After all, it's just a ride….


The Martian (2015)

mars1Well, you can’t buy publicity like that now can you? Before we get into this years solar powered SF surprise I think we need to have a little chat about Ridley Scott. I almost went to see Exodus last year purely because Sir Ridders was on viewfinder duties, there wasn’t much else out that particular weekend but the poor reviews still kept me away. For a man who began his career with the gorgeous The Duellists and then crafted two masterpieces to say his recent roll-call is a litany of  critical if not commercial failures might be understating things a little, just consider this rogues gallery of indiscriminate antics – The Counselor. Body Of Lies. Robin Hood. Exodus: Gods & Kings and of course Prometheus, undoubtedly one of the biggest disappointments of the decade. There was a time when I’d go and see his movies at the cinema sight unseen, which is why I have seen 1492: Conquest Of Paradise, Hannibal and Matchstick Men on the big screen, but the recent descent has sworn me off giving him the benefit of the doubt, for one obvious reason. I’ve had the winds taken out of my sails by Kermode on his recent review show where he articulated my precise thoughts when it comes to this problem, that Scott is unquestionably one of the greatest visual stylists of his generation, but he consistently fails to shoot a good script. This repeated omission curses his films from the embryonic stage with lacklustre narrative nerve or consistent characters, marking his movies as often aesthetically arousing but incredibly frustrating experiences. Strong visual techniques can carry a lot of a films water given the intrinsic emphasis of the medium, but not a two and a half hour character orientated narrative, where you have to care and empathize with the protagonist from the initial purr of the projector. Finally however Scott seems back on track with The Martian which has done spectacular business over the weekend, and the headline is that this is his best film since Gladiator way back in 2000.

mars3We are a mere ten or twenty years hence where Matt Damon stars in a curious sister film to another serious SF expedition which orbited multiplexes last year, although the extra vehicular activities are restrained to our own local solar system this time around. Diving head first into the narrative we’re barely given time to digest a procession of awe-inducing Mars travelogues before we zero in our principal Mark Watney, senior botanist of a seven crew scientific excursion to the Red Planet headed by Mission Captain Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain). Before our orientation can commence a cataclysmic storm overwhelms the camp, causing the astronauts to flee to their drop ship and exit the lethal atmosphere, linking up with the sub-orbital ship the Hermes which will sustain them on their 12 month mission to get home. During the frantic exfiltration disaster strikes when Mark is struck by storm blasted debris, presumed dead in the confusion and left behind, a global martyr for man’s incurable appetite for progress and adventure. When he awakes battered and bruised some hours later Mark faces a terrible situation – with dwindling resources and a severe diet he has at best mere months to live, with a four-year window for any rescue mission even if Houston realised he was still alive. It’s a SF picture in the same slipstream as Apollo 13, ContactGravity or Moon, of human indviduals embarking on fraught and fragile missions, rather than the melee of pew-pew guns, EVA dogfights and intergalactic colourful alien species of most space opera and comic-book cloned fare. Based on the popular novel by Andy Weir the movie pivots on an expositional technique of having Mark speak to camera in a series of visual log entries, equipping screenwriter Drew Goddard with a neat technique in communicating a wealth of plot exposition, as events back on Earth slowly challenge the true failures and demise of the mission…..

mars2There is a desultory cargo manifest of filmmakers throwing their cameras into the unforgiving desert environments of our neighbouring barren spheroid, and many have been broken by its inhospitable climate and dramatic potential, resulting  in some of the worst films of their career – De Palma’s Mission To Mars, Carpenters Ghosts Of Mars and the director of Red Planet’s entire career was lost and he never made another picture. But we’ve never quite seen the planet presented like this before and the key concept here is total immersion, as Ridley Scott’s keen visual acuity blesses the picture with a rich, seething atmosphere that ironically the real planet chemically lacks. The blend of backdrops and sets is utterly seamless and you can’t detect the CGI joins or digital bonding agent, the sets and various visual planes blurring into a cohesive digital coalesce, I saw this in 3D and my eyes thanked me for such a rich and satisfying feast. As the breadth of his predicament becomes more tangible you feel connected to Marc and his desperate tussle with the elements, with the three core periodic ingredients that we on terra firma take for granted – air, water, food – being as precious as any commodity imaginable. Quite simply Mars is breathtakingly beautiful in its unsullied, silent majesty, but rather than muse over the scale of the infinite the film has a definitive comedic tone, it’s actually quite flippant in its overall purpose, with plenty of scope for comedic asides and relief from the desperate and almost inevitable death sentence. If you have a fetish for masterfully engineered corridors, zero-G lifeboat exercises and state of the art VR interfaces then you will quite frankly be in 7th heaven, the film is a bukkake of ergonomic design porn, and from these perspectives alone a wealth of behind the scenes documentaries on the production design and scientific baseline evidence and prophecy for future missions is a must for the Blu-Ray release – I’d be fascinated to see exactly how much of Mars’s known topography has been computer extrapolated from existing satellite and survey photography.

mars4Damon generates enough star wattage and charisma to carry the majority of the film as a likable and resourceful guy, although lines like ‘I’m gonna science the shit out of this’ really should have been hurled out of the airlock during the quality control inspection. Although The Martian is primarily his film and he dominates vast swathes of the narrative Scott has also assembled an impressive cast back home, with particular standouts being Chiwetel Ejiofor as a perennially concerned NASA boffin, a sadly underused Kristen Wiig as a beleaguered press officer and contrary to the trailers indications Jeff Daniels not adopting the evil bureaucrat role, thankfully the film avoids those atonal clichés, heck even Sean Bean gets a significant role against type and doesn’t get brutally murdered even once.  There are some issues with structure as it circulates through the three areas of operation  – mark’s marooned scrabble for survival, the politics at mission control and the scientists the Hermes return home which is particularly short-changed by only attracting emphasis during the third act when we really should have got to know some of the these other characters beforehand. Some cynical sorts might find some of the MacGyver or A-Team contrivances hard to entertain, particularly in the final breathless race against time, but by the time we’d got to this point I was thoroughly invested in the tale, despite the obvious decisions to evade any of the more serious psychological implications of being marooned  in order to appeal to as wide a worldwide demographic as possible. There is no emphasis on the crushing alienation and loneliness that Mark would suffer as the only sentient life within a 2,000 million mile radius, nor the implications of his starvation diet, other than Damon losing a few pounds and growing an unruly beard to indicate he might be getting to the end of his good natured tether. Ridley Scott usually has an undercurrent of darkness in his films no matter the genre or source material, the black dog of depression which he has spoken about and which for obvious reasons we know runs in his family, so this might be his first completely unalloyed sunburst of optimism for both individual and our collective species future, with scientific imperatives superseding governmental ideology and nationalistic boundaries, a common humanity In that light The Martian is a film about ingenuity, human endurance and courage, of survival in the face of implacable obstacles, how intellectual and scientific disciplines can still deliver miracles in such a secular age;

Macbeth (2015)

mac1‘By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes’ – that’s a great early line from the bard which was etched its way into the cultural vernacular, and never has the mood of dire apprehension, inescapable fate and grim oppressive doom been articulated in movie culture more than with this latest screen incarnation of the so-called ‘Scottish play‘. Director Justin Kurzel – he who assaulted us with the Australian psycho drama Snowtown a few years back – follows in the imposing footsteps of no less than Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa and Roman Polanski in terms of taking on one of Shakespeare’s higher profile plays, and judging by this sophomore effort he is emerging as a master of atmosphere and evocative dread.  As a reluctant product of the UK’s comprehensive education system I inevitably have a passing knowledge of my countryman’s literate achievements, as you are guaranteed to have studied some of his plays by the time you exit stage left and either continue your studies or begin a hesitant career in your late teens. Alongside The Winters Tale and A Comedy of Errors I have studied Macbeth, and I actually found it pretty amazing given the swordfights and medieval Machiavellian manoeuvring, which wasn’t at all bad for an academic activity populated with boring old people from olden times speaking in a really stupid and weird way. Macbeth concerned itself with the power dynamics, rituals and the deceitful posturing of noble people and their consorts long before the scheming Game Of Thrones, as a Tolkien fanatic a lot of this medieval fantasy type stuff was already in my wheelhouse, plus we got to see some tits by watching the Polanski version on VHS – result. For the uninitiated the we open in the 12th century Scottish hinterlands, where the upstart yet ruthlessly efficient general Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) defeats the combined forces of Norway and Ireland in the name of his clans ruler King Duncan (David Thewlis). With the Kings son newly enshrined as the heir to the throne Macbeth’s wife (Marion Cottillard) whispers of treachery and deceit, echoing a spectral prophecy from a trio of sorceress who prologue the tale of Macbeth’s righteous ascension. Aggravated at his dismissal Macbeth nurses a grievous blood-lust, a thirst for power which is stoked by his malicious wife, an augury inevitably cloaked in violent tragedy. Rounding out the impressive cast are the likes of Paddy Considine as Banquo, Sean Harris as MacDuff, and Elizabeth Debicki as his wife, Lady MacDuff.

mac4If you’ve seen Kurzel’s Snowtown then you’ll know that he is adept in invoking an atmosphere of choking apprehension, where the threat of brutal violence lurks around every corner, no more so than in this brooding, malevolent take on one of the bards great tragedies. This translation churns with elemental forces ingrained deep in the blood soaked earth, erupting in orgiastic reveries of power, of lust, and of madness, chittering and clawing like the hyperborean winds howling through the highlands. Kurzel opens up the play from its theatrical origins by framing the drama against some epic visual tapestries, the drama twisting and turning beneath a corpse grey bruised sky, with sulphurous mists masking the principals as spectral apparitions from a mythic, long dormant age. Black and red are the primary colours, with interiors shrouded in mysterious lurking shadows, or entire battle sequences submerged in crimson infernos, an impressive and impressionistic take on the material which is reminiscent of Winding-Refn’s Valhalla Rising.

mac2The story revolves around the titular villain and his manipulative, malodorous wife, played with sultry, wraith-eyed intensity by Cotillard,  a porcelain succubae who spins a web of deceit and grief in order to usurp the kingdom. Indeed it’s the concept of grief as a propelling, poisonous force where the film departs from the play, as Kurzel and his three scriptwriters have added the concept of a dead child as Macbeth and his wives machinery of mania, opening the film with his funeral and the couples desperate, paralysing grieving. Fassbender is fantastic as always, a thoroughly repellent figure wracked with an internal intensity,  while his delivery of the great soliloquy ‘is this a dagger I see before me’ seems worthy of those legends who have seized the mantle over past screen translations. One moment where he hears some terrible news is just a fantastic screen moment (I guess after 400 years we still need to avoid plot spoilers eh?), as a tsunami of emotions course across his face before he sets his courage to the sticking post, and charges out to face his dire destiny.

mac3Complementing the atmosphere is a lyrical score by Jed Kurzel whom one assumes is related to the director somehow, taking the period and location specifics to erect a portentous cathedral of cataclysm, without resorting to comedic bagpipes or simple ethnic pounding war-drums. This is high praise coming from me but I was also put in the mind of Apocalypse Now, where the lunacy and madness of the tale seems to saturate through the compositional elements on-screen, performance, imagery and sound draping the tragedy with a nightmarish hue, with some brutal moments which earn the films corpse strewn certificate. This was a good dry run for the LFF which begins in earnest on Wednesday, so seeing two films in one day (I also caught The Martian which is Ridders best movie in fifteen years) gives me some practice writing deadlines before the chaos commences in just a few days. Of the numerous Shakespeare film adaptions this is top-tier territory, a smoke encrusted soliloquy on power and malice which malingers throughout the ages;

Miracle Mile (1988) Capsule Review

I love unearthing old gems. Has anyone out there in the electronic wilderness heard of Miracle Mile, the 1988 cult oddity which has developed something of a fevered fan base over the past few decades? Anthony Edwards ‘stars’ as a likeable young dude who meets and falls in love with a young lady at the famous LA La Brea tar pits, only to find something of a spanner in the works when he inadvertently picks up this rather alarming phone call;

I’d heard about this for years as part of the 1980’s Armageddon / nuclear threat sub-genre, but it’s never had a region 2 release or UK TV transmission. It’s incredibly 1980’s in the best way, rather garish colour schemes and a portfolio of then contemporary supporting character actors (Denise ‘TNG‘ Crosby, Mykelti ‘Heat‘ Williamson, Robert ‘Robocop‘ DoQui, Vasquez from Aliens and the always furtive Eddie Bunker) plus a pulsing score from the always seething Tangerine Dream. I’ve always liked ‘real-time’ movies when done well – as in the film unfolds in seventy minutes once the terrifying call is intercepted – and as a social document of LA at the time the locations and paraphernalia irradiate their own isotopic interest;

The whole picture has that Scorsese’s After Hours, John Landis unappreciated Into The Night or a Risky Business vibe, of one night inverting a malingering suburban malaise with some rather more lethal implications, disrupting a bourgeois apathy via the best and worst night of your life. Recommended as something of a pop art antidote to the UK’s Threads which took a rather more bleak view of the then imminent end of days…..

Jean-Pierre Melville Season – Bob Le Flambeur (1956)

bob1Immaculate is the key concept to unlock Bob Le Flambeur, or at least the elusive search for immaculate, unsurpassed perfection. Although this was jean-Pierre Melville’s fourth film it is widely considered the first navigation of his own unique cinematic universe, the Parisian underworld which seems to operate in the twilight purlieus of mainstream civilisation, sucking both men and women into a cauldron of crime and moral disruption. The men are immaculately groomed with their razor sharp suits, gliding gracefully through a portfolio of smoke choked boudoirs, gambling joints and late-night drinking dens. The trophy women sit perched like aloof avians, strutting in their plumage of plastered make-up and designer garments. The criminal planning is immaculate, with stoic professionals coaxing out all the potential angles and activating and inseminating mitigating assets with the skills of Wehrmacht World War II general marshalling his armoured manifest for a devastating pincher movement. And of course the storytelling is immaculate, Melville’s keen eye providing a macro level dissection of crime as a lifestyle not a social symptom, his characters caught in a web of intrigue and immoral illegitimacy. The titular Bob (Roger Duchense) is a middle-aged ex-con dwelling in the slightly dishevelled district of Montmartre in Paris, a gambler and card-sharp whom is experiencing a run of bad luck that borders on the pit of bankruptcy. Despite his mongrel pedigree he is a gentleman with scruples, well respected in the demi-monde community, a familiar and trusted figure in the underworld where there is usually no honour among thieves. An earlier plan to expand his horizons and rob a bank resulted in his incarceration, so he seeks to ameliorate a simpler plan to extricate himself from his fiscal fracture – the liberation of 800 million francs from a wealthy businessman’s personal safe, a tip provided by the ashen hued Ann (Isabelle Corey) whose novice inexperience in the life and pillow talk indiscretions threaten to bring the whole scheme crashing down…..

bob2Bob  Le Flambeur can be viewed as a initial dry-run for the underworld cycle to come, where Melville had access to higher yield fissile material in the form of technicians, techniques, funding and the higher star wattage of the French industry of the period – Belmondo & Delon to name but two. Like the lingering aroma of a pack of gitanes you can sense the inspiration for suave continental gentlemen thieves in the film through Soderbergh’s Oceans Eleven franchise and Neil Jordan’s near remake The Good Thief, as well as the mentoring aspects of P.T. Anderson’s debut Hard Eight while some of the chess board interior design reminded me of Drive, but maybe after my recent BFI activities I’ve still got Refn barking in my bruised brain. Leading man Duchense is a walking embodiment of 20th century French chic, all silver maned certainty and chrome sheened money clips, with a perennial lazy cigarette halo isolating him in the apartment, brassieres and casinos which roulette his life. The dictionary definition of debonair yet secreting a serrated charm, a sense of playful warmth which would evaporate during the 1960’s cycle, where Melville’s word-view became much more jaded and cynical. The later period is five o’clock shadow shaded, exhausted and world weary, where Bob Le Flambeur has a playful intransience of the police and the inferior law enforcement authorities, a resigned jouissance in the art of the con, of the criminal game that everyone is playing.

bob3The film is regarded as a harbinger of many of the things to come, of the Cahiers Du Cinema crowd and their convention contaminating contortions, mostly cited due to one solitary jump-cut which I must admit eluded my defective attention. Overall the plot is rather humdrum but I just love the universe, the unique milieu that we’ve seen time and again in American and Japanese crime cinema, but peppered with a gallic twist of locations and loquation which gives the meal and altogether more continental flavour. There are no women in the picture other than the marginal gangsters moll, and certainly no space for any ethnicities other than the dominant white Caucasian majority,  a product of its time perhaps where even in the murky realms of the underworld the privileged presided over the screen space. Over in the US United Artists had just released The Killing which was a calling card for a new North American model of the crime film, even as the moon set on the first phase of film noir, both share an explanatory voiceover which imparts crucial story context but Kubrick’s breakthrough forged a more procedural, methodological dissection of this subterranean eco-system of hustlers and harlots chasing that elusive Midas score. That sense of the immaculate, of the perfectly planned crime never fully surfaces, the narrative aping Bob’s razor sharp wardrobes and world weary wandering, for me a regrettable lapse in weaving form and technique to marry tone and character.

bob4The DVD has a superb introduction from French critic Ginette Vincendeau in which she rolls out the contextual canvass, this was the first film Melville shot in his own purpose built studio, controlling the environment and atmosphere with a rigid grip that would make Stanley or Fincher proud. Fellow contemporary critic Claude Chabrol (and future nouvelle vague luminary) seized upon the film which he championed for its imperfection and patience, a mood of realistic chaos rather than movie-world inscrutability where everything goes to clockwork plan, excepting the minute factor which juices the drama when things go wrong. The heist, when it finally comes feels more of an afterthought rather than the scene which the entire film pivots upon as in something like Riffifi – putting the caper together, assembling the team, funding the enterprise with the nefarious support of some underworld shylock, casing the location, gaining some clandestine information from a seduced lover and finally a meticulous execution of the crime itself. That’s where the director detonates all the ordinance he or she can in order to shock the audience into nerve fried hysteria – the editing of space and the spatial relations between entrance and exits, the slow elapse of crucial, tension ridden time, the harmonics of sound as threat or thriving misdirection, the emotional release of our collaborators capture or success. In Bob Le Flambeur the mood is less tense and the inevitable apprehension occurs with a whimper rather than a bang, as Bob and his crew fall victim to the loose lipped pillow-talk of the fairer sex. If I’m honest I find the film a little too flippant for my taste as I prefer my underworld buddies to be writhing in the wilderness in a mortal struggle with the cohesion of their very souls, but you can’t deny the panache that Melville musters in this instructive initial etching of a criminal civilisation lurking on the periphery of civilisation. As an early jog round the pen it belies better and more belligerent scores to come;

Love (2016) Trailer

One of the strange omissions from the LFF is Gasper Noé’s latest controversy baiting bludgeon, having recently caught up with one of our Melbourne correspondents whom caught the film at MiFF I can’t say I’m hugely disappointed. I’ll see it eventually, probably when it gets some blink and you’ll miss it distribution next year at the Picturehouse or Curzon, but until then here is the rather ineffectual and frankly lazy trailer;

For those wandering yes I have seen the new trailer for The Revenant and yes its probably the final remaining most anticipated film of the year, however it is now Menagerie policy to only publish one trailer per movie. Phrases such as ‘incandescently quivering’ and ‘erectile excitement’ don’t quite do my expectations justice…..

Catherine Coulson RIP (1943 – 2015)

Oh no, now this won’t do, this won’t do at all. Catherine Coulson wasn’t just the highly regarded Log Lady of Twin Peaks fame, she was an instrumental member of Lynch’s retinue throughout his career, charting back to his early short The Amputee and a crucial production assistant on Eraserhead. She was always in good spirits about her miniscule claim to fame in such a cult TV show, and I think she will be a douglas fir sized absentee in 2017’s return to that small, sleepy Washington town. Heck, she was even married to Henry for a few years, which in it’s own way must have been quite a trip. Rest in peace, and may your sprit fly swift to the White Lodge enigmatic Log Lady;

February (2016) Trailer

It’s a lavish time to be a horror hound, with The Witch flying into theatres in a couple of weeks we’re already lining up next years chills, and according to Fantastic Fest denizens this is nothing less than a ‘horror masterpiece’. High praise indeed, and this is a well constructed and rather shudder inducing trailer;

Klatu Barata Niktau or Ack Ack Ack?

It’s amazing to live in such times isn’t it? As a species we are able to navigate and execute twelve years missions to land a probe on a distant asteroid, to map the very contours of our most distant of planets for the first time in human civilisation (I like the suggestion of the Cthulhu region) – all we need to do now is excavate some ominous monolith on some remote spheroid and my mission will finally be complete. When I heard that NASA were going to announce a major discovery on Mars I assumed we would finally resolve that age old debate on whether Santa is real or not, but apparently it was only some spurious evidence of one of the basic building blocks of potential life beyond our humble globe’s environment and multi-millennia evolution. Stupid reality, it always lets you down;

That is of course assuming that this isn’t some spectacularly elaborate publicity stunt for Ridders The Martian which opens next week, and has been securing mostly positive notices from preview screenings. Whilst revising the above quoted classic I stumbled across this list while mooching about on Wikipedia, I’ve never heard of or seen Monster A Go-Go which sounds absolutely incredible. It’s quite amusing to see the likes of Zabriske Point and Heavens Gate on isolated in the same paddock as the likes of Plan 9 From Outer Space  and Manos, The Hands Of Fate, especially given that both were awarded new prints and limited cinema releases over the past five years. As for Mars announcement not quite the smoking gun we were hoping for, but another step further in dismantling that terra-centric opinion that we are alone in the universe, at least on a microbiological level. Anyway beware those potential bloody green-hued immigrants I say, they’re only after our precious resources, jobs and women;

I Lost It At The Video Store (2015) Trailer

Well this looks right up my alley, having spent many hours of my mis-spent youth on both sides of that retail experience due to numerous part-time jobs, back in those strange halcyon days when physical media was still an essential part of the cinephile experience. This reminds me that I’ve still not managed to track down a copy of Rewind This!  which I’ve heard is good nostalgic fun, looks like I might have to go a hunting this evening……

Related, this amused me. In other movie news we’re two and a half reviews into the LFF and activities are going reasonably well, even if we haven’t seen any of my earmarked top ten….yet.

It’s for you, Senor…..

Is it weird to consider that I am looking forward to seeing Sicario tomorrow night as much for a fix of Deakins cinematography as I am in seeing a (by all accounts) brilliantly delivered narco-thriller? OK, don’t answer that. Speaking of narco, I’m looking forward to seeing this which sounds like Goodfellas crossed with Traffic. In the meantine here’s a nice supercut, with a fairly good breadth of era;


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