a monster movie as a mark of respect;
I apologise for not posting much over the past few days, what can I say, I have been busy fighting crime Citizen;
I did manage to go and see The Place Beyond The Pines which was what it was, review to follow but I warn you now for various reasons I have a bastard week on the cards, but we’ll see how it goes….
Some interesting news today which those in the know have been monitoring for about a year, but finally negotiations have successfully been resolved and William Friedkin’s long suppressed Sorcerer will finally get a digital re-release, premiering at the Venice Film Festival. Now, I won’t insult your intelligence as I know you’re all aware that this was Friedkin’s unofficial 1977 remake of Henri Georges Clouzot’s 1953 masterpiece of tense traversal The Wages Of Fear, but like me you may have been waiting like a good soldier for a decent, non pan-and-scan anamorphic print to blow up. It’s on YouTube of course but I have resisted the urge to accept an inferior viewing experience, as by all accounts it’s a pulsing little thriller which almost exceeds the tension shredding credentials of the original, and stars the sadly mourned Roy Schneider and sports a Tangerine Dream score. Combine that with the 1970′s new Hollywood Brats era and you’ve got a key jigsaw piece of my viewing ambitions finally corrected;
Then again knowing me I probably have seen it and just forgot, that’s been happening recently with some home rentals. I assume it will get a London cinema release later in the year, shortly before a Blu-Ray distribution, this is one I’ll definitely make an effort for. I think I’m done with Sundance now although the final day round-up is here, as for the long weekend which slowly advances I think I might try to finally take in this, anything with Gosling and the guy who directed Blue Valentine is worth a punt but David Thompsons claims of it being ‘one of the most significant American films of recent years’ has me positively committed, I don’t always agree with him you understand but that’s quite a recommendation. Well, that and the fact that I’ve seen everything else out at the moment, and there isn’t much choice around London in terms of repertory screenings…..
Finally, following my Iron Man 3 musings here are souls much more eloquent than I….
As the dying embers of Sundance recede into the distance we turn our attention back to more pressing concerns, as we did manage to insert a bulky Hollywood tentpole into the festival schedule amongst all the independent activity. This comes at an interesting time given the traction that this little speech is getting in certain corners of the Internet, Soderbergh might be burning his bridges a little here and I don’t completely agree with all his assertions, but as a snapshot of the American (and by association) global cinema market this is faintly depressing fare. Whist we know it was ever thus, that Executives and Producers would flog genres and tropes to death, that characters would be exhausted in sequel after sequel, that formulas are championed and market testing & focus group screenings occurred as early as the Thirties this usual hand-wringing and moaning is validated by the aligned by the spiralling costs of global production and marketing. I have to say I’ve noticed the almost total triumph of sequels and franchises which now have almost obliterated (pun intended) original fare, given the astronomical production figures which are now the norm and the need for a safer bet with a pre-generated audience, this has resulted in the virtual extinction of the mid range $20 – $60 million feature, and this is not healthy for the industry from an aesthetic or productive level. I’ll give you one disturbing example that occurred to me last year, the $75 million budget quoted in the press pack for Frankenweenie, just how the hell did that cost so much? There was no up-front bidding war for the rights to some expensive novel or character, it has no major ‘stars’ to speak of (at least no-one commanding a seven-figure salary) and whilst we all know that stop motion animation is labour intensive with a lot of boffins I fail to see how the hiring of a couple of hundred professionals, ensconced in their studio facility (thus no location costs, no logistics or travel or accommodation fees) for maybe a year could cost so much? Well, that is until you realise that half the budget is marketing, of blitzing the planet with images and trailers and billboards and posters, but here’s the issue which I cannot parse, and that is of course that the technique works and it works beautifully. Even if the final film is actively terrible as in any of the Transformers or Prometheus or high-class mainstream fare with technique and talent to spare (Dark Knight, Lord Of The Rings) the audiences churn out regardless, so the financial death knell for Hollywood seems absurdly premature, especially when you consider that three of the highest grossing films of all time were released just last year, or five of the top films released in the past two years., or indeed that of the top thirty only three were released prior to the millennium – so someone knows what they’re doing., right? The patients status when it comes to innovation, and originality and aesthetics? Well, there the prognosis isn’t as good.
All of this brings me to Iron Man 3 of course, the latest in the extraordinarily profitable Marvel Superheroes movie sequence. I’m a little ambivalent to this run of the wider superhero sequence, I never particularly cared for the character back when I was reading comics and whilst the first film was more fun and lightly entertaining than expected the second was a fairly dire effort, all adhering to the standard issue character protagonist / antagonist / inciting incident / three act structure which can be affective but is usually narcoleptic. As with The Avengers I am flabbergasted at the films initial box-office haul, accruing a staggering $200 million in its first weekend but here’s the killer, it hasn’t even opening in North America yet. Now we all know that box office does not equate to quality, but this release in tandem with Soderbergh’s speech is certainly food for thought, the same identikit style is mixed with recent success in other franchises for the Shane Black directed Issue 3. A brooding Tony Stark is musing on the mortal threats he faced in New York last summer, ploughing his intellectual and physical resources into refining his battle suits at the expense of his waning relationship with the alliterative Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). A new villain is on the horizon who doesn’t bear a single resemblance to OBL, known as The Mandarin (a drawling Ben Kingsley) this pseudo-foreign Asian warlord threatens to unleash his incendiaries on the infidels of America, whilst the likes of Tony’s old flame Dr. Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) a regenerative and charismatic physicist protegé Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) are wrapped up in some conspiracy to harness their scientific breakthroughs for superheroic splendour.
Like Iron Man’s distributed and fragmented armour the film is a hodgepodge of a movie, at some points a meta-superhero deconstruction then a brooding Dark Knight drama, then it’s a broad comedy then an Eighties inflected thriller, not to mention a thundering action piece, – its got more personalities than a schizophrenic goldfish. Whilst that could be interpreted as praise Iron Man 3 is never more than the sum of its parts, a malfunctioning genre piece which judges that a kid sidekick isn’t an exhausted and irritating element (and no, dressing this cliché up by having RDJ deploy his irreverent schtick doesn’t succeed) and a plot twist which many would have gleaned from the trailer. The villains as a holistic threat never provide the required sense of threat or peril, and with many of its characters split across the films narrative by the beginning of Act 2 it takes a long lonely trek to assemble them in all the right places for the inevitable and serviceable final confrontation Now to be fair there are some moments, as you’d expect from jock-director Shane Black some of the meta-commentary is exceptional, with a few good henchmen gags to alleviate the boredom. The final set-piece when it arrives is reasonably innovative, even if the final showdown of the final showdown doesn’t particularly get the heart pumping. For many Kingsely’s turn will entertain and amuse and to say anymore would be spolierific, and as someone who quite likes Robert Downey Jr. in most of his films his cheeky arrogance has worn completely thin, and you might secretly wish that the rich fucker gets vaporised before the next inevitable instalment. It does depart from trope with the women get a fair shake in this movie in numerous ways which I also won’t spoil either, heck it might even pass the standard Bechdel test as they’re certainly not just eye-candy and/or damsels in distress.
The most interesting element of Iron Man 3 is the news that specific scenes and characters have been procured for the Chinese cut of the movie, a trend which seems to be gathering increased traction, and the impact of this on a films political and cultural dimensions in both its numerous domestic and international editions should be amusing to dissect, one wonders what changes they may have made to the Mandarin character and omitted any reference to Tibet. Does this sprawling post have a purpose, a central proposition? I think what I’m trying to say is that the business is full of contradictions, I may come off as a snob who is slightly sneering at people flocking to formulaic, predictable, cookie cutter stuff and maybe I am, but you only need to peruse the archives to see that I loved Avatar, the Batman films and other blockbuster fare usually barges its way into my top ten lists, and I’m anxiously awaiting Pacific Rim, Elysium and the second Hobbit film comes December. They are all just as valid and entertaining in different ways than the usual suspects at Cannes or Sundance, it’s just the emphasis on advertising and seduction rather than the quality of the intrinsic piece of cinema as an artefact is a dangerous road to continue, from both an entertainment and production perspective, with incrwasingly risk averse studios and executives pushing the industry and art form into two remaining tiers of production - garguantian nine figure budget behemoths that are market diluted to redundancy and miniscule seven-figure scraping projects which struggle to even get distribution or exhibition – although I guess it’s a sign of the times with the same divisions along the mega wealthy 0.1% and the disintegrating Western middle class. I guess I should close with some general Iron Man 3 comments, yes there is another post credits sting, but it wasn’t as fun as I’d anticipated, and I think I’m safe in asserting that this is the first $250 superproduction that has ever referenced the city of Croydon…..
In William Gibson’s 2003 novel Pattern Recognition a mysteriously binary filmmaker slowly and anonymously drip feeds footage of his homebrew masterpiece to an eagerly seduced audience of intellectually curious, avant-garde aligned internet film fanatics. Christened as a ‘garage Kubrick’ by the fictional on-line community this was prescience as normal from Gibson, as a year later filmmaker Shane Carruth released his paradoxical puzzler Primer, a film he had written, directed, edited, acted, produced and scored for an infinitesimally small sum, mostly capturing his doppelgänger debut on the off-cuts and donations from industrial and corporate sources. An instant cult classic the films time travel programming and unconventional disregard for plot progressions has fostered a deluge of debate on its contortions and purpose, with every year seeing the electronic publication of a new workflow to interrogate its syncretic structure, each of which increasingly resembling an IED assault on a PowerPoint presentation. Almost a decade later and Carruth has finally completed his sophomore sequencing, releasing the eagerly awaited Upstream Color to a simultaneously bewildered and beatific audience, through a production process that exemplifies the 21st century. There has been much cultural speculation that the advance of the internet and so-called digital emancipation would hand the keys of production to the public and wrestle it away from the corporate clutches of international finance, with the committed and cerebral able to digitally shoot their own projects with increasingly inexpensive cameras, cut them on bespoke editing platforms, score them in synthetic lap-top studios , and crucially distribute them electronically through social media platforms, maybe even funding their uncompromised visions through Kick-Starter and other emerging funding streams, with crews recruited from Craiglist. Although some filmmakers have adopted some of the techniques in that production chain of command no-one has fully embraced (or been pushed) more fully into that process than Carruth given the frustrations he suffered with the development of his abandoned project A Topiary, and these frustrations seems to have infected his work as Upstream Color operates on a panoply of meta and thematic levels, as either a mercurial masterpiece or pretension personified.
The film has a plot of sorts which doesn’t web together in an immediately lucid fashion, it’s just that Carruth isn’t particularly interested in telling a story as he is in materializing the Xerox of the story, subjecting the viewer to the same disorienting mind state as the two central characters, or more accurately ciphers. What we can discern is this – Kris (a brittle Amy Seimetz) is a office worker in a vaguely creative design or animation field, aimlessly shifting through a nameless American urban suburb. In a scenario which resembles a date-rape Kris is assaulted by a mysterious figure who inserts a bioengineered caecilian into her esophagus, an intrusion which renders her in a brainwashed and highly suggestible mindstate, and the ‘thief’ and her return to her identikit home. After signing away her life savings and assets to the nematode grifter she is drawn to the ‘sampler’ (Andrew Sensenig), a second intangible figure who is performing some strange auditorial field recordings of stone on metal, of brick on wood, out in the wilderness on the outskirts of civilisation. After an unexplained transfusion is conducted between Kris and one of the pigs that the Sampler is harvesting on his eerie farm we flash forward a year as a hesitant romance blossoms between Kris and Jeff (Carruth), he having endured a similar experience, as they both suffer a glitch in their lives and attempt to uncover the mystery of their contemporary lives.
There was a great Roger Ebert quote circulating after his sad passing , that ‘it’s not what a film’s about but how it is about it’, a statement that once unpacked can be thoroughly attributed to Upstream Colors disorienting design and infectious purpose. In this mechanistic narrative a ghost has possessed the machine, with human beings absorbed into the data set as another manipulated cog in the Sisyphean revolutions of daily society. Channelling early Cronenberg with shadows of Eraserhead’s nervous anxieties it’s a experimental work which is sure to divide audiences, given its transparent disregard for plot or narrative cohesion, as Kris and Jeff are locked in a symbiotic psychosis, malfunctioning protagonists deprogrammed as glitch. Through a densely rich visual environment there is a fascination with the beauty of replicating organisms and how organic spheres elide to our manufactured and sterile work places and cities, our species urgent to exert control over visible chaos. The gynaecology is simple to divine, from the man-machine of Chaplin’s Modern Times to The Tree of Life’s 21st century hymn to the complexities and mysteries of life on this planet, Upstream Color is the echo warning that we’ve veered from the path of the sacred, into the proliferation of nullified personalities and of animated machimina.
The medium is the message, a bewildering collusion of image and sound, elliptically edited like the repetitive push pauses of a Attention Deficit Disordered cerebellum, dialogue is phrased and repeated, and Kris and Jeff’s memories even merge and coalesce in a digital stew. The film isn’t completely indeciphersible nor is it completely alienating, movements and tempos in the narrative are signposted with discrete fades to black which signal the conclusion of a sequence, it has the aura of our distanced and surfaced times, the paradox of an interconnected and global aligned world resulting in higher temperatures of disconnect and mental malfunctions, with recitation and fragments collapsing the database of our memories and emotions. Every sequence seems to be spinning its head from side to side in a scan for potential predators, transmitting the bare minimum of information through a pacity of dialogue (the film has no speech in its final fifteen minutes), as the next algorithm stacks up in the films cache table, a malfunctioning malware which is CPU infected at the core. The presence of Henry David Thoreau anarchistic credo is one tumbler in the toolset to decipher some of the films wider drives, his work serving as a manifesto of return to a less industrialised purity, this suggests that the Thief may be a liberator not a plunderer, another of the films interpretative free-floating signifiers. Carruth’s repeated shallow focus framing concertinas the z-axis depth of field which surreptitiously visualizes the films coding , mirroring our absorption in the screens in our homes, on our commutes and in our corporate dronehouses, a calculated effect that squares the algorithms of the films editing patterns, it’s photochemical surface, the heuristic performances and obsolesce of the conventions of plot or narrative clearance.
As the films composer Carruth revealed to his dumbstruck Q&A audience how his original soundtrack developed as the material was visualised, with pieces ejected and repurposed for scenes and sequences as the film moved through its phased evolution, it moves to the rhythm of its soundtrack as opposed to the narrative logistics of tradition cinema, the deprogrammed protagonists paralysed like two whales beached on the oceans of the information superhighway, emitting a mournful electronica fog-horn mating call. Some mysteries remain obtuse and ill-defined - what is the significance of the children in the opening cycle? For what purpose are the Samplers field recordings? – but these and other ambiguities accelerate Upstream Colors processing prowess, as like Primer it is destined for a tsunami of translations and deconstructions of its anodic glyphs, destined for detailed diagnostics of its incredible, molten achievements – a phenomenal film concerned with phenomena;
OK, I’m officially jolly excited about this, and I’m not really that nerdy about giant robots, but this just looks like lots of hilarious eye candy which should steady the nerves;
Final Sundance report is here, reviews are evolving….
And so another festival comes to a close, my Sundance virginity finally vanquished. Overall the festival was impeccably executed, all the public screenings projected in state of the art environments with attentive and committed audiences, all featuring debate and discussion with talent and filmmakers to discuss the movies after the screenings. The quality of material was also very high, sure a few movies were fairly average but there wasn’t one bad film that I caught on the programme, and believe me after doing this reviewing nonsense for a few years that is almost unique in my experience. As a platform for highlighting new and emerging talent it can’t be beaten, and three of the movies here may well be sitting on my annual top ten come December.
I’m not proud of it but I ducked out of the screening of In Fear, I do my best in supporting UK productions but I received a voicemail after the previous screening which forced me to set my weary bones homeward to exploit a potential opportunity with the day job, and homework needed to be done. In any case it was ideal to leave the festival on a high after a fantastic screening of The Kings Of Summer;
All I knew of this was that it was a comedy, and it had kids in it, I didn’t even watch the trailer despite posting it here. Let me be clear and I can’t stress this enough, this is an absolutely brilliant movie which is completely hilarious, it demands to be seen when it gets a release later in the year. Nick Offerman as a quietly furious father attempts to steal the movie but that accolade rests with the almighty Biaggio, an instant cult classic character, just recalling some of his schtick has been grinning like a demented loony. For shorthand sakes you could consider it a 21st century Stand By Me, funny and gently moving, it avoids all the pitfalls that could potentially hobble it – a mawkish voiceover, life lessons learned through a sepia toned melancholy – instead it’s one of those films that you’re genuinely sad to see go when it reaches its perfect conclusion. I’ll get cracking on full reviews of it and Mud, and the second viewing of Upstream Color was bafflingly brilliant, it raised more questions than it answers the second time around…..
Today’s thought for the day, from a (presumably) faux Bill Murray Twitter Feed – ‘After committing a crime, always carry a fire extinguisher. No one gets stopped while running with a fire extinguisher’ - genius. Anyway, another successful day has just elapsed with a trio of films which increased in quality as the day lengthened, Sleepwalk With Me was rather tedious but it did crack a few smiles, I can’t help thinking it would have worked better as a This American Life monologue, stretched out to feature-length this exceptionally slight rom-com tested my comedic patience. Mumblecore matriarch Lynn Shelton’s dramedy Touchy Feely took a while to get into its groove but was manipulatively charming by the end, and she was in attendance for a post screening Q&A which was quite illuminating. The first real find of the festival however is Mud, Jeff Nichols clearly establishing himself as a major talent with this terrific take on innocence lost against a post biblical backdrop. After Take Shelter he is clearly adept at building a sense of place and atmosphere, and it was terrific to see Joe Don Baker back on-screen – I thought he’d retired.
Full reviews of Mud and Upstream Color will follow next week, I must give the latter a second watch on Sunday to crystallise my thoughts, suffice to stay it has throughly infected the cerebral cortex since Thursday’s contagious revelations. As for Saturday I did want to mix things up a little by attending some of the side panel and discussions on the production side of movies, the best I could schedule was a screenwriting panel with Tony Grisoni (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Tideland, In This World, Death Defying Acts), the aforementioned Lynn Shelton (Touch Feely, Your Sister’s Sister, Humpday), Peter Straughan (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Debt, Men Who Stare at Goats), moderator Mia Bays, Oscar-winning producer (Six Shooter, 30 Century Man) and others, all of whom should make for an interesting debate I think? Should be a bit like this;
A shorter schedule follows with only one further screening in the evening, the public premiere of Emanuel And The Fishes followed by yet another director Q&A;
And finally here’s yesterday’s official little video diary;
Now, should I be worried that Upstream Colors farmyard manipulator Andrew Sensenig has started following me on twitter? Rewatching the trailer after seeing the film makes me…..
A solid start to proceedings with a gentle and lightly amusing romantic comedy nesting in an often unrewarded section of film culture (In A World…), a well crafted but instantly forgettable new film from Winterbottom (The Look Of Love) and of course Upstream Colour’s perplexing disregard of audience expectations – now that’s a film which only gives as much as you invest within its puzzling design and techniques. Watching the expectedly disappointing Iron Man 3 in the midst of this left field selection has also got my head spinning, and with two Q&A’s with Shane Carruth and Winterbottom following screenings it’s been quite an exhausting day. So I’m pulling a crafty one for Day 2 and will award myself a partial lie-in - I’m skipping the 9:00am press screening of Emanuel And The Fishes as I can see that at the public screening tomorrow evening – one has to keep the energy levels maintained. I could do with the extra sleep what with all this walking eh?
I apologise, I’m saving the proper ‘gags’ for the reviews, although fuck knows when I’ll find the time to craft those. My laziness also gives me a chance to grab a bite to eat with a large and incredibly unhealthy full English Breakfast, my only real window for sustenance to carry me through Friday as all three of these screenings essentially run back-to-back…;
…..into Jeff Nichols intriguing looking follow-up to the magnificent Take Shelter;
That’s a full day of American Indie excess right there, if I had one regret it’s that no documentaries have been populated on the Menagerie programme as it currently stands, purely due to the complexities and timings of the wider schedule. This chain takes me from the morning to late afternoon so depending on fatigue I might have a snoop around and see if there are any tickets going in the evening. Here’s Wednesdays opening press conference;
Now at well past midnight I guess I should start my ‘official’ report of Day Numero Uno…..the headline news is that Upstream has secured a UK distributor for a modest release later in the year, I know some of you out there are looking forward to having your noggin scrambled….
In a moment of Sundance serendipity and to keep the momentum going I thought it might be fun to publish my agenda as we go through the festival – that way I can prepare these posts ahead of schedule and concentrate on my daily reports and individual reviews for Sound On Sight. So here’s today’s schedule, a little more hectic than I anticipated when juggling some screenings and public tickets around – alas there’s still no trailer for our inaugural inception;
Now, rather than face a yawning gap of three hours between screenings I thought I’d best take the opportunity to keep abreast of current developments on the Hollywood front, apparently this is better than these mediocre trailers make it look;
I’ve got to hand it to Cineworld, and I’m not praising them in order to get any freebees – honest. Quite unexpectedly I got upgraded to a Black Card membership this month, and a sleek new ebony hued pass arrived in the post. For the same monthly fee of £15 I get unlimited screenings, and this tier of membership gives you 25% discount on food and drink – neither of which I partake in but a 25% discount is pretty good – and that immensely irritating £1.50 uplift for 3D screenings is also nullified. Now, I know that £1.50 isn’t going to break the bank but it is an annoying charge I’m glad to circumnavigate, and I say that as someone whom is supportive of the format for the right project. More importantly – and there is a point to this fawning sycophancy in relation to Sundance – more importantly you can book tickets online with your membership card now, and this saves me precious time between a ten minute window between screenings, good for them for finally bowing to customer pressure and introducing this feature as members had been shouting about this for quite some time.
Given that as of today I’ve seen 15 films at Cineworld in 2013 cinemas I make that £4 a screening, and that’s not including the other material I can squeeze in this month – I still want to track down The Place Beyond The Pines and I’m sure another blockbuster is on the horizon, but I’m probably getting confused with Star Trek. Anyway, this is absolutely fascinating for you all I’m sure, next is a big prestigious screening for Winterbottom’s latest, I wonder if A Partridge will turn up?
And finally the big one for the Menagerie which is also getting a media line and photo call. As we go through the next few days I’ll augment these with the previous days video round-ups, if they follow last year’s marketing model that is….
One last post before we hit Sundance, Malick’s latest has recently opened in the States and if you thought he had split critics in Europe then the reaction across the pond has been even more divided. Still, this is good news for us armchair cinephiles as we get some interesting articles for contextual consumption, and a few clips to nourish upon until the film gets a Blu-Ray salutation;
Just revisting these brief fragments has got the brain juices flowing again, I really must see this again if it is still playing in London. Before then though I have a programme of ten movies over the next four days, given the absurdly talented programme manager that I am in the day job (joking) I think I’ve managed to cover all the essentials of the schedule, and even managed to assign a viewing slot of Iron Man 3 in between a breathing space in the afternoon – after all one has to keep appraised of other developments doesn’t one? Did I mention that I got tickets for tomorrows UK premiere of Upstream Colour? No? Oh, well, then let me advise you that I got a ticket to tomorrow nights UK premiere of Upstream Colour. Can’t. Fucking. Wait. Until then, more Malick and wish me luck;
Can a movie change the world? Over their long and illustrious history they have certainly provoked non-fictional responses, shamefully screenings of DW Griffiths still controversial The Birth Of A Nation aligned with an upsurge in lynchings in the deep South, and Spike Lee’s incendary Do The Right Thing is claimed to have sparked a plague of public clashes in New York. Ronald Regan reputedly begin to chill to the prospects of discussions with the Soviets after being moved and stunned by seeing the TV movie The Day After*, but then again he also asked to see the War Room that was depicted in Dr. Strangelove, once he was inaugurated, a tale that one assumes was apocryphal as the alternative is too terrifying to entertain. Closer to home and sticking with TV movies Ken Loach’s brutal Cathy Come Home led to questions in the House Of Commons and new legislation to modernise social service provision, I’m sure there are many other examples where the fictional has influenced the real, where an issue or subject, an event or is brought to the radiating and excoriating sunlight. This brings us to Beyond Rangoon, John Boorman’s scathing portrayal of the military junta in Burma, as seen through the eyes of a naive American traveller played with a sweltering charm of Patricia Arquette. Released in 1995 this was one of the first films to spotlight the regime’s appaling behaviour – atrocities which still occurs daily by the way – and is partially credited with accelerating the release of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, an event which raised the previous invisible issue to the world media and all the attention that has subsequently been directed to that beautiful corner of the planet.
I wanted to revisit this film for a couple of reasons, first of all I remember seeing this on VHS back in the late nineties and being floored by an unexpected slap of a film, a powerful yell for justice and hu, excoriating a litany of violations and suppression which had previously been unknown to me. Secondly I wanted to select something a little of the beaten track for my Boorman season, it would have been too easy to cover the usual suspects of his career – Deliverance, Point Blank, Excalibur – plus if the film was as good as I remembered then maybe a humble review might just prompt some readers to hunt it down and widen its exposure, however infinitesimal. Set in 1988 the film charts the brutal suppression of that years pro-democracy uprising, transmitted through the eyes of audience surrogate Laura Bowman (Arquette) who travels to Burma with her sister Andy (Frances McDormand who is always great) to repair her soul after the murder of her husband and son by burglars. After losing her passport she stumbles into one of the 8888 protests and is tarred with guilt by association, the junta accusing of her of aiding and abetting the insurgents for foreign exploitation, and she is soon on a desperate mission to flee to the safety of Thailand with her new friend U Aung Ko, a persecuted professor whom was one of the central revolutionaries protesting the scripture of Democracy .
Any film that achieves an ‘awestruck’ achievement from the notoriously grumpy Andrew Sarris has to be doing something right (it even got into his top dozen for 1995) but memory is a funny old thing, and I found this film to be a rather turgid affair, with only a few scattered high points of sweltering interest. Maybe it’s the cynic that has festered in me in the past twenty years since the film was released, the idealistic scales falling from ones eyes after two decades of real world events and political experience, or that this movie’s style of storytelling seems clumsy in comparison to today’s hyperkinetic norms, but Beyond Rangoon suffers from a rather patronising tone which takes the time to show just how IMPORTANT it is as if speaking to an impatient child, rather than letting the story unfold organically through Laura’s eyes as witness to the horrific events and struggle for liberty. I’ve always liked Patricia Arquette although she seems to have dropped off the radar in recent years, for some reason the screenwriter has encumbered her with a redundant voiceover which tells us exactly what she is thinking, when this should really be expressed through her performance as she comes to terms with her bereavement through supporting and assisting others. Similarly the Burmese protesters and activists are little more than ideological ciphers, spouting their concerns through political speeches rather than human beings covertly discussing their experiences with a sympathetic alien , overall it’s all quite forced even as you admire the ambition to weld together an important ‘issue’ film with a convincing character study, to make the tonic more palatable for an unsuspecting audience.
As I mentioned before Boorman likes to use a journey as a narrative structure, with his protagonists subtly changing and morphing as their sojourn unfurls, the experiences of life and the people they meet altering their world view and ideology over the course of their odyssey. This is the trajectory of Beyond Rangoon and the film gains a new momentum as it hurtles into its second hour, when John Seale’s expressive photography expands the vista of the film and it actually starts to arrest the attention with drama and peril, the expedition generating some missed heat and drive as Laura frantically navigates the wilderness with her wounded compatriot in tow. Unfortunately an early Hans Zimmer score hobbles some of this liberty with the obvious employment of Far Eastern chimes and wistful panpipe warbling, as one of my favourite contemporary composers (alongside Howard Shore and Clint Mansell since you ask) he falls seriously into cliché mode here, as it is the most obvious choice to employ the native instruments of the culture you are unearthing, especially in such a doe-eyed, sentimental fashion. To be fair though the film’s heart is in the right place and its position as possibly the first serious work to shine a light on the horrendous abuses in Burma shouldn’t be faulted, even if the delivery method of the movie doesn’t match the historical bravery that the movement should be assigned. It seems as if Boorman was the go to guy in filming movies with a mixture of action and issues, usually in difficult foreign climates (see also The Emerald Forest as well as Deliverance), smuggling a little political persuasion amongst the characterisation, which charitably speaking yield mixed results. Whilst we’re on the subject can I also recommend the surprisingly moving Luc Besson biopic The Lady which centres on Aung San Suu Kyi’s extraordinarily brave fight for justice, it’s a much more nuanced presentation of the political intertwining with the personal with a terrific central performance from Michelle Yeoh an achievement which really deserved some award kudos but was sadly overlooked. So that’s my knuckles rapped for being a bit creative isn’t it? Next time I’ll stick to the formula and focus on the agreed ‘classics’ I guess, thinking logically there is a reason why the likes of Hope & Glory and Point Blank are remembered and Beyond Rangoon is relegated to the back benches of cinephile scrutiny….
*One speculates what he would have made of Threads, the UK equivalent which remains one of the most harrowing and terrifying pieces ever submitted to film in my opinion. My entire school generation still shudder at the mention of it…..