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RIP Bill Paxton (1955 – 2017)

Well, I think I can speak for us all by stating this is a bit of a shock – he was on WTF only a week ago and came across a thoroughly down to earth, cool guy, particularly when joking about this. A terrific, reliable character actor, immortalised in Aliens, and the only dude to have been slain by a Predator, a Terminator and an Alien. There are too many great appearances to list here, but I will cite the brilliant Raimi A Simple Plan and this Menagerie favourite;

BFI Scorsese Season – Raging Bull (1980)

bull1‘You never knocked me down Ray… I’ve never particularly cared for Raging Bull. It’s a shocking admission as on paper it should be among my favourite films, what with that triumvirate of Scorsese, Schrader and De Niro in the driving seat, particularly when the latter was at the peak of his powers. I’ve always suspected that the film was ahead of me, that I lacked the insight and wisdom to fully appreciate it when I first saw it as a teen, and again through a handful of revisits over the intervening years. I could always  appreciate the craftwork, Schoonmaker’s astounding assembly of the punishing fight scenes, Scorsese’s dizzying camerawork, and of course De Niro’s method madness with the weight gain and boxing regime he undertook to don those gloves of pugilist Jake La Motta, a commitment to the physicality of a performance that has since acquired mythic status. I’ve always wanted to revisit this on the big screen, an approach which could activate the revelatory experience this classic, and I have conducted some research into the films history which might also contextualise the film not only in the Scorsese oeuvre, but also in the wider channel of American cinema as it came to that crossroads of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.

ragingbEven if you accept 1/10 of what Biskind alleges in the seminal Easy Riders, Raging Bulls reportage this was a turbulent period. Scorsese’s private and artistic life was in crisis after the immense financial and critical failure of his previous film New York, New York and his tempestuous romance with the rarely stable Liza Minnelli was in freefall. Plagued by insecurities during a terrible shoot he’d worked with De Niro with the last three movies and wasn’t jumping at the chance for another failure, and as was the environment they were all seriously hopped up on deep coke habits – Schrader was doing four grams a day – and after a Telluride festival a combination of contaminated powder, his asthma medicine and overwhelming exhaustion Scorsese experienced a medical convulsion and almost died, and during recuperation in a New York hospital he had what  addicts term  ‘a moment of clarity’ and poured this destructive angst into a project he could now see from the inside out, the self destructive impulses, the aesthetic impotency and growling, Neanderthal, masculine insecurity  – these are the hammer blows of Raging Bull.

bull3Amusingly the film went into production the same month as Cimino’s Heavens Gate which struck the death knell of the decade, where Raging Bull can be considered its artistic apogee. Long time Scorsese scribe Mardik Martin made a first pass on Jake LaMotta’s autobiography, but something pivotal was missing. Schrader’s second assault  introduced the tension between brother Jake (De Niro) and Joey (Joe Pesci), inflaming the jealousy that was absent in the book but forms the dark nucleus of his life and the carnage he wrought in and out of the ring.  At first the United Artist executives were nervous, they didn’t feel such a reprehensible character won’t exactly entice in the ticket receipts, but Rocky had made all boxing projects hot properties, even shorn of their triumph of adversity  plot predictability. Scorsese insisted on a tabloid feel, highly influenced by the work of photographer Weegee (a patron of Kubrick’s early Time career by the way) hence the insistence on the black & white palette which while problematic was a little more receptive to the suits after the relatively recent success of The Last Picture Show. Crucially this was also the first collaboration of arguably the greatest director and editor team of all time, Scorsese hiring Thelma Schoonmaker, although I’m sure you fact fans will be fascinated that the previous two films of his had been cut by a certain Marcia Lucas, wife of George, who was instrumental in the craft of New York, New York and a little modest picture called Taxi Driver – more on that later….

bull4Raging Bull opens with a framing device in 1964, the corpulent once champion now fallen from grace, muttering his street soliloquy to a mirror before cutting back to his physical and celebrity prime, Thus the scene is set for an epic fall from grace, a man demolished by his own demons and insecurities, an aligned marriage of career and substance that pushed Scorsese to his artistic borders.  The environment is a vividly reconstructed New York once again, Scorsese intimate since birth with those sweltering summer sidewalks, the red brick townhouses and tenement ambiance of overlapping arguments and domestic distress, a cacophony of constant barking animals and shrieking sirens. In this way the film is constantly, well, its angry and energetic, there are few calm asides nor allusions, a maelstrom of near constant flux and threat. This was Cathy Moriarty’s first film and she by her own admission completely ignorant of the practice of filming, but she had that undeniable chemistry with De Niro on screen, she wasn’t intimidated by him and handled herself admirably by tossing lines back during improvised scenes and sequences,  so it seems a shame she never had much in the way of a subsequent career. Also look out for Frank ‘shinebox retrieval instructor‘ Vincent in his screen debut.

bull9Older and wiser in the ways of cinema I can now recognise something of the street confessional, the raw virtue of early Pasolini which was an evident influence, channelled through the earlier pulses of the home countries Italian Neo-Realism. Bit Scorsese took this influential infrastructure and strained the character   through a specific  American lens  of the punishing dream, of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and achieving victory at all costs, no matter the impact on your marriage or soul. To have as your main character a narcissist, misogynistic self hating abuser, a man so paranoid he accuses and beats his own brother was a tough sell as you never sympathise with LaMotta and his distressing antics, but De Niro keeps you glued to the screen through sheer force of personality and profundity. As Schrader frequently attests for him character is action, what they do marks who they are rather than relying on the techniques of long soliloquys or illuminating dialogue, and we are in the orbit of a thoroughly odious, yet curiously understandable ogre. Whilst the contemporary parallels are evident Raging Bull strums  deeper than surfaces, it has a wider breadth to suggest how we all fight, sometimes against ourselves and our own self destructive impulses and instincts, in the theatre or boxing ring of life. This being Marty we are treated to an expert entrance steadicam shot,  the fight scenes took ten weeks alone to shoot, two and a half months, improvisation utilised to keep the energy and tempo consistent through what was a gruelling experience.

bull3After the exhausting shoot was tapped out the post production schedule was almost as brutal, the sound mix alone took six months, Scorsese in perfectionist mode as he insisted on delicate completion of the Foley signalled rifle shots into melon to replicate the assault of flashbulbs and punches.  Seen now the thundering  editing in the fight scenes are intoxicating, in terms of sheer physicality these are among the greatest fight scenes committed to celluloid, dizzying, delirious and deadly. Crucially the camera stays in the ring with LaMotta during his dance with his opponents, a third character ducking and weaving through the melee, with special, almost expressionistic designed sets expanded beyond the realistic curtilage, giving every fight scene it’s own individual schemata that represents a different stage of LaMotta’s career as it closes in and fails. These were all specially designed and storyboarded in pre-production, Scorsese not opting for a traditional three line camera crew covering various angles, but instead resorting to one camera, perfectly choreographed like a dance movement with high speed interludes and expressionistic touches like the blood literally dripping from the encircling ropes.

bull5At this stage in his career and psyche Scorsese assumed this would be his last film, and he’d retreat into teaching or academia after the films assumed failure, and I love how he termed it as  ‘kamikaze film-making’, hurling  everything into the picture and going for broke with nothing to lose. The results are there to see even as much as it simply still doesn’t connect with me, as much as I can fully admire the immense craft and dedication. It remains a text which you can’t deny  for the sheer sweat and passion, crucial to the bruised and battered body of work, even if it doesn’t still  engage on a personal level. Seeing it on the big screen at last revealed some of the films sheer technical prowess which leaves you shell shocked on a visual level, punch drunk and reeling from the sheer assault of sound, image and intensity, and that alone ensures its seminal status in the lexicon. Now, we all know how P.T. Anderson lifted the final monologue for that notorious final scene in Boogie Nights, which in turn traces a  lineage through Kazan’s On The Waterfront of challenging characters throughout American cinema, all human beings, wrecked and wracked with their own failures, struggling to be better men despite their own burdens;

Moonlight (2017)

moon1Sometimes, when you think the cinema you are constantly exposed to can seem staid and similar a broadside thunders, and your expectations are beautifully shattered. The reputation of Moonlight hustled up a high bar of brilliance, coalescing since its rapturous responses throughout the festival circuit of 2016.  Initially, during the first part of my screening I was intrigued but I wasn’t necessarily immersed – an early, flashy single take that dervishly swerves around a scorching Miami neighbourhood smacked a little of indulgence, and setting yet  another film in a narcotic nested centre of the African American experience could only make me think that we’ve been here too many times already. But then one early scene pours from the screen in such indecipherable  beauty, when mid level drug baron Juan (Mahershala Ali) teaches a young boy, Chiron (Alex Hibbert) how to swim in the Miami surf, and this deeply moving film never looks back. Juan has taken this neglected and withdrawn boy under his wing after discovering him wondering through some ruined tenements in the ghetto of Liberty City, his father absent, his mother grappling with her own substance abuse demons.

moon2Barry Jenkins adaptation of screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue  charts Chiron through three formative periods of his life, as a boy, as a gangling and sullen teenager (played by Asthon Sanders) and then as a young man (a broodingly fragile Trevante Rhodes), his moniker shifting from school nickname to street name through a procession of identities. That is just one of the connective tissues  that emphasise the underlying currents of self and soul that permeate the picture, beautifully rendered in a trio of linked performances from three previously unknown actors. Although I was initially perturbed by the unfolding of yet another tale of African American experience unfolding in the ghetto, of slinging on the corners and avoiding 5-0 it soon becomes clear that this is merely the backdrop of a wider psalm on our perceptions of the self and how these can change through time and circumstance, the id in a constant state of flux and evolution. Naomi Harris (better known as Moneypenny in the latest Bond’s)  as Chiron’s mother and Ali (the fixer Remy in House Of Cards) are both fantastic support, surrounding Chiron with fully rendered adults to his wounded interior, with all their complexities and contradictions in full display.

moon3For a sophomore effort (his first film, Medicine For Melancholy is already being reassessed) this is a film which is deeply accomplished, fully deserving of the panoply of awards it has attracted and its affinity with the best work of Wong Kar Wai and Lynne Ramsay, both cited by  Jenkins as crucial influences. The palette is that of combining  intimate, handheld closeness coupled with broad widescreen environments, James Laxton’s cinematography brilliantly blazing within the alabaster Miami sun and a twilight of shimmering oranges. Through these designs the film levitates, hovering in that space between self daydream and cognitive inquiry,  where crucially Laxton lights the space, not the characters so they can work and move within the dimensions of specific scenes. Carefully orchestrated through the performances, score, masterful manipulation of exposition and colour schemata Moonlight weaves through the influential moments of this young man’s life, before alighting on a devastating emotional conclusion, without resorting to the usual closure of the screen-writing  101 playbook.

moon4A rather lazy but accurate pitchline for the film has devolved to Boyhood meets Boyz In The Hood. Rather more beautifully I’ve heard Moonlight compared to ‘Caravaggio in Florida’, and as a culturally shrewd punctuation mark on the Obama era, of racial advancement and civic progress for gay rights, whch forms a an important thread but not the entirety of Chiron’s story. What is clear is that beyond the surface sexual and racial politics is that Moonlight is a cartography of shifting identities, not just of his life and struggles but also those of his mother and other ancillary characters, divorced from the usual  social realist take on growing up poor, in troubled circumstances in modern America. Rather forlornly one hopes that it can overcome the steam train of the undeniably entertaining, skilled yet in comparison rather hollow La La Land come Sunday night, but I’m sure the Academy will favour another valentine to itself rather than this infinitely more complex meditation on masculinity. Believe the hype, this is a major film from a major new voice, aching and vibrant with bittersweet beauty;

The Language of Propaganda

Given the coverage a certain speech is getting today, this seems like an apt moment to post this;

Kubrick Remembered….

Some enterprisng soul has uploaded this from the recent Blu-Ray box set which has now dramatically dropped in price, 80 minutes and change of Stanley related reminiscence;

Gimme Danger (2016)

I’m a mere twenty minutes into this documentary about Iggy & The Stooges and have already learnt three valuable things – a) Iggy likes to be interviewed in the laundry room of his home, b) He was raised in a trailer that was identical  to that of the Doris Day picture The Long, Long Trailer and c) Iggy for president – he’s a fucking survivor. Jim Jarmusch has assembled this fantastic documentary, it is quite amusing to me to finally realise that the Stooges split four years before the Sex Pistols arrived, and I haven’t even got into the Berlin / Bowie era yet – so talk about being ahead of the curve;

EDIT – Having been raised by my brother on a diet of 1960’s musical imagination – The Doors, Who, Zepplin and of course the overrated behemoths of the Beatles & Stones I always knew there was a missing piece between the decades, beyond the understood mix of MC5, The Ramones and the Velvets, and I’m sure half a dozen other bands that Q magazine subscibers could lecturer me on. Great documentary, the equal of those great music history efforts that BBC 4 have been producing over the past few years…

Song To Song (2017) Trailer

He’s actually getting quite prolific in his advancing years isn’t he, with yet another one on the way, and I haven’t even seen the erratically praised Voyage Of Time yet. Some scamps have already anointed it as ‘Wide-Angle: The Movie’ which should became fairly evident when you watch the trailer;

John Wick 2 (2017)

wick1

What’s your ideal blend of munitions for an action movie? For me it has to be some incendiary concoction of superb acrobatic choreography, coherent and concise spatial editing, destructive characters and situations, and carnage strewn quipage. John Wick 2, the inevitable sequel to Keanu Reeves post Matrix return to form nails three out of four of these targets, in what for me was a far more successful movie than 2014’s inauguration of this erratic franchise. Still in mourning for his wife and with a new canine companion in tow the film prologues with a splattery slaughter, as John (Reeves) retrieves his stolen vehicle from the clutches of the Russian mob. With equilibrium restored chaos is immediately reinstated with a visit from an old friend, ambitious Italian crime lord Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio). This underworld underboss establishes himself as this episodes hissable baddy, when he calls in a blood stained marker to honour an old oath that Wick had enshrined in order to once and for all escape the life. Wick refuses, his home is torched, and events are set in motion .for a final faceoff which will shake the syndicate to its core.

wick2Like the other movie I saw today it took me some time to get into the groove of this picture, as the initial return to this shadowy world of secret assassination cabals was loaded with a magazine of misfiring clichés and dialogue dum-dums. before finally gaining some ground as the locations shifted. As the plot weaves between New Jersey to Rome some continental sophistication is injected, as quite honestly some of the barque production design and lighting orchestrations in this movement are the equal of a Ridley Scott picture. Speeding up the momentum the action sequences are tagged thick and fast, leaving a flash-bang concussion, especially when the Wick  bivouacs back in Manhattan for a frankly hilarious montage of mayhem. Fending off assaults from a phalanx of professionals, after a double cross leaves him with a sizeable bounty on his shrapnel scarred scalp, we finally see the measure of that myth about John slaying three goons in a bar with just a pencil…..

wick3I do love the world-building in this freshly fractured franchise, the second movie opens up the idea of some global crime syndicate operating across borders and nations, yet still retaining some strictly enforced semblance of   honour among thieves in the  ideological infrastructure. This proves quite important from a narrative perspective and powers much of the films pleasing plot pivots, as we also get to see some of the wider organisation and engineering  of the cabal’s homicidal industry. Film nerds will crack a faintly ominous smirk at the appearance of Franco Nero as the Italian counterpart to Ian McShane’s returning Manhattan based  administrator, and it was also fun to see Keanu reunited with a special cameo guest who is probably plastered all over the trailer – watch at your peril. If only they’d managed to muster a few good quips or dialogue detonations this could have been a real blast, and Keanu’s stoic shtick wears a little thin by the closing stages, but then again any criticism of him would surely be suicidal….

wick4Now, like any good safe-space supporting, shrieking special snowflake liberal I did approach this (like the first film) with a slight mistrust of the unapologetic fetishisation  of weapons and firearms in the movie. In that respect the film can be judged to be quite pornographic, and quite frankly this is as its coagulating reputation suggests one of the most violent films I have ever seen. This is compounded in the context of recent Hollywood fare being more targeted on CGI aliens and mecha being ruthlessly exterminated, rather than a seemingly endless parade of flesh and blood henchmen whom Keanu scythes through like a flamethrower through an orphanage. I dunno, after recent events and especially this week’s White House ‘press conference’ I’m assured we won’t be around in 18 months to worry about such trivial matters, and complaining of such in the current context is to quote Michael Herr’s delicious narration in Apocalypse Now like ‘handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500’…..

wick5From a technique standpoint all the set-pieces are framed within  fully digestible masters, delineating a clear relationship between space and the hordes of opponents – clear,  concise and carnivorous. Hell, it’s just so heartening to see director Chad Stahelski   (a former stuntman) and Gareth Evans of The Raid movies, these conjurors of chaos fighting toward a definitive new action genre aesthetic, abandoning the exhausted shaky-cam incoherence which may have finally been liquidated after last year’s turgid Jason Bourne. For some bizarre reason Enter The Dragon popped into my head as I was thinking through one of the slower umbilical plot sections,  only for Wick 2 to directly homage and mirror (heh) the  climax of that classic, in probably the most electrically executed battle sequence since The Raid 2 a couple of years ago – they must have spent months digitally scrubbing all traces of the Steadicam operators from that hallucinatory hall of mirrors. Inevitably the film flanks to a final trilogy circling sequel, no surprise since the picture has already recouped its astonishingly under ordinanced $40 million budget – man, that wouldn’t cover the kerosene budget on the imminent Transformers picture. Thoroughly recommended for the action choreography alone this is a superior calibre to its initial sortie, and we can only hope that Stahelski and his screenwriting imps  manage to out-carnage themselves for  one final explosive franchise finale in 2019;

The Bad Batch (2017) Trailer

Ana Lily Aminpour, director of the breakthrough A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night has a new film imminent, and I think it has an interesting vibe to it.;

The Beguiled (2017) Trailer

I’ve always enjoyed Sofia Coppola’s films, she has certainly carved out her own cinematic idiom and style, although I can understand and appreciate some of the aesthetic criticisms – distanced, elitist, cold, privileged. Well, I like at least three of those elements across a broad range of presentations, so any new picture from her always piques my interest. To see her take on a remake of a 1970’s Clint Eastwood starring picture, especially during the period when he attracted some gender representational antipathy – well, in the current climate this could be mildly volatile;