When the intelligence and inspiration are evident, films which set themselves specific formal challenges can be deeply rewarding. Current cinema technological advancements mean that we can conjure almost anything mirrored from the human imagination, from the deepest tranches of intergalactic space to a single tear traced down a human face, a macro to micro shift limited only by a screenwriters or directors visionary ambition. In that light when I hear of a films premise which deliberately sets itself binding constraints my interest is piqued, as was the case with the critically adored Room which has been showered with Academy Award praise after securing the Toronto film festival’s Audience Award last September. Partially inspired by the sheer, unimaginable horror of the Joseph Fritzel case Room is quite a curiosity just by the fact that such a non-commercial project got made, you can almost hear the disbelief of the purse clutching executives querying how exactly a movie which begins in a squalid rape dungeon could transform into an inspirational hymn to the resilience of the human spirit, although the popularity of the 2010 novel on which the adaptation was based was, as the producers tell it, the secret weapon to dismiss any concerns that the project may be inherently non-commercial. As the director of 2014’s modest cult hit Frank it’s remarkable to see a young talent catapulted from cult curio to Academy Award nominee, director Lenny Abrahamson now rubbing shoulders with the illustrious heights of veterans George Miller, Iñárritu and Adam McKay, with a shining path already stretching away should he win the elusive statuette or not. Room starts in somewhat less salubrious conditions, as we observe the claustrophobic birthday party preparations for Jack, played with an uncannily naturalistic skill by relative new-comer Jacob Tremblay. Like any inquisitive five-year-old Jack bounces around the constraining conditions of a rather squalid apartment room, the only natural light provided by a distant, almost celestial skylight. It soon becomes apparent that all is not quite right as the pieces of the puzzle slowly reveal a horrifying concept, that alongside his protective young mother (Brie Larson) Jack is being imprisoned against their will, and he has never experienced the world beyond the confines of their choking cell. His mother whom he affectionately refers to as ‘Ma’ interacts with ogrish ‘Old Nick’, their jailer who provides them with food and rations before raping ‘ma’ on a daily basis, when Jack is feebly sequestered away from such adult horrors, supposedly asleep in a thin-walled cupboard. Grim stuff huh? You may already be closing the browser muttering that ‘this isn’t a film for me’ but hang on just for a second, as if it means anything I can assure you that this isn’t a film about horror and incarceration, but a remarkably moving film about assimilation.
Based on the book by Emma Donahue who has also been corralled into scriptwriting duties there is absolutely no way of properly excavating this film without hacking through the narrative to second act spoilers, submerged plot points you will already have acquired if you’ve seen the trailer. If you wish to get into this film as bewildered and anxious as some viewers have been then I suggest you bookmark this page and come back later, as from the next sentence we will be quantifying the film’s unconventional structure and exceptional emotional strategy. Still here? Are you sure? Good, OK then, let’s move on. Much of the film is framed around Jack’s reflective narration which I think will make or break the film for some viewers, it’s an effective, lyrical technique to put us in his shoes and lead us into the heart of the story. The subject matter could easily have descended into the gutter of some sleazy exploitation flick, but of course that isn’t Abramson’s intention as he yearns and mostly succeeds in dragging us through the depths of human depravity to a transcendent and promising other side. When Ma and Jack manage to escape their confines via a blatantly unrealistic but narratively excusable plan the predicted plot concerns fade away, as the emphasis shifts from any notion of retribution or blame to simple adaption, of adjusting to a vast new world filled with creatures and characters not mediated through a tiny TV screen. Many of these entities seem foreboding and alien to a young boy whose entire existence has been restricted to two other humans and a small sampling of verminous critters, so he has no frame to process an intrusive media, strange family and imposing authority figures, the denizens of an adult world which is just as confusing and jarring for Ma (whom we learn is actually named Joy which has to be some blackly cosmic joke) as it is for the slowly regenerating Jack. Throughout the film Abramson shows that he’s good at framing faces and spaces, and has managed to coax out some remarkably poised and naturalistic performances – not bad for someone who had one of cinemas most popular actors locked behind a paper-mache mask for his last project.
As a former child actor herself Brie Larson’s connection with her seven-year-old colleague was a crucial factor in her casting and the fulcrum of their instant on-screen rapport, she’s the front-runner for the best actress this year and it’s not difficult to see why. Her discrete and internalized performance doesn’t resort to easy bug-eyed terror, but when she lets the mask slip to show the barely contained terror and fear churning within its quite the powerful revelation. With Trembalay we seem to have another Hayley Joel Osmond on our hands, an almost eerie maturity to his performance oscillating between a hesitant wonder and fear of the new infinite world beyond his previously curtailed horizons. I did find it the film a little syrupy in places, a PG13 take on an incredibly horrific scenario, so I’m slightly mystified at those solemnly warning it as being ‘challenging’ or ‘disturbing’ when quite frankly the unimaginable concept has been appropriately sanitized for as wide a multiplex audience as possible. Solid as always are Joan Allen as the Jacob’s overjoyed and patient grandmother, and a sadly wasted William H Macy appears as the confused grandfather whose inability to accept his new grandson seems to have been clipped for run time purposes. Best of the supporting cast however is stepfather Tom McCamus (whom eagle-eyed inquisitors may recognize from The Sweet Hereafter) who gets to lead on Room’s killer tear-wrenching tsunami scene, with a certain characters simple facial expression just about the most magical movie moment of the year so far – if I just say ‘Seamus’ then those whom have seen the film will know exactly what I’m talking about. After Frank and his earlier films Abrahamson has an affinity with isolated and damaged characters who nevertheless burst with an inquisitive spark of creativity, so it should be fascinating what his new profile awards him next – is that adaption of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time still orbiting production offices?
The film might be a little heavy on the stylised POV which places us in Jack’s frequently bewildered mind, but it’s also economic in some respects by letting the audience free associate through some narrative gaps, overwhelming any plot strands which could deviate from the films core emotional journey – why did Joy’s parents separate following her disappearance? Where does Granpa go and why does his inability to accept Jacob as anything beyond a symbol of his daughters defilement? What is the final fate of the monstrous Old Nick? Room conquers in some quiet little observational moments, through the small of tenderness which will, well, just destroy you should the journey manage to penetrate your black husk of a heart, quietly ruminating on an innocents resilience and how such incomprehensible cruelty can be endured and surpassed. Now, I can’t believe I got through this entire review without making some spurious Tommy Wiseau gag, for the record he’s in London soon to conduct some screening quote-along which just goes to show how you can carve a career from such utterly unbelievable incompetence eh? So this leaves Spotlight to see next weekend which I think will conclude this year’s Oscar coverage, I still have some interest in seeing Creed, Joy and at a push Trumbo but I’m just not sure I have the endurance for any of them at the cinema, especially after four 1,500 reviews in a week (with another en-route in a couple of days) and with the likes of The Witch taking flight on her broomstick in a couple of weeks. For me I found Room heartening not just for the inherent story of triumph over adversity, a concept as old as drama itself, but also for the success that such a hideous sounding concept could connect with an audience through its measured approach to such material, or as Ebert so memorably said ‘it’s not what a films about, it’s how it is about it’;
Finance movies can be a difficult negotiation. Some of them yield hardy investments, Margin Call as a recent example secured a robust portfolio while Wall Street set the entire loathsome ‘greed is good’ mantra in the cultural consciousness. Further afield in the early 1980’s there was Menagerie favourite Rollover, or more recently the sublime The Wolf Of Wall Street which is less a scathing condemnation of the financial sector than it is of the American dream in general, personified in one central loathsome leech. This is the crucial point, as a distinction should be made between films which use the Wall Street environment to wield larger critiques of our modern pharaohs and the moral void at the centre of our ever-expanding, ravenous consumerist destruction, and those which actually examine the arcane infrastructure of the system, the impenetrable argot and cultural temperature of the trading desks and coke scattered restrooms, the executive Manhattan suites and $2,000 an hour Bowery strip-joints. The Big Short is based on journalist Michael Lewis’s best selling expose of the catastrophic mortgage market bubble of the noughties, an Academy award nominated dramerdy which diversifies its character portfolio across a range of plot strands, to build a rich and fury inducing picture of a corrupt system that is utterly out of control. Negotiations start with fiscal savant Michael Burry (Christian Bale) as he identifies echoes of the 1930’s crash in the poisonous mortgage bundled sector, committing the entire resources of his investors and parent company on his precognitive prestidigitation. On the East coast a chance missed call by disgruntled analyst Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) leads a Morgan Stanley backed hedge fund to begin their own cautious investigations, headed by the consistently furious Mark Baum (Steve Carell). Baum and Vennett form a suspicious alliance as their reconnaissance unveils the radioactive instability at the industrial core, forcing them to almost regretfully bet against the prevailing financial winds, remaining confident that the all-powerful system will correct itself in its self-regulated, plutocratic form.
Even those locked out of the system have divined the inevitable, as two young investors Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) have amassed a small fortune by gambling on the unlikely movements of stocks and bonds. They persuade former Wall Street exile Ben Ricket (Brad Pitt) to shatter the portcullis of the financial castles through his contacts and networks, sharpening the final trident spire in place for a simultaneously amusing and horrifying take on the instability and greed of our modern civilisation. The difficult dissemination of complex insider information is superbly done, through fourth wall breaking asides and breathless canters through the secret infrastructure of the ‘street’, building a complex picture of the rarefied air of high finance that the politicians, regulators and even senior practitioners can barely manage to understand, let alone control. Some of these techniques are a little distracting, featuring director Adam McKay rifling through his Hollywood Rolodex to get some hot actresses to boost the oestrogen levels of what is almost uniformly a testosterone fest, a mirror to Wall Street’s constitution which incidentally has me interested in Equity which is premiering at Sundance this week.
There are cameos from Marisa Tomei as Mark’s wife, equipped with an extraneous sub-plot following his guilt over his brothers suicide, a vain and fruitless attempt to award these predators a sense of chivalry and righteous fury to a bunch of misfits who will profit gargantuanly from the collapse of the entire fiscal eco-system. This brings us to an inherent contradiction and the primary criticism of the film, that there is no-one to root for, that no-one functions as our ‘hero’ in The Big Short as these relative minnows in the churning oceans of finance are as odious and profit motivated as the faceless executives of Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Credit Suisse and all the rest – to which I say exactly and more specifically that’s the fucking point. It’s the system that’s fraudulent, the utterly insane ideology incepted in the 1980’s which has set the cancerous root, not necessarily the fault of the financial foot soldiers who are only obeying orders, the Ivy League drones who docily follow instructions where the worship of money is the only and absolute obliterating ambition. Within that shadow the film pulls off its major grift, the handsome leads as our surrogate with their belief in the system utterly inverted by the stupidity and greed of the monolithic banking behemoths, as this is where The Big Short unveils its real political coup. These traders at least play by the rules of the casino and understand the risks to reward ratio, only to have their faith murdered by a quotidian privilege that even these outliers had no idea was so corrupt. The public purse bails out the greed, immigrants and the poor scapegoated as the enemy and the source of all middle class ills, while the whole sick system has not only regenerated but grown more entrenched over the past decade.
Some of the films smaller affectations are a little on the nose, rendering one of the watch-dog rating agency representatives (a proficient cameo from Melissa Leo) with an eye condition so she is literally blind was more than a little heavy-handed, but there is so much energy coursing through the film that you forgive these small deviation, as a two hours investment scurries along in what feels like a fraction of the time. The filming style is all hand-held immediacy, all focus-racks and hyper-rapid montage patterns to secure an energetic sense of the time and place, a form that’s a little distracting and irritating to start with but gradually eases into the journey. Any ability to economically explain arcane financial instruments is an achievement in itself, there is a well orchestrated sequence in a Vegas casino (where else?) which unveils the destructive depths of the iceberg lurking beneath the visible peaks of the Collateralised Debit Obligations, these products the surface of a pecuniary void vast and fathomless, utterly and completely out of control. These products and systems are as intangible as the ethics that there manipulators lack, they hold absolutely no material or physical value whatsoever as opposed to, say, wheat or diamonds, fuel or components, the all-powerful free market allegedly dictating doctrine where no-one really has the slightest idea of what the hell is going on, with no more skill on display than literally throwing dice or praying on the turn of a card at a blackjack table.
The star sodden cast isn’t too distracting from the sober matters at hand, and Pitt and Gosling in particular seem happy to stand back and let some of the newer faces take equal screen time, with Carell emerging as the character lynchpin who channels the audiences disbelief and incompetent anger. Christian Bale’s nomination is as impenetrable as the dense spreadsheet he instinctively interrogates, he’s fine enough as a financial savant with the social anxiety and immaturity of someone on the lower scale of the Asperger’s register, but there are far more effective and memorable supporting roles which seem more apt for reward if you ask me – Del Toro in Sicarrio anyone? Adam McKay is a comedy director so there are plenty of laughs and absurd moments which keep the serious subject matter bouncing along, the ‘you’ve got to be fucking kidding’ reactions which come thick and fast throughout the three narrative threads. The final stretch analysing the radioactive fallout of 2008 sees the humour is suspended as the tone turns particularly sour, with an emphasis upon the lack of accountability and absence of arrests, that no-one has paid any reckoning for the trillions lost, the tens of thousands of suicides, the hundreds of thousands of lost homes, jobs and starving families, with the terrifying coda that in 2015 the major banks started hungrily trading in the darkly hilarious named ‘bespoke tranche opportunities’, or clandestine CDO’s in a softer yet no less destructive form. With the world’s economists again yelling of an imminent collapse, comparing the 2008 sortie as a musket shot to the hydrogen bomb holocaust to come this is a timely film which might muster a small comedic respite as we huddle for warmth around spluttering campfires, gnawing on lukewarm rat meat following the next derivative doomsday – I’ll bet on that;
Shane black is back in black? Humour that is. Well this looks vaguely promising, although I should stress that the trailer gives away a few gags that might be better to see fresh when the movie drops in the spring, I did like the swimming pool misjudgement though;
You might think I need my head examined, committing to a BFI season in the midst of probably the most intense month of new release essentials I can recall since I started this blog, but what can I say other than here we are. Despite two or three essential new films hitting multiplexes every January weekend (next weekend alone has the choice of The Assassin, The Big Short or Room) I was also drawn to the BFI’s exhaustive Jean Luc Godard season, mostly to challenge myself and my previously conceived cinematic palette. Like a lot of boisterous cinephiles I spent my late teens and early twenties seeing as much of the officially recognized ‘canon’ as I possibly could, mercilessly devouring as much Dreyer and Bergman, Fellini and Kurosawa as I possibly could, a crash course in self-taught film studies which didn’t necessarily operate within a competent or robust framework of film history and its technical and formal evolution. Like any starry eyed celluloid wetback I wasn’t mature enough to fully digest the vast majority of what I was seeing, and many of my early formed opinions and peccadilloes have remained imperviously intact – Lang, Lynch, Leone, Bresson, and Malick will never be unseated from the Menagerie hall of champions, plus the immediately embedded likes of Carpenter and Kubrick who remain the all time unimpeachable omnipotent titans. I used to think for example that Francis Coppola, Ridley Scott and Oliver Stone were among the greatest directors to have lived, now I recognize their fantastic individual contributions are not remotely in the same league as the overwhelming achievements of Tarkovsky or Powell, Wilder or Hitchcock. It’s only as you get older, as you mature and are exposed to a wider menu of material and crucially revisit key texts with the benefit of life experience that previously underwhelming figures begin to make sense, as initial antipathy starts to thaw and previously impenetrable styles or statements slowly unveil their treasures. Now that’s not to say that I don’t reserve some critical faculty, I don’t find every director quoted on the Sight & Sound list as above reproach, and despite ‘getting’ Eisenstein and Fellini to name but two I can admire their essential contributions yet don’t particularly care for their work on any emotional or personal level, although with the former I’d be surprised if anyone found his formalist breakthroughs even remotely ‘moving’ like, say, a Frank Capra or a Truffaut picture. They are different beasts with different prey, with fur and talons that hunt through different ecosystems, their repeated themes and styles preferable to some and not others due to our own individual movie musing constitutions – I loathe musicals even when Scorsese makes one, and no doubt some equally passionate cineastes dislike horror pictures like Psycho or just because the subject matter doesn’t map to their personalities. This is all my extremely roundabout and exhausting way of saying that I’ve never particularly cared for Jean-Luc Godard but was aware of his importance, but in the spirit of a new year I thought that revisiting some of his better known works on the big screen might be an illuminating experience – and it was.
In that light I’ve decided to restrict myself to a light touch when it comes to this season, and I’ve only selected two films, both of which I vaguely enjoyed when I first saw them on TV, for this hesitant return to everyone’s favorite nouvelle vague crypto Marxist provocateur. Godard adapted Contempt from the 1954 novel of the same name by Alberto Moravia, in what is widely considered as one of his most personal films, which despite its lukewarm response was come to be regarded as a masterpiece of 1960’s European cinema. The story, as much as there is a conventional story rests on a disintegrating marriage between Parisian screenwriter, Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli) and his beautiful wife Camille, played by Brigitte Bardot at the apex of her international fame and sexpot popularity. At the time Godard’s marriage to actress Anna Karina was also in a tabloid covered turbulent difficulty, with Godard accepting this directing commission from producer Carlo Ponti without final cut or complete control of script or casting. In the film Paul is summoned to Rome, to the glorious Cinecitta studios in order to spruce up a screenplay for a prestigious adaption of Homer’s The Odyssey that’s floundering in production, directed by the great Fritz Lang who plays himself in an early and beloved instance of intertextual tinkering. The puppet master of the drama is Tinseltown producer Jerry Prokosch (Jack Palance), a blustering personification of Hollywood’s baser commercial instincts, who becomes quite excited at the prospect of more scantily clad maidens, battlefield mayhem and murder and its box office potential instead of Lang’s high minded classical fidelity to the ancient text. Suspicions arise that Paul is engineering a dalliance between Jerry and Camille in order to secure his employers fiscal affections, dismissing her reluctance to be pimped out despite the couples poor financial position. So the modern meets the ancient as artistic ideals clash against commercial realities, set against a declining studio system which Lang personified that by the 1960’s was inevitably fading into history.
My return to one of Godard more famous films from his fifty year (and counting) career was a thoroughly satisfying experience, with a glistening, freshly struck new digital print that is touring the country. The immediate items to discuss is Godard’s playful disregard for convention, constantly reminding you that you’re watching an artificial construct, a movie, through humorous and good-natured asides and affectations – strange shatterings of mise-en-scene, dialogue exchanges which emanate from a fictional movie world rather than any non-fictional fulcrum. This was still new in 1963, this was way before the self-referential spasms of Scream or Tarantino as the obvious antecedents, but rather than ape well established postmodern forms Godard struck out in his own unique direction, before such a cultural concept had even been widely identified or accepted. Contempt, to give it its English translation is an intimate film with a long middle stretch which is just Bardot and Picoli prowling their Mediterranean apartment, arguing and debating their relationship in a heightened and slightly artificial manner, but still managing a sense of universal appeal as their suspicions and vulnerabilities come under the cameras close scrutiny. In the wider plot the immaculately groomed, monocle mounted artist Lang is a representative of cinema’s conscience, asserting the fidelity to the source material and marshalling his intellect to take the text through the simulacra of the screen his noble almost saintly purpose, with Palance’s boorish producer a mirror to the venal aspects of the industry and its lust for the lowest common denominator, signifying the disgust of the title. The fictional bleeds into the real with the history Godard being forced to cast Bardot against his wishes and being instructed to include a nude scene to placate the investors, but he somehow turns the salacious into the sublime, through his formal command of the improvisation grasp of film form. He digs the rabbit hole digs further with a startling use of colour through Raoul Coutard’s ravishing sun-kissed photography, the blues, the whites and reds standing in stark contrast to the palette costume and props signified of their importance with foreshadowing of their narrative purpose and individual character temperatures. The visual accedes to the aural with a similarly spritely use of sound and music, this is the common refrain that runs throughout the film in a jargon of scene selections. In other places the score cuts dead as if the composer was shot dead off-screen, it’s quite humorous and jarring, constantly reminding us that we’re watching a movie, jostling a cosmopolitan shape to the entire film which churns at every appreciative conscious and subliminal level.
I’d be failing in my journalistic duties if I didn’t advise that the newly struck digital print is just sublime, those colours pop out of the screen and it looks as fresh as a Marvel franchise picture. Yes, naturally you see a very slight change in grain and degradation of quality in some scene transfers which presumably is struck from a deteriorated master, but overall the new format injects fresh vitality into this vibrant art-house masterpiece. Bardot was the contemporary equivalent of some Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift or Rhianna hybrid back in 1963, the ‘it’ girl who dominated the discourse in the tabloids and media landscape, and indeed Godard was accused of selling out by the intelligentsia by accepting this high-profile assignment. In her brief introduction to the screening Anna Karina made some rather strange remarks, that Godard assaulted Ponti after production which resulted in a broken leg, although the court case at the time found him innocent of any grievous intention due to the witnesses closing rank with Godard – I hope the statute of limitations has expired on that one as Godard is still knocking around. I can’t help but place Le Mépris within that fine prestige of films where insiders offer a scathing insight into the industry, from Truffaut’s Day For Night, Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, Minnelli’s The Bad & The Beautiful, Altman’s The Player and more recently Cronenberg’s Map To The Stars, the rather on the nose title of this film makes his objective opinion brutally clear. He’ll never be in my top pantheon of directors but being older and wiser I can perhaps more fully appreciate Godard’s achievements in this early phase of his career, that mischevious breaking of the fourth wall, the strange flashes of surrealism and glitches in narrative logic are less irritating and more charming than I recalled, and I’m actively looking forward to the next BFI visit for another of his 1960’s pictures. Also, talk about prolific, Le Mépris was his sixth film since his feature debut in 1960, and in the first seven years of his career alone he directed fifteen texts – two more than Stanley managed throughout his entire career fifty year career. In the opening of the film Godard quotes the eminent cultural theorist Andre Bazin, stating that ‘cinema is better than real life, that it is the real world as we imagine it‘, now that’s an assertion that the Menagerie can fully endorse;
The Western is dead – long live the Western. If you’re a perceptive brave then you’ve possibly seen a recent cyclical bend to America’s pioneer history on the silver screen, as a defunct genre, long exiled to Boot Hill mutters a faint pulse of resurrection. You might have fallen for the blitzkrieg marketing for The Hateful Eight which framed it as an adult antidote to a certain space opera that still dominates multiplexes, a plea for clemency which follows in the trail of last year’s critical darlings Slow West and Bone Tomahawk. Are three films enough to warrant a mini-renaissance of the horse opera? Probably not, but if you inspect the fly-ridden corpse for further signs of life then you might be surprised that there are fresh drag marks into the wilderness, including The Salvation, The Homesman and Meek’s Cutoff over the past few seasons, with Jane Got A Gun, Far From Men, The Keeping Room and Broken Horse still yearning to find their homes among the prairies of the European exhibition market. All these have been eclipsed by foreign tycoon Alejandro González Iñárritu new film The Reverent which has recently been bathed in award nomination glory, a sinewy behemoth that has levered a $150 million budget from Iñárritu’s post Birdman Academy award success, with a litany of hellish production obstacles to add to the myth of great art arising from great difficulties. In the Missouri delta a frostbitten troop of fur trappers are ambushed by a grim Arikara war party, Hugh Glass (Leonardo De Caprio) and his mixed race son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) fleeing the massacre with a tawdry group of terrified survivors. The group is led by the purpose driven but overwhelmed Captain Hendry (Domahall Gleeson) whose unstable leadership just manages to keep one step ahead of their pursuers in the frigid wilderness, until Glass has a rather unfortunate dalliance with a maternally mauling grizzly bear and is mortally wounded in the films petrifying, vicious pinnacle. Hendry makes the grievous decision to abandon Glass with his son and two companions as protectors while they rush to civilization for reinforcements, with the grizzled John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) agitating for a merciful end to Glass’s suffering growing more urgent as the shrieking Arikara war-party closes in for the final kill…..
Iñárritu has long held a fascination for stories concerning fathers and sons, a hereditary interjection he has inserted into this American fable which the real Glass suffered alone back in the early 19th century as part of General Ashley’s expedition. This amendment to the historical record is not the first of missteps along this tortured, inhospitable and uncannily sublime odyssey. Like the courageous doomed defense of the Alamo or George Washington’s inability to emit falsehoods Glass’s survival odyssey has ballooned to mythic proportions in American culture, an ineffable allegory for the endurance of the pioneer spirit pitted against a frigid yet beautiful virgin land ready for the rape of free enterprise’s tearing talons. In Iñárritu’s hands that nationalist fervor is drowned in the raging waters of pure remorseless survival, wielding the landscape and its flora like a furious cudgel to beat his themes into our cranium, the impervious nature of man to avenge his kindred, the reservoir of grief that cannot be drained by any measure of blood sodden revenge. Survival and vengeance have always been keen drivers of the Western genre which this film harnesses as mount and saddle on the narrative trail, but these preoccupations get lost among Glass’s stumble through the vast wilderness, through icy rapids and frozen valleys, pure hatred propelling him to wreck his biblical retribution. The Reverent stumbles in its snowstorm of titanic influences, even from afar the film is hobbled from comparisons to Herzog’s enduring masculinity and Malick’s rueful celebrations of the divine, but there are also pious hymns to Robert Bresson through a seraphic sense of the spiritual, the immaculate sacrifice wisping throughout the frozen tundra, although Iñárritu’s philosophical stretch exceeds his formal and theological grasp. The first half an hour is staggering filmmaking on a pure visceral and visual level, the first nation attack explodes with all the remorseless carnage of the landing sequence in Saving Private Ryan, indiscriminate chaos and lacerating death erupting at every corner of the screen, in a long unbroken sequence that picks up the fortunes of both sides of the melee as it passes from one combatant to the next. Suitably stunned the rest of the film can’t hope to achieve such dizzying heights, as the rest of the film follows in a semi-paralysis of bruised skies and rushing, crystal cold water.
I’m loathe to again bow in pious supplication to the visual dimensions of a movie but you simply cannot sermonize on The Revenant and not revere it’s absolutely stunning photography, and even after a single screening I’ll assert that this is one of the most staggeringly beautiful films of the past few years. From the intimacy of the shivering fire shrouded interiors to the vast and glorious landscape exteriors, Chivo is the front-runner for his third Oscar in a row after Gravity and Birdman which will justifiably achieve Academy Award history. Apart from Lubeski’s visuals tribute must also be paid to the sound, a fantastic flotsam of animal cries and weather effects shrieking around the auditorium, punctuated with Ryuichi Sakamoto‘s percussion heavy minimalist score. It is odd then that despite these primordial ingredients that the film is so emotionally numb, there is no real connection to Glass nor his frantic scrabble for survival, while even quick asides to harness some moments of shared humanity seems irrelevant and forced. At one point Glass and a Pawnee guide take respite on their journey, and wonder at the beauty of snowflakes settling upon their tongues. In another Glass’s dream montages give us some backstory on his wife spiritual importance and her cruel, violent fate. Both hang distant and uncomfortable in the picture as interludes rescued from Malick’s cutting room floor, rather than a celestial beckoning to the fathomless mysteries of nature or a bereaved beauty which it seems is what Iñárritu intended.
Tom Hardy’s Oscar nomination makes a little more sense now that I’ve seen the film, wrapped in those icicle etched furs he is a guttural, trollish trapper who seems to be have been belched forth from Hades itself. He is no cypher however, his motives and actions arise from an uncomfortable selfish realism that mark him as a believable bastard not just a moustache twirling villain, but again after Bane and Max he is practically unintelligible in certain sequences, letting his hefty stature and furtive, darting eyes do all the talking. Similarly Leo utters maybe a dozen lines in the entire odyssey in an immensely impressive, physically draining performance, but for me he just didn’t sell the righteous rage he’s meant to be suffering, the internalized fury that keeps his black-heart beating just didn’t stretch from the screen and frankly I just didn’t care if he failed to fulfil his quest or not. Both performances are captured through precision sharp close-ups netted by the crews Arri Alexa 65 digital camera, their agonised faces looming over the pain and suffering like tableau in some stained glass window, an unconscious riposte to Tarantino’s recent analogue insistence. Unlike his chamber piece however this narrative reads like a condensed survivalist manual, a compacted Bear Grylls season boiled down to a 150 minute expedition, with desperate measures such as the grim Tautaun homage causing me to actually burst out laughing and immediately break any transformative spell.
The presentation of first nation people thankfully doesn’t cleave to the noble savage cliché which usually affects the Hollywood system, their indiscriminate cruelty and vengeance just as elemental and natural as the Europeans greed and indifference, although Powaqa (Melaw Nakehk’o) hunt of his kidnapped squaw daughter was a little garbled in narrative turns as the main driver of his people’s relentless pursuit of retribution. If you want to put hairs on your chest then here is Michael Mann interviewing Iñárritu on stage, an event I’m sure which influenced the Y chromosome constitution of the audience just by the testosterone churning through the auditoriums air. Memes are already rampant on the already infamous bear attack sequence, quite simply it is staggering achievement, not just for the physical intimidation and gruesome realism but also for its painfully protracted nature. It doesn’t quite 100% convince with the matted CGI hair follicles but it’s pretty damn close, and the craftsmen have all been sworn to secrecy as to how they blended the digital with the on-set physical. Any fans of Cormac McCarthy who are following the long gestating adaption of Blood Meridian may have finally identified its dream director and team should that project ever come to fruition, as you must applaud The Revernant’s physical immediacy which approaches the lunatic vision of Aguirre Wrath of God or Apocalypse Now – at one majestic point an avalanche is detonated in the deep background, hundreds of miles away as Glass makes a key emotional breakthrough in the foreground. Although this hyperborean hegira is sure to leave you with images and memories of the remorseless beauty and danger lurking at the edges of the world the effect feels transient, an emotional void and lack of purpose that all the Academy Awards that the film is sure to win come February just can’t and won’t vanquish;
Right then you reprobate muthafuckers, let’s get this year’s retrospective screening programme started with a brain splattering blast shall we? Regardless of your opinion on Quentin Tarantino’s mischievous magpie style this was the film that defined a decade and launched a thousand crude imitations, redefining screen scorched postmodernism in a blast of explosive exploitation, self-referential semiotics and censorship shredding deviancy – Pulp Fiction. The film has been given a number of airings in London cinemas over the years including a digital projection just last year, but like a patient Buddha I have been holding out for an analogue experience which is more in tune with its makers and my retrospective preferences. I don’t wish to get significantly derailed as I have nothing against digital projection or shooting, but if I’m going to spend valuable time on a film I’ve seen a dozen times before then it needs to have some tangible authenticity to make the experience worthwhile – maybe I’ll get round to a proper post on that phenomenon later in the year. Anyway, like most budding cinephiles Quentin’s arrival on the scene was a bloody slap in the face of a genre swarming with Bruckheimer action pyrotechnics, Steven Segal hilarity and Chuck Norris imperialism, while Scorsese seemed to be the only talent holding the torch for incendiary American underworld flicks with both Goodfellas and Casino waiting in the wings. I distinctly remember seeing this scene on an MTV movie show and immediately feeling gut-punched into wondering ‘wow, what the hell is this?’, and shortly thereafter the marketing tsunami spread across the UK. Although I saw Dogs at a midnight screening I never saw Pulp Fiction at the cinema, I was at college at the time with no cinema nearby, but I did get my claws on a reasonable quality VHS rip. With the exception of Jackie Brown, probably the best movie of his eight movies I’ve now seen all his films at the flicks, not a bad effort for a director I find both arrogant and exasperating, but undeniably important. Crucially we sprout from the same tribe, we can energetically quote the cinematographers of sixty, seventy year old movies (Greg Toland!, James Wong-Howe, Boris Kaufman!, Karl Freund!), we can recite pull-quotes from memorable Pauline Kael reviews, and we coo with delight when some obscure character actor in one picture crops in another parched print, an umbilical link of references and connections that make us love the seventh art with such devoted and detailed intensity.
The key to unlocking Pulp Fiction isn’t secreted among the crime genre trappings of these desperados squatting on the fringes of the L.A. underworld, it isn’t buried within the eclectic soundtrack whose obscure warbling entered the popular cultural lexicon, it isn’t even personified in the expertly selected cast who piston power the memorable dialogue and vivid characterisations, no the key to Pulp Fiction is that deliberately fractured narrative, the overlapping time frames and interlocutions which won over the critics and genre fans alike in the staid and formalised storytelling straightjacket of the early 1990’s. That the film juggles three distinct arcs and doesn’t diffuse its impact is a testament to its success – Vincent Vega’s (Travolta) fraught date with the Louise Brooks bobbed Mia (Uma Thurman), the coke addled wife of shark statured crime boss Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames). In the same treacherous waters swims pugilist Butch Coolidge (Willis) who throws a crooked bout before scurrying with his girlfriend to safer, shallow depths, before embarking on a dangerous mission to recover a priceless family heirloom. Finally Vincent and Jules retrieve a stolen briefcase which contains a mysterious golden hued cargo, their mission scuppered when a stray round decimates a hostages cranium, igniting a frantic effort to conceal the homicide and grab some breakfast. These three strands interweave and coil within each other across locations and timeframes in a suppliantly oozing design, both bookmarked by a tense restaurant robbery which further embedded the trademark Tarantino gun-cocked stand-off. Now, let’s talk about violence;
Let’s be clear about this – broadly speaking, for many viewers, violence in movies is fun. It is cathartic, audiences love it, and the entire Hollywood model, the dominant cinema form of the past 120 years is centered around all problems being solved and conflicts settled by a superhero gauntleted fist or the business end of a 9mm Berreta. Since the silent days there have been gunfights, fisticuffs and violent framed solutions pummeled into narrative conclusions. Our heroes and heroines very rarely overcome their dramatic obstacles through mediation and negotiation, and when was the last time you heard an audiences cheer the elimination of an antagonists goals through a carefully structured summit that respectfully considered both sides of a complicated disagreement? Right or wrong this is the common cinematic paradigm, and Tarantino’s hyper stylized and unforgiving approach to the visceral is at least more honest than the digitally sterilized massacres promoted by the major studios blockbuster carnage. Like Nicholas Winding-Refn, Gasper Noé and Lars Von Trier these men are showmen, they are canny provocateurs that giggle at every pearl clutching opinion piece on the depravity of ‘violence in cinema’ that yields another $50,000 to the box office take, every accusatory interview or pull-quote generating far more buzz and marketing bite than any executive could hope to imagine. We’re a violent species, and it has littered our art, our texts and spiritual instruction since, well, we decided to etch charcoal communiqués in caves and on fragile parchments, they reflect society rather than promote behaviours, and there is not one single shred of peer tested evidence to the contrary. That’s not to say that all violence in cinema is justified, that sometimes it isn’t earned or appropriate to the characters and overarching idiom of a movie, but I think we’re lying to ourselves and to others that we don’t get some sort of sensational thrill when Aragorn beheads that Uruk-hai or John McClane quips through another climactic altercation, or the Bride obliterating a host of hara-kiri henchmen in a dazzling ballet of amputated limbs and quivering entrails.
Given that many of the scenes, dialogue exchanges and events have permeated into popular cinema culture this was still a thoroughly entertaining screening, a little like slipping into a comfy pair of old slippers which you can relax into and enjoy, with a few mild surprises and 1990’s affectations which situate the film firmly in its historical context. I’d forgotten just how funny it is, particularly Jules expletive laden tirades in the final section, although the whole enjoyment of the Mr. Wolf sequence has been irrevocably stained by those inexcusable adverts for fucking insurance or whatever they are prostituting, and I can only surmise that whoever sanctioned that atrocity from (presumably) the Weinstein’s on down deserves an entire clip of hollow bore cartridges to their screaming faces. The directorial style is mannered but not exhausted with the indulgent pyrotechnics of Tarantino’s later work, the story and character remain centred through sultry introductions or setting scenes play out in their full screen mayhem. The fractured narrative which so beguiled critics back in the day suggest a breathing LA underworld teeming with larger than life inhabitants, a vivid imaginary world that connects from film to film and text to text, one of the staples of post-modern universe building which delights fans and fanatics with Easter eggs and references that ricochet across the squalid suburbs and tawdry strip joints. Some of the scenes and designs are now iconic, from Uma’s smoke stained Mia to the assassins black suited armour, Travolta may have got the nomination but it’s Jackson who sermons shout from the screen, quite an achievement given that he only makes brief appearances in the opening and closing sequences of the picture. The print was fine, slightly jittery around the reel changes with a few distressed hairlines in a couple of reels, but that was all part of the experience for a film which references back to the sordid and murky B-movie crimes the past, and now finds itself aging gracefully into its early twenties.
Some random observations – I’m sure I knew this but it was corrupted somewhere from in the memory banks, but that was Steve Buscemi as the Buddy Holly waiter in Jack Rabbit Slims wasn’t it? Although this wasn’t Ving Rhames first film it was certainly the first that assaulted mainstream public attention, but apart from his running role in the Mission Impossible franchise he doesn’t seem to have got much luck.- he’s worked regularly but not exactly in the A list supporting stratosphere. In opposition the film in one fell swoop made bona-fide stars of Samuel L. Jackson and Uma Thurman, as well as the overnight resurrection of John Travolta’s career despite QT facing the same executive wrath that Coppola weathered with his casting of Brando in The Godfather – ‘he’s not commercial’, ‘over my dead body’ etc etc. As someone who has a generalized loathing of Travolta I’ll admit that he is eminently watchable in this role, and he pulls off the dozy eyed indifference to a professionalism that you can’t imagine anyone else in those flip-flops and beach wear – ‘ha, ha, they’re your clothes motherfucker‘. Without wanted to delve too deeply into controversial arenas the jury is still out on whom exactly was responsible on leading the writing on which section, or who assembled the interlocking the various jigsaw pieces which were so brilliantly arranged in the Oscar winning screenplay. Although he was convinced to take a ‘Story by’ credit producer Lawrence Bender is reputed to be the equal of Tarantino’s scribing, in keeping with the auteur theory of a films single vision and tyrant, making the film easier for Miramax to sell as ‘the director of Reservoir Dogs exciting new picture’. It’s just a dark delight of a film which might be a little overrated, its entertaining and quippy without harbouring much in the way of any residual effect, but it has that elemental command of cinema and storytelling which its imitators failed to supply, dressing their imitations up in the same sunglasses and trcnchcoats without the same control of pastiche or black comedic charm.
My favourite line in the script comprehensively encapsulates the film, when Jules and Vincent are preparing to retrieve the suitcase and it’s mysterious golden cargo he utters ‘OK, now, let’s get into character’, thus setting the prism of mirrors and genre reflections which emulates the history of crime movies past and elevates its future direction to come. Finally, structuring your finale around a bible spouting speech that bookends the narrative beats of the movie is an exquisite touch, it builds tension from the first act as we have been instructed that this little soliloquy usually results in brain splattered bloodshed, but instead they have the audacity to give that shark suited hoodlum some sense of character development, closing the picture with a soundtrack shuffle rather than a ballistic bang. This retrospective screening was a savage start to the year and I’m excited to see a number of 70mm and 35mm screenings already dropping into my schedule over the next couple of months, some mid-level works from Menagerie favorites are on the horizon, taking us from a bivouac in Vietnam via a detour to Beckton Gasworks, while a delivery to the Chinatown district of San Francisco might result in some trouble – Big trouble. Until then we have the small matter of a half dozen Academy Award nominees to see and a scattering of BFI events – so no pressure;
Well now doesn’t this all seem just a little frivolous after this week’s terrible bereavements? Nevertheless the remorseless wheels of industry can ever forward, with this years Academy Award nominations. As always this exercise focuses the mind and schedule into sighting a number of pictures which haven’t arrived on our shores, and although there are some gaps in the watch list I take comfort that the majority of nominees were already on my horizon. I realise people have been praising Brooklyn and I’m sure its very good but I just couldn’t muster much enthusiasm for it, but even worse is the appearance of The Danish Girl on a few which just looks painful – a two hour ponderous drama by Tom Hooper is my cinematic equivalent of Japanese water torture. Still I take succour as in a curious development the day-job is intersecting with this hobby in a quite unexpected fashion, following on from some previous exposure to regeneration activities in Essex. I can’t really speak too much about it due to confidentially and commercial constraints, and I don’t wish to sound too mysterious, but let’s just say I am becoming actively involved with the exhibition side of the UK film industry via my current assignment, and will shortly be initiating some interesting negotiations & discussions with some senior delegates….
But back to the matter at hand. Quickly casting my eyes over the nominees I can’t see any particularly controversial choices, there are no major upsets or major surprises that spring to mind, although I’m sure as usual I’ve overlooked some major snub as it’s not as if I sit here comparing and contrasting the Golden Globe, BAFTA or other award season portfolios as I couldn’t give a fuck. The lack of diversity seems to be the first point of criticism which is not a unreasonable complaint nor a particular surprise, but for me it’s encouraging to see Mad Max represented in so many categories as I concluded it was going to be snubbed due to its genre birthplace. As always I make the same annual disclaimer that awards have precisely zero connection to a movies intrinsic brilliance of lack thereof, the Oscars are the pinnacle of the industry however so this is just a fun parlour game to predict the winners as a worthless thought exercise. So as usual those in bold are the films I have seen, in italics are these I think should win and underlined those which I think will win. With The Reverent programmed for Saturday and other major nominees like Spotlight, The Big Short and Room to follow over subsequent January weekends I’ve certainly got my work cut out for me viewing wise, just as some press screening invites are also starting to barge their way into my schedule – it’s a hard life eh?
Until I’ve assessed the other nominees this is a hard one to call this year, I’m tempted to go with The Revenant but would the Academy go for the same director two years in a row? Then again Spies and The Martian don’t seem to be best picture quality – entertaining but not particularly memorable – and Spotlight seems too controversial / political and The Big Short strikes me as biting the hand that feeds the studios these days. Where does that leave us? Utterly confused, so I won’t finally call this until I’ve seen The Big Short, Room and Spotlight, but until then we will pray with The Revenant….EDIT – having seen the latter, yeah I guess this is the front runner, even if Mad Max is the more rounded film. No way on earth the Academy is going to give best picture to a post apocalyptic genre picture though….
The Big Short
Bridge of Spies
Mad Max: Fury Road
Best Actor In A Leading Role
I think Leo is finally gonna get his dues, and if the physical conditions he suffered are anything to go by this category is closed. I was toying with the idea of seeing Trumbo given the Kubrick connection – he wrote Spartacus if you follosh civilians didn’t know – and I really can’t see Damon being rescued by the Academy nor Redmayne reprising last years tedious win. So let’s go with Leo;
Bryan Cranston – Trumbo
Matt Damon – The Martian
Leonardo DiCaprio – The Revenant
Michael Fassbender – Steve Jobs
Eddie Redmayne – The Danish Girl
Best Actress In A Leading Role
Hmm, looks like the rumblings of discontent over Blanchet essentially having a supporting role, and Mara being the lead in Carol haven’t quite permeated through the Academy’s aged skulls. Also, perhaps not surprising but no Charlize Theron’s amputee energy? I was considering going to see Joy over the festive break but I just couldn’t summon the energy, I like Jennifer Lawrence but have never been entirely convinced by David O. Russell, maybe I need to reconsider. In the interim I’m going to have to go with Brie Larson who has the momentum for this at the moment, while I’ve got 45 Years on high priority via Lovefilm as its just hit the Blu-Ray rental market.
Cate Blanchett – Carol
Brie Larson – Room
Jennifer Lawrence – Joy
Charlotte Rampling – 45 Years
Saoirse Ronan – Brooklyn
Best Actor In A Supporting Role
Best Actress In A Supporting Role
There is such a varied bag of material here its difficult to decouple the achievements from the genre requirements – both Miller and Inarritu have obviously crafted searing films in exceptional physical and environmental circumstances, but by all accounts Lenny Abrahamson’s claustrophobic Room excels in what could be considered an equally challenging space – how do you keep a movie interesting in a single location, and how do you hammer out great performances that reinforce that isolation? It’s a long shot but I’m going with my heart and Miller for this, to storm back with such a masterpiece that will be studied for years to come was quite remarkable,
Adam Mckay – The Big Short
George Miller – Mad Max: Fury Road
Alejandro G Inarritu – The Revenant
Lenny Abrahamson – Room
Tom McCarthy – Spotlight
So once again here’s everyone’s favourite Roger Deakins on the shortlist, for his 1,057 nomination in his long and illustrious career. I’m calling it now, while I’m thinking strategically that Lubeski will get this for shooting on location, in magic hour, and achieving those phenomenal panoramas as lenses were freezing and camera equipment shattering in the remote cold the Academy will finally give Deakins the award he deserves, in what was also brilliant work in those desert scorched landscapes of Sicario.
Hateful Eight – Robert Richardson
Mad Max: Fury Road – John Seale
The Revenant – Emmanuelle Lubeski
Sicario – Roger Deakins
Best Visual Effects
It’s great to see Ex Machina here, assimilated among the big boisterous Hollywood SFX houses, with a much more low key approach to visual camouflage. Nevertheless I think Star Wars has to get some love for their fiscally shattering achievements, even if they surprisingly didn’t get a Best Picture nod.
Mad Max: Fury Road
Best Film Editing
I’m surprised the Academy even bothered nominating the other candidates as this is about as certain a prediction as possible. With that blistering chase narrative, with the mastery of space, cause and effect and the nerve shredding action sequences this is Mad Max’s award without question, and I’ll be furious if it doesn’t steal at least this one award.
The Big Short
Mad Max: Fury Road
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Best Production Design
Hmm, another difficult call. Again I’m urged to go with Mad Max as the future world designs were fantastic, organically evolved that made perfect logical sense within the hermetic world, but the sweeping prestige pictures like Spies and Danish usually get the attention in this category. Then maybe The Martian will sneak in and capture this one, with its ergonomic, realistic NASA colony designs? Fuck it, I’m putting the pedal to the metal and taking a risk with the really quite seriously cheesed off Max, what have we got to lose?
Bridge of Spies
The Danish Girl
Mad Max: Fury Road
Best Original Screenplay
There were raised eyebrows to see an animated film in this schedule, but I can’t imagine a more worthy inclusion given Inside Out’s brilliant combination of internal and external alignments, and the revolutionary absence of a major antagonist to the grist the narrative mill. Spies is more traditional and as I understand it Compton is a terrific example of the well utilised bio-pic rags-to-riches model, so who knows?
Bridge of Spies
Straight Outta Compton
Best Adapted Screenplay
No screenplay nod for Sorkin and Jobs? That seems……unusual. As I understand it Carol deviates from the Highsmith original so I’m not sure that will be favoured, so this might be one other place where the crowd pleasing The Martian gets a chance. It’s either than or Room which sounds like it has an interesting little screenplay flip halfway through, so in lieu of seeing the film I’m opting for that…..
The Big Short
Best Original Score
The only category where I’ve already seen all the nominees, although that doesn’t make the choice any easier. I’m tempted to think some may opt for Morricone as a final tribute to the great man, but having seen the film there is relatively little original material buried in the contemporary pieces and previously chilled chords. I’m going for Carter Burwell’s delicate score for Carol which beautifully complemented the visual elements, of all the nominees that’s the one that most affected me emotionally which makes it a winner.
Bridge of Spies
The Hateful Eight
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Best Foreign Language Film
Best Original Song
Oh here we go again, just who bloody cares? The fact that the god awful Spectre howling is in here shows just how relevant this category is, so I’m going for the Shades track even though I can’t recall a single cadence of it. Pure guesswork.
Earned It – 50 Shades of Grey
Til It Happens To You – The Hunting Ground
Writings On The Wall – Spectre
Manta Ray – Racing Extinction
Simple Song 3 – Youth
Best Documentary – Feature
Best Costume Design
As with the production design the Academy favours the historical fidelity, the classy joint which drapes a picture in some prestigious threads. So I’m going for Carol again, and that evocation of the 1950’s wafts from the screen.
The Danish Girl
Mad Max: Fury Road
Best Sound Editing
The sound mixing awards usually come down to a battle between the action pictures scrunched with all those Foley blasts, so I’m going with Mad Max instead of Star Wars although veteran Lucasfilm sonic-smith Ben Burtt might harness some respect among the loyal old guard.
Mad Max : Fury Road
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Best Sound Mixing
As above, I’m going with the really quite ill-tempered Max again;
Bridge of Spies
Mad Max: Fury Road
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Best Documentary – Short Subject
Well, I’ve heard of Claude Lanzman, the epic director of Shoah so that’s enough of a guess for me.
Body Team 12
Chau, Beyond the Lines
Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of The Shoah
A Girl in the River
Last Day of Freedom
Best Makeup And Hairstyling
Strange inclusion of the Danish film about the guy who ages quite dramatically throughout the film, a rare domestic box office smash which didn’t translate to a international audience. So again I’m going with the irksome max for one final flaming guitar lick;
Mad Max: Fury Road
The 100-year-old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Diasappeared
Best Live Action Short Film
I wonder if they send screeners of these to Academy members? I suppose they do, but I’m surprised to see this category still hanging in there on the prestige portfolio, not relegated to the ‘boring’ technical awards which are awarded in the separate ceremony. Guesswork as always,
Everything Will Be Okay
Best Animated Short Film
As above, pure guesswork as always unless I find the time to see which of these may be on-line. Lets go with the Cosmos one…
We Can’t Live Without Cosmos
World of Tomorrow
Best Animated Feature Film
Um, OK, this is getting fucking ridiculous now – Alan Rickman? At 69? Jesus fucking Christ. Well, not being a fan of the Harry Potter films I think we all know his most famous and memorable role, that which brought him to the attention of a global audience and set the bar exceptionally high for the darkly charismatic Hollywood villain you secretly cheered on – or was that just me? Oh, and fuck cancer. Right in its hideous little eye.
He was also beloved in Galaxy Quest which deserves a rewatch, I also know a lot of people who absolutely love Truly Madly Deeply which takes on an even more sombre mood now….
Say what you will about the movie but the logistics alone are astounding, the dedication to as unique a projected experience as is likely to happen in our 21st digital century – but does the widescreen ambition match the movies muscular enthusiasm? On an immediate level Quentin Tarantino’s eighth movie in his quarter century career is the perfect encapsulation of his crimes so far, stuffed with his stock players, monologuing dialogue exchanges, blood-splattered with film references and homages which climax in a deadly Mexican stand-off. Over the weekend I immersed myself in the Tarantino universe, alongside both earlier and later phase films and this primer I initially went back to the debut Reservoir Dogs for the first time in many years, and although it remains a blistering debut it has also been historically hung by its own petard even if you disentangle it from the entire 1990’s sub-genre it ignited. The ravenous ouroboros instinct is complete with his latest release which mirrors a single, fraught location, suspicious and duplicitous characters brandishing firearms at each other whilst barking horrendous racial epithets with careless abandon, a gut-shot masquerade writhing in pain as the entrails ooze slowly across the floor of meta-movie musings. From these symmetries you could conclude that over 25 years and eight films we haven’t really come very far in terms of an auteurs growth and evolution, but after a weekend of reflection I don’t think this is entirely fair, as I have mentally grappled with The Hateful Eight which at the very least deserves another viewing and further digestion. My appreciation of the man has waxed and waned over the years, I love Jackie Brown which remains the high-point of the first decade as much as I disliked the Kill Bill movies in his second, concluding that he was firmly back on track with Inglorious Basterds as we approached his current phase of historical genre hatchet jobs, slyly political pictures that bear a strong undercurrent commentary on some dense cinematic concerns – representations of race and cultures, realism versus on-screen history, complicity and celebrations of catalytic screen violence. I’ve said it before but the conclusion remains sound, that regardless of personal opinions a new Tarantino film remains an event and I openly confess that I was hugely looking forward to this as an ‘event’ both technical and cultural, a three-hour wallow in cinephiliac glee with the likes of Menagerie favourites Kurt Russell and Jennifer Jason Leigh, in for my money one of Quentin’s most self-indulgent and incendiary films.
As the title suggests the film is an octet of spitting vipers stuffed in a gingham bag, a frosty parade of homicidal bastards driven by a cruel blizzard to take shelter on the remote Wyoming trail, washing up at the colloquially known Minnie’s Haberdashery on the fringes of the wilderness. We first meet the sulphur eyed Marquis Warren (Samuel Jackson) on the road when bewhiskered bounty hunter John Ruth’s (Kurt Russell) stagecoach is stopped by a grotesque obstacle, the first of the hateful perched atop three frozen corpses destined for a blood soaked reward in the nearby town of Red Rock. With his black-eyed and bruised prize Daisy Domergue, a defiantly feral Jennifer Jason Leigh in tow Ruth agrees to an uneasy allegiance with Warren, both assisting each other in the delivery of their human cargo with Domergue destined for the hangman noose for crimes that slowly come to comprehension. Next up stumbles Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) through the swirling frosty fog, a militiaman who fought on the confederate side of the still raw civil war, now the new sheriff of Red Rock with blood-streaked hints of a less than salubrious past. When the quartet and their driver arrive at the Haberdashery the film shifts from the snowy exteriors to a claustrophobic interior, a chamber piece with further villains entering stage left including Englishman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), the stoically mysterious horse wrangler Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), Mexican Bob (Demian Bichir) and the grizzled General Smithers (Bruce Dern), a Confederate veteran whose deadly friction with Warren soon cleaves along political and racial lines. The scene is set for Tarantino, the jester of the American cultural battlefield handling exceptionally volatile material such as race, misogyny, screen violence and the Union’s genocidal history with the quiet consideration of a hand grenade hurled upon the cabin’s blazing woodfire.
It was Fritz Lang who asserted that the widescreen format is ‘only good for shooting snakes and funerals’, and in this film everyone’s a poisonous snake hurtling towards their well-deserved funerals. With its expansive framing and extravagant run-time The Hateful Eight is initially laconic in pacing, Tarantino easing the audience into the spectacle with his bordering chapter title cards structure and key theatrical staging, slowly coaxing the undercurrents to the surface in one abattoir choked final convulsion. I don’t think it’s possible to see Kurt Russell trapped in a claustrophobic, isolated frigid location surrounded by potentially hostile denizens and not be reminded of one of his most iconic roles, a reference which QT bludgeons by a direct soundtrack lift, and let me clear about this as a total, absolutely shameless assimilation of this (3:45) music cue from Carpenter classic which seems quite ugly in its brazen butchery. He’s on the record as stating that The Thing was a major inspiration but the key point there was that the characters knew each other in that film and had worked together for presumably months if not years, whereas in the The Hateful Eight they’re all immediately suspicious which defuses some of the pulsing paranoia that the 1982 masterpiece nervously quivers upon. I’ve always loved Jennifer Jason Leigh, she’s always been in my top all time dozen or so actresses so I welcome this project placing her back on the casting directors crossfire, even if her defiant glint and clandestine conjuring doesn’t quite muster the final act pay-off it devilishly deserves. The first act is clearly destined as some microcosm of the frontier that has been corralled from Ford’s influential Stagecoach,introducing us to the main players background, social conditioning and the wider political and historical environment, hoisted upon that heightened movie-world perch where realism is beaten to a bloody pulp by language of sensation. As for the visual experience you can’t deny that it’s a feast of the eyes, the anamorphic 2.67 frame a tombstone fatally angled on its side, the Odeon Leicester Square was never my favourite cinema by a long stretch but this sold out crowd did generate a warm and appreciative shared experience. Like Leone, like Aldritch and Ford QT understands that the vast hyperborean exteriors are just as expressive and mythic as the close-ups of the characters etched and snarling faces, as the overtures and undertows are shotgun blasted in the narrative with long speeches and soliloquies that some observers have understandably found fraught and exasperating.
Isn’t that what they always say, good artists create while great artists steal? The references and inspirations fall through the film like a flurry of scintillating celluloid snowflakes, although I’m yet to find a finely crafted menu of inspirations which usually greet a new film from the magpie maestro. Alongside The Thing and Stagecoach the first picture which springs to mind is Corbucci’s The Great Silence with its frosty and remorseless setting, an unusual choice for a Western which usually cantor through their dust parched desert and cacti littered landscapes. Those foundations should be the bulwark to spring into contemporary commentary and conclusions, after all the Western has always been a potent genre vehicle for America in particular examining its role in Vietnam, the balance of its racial harmony, or just a sad reflection on the empires genocidal, annihilating genesis. Tarantino is renowned for his shocking, brutal and unvarnished violence and this is potentially his most disturbing film yet on a purely visceral front, with one particularly sadistic moment set to punctuate the film before the breath exhale of the intermission seems overly degenerate, even as it toys with notions of myth and legend, falsehood and reputation which emerge as one of the films more successful spearpoints.
The defrost of the legendary Ennio Morricone for the project has paid dividends, although QT’s usual trick of contemporary music synthesised against an initially incongruous historical setting sees both The White Stripes and a credit closing Roy Orbison ballad failing to demolish their respective character theme targets. With his usual cinematographer collaborator Robert Richardson on board the visuals are teeth chatteringly wonderful, haloing the snow bound slaying with his unique vertical vectors, an achievement enough to guarantee a Blu-Ray purchase for the technical aspects alone. But the film feels like a greatest hits thrum of powerchords rather than an experimental new sound, the same functions and chords are all repeated and rehashed from earlier albums, from the speeches and shoot-outs, the hyper-real and the histrionics. Still, broadly speaking I’d be lying to say I didn’t enjoy the film, all three hours of it which builds to a final massacre that is guiltily entertaining, and maybe subsequent viewings might yield some musings on some of the submerged slitherings – that thin crust of civilisation barely keeping our violent natures in check, brutal state sanctioned murder versus isolated survival, our ancestors shared scrambling through the mud and viscera to build the hypocrisies and illusions of the modern world. There are certainly some interesting pointers on myth and storytelling, of how the West was built on reputation and status which Eastwood’s Unforgiven also gazed upon. All the characters in The Hateful Eight have previous lives, they clasp shield cloaked identities and names to build an aura around themselves, with tales of their crimes and atrocities bleeding into the snow. One major narrative thread is shown to be polluted with deceit and a tool to seduce the gullible, a survival pattern which should be interesting to examine on subsequent rewatches. Also deceptive are some of the directorial flourishes, QT deploys frequent use of the forced focus composite or split diopeter technique in the film, a tool beloved by one of his idols Brian De Palma. It fools the eyes into accepting two planar fields in conjunction which in fact have been separately photographed, a deep focus impersonation that crafts the spatial relations and thematic links between characters, threats and firearms. Normally these sort of instructions would be conjured by green screen technology or digital manipulation, but Richardson and Tarantino seem to have achieved this in camera the old school analogue way, which also adds to the films rich historical trappings.
Dividing the picture into chapters has been a Tarantino technique since Pulp Fiction which highlights to me the disjointed nature of his writing, a formalism, an announcement of intent which I’ve always found distancing, as I’ve said before he can certainly craft terrific individual scenes but they always seem to exist in isolation to each other, apart from one film which he co-wrote with another accomplice that we will be covering later this week. Breaking into the film as narrator to impart critical story information which occurs in The Hateful Eight is just…well…it’s just lazy, his defenders may claim that he is toying with screen conventions and mechanics which aligns with some of his other affectations, just like Godard had his characters shatter the fourth wall and speak to camera within his texts. Here I just don’t buy it, reminding the audience of the space, of the characters and the relations between them all could easily have been mastered in a show don’t tell which Hitchcock for example trusted his audience to absorb, while in this film it just throws you out of the movie just as its starting to gain momentum after the punctuating intermission. Structurally a second leap in narrative crucially teases a delay of gratification, snapping back to impart earlier story points which further stilts the trajectory to the inevitable, charnel-house climax. Frankly it is frustrating and you can’t help but consider 30, maybe 45 minutes clipped out of the film without any significant loss, a treaty more in tune with the opening sequence of Inglorious Basterds or perhaps more accurately the basement sequence, while instead we endure a truncated and stuttering narrative although when alighted upon the final chapter does have enough black-hearted laughs and queasy bloodshed to keep the acolytes humming. Maybe he has matured into a trenchant social commentator in his middle age as the film has generated a flurry of furious think-pieces, so I’d agree that there is an evolution beyond a mere self masturbatory, pop-cultural bubble gum purveyor of post-modern bricolage, and I can’t fault the assaults on liberal hypocritical sensibilities which he delights to squirm within – why should that word be completely banned from artistic discourse? Why shouldn’t we see horrible violence against women which is period accurate, when viewing the same against men is the norm? He’s been talking about a horror film next so maybe genre fans will actually get that giallo they’ve always waited for, it’s either that or some Eurocrime policier or out of the exploitation avenues he hasn’t yet walked. Taken at face value, with indulgent and self-reflective turns The Hateful Eight is nevertheless a powerful experience, a pastiche with purpose lurking beneath the blood-stained genre furs;
I’ve surprised myself by being somewhat knocked for six by this loss, I’m not much of a music fan anymore but have always been a fan of Bowie, and I think we all kind of knew he had been ill due to that relatively recent withdrawal from public life. He was one of those figures who always formed the background of one’s life however, was always there with those immortal albums and breakthrough songs, and unlike The Beatles or the Stones whom I really couldn’t give a flying fuck about he was a genuinely inspirational figure, so this loss is deeply felt around this quiet corner of the internet. So I have a little screen orientated tribute and I’ll keep my comments to a minimum, starting with this which I was only watching last night as part of my Tarantino revisit – this might be one of the greatest sequences in his entire career, purely because of the marriage of image and music;
Any consideration of his screen persona would be redundant without that era defining turn in The Man Who Fell To Earth, probably the most successful synthesis of his stage and screen persona,
Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence received a Blu-Ray upgrade a couple of years ago and nearly made the cut here, but instead I really want to talk about Judy;
He kept acting into the 21st century, garnering some sneering plaudits for this turn as the enigmatic Nikola Tesla, and apart from critics being critics I never quite understood why. Again he was trading on his slightly mysterious, otherworldly aura which seemed perfect for this role, and so what if the accent isn’t quite identifiable?;
More esoterically here is another path paving moment, before UK actors became the charming Hollywood psychopaths de rigour as exemplified by Gary Oldman or Anthony Hopkins Bowie made a memorable appearance in this nocturnal cult classic – the fact that his name was Colin, making him Colin the Assassin is just…brilliant;
Even when cropping in so called ‘kids’ films he remaining an enigmatic entity, one day I’d love to revisit this on the big screen as I remember this film having a memorable effect on my adolescent mind, and not just because of Jennifer Connelly;
Finally something a little more personal whilst perhaps an obvious choice, but I distinctly remember seeing this on Top of The Pops back in my youth and having my ripe neural pathways frazzled by this combination of oddly violent imagery and nursery rhymed sonic sound. It remains and will always be one of my favourite songs of all time;