Well this looks lavish from a design and photography standpoint, and enigmatic on plot which is welcome. Having rewatched Refn’s Pusher trilogy again recently it is curious to see how this ‘cannibal horror movie set in the world of fashion’ might shape up since he’s moved into this middle phase of his career. No sight of Keanu though, unless I missed it;
In vaguely related news – Neon Demon is premiering there – this year’s Cannes line-up has just been issued and there are some exciting nuggets in the mix – finally a new Andrea Arnold, a fiction and non-fiction Jarmusch, another Jeff Nichols, one Park Chan-wook, a Mungiu, a Kore-eda and finally a Verhoeven are all on my watch-list. That’s just a brief scan but I’m sure there will be plenty to keep me amused…..but no real ‘killer’ new film announcement that has me exceptional excited I have to say….
You know what, I’m sick of Bundersnatch. I realise this isn’t the most original opinion in the known multiverse, but it seems like you can’t pass a idling bus, buzzing TV screen or yawning theatre marquee without seeing his shark poised smile bearing down on you, in a spectacular tsunami of over-exposure and saturation. Nothing against the guy personally you understand, he’s done some fine work, and I suppose he was an ideal choice for the sorcerer supreme given his slightly off-kilter screen presence and popular fan-base. This trailer looks like it might have made some karmic amends for those dodgy looking set leaks from a few weeks back;
Are we approaching Marvel fatigue yet? Judging by the spectacular social media opinions spewing forth from this weeks secret screenings of Civil War I suspect not, and despite that ropey accent from an allegedly top chameleon thespian this had some interesting CGI money shots, and no-one told me that Tilda Swinton inhabiting the mentor role? Me and my friends have some long running gags concerning this particular character so it is indescribably amusing to see him actually helming a major production, so I’ll be there in all its reality warping glory come November…..
We just can’t escape John Carpenter’s instructive influence at the moment. That I’m complaining of course, JC is one of my favourite filmmakers of all time, so its been extremely rewarding to see a entire horde of small budget, genre savy-films emerge from the same birthing chamber, particularly in light of the incompetent remakes which have scourged the multiplexes over the past decade – The Fog? The Thing prequel? The Assault on Precinct 13 remake? Yuck. This brings us to the fine, ermine career of Jeff Nichols, for my money one of the more interesting American directors to emerge from the independent scene in the new millennium, now on his fourth feature of Southern scented stories with the eagerly awaited Midnight Special. Numerous critics have cited both the Carpenter and Spielbergian overtones which are easy to detect, but without the lack of cloying sentimentality when it comes to the latter which can tarnish his work, instead opting for the distillation of awe and wonder which made the likes of E.T. and Close Encounters so successful and memorable. Opening in a furtive motel we meet two stern men – Roy (the always brilliant Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton) who are sequestered with an eight-year-old boy named Alton (an eerie Jaeden Lieberher), whom we learn from news reports appears to have been kidnapped. With echoes of the Waco Branch Davidans the authorities raid the church led by Sam Shepherd, he is also hunting the fugitives and desires return the capture of the valuable child at all costs, grimly warning the FBI that they have no idea what they are dealing with. We soon learn that Roy is Alton’s birth father whom is desperately leading his son to the location of some psychically seered co-ordinates, linking up with Alton’s excommunicated birth mother (Kirsten Dunst) along the way. But who, or indeed what is Alton beneath that human carapace and what is the source of his mysterious, near apocalyptic powers? Well that would be telling wouldn’t’ it?……
Cell phones aside the film not only feels like a genre product of the 1980’s it could have been set in the 1980’s, such is the tempo and aspirations of Midnight Special from its sparse deployment of special effects to its emphasis on atmosphere and environment, so while it stands in the shadow of previous beloved artefacts it does struggle initially so define its own voice. I think a good point of departure (if you’ll excuse the plot driven pun) that enables us to unpack the film is to consider Nichol’s expressed working protocols, acting as sole screenwriter and director in true auteur fashion. He has explained that he writes on two ‘tracks,’ when slaving over a groaning MacBook, one for plot/genre and the other for behaviour/characterization. This enables him to take two aligned narrative cables and twist them into a stronger and more resilient coil, merging both streams into a movie which feels familiar but still aspires to surprise and delight. That’s a terrific approach which is instructive of his commitment to genre and style, a lesson which many of these independently sourced directors who are being absorbed into the studio system should take heed, we’ll see how Rian Johnson handles Episode IX but Colin Trevorrow certainly abandoned character in favor of spectacle soured SFX in the atrocious Jurassic World. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Nichols pick up a franchise nod having delivered another modest critical darling (Midnight Special only cost $20 million), and I for one would be amused to see his take on a Star Wars picture, some outcasts running through the solemn sandy badlands of Tattooine in pursuit of some ethereal, spiritual peace could fit in with that universe mechanics. He’s stated that his earlier triumph Take Shelter was inspired by his apprehension of responsibility, of getting married and starting a family, but the journey to Midnight Special was far more fraught. During pre-production he suffered a terrifying ordeal when his infant son was seriously ill, an experience of potential loss and abandonment which he has poured into his art like any worthy , without coming as to self-indulgent – again those genre trappings give the film one remove from a narcissistic bore. The film pulses with a genuine soul and desire to uncoil its subtexts within the confines of the genre infrastructure, although initially I liked it a lot I was a little disappointed for some shortcomings which I’ll get into shortly, but upon reflection some of those concerns have faded while other celestial moments have soared.
Oddly the film that Midnight Special immediately brought to mind wasn’t the obvious influence Starman which Nichols has cited as a major influence but another eighties cult classic – Near Dark. Both films are largely set at night, the reasoning in this that sunlight causes Alton to exhibit dangerous outbursts and symptoms of his mysterious pedigree, draping them both in a nebulous, smooth twilight suggesting the transitional permeability between two worlds. Both films prowl through the small towns and communities of Texas and Alabama, incubating rural authenticity in which the fantastical and uncanny takes place, and both films share a lyrical synth driven score – another Carpenter influence that the film proudly boasts on its sleeve. Nichols has selected a lens flare driven cinematography which could have J.J. Abrams reaching for his copyright attorney, but there is a method to the madness which becomes clear in the final act which holds a few surprises ups its sleeve – I really can’t elaborate on this for fears of the dreaded spoilers. Other recent interlopers to the Alien paddock like Super-8 and Tomorrowland seem to be pushing smaller scale SF into more positive modes, with the aliens (in both terrestrial and extra-terrestrial sense) as benevolent saviours rather than threats to be feared and fought, another link back to 1980’s staples like Cocoon and E.T. Again I’m dancing around spoilers here but the third act reveal is genuine, tear inducing ‘wow’ stuff for SF aficionados, restoring one’s faith in modest and appropriate deployment of SFX which serves the story rather than leaving the audience in a visual state of concussion.
However, there are frustrating problems which can’t be avoided. I didn’t particularly feel any emotional investment from the parents to Alton apart from one briefly touching scene, and Driver’s character feels woefully undeveloped in the first couple of acts which make his decisions in the final stretch disappointingly inauthentic, even if he’s playing the standard government good guy nested among a swarm of bureaucrats who want to weaponize or permanently eliminate a threat they can’t understand. The narrative slyly drops history and backstory through restrained and removed dialogue exchanges which is welcomed as storytelling to aimed at an adult audience, but other chains of cause and effect are nigh incomprehensible, with one scene where Driver cracks a crucial code is woefully illogical and confusing. Upon reflection Joel Egerton’s entire character is surplus to requirement, you could surgically remove him from the plot and you’d probably generate more warmth between the father and son doxology which propels the entire empathic engine of the film. The plot follows the usual race against time as Tyler grows more sickly, suffering from a photosynthesis aversion to our blazing sun, and there isn’t many surprises story-beat wise as the interesting context of the cult Alton’s history seems unexplored and expressed – those rumoured re-shoots ordered by a nervous Warner Brothers appear to hold water. Nevertheless Midnight Special excels in atmosphere which is Nichol’s forte, there’s a real sense of the world both physical and spiritual surrounding the fugitives with a slowly encroaching dread snapping at their heels, and any film so committed to such qualities is welcomed as antidote to the crash-bang carnage of the Hollywood proscenium. If they just fixed a few niggles this could have been a brilliant work rather than just a good one, but I suspect this is a movie that will grow and strengthen with repeated viewings, with a final act revelation which is pure cinematic celestial celebration. Midnight Special is a perfect companion piece to Nichol’s Take Shelter which for the moment remains a stronger picture, faith and prophecy hinting at entities beyond human comprehension, locked in the pure unencumbered love between father and son;
I’m not fantastically interested in Suicide Squad if I’m honest, I’ll probably go and see it if I don’t have much else on during it’s opening weekend, so if I’m honest I just wanted an excuse to post this which is further proof that the exhibition and special events gods are smiling on me this year…..
Oops, official site here, with obligatory monolith themed trailer.
‘You got a smoke?‘ – As we approach our tenth birthday I knew it was time to finally broach a very serious milestone for the Menagerie, covering a sacred text that I have referenced and revered throughout our long and winding journey. This is becoming something of the year of the Carpenter with not one, not two but three JC events which demand my attention, and when I saw the screening schedule of this stimulating season knew I had to finally turn my attention to one of the unimpeachable foundations of my movie-love, a key text which had quite an influence on my evolving obsession with all things celluloid. Given my age of course I’d been beguiled by the likes of Indiana Jones, E.T. and Star Wars in my infantile appreciation, just like all the other members of my generation, but at some point those mainstream movies mutated into a love of John Carpenter movies, just as the idea of films having directors or some form of creative agent behind them was starting to coalesce in my perambulating mind. This was the golden age of the VHS format and I soon started to acquire a collection of those big bundles of tape and plastic, and I distinctly recall buying The Fog and Escape From New York for the princely sum of £5.99 each, a king’s ransom when your paper round income barely kept me in comic books and Michael Moorcock paperback’s from our local purveyor of all things geektastic. Somehow Assault On Precinct 13 had already infiltrated my mind as I can’t recall a period when it wasn’t in my all-time top five, it must have started with some late-night TV viewing, where that melee of exotic L.A. street gangs, a prowling electronica score and badass anti-heroes combined to show me what other genre birthed treasures lay beyond the mainstream Hollywood blockbuster template. I have been keeping an eye out for a London screening for the past fifteen years so when I learnt of its inclusion on the Prince Charles hosted season you can imagine my reaction, and although this screening was over a month ago I’ve kept this on the backburner as I wanted to synchronise such a milestone as the first piece written from my new home – just a little marker that heralds a new chapter of this quiet corner of the internet. So let’s begin at the beginning which is usually a logical choice, the lights dim, the curtains part and we’re back to 1976;
It’s an oft quoted observation but I love how films of this era took their time with their titles, they eased you into the picture through a slow environmental acclimatisation while discreetly signalling some of the semiotics of the experience to come through colour, font and graphic design choices, and of course that pulverising score which sets the seething tempo of the entire picture. In terms of plot the story is as finessed and sleek as the films compact run-time – 1970’s LA, and the cops have launched a violent crack-down on the various deadly street gangs that are boiling in a multi-racial cauldron of social malaise. When a particularly virulent capo guns down a young girl in cold blood – a scene which still causes the jaw to drop today – her bereaved father takes lethal vengeance, invoking the wrath of the street gangs as he flees to the supposed sanctuary of an adjacent police precinct. Staffed with a skeleton crew of officers headed by newly promoted First Lieutenant Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) Precinct 13 is scheduled to decant to new premises, hence the isolated communications and resources the lawmen have at their disposal. Coincidently, a group of bus-bound convicts are diverted to the station when one of their group is taken ill, a rather unfortunate development as their arrival coincides with the gangs initial efforts to circle the chain of revenge in a natives versus civilisation scenario that’s not a million miles away from the template of a John Ford or Howard Hawks picture….
I’ll confess I was a little anxious about this screening, slightly concerned that a film I haven’t revisited for a few years wouldn’t stack up as so many films deteriorate with the changing times, shattering the foundations of Menagerie’s mecca like a drone strike on an orphanage. Does Assault highlight and ameliorate the great implacable mysteries of the human condition? No, not really. Does it speak to common truths across borders and ages, caressing the very contours of the soul through its aesthetic brilliance ? Probably not. It is however a tautly crafted, immensely entertaining genre picture with a motley crew of engaging and amusing characters, armed with a devastatingly influential electronica score which unlocked new realms of cinematic and aural obsession and appreciation. For me it is one of these guilty pleasures that will never fade in affection, an artefact, a text indelibly etched on the soul like that book your Dad recommend you read which subsequently inspired your career choices, like that album that formed the soundtrack of your wooing, romance and subsequent break-up of your first true love, a documents that you will carry with you until the day you die, a relic which embroiders the fabric of your life. In terms of context it is one of the key cult films of the 1970’s for a certain generation, appealing to the same breed of street smart urban horror fans who also gravitated to The Warriors, The Wanderers and Dawn Of The Dead, speared by the vicious vision of this strange, violent and colourful concept of America that seemed a million miles away in that pre-globalised adolescent era. I can’t make any claim or argue for its position beyond more than a finely honed urban thriller with calibrated through a genuine genre affection, but for me it still holds that indescribable quality, a sense of pungent nostalgia which I’ll admit can occasionally obscure a film’s latent shortcomings and weaknesses. Its about tribes and tribal affiliations so I’d offer a meta-reading, as when the likes of Laurent Garnier used to drop the soundtrack into his techno sets or the likes of Gasper Noe aligns a pornographically provocative scene in his recent film Love to that same slithering score you know you’re in an exclusive little gang, hostile to outsiders and committed to the bloody and change strewn end.
‘I got me a plan, it’s called save-ass, and here’s how it works – I jump out of the window, and I run like a bastard’ – In terms of the screening itself I assumed a digital experience, a prediction which was vindicated and to be expected. The anamorphic widescreen looked pixel-poised terrific and although I would have preferred an analogue 35mm screening I doubt there is a single 35mm print in the country or indeed Europe, although the French quite wisely always liked Carpenter and recognised his influences and inspirations as being sourced from a rich tradition of American genre gentrification. The Prince Charles always puts on a comfortable screening environment and ameliorates an appreciative crowd, it’s strange that I don’t make more of an effort to go to screenings there considering the competitive ticket price and amusing panoply of programming. My lore and knowledge wasn’t as wide as it now is when I first became enamoured with the film, but now it is blatantly obvious how Carpenter transplanted the Hawksian western to a ghetto glued Los Angeles for Assault, forming a rag-tag bunch of desperados, lawmen and support functionaries into a self-sustaining group whom have to bond, respect and trust each other to overcome their outsider alien foe, with just a suggestion of an equally footed romance between the main players to lace the danger with lightning strike of empathic energy. Carpenter’s use of space is his masterful metier, composing movement and threat in the frame and cutting action scenes to an expert choreography of information and trembling tempo, a claustrophobic master of the isolated siege movie – think Prince Of Darkness, The Thing, and Ghosts Of Mars – Ah, yes, OK, maybe don’t dwell on the last one too much. For the aficionado it’s also fun to link through the directors stock repertoire of supporting players, with Charles Cyphers, Nancy Loomis and Frank Doubleday going on to feature in other Carpenter crafts, that’s just one of those activities we geeks like to indulge in as some sort of pointless celluloid cerebral masturbation. Although Darwin Joston is my favourite – and more on him below – kudos also goes to Laurie Zimmer as the resourceful Leah, a pioneer Hawksian woman who gives as good as she gets, steadfastly fighting alongside the men instead of shrieking in terror when the carnage begins. She didn’t have much of a career and Stoker was best known for one of the latter Planet Of The Apes movies, this however being the age of ephemera guess what? Someone in 2003 only went and made a whole fucking documentary on Zimmer although I can’t find trace of it to buy or rent, and if you really want useless trivia then the little girl who gets clipped is apparently now one of ‘star’ members of the Housewife’s Of Beverley Hills ‘reality‘ show.
‘Life Just Seems To Pass Us By’ – The film seems to be pulled in the slipstream of so called facist works like Dirty Harry which took a similar black or white (if you’ll excuse the racial overtones) posture to the dregs of the criminal scum, the street gang members are projected as faceless cannon-fodder injuns, with no positioning of their social or economic realities to indicate why they might band together against the persecution of the authoritarian police state. In my view nor should there be as this isn’t that kind of picture, it’s a pure character driven action film which offers no political diatribe or satire that the libertarian streak of his later films would so confidently communicate – They Live and Escape From New York being the prime examples. We’re in no doubt that these silhouettes are mindless, almost insect herded murderers, with no quarter given nor asked for, a notion of a formless existential evil beyond our comprehension which is a nebulous world view that runs through the remainder of Carpenters horror pictures like the stygian river Styx flows through Hades. I love the frustrated character of Wells whom eagle-eyed viewers will recognise as Rocky’s sparring partner or perhaps as the Snowcat engineer in the longer domestic cut of The Shining. If you think that’s particularly cinephile obsessive then I’ll go one better, which brings us to the lamented figure of Austin Stoker. He delivers a pitch-perfect performance as the mysterious Napoleon Wilson, a turn I worried wouldn’t age as well as the rest of the picture, treading a fine line between stoic, enigmatic coolness and exploitation efficiency – he knows he’s in a fun little genre picture but treats the material with an appropriate modicum of respect. It’s a real shame that his early death guillotined a potential inclusion in the ‘oh that guy’ portfolio of interesting character actors, like John Cazale he seemed to have a potentially promising career cut woefully short. He appeared in two other films – a blink and you’ll miss it doctor in The Fog, and most cultishly he also made an incongruous appearance in Eraserhead– and that’s how you link early Lynch to latter Kubrick back to early Carpenter my learned friends, the master is now in session…..
‘I have my moments’ – Two years later Carpenter built on his modest film festival success by leveraging a few hundred thousand bucks out of international producers Irwin Yablans and Moustapha Akkad to finance his and his then girlfriend Debra Hill’s suburban horror tale about a babysitter terrorised by a indestructible bogeyman, and ushered in a whole new horror genre in the process. Halloween and The Thing are probably Carpenters masterpieces, the absolute apotheosis of their respective genres that have never been bettered within the structure of their symbols and semiotics, but for me it will always be that pulsing score, the silenced bark of the M16 armalite’s and the weary wise-cracking of Napoleon Wilson that occupies the apotheosis of this favoured auteur, as much as I love his entire 1974 – 1988 body of work. Naturally I’ve seen the remake and unsurprisingly dismissed it, it wasn’t a bad film as these projects go it was just kinda pointless really, it didn’t have the confidence or skill to do anything interesting or contemporary with the characters or setting as an update for 2005. So that’s that, another crucial foundation of the Menagerie finally gets its dues, and already the new releases I want to cover are stacking up in a holding position like some frenzied air-traffic control official’s work programme, let alone the launch of a major new season which begins in glorious 4K at the BFI. But we’re not done with Mr. Carpenter yet as we have another crucial centrepiece of the oeuvre to cross off with an extraordinarily exciting 70mm print of a 1980’s cult classic, so never forget that it’s all in the reflexes;
Whats this? The director of cult creature romance Monsters and the mildly successful 2014 Godzilla reboot has a new film hitting theatres at Christmas? Cool. I think it’s part of yet another franchise or something (rolls eyes), but this might be good fun, yes?
So this is in the same continuity and set before Episode IV, huh? That was a good trailer as trailers go, just the right balance of footage and intrigue, and I think Felicity Jones looks strong. Also featuring terrific support in the form of Mikkelson, Forrest Whitaker and Ben Mendelsohn, and allegedly shot at my local tube station? Roll on December, and let the nerding commence…..
How many great directors has this perpetually miserable and wind swept isle produced? Well, there are two genius grafters who intrinsically transformed the form, and I’d wager that Hitchcock and Chaplin will remain in the pantheon as long as there are movies. Scouring the next tier down we chance upon those whose critical status ebbs and flows with the passing of the years, both David Lean and Michael Powell have veered from discordant dismissal, both them the great mid-century directors whose epic visions also harbour a certain ‘Britishness’ in their social class, character centered stories. Further down the firmament we get to the outliers, the ‘cult’ filmmakers like Nicholas Roeg, Derek Jarman or Peter Greenaway, the mavericks whose polyamorous mosaics draw in core influences from other art forms like literary form, graphical and classical art and theatre into their padded cinematic cells. In this sacred sector I’d also include Alan Clarke, the great screen chronicler of the Thatcher years, who is currently being blessed with an exhaustive retrospective of his TV and screen work at the BFI. When you lie back and think of England in the cinemascape of the 1980’s the initial images that surface are of the so-called heritage pictures of Merchant Ivory, pushing the so-called ‘museum aesthetic’ which is an amusing new phrase my research has discovered. These production cartels mined Blighty’s rich literary history across diverse regency periods to build suffocating period dramas featuring stately homes, lavish production design, suppressed sexuality and courtly intrigue, all nested within a peculiar fascination with social aspiration and cultural mobility. Depending on your upbringing however your life experience might be less attuned to seeing Emma Thompson or Anthony Hopkins emote between a heavy padding of Bronte birthed witticisms, than it is to witnessing some deranged member of the underclass kick a tramp around a rain-sodden Lewisham Council estate. Clarke’s grim, socially vicious work runs in the same vein of British radicalism as the post-war ‘Kitchen Sink’ New Wave, a strand of socially conscious cinema that bleeds through to the agitations of Ken Loach and to a lesser extent the Mike Leigh, a man whose films and formalism I’ve never particularly embraced. Clarke was a social anarchist who ironically worked within the confines of the state sanctioned BBC, and displayed a rare talent in shepherding a new generation of British actors to the screen – Tim Roth, Gary Oldman and Ray Winstone all got major breaks under socially snarling tutelage. That’s quite a different roster from the current crop of Eton and Oxbridge educated thespians like Hiddleston, Cumberbatch and Redmayne isn’t it? I’ll just park any further thoughts on the growing void between privilege and equality of opportunity here…..
I grew up with Alan Clarke’s films I distinctly remember watching some of the transmission as they originally went to air, and its impossible to have been raised in a largely working class comprehensive school system and not be privy to many of the notorious scenes and dialogue exchanges of the still shocking and BBC banned Scum. This season starts at the end with The Firm, Clarke’s final completed project before he was cruelly cut down with a heart attack at the age of 54, a mean, vicious film which on the surface concerns itself with a particular British invention which thankfully seems to have been eradicated – football hooliganism. Featuring an absolutely blistering performance from a pre-Hollywood Gary Oldman The Firm is less about male machismo and posturing than the ‘me’ generation finally embedding itself in post Big-Bang Britain, as we follow Bex, a successful London Estate Agent leading his crew of football hooligans into battle with two vicious rival, each cell jostling for superiority in order to lead a combined crew into Europe for a major international tournament. Bex is married to (Lesley Manville, Oldman’s wife at the time) and a inquisitive toddler in tow, but rather than being a more mature alumni of the skinhead youth culture or a protégé of National Front politics some of his crew are black and some are white, an immediate provocative clash with the board chattering classes consensus of these hooligans social standing and economic breeding.
If you’re of a certain age then just the supporting cast is fun to spot, Benny from Grange Hill tickled the nostalgia node, even Phil bloody Mitchell makes an early appearance as one of the knuckle dragging Neanderthals. Oldman anchors the piece with his gimlet eyed ferocity, he’s a total psychopath who is dangerously charming in the vein of Alex Delarge, indeed one scene where he goes to visit his childhood bedroom is reminiscent of an early scene in A Clockwork Orange, with both subjects plastering the walls with objects of his youthful obsession and an array of lethal weapons and illicit booty sequestered away from prying parental sight. It’s fascinating to see London of a certain period as the backdrop to the tale, a historical artefact as well as a social document of the transition of the new, upwardly mobile working class, as the ruling politicians proudly proclaimed that ‘there is no such thing as society’ then acted all shocked when their ideology incubated an entire generational tribe of selfish fucks who have eagerly pulled the aspirational ladder up with them. On a personal level Clarke’s work is just so intrinsically British, down to the pitch perfect argot and the ways in which we mock and joke with each other, all leaping from the carefully crafted page – although you’d assume the material is improvised given the immediate intimacy of the films he was very precise with the dialogue, all the way down to the professional ability to take the piss out of each other. The social commentary hums with the revelation that the main players aren’t ‘chavs’ although they spring from a working class pedigree, a new breed of ruthless Thatcherite aspiration who wade into combat in chinos and herringbone shirts, not garish gold chains, reebok tracksuits and Mulberry hats. The overall feel is grim and relentless, almost oppressively so, leavened with particularly British flourishes of black humour, insults and unflinching vérité violence. It’s impossible to watch Clarke’s work and see the impact on the likes of Shane Meadows, a near lone working class voice in British cinema who also has an ear for the genuine lives and tribulations of his subjects – I just wish he’d move on from repeatedly returning to severe sexual abuse as a plot and character mechanic in just about everything he’s done for the past ten years.
Starting a season with a directors final film may seem like a strange choice, but there was a method to the BFI’s chronological madness. The version of The Firm we saw was a recently excavated answer print of the film which has only recently been identified and liberated from Clarke’s archives, complete with film-stock quality changes signaling the fragments that the BBC excised from the transmission due to language or violence concerns. This made the screening experience quite unusual, as whenever the stock degenerated the smirks lengthened as you knew someone was gonna say ‘fuck’ or inflict a rival with a loving and adorable Glasgow smile. The post screening panel discussion was with Phil Davis (memorable as Yeti, the albino leader of the rival crew), Clarke’s screenwriter David Leland, his producer and daughter as well as some of the The Firm’s supporting actors who turned up in the screening crowd, chiming in with their amusing and illuminating reminiscences and recollections. The debate was a little stilted but it provided an insight into Clarke’s exacting style, his slavering over a groaning Steinbeck for hours on end until he got the tempo of scenes exactly right, and demanding numerous takes of his carthorse Steadicam operators to craft his stylized and brilliant tracking shots – extremely unusual for TV in the 1980’s. If I wasn’t working so damn hard at the moment and preoccupied as Jules said with some other transitional activities I would have made more of an effort with this season, I do have another screening programmed but in an ideal world I’d be seeing as much as possible as Clarke is one of my favourite home-grown talents. At least we have a box-set to look forward which includes stuff unseen by me, including a David Bowie piece which sounds…..interesting;
‘I am here to kick-ass and play throbbing synth beats…and I’m all out of plectrums’. Or something;
New album out on the 15th, and a tour in October. I’m a happy man….
Alas, no, not a bio-pic on the Big Fucking Gun from Doom which makes us all giggle in psychotic glee when we remember all those fond times together, no this is the trailer for Spielberg’s latest for which he has turned to Roald Dahl for inspiration;
As previously expressed I am duty bound to go and see every Spielberg film at the cinema as I have penitently conducted for the last eighteen or so years, but I must admit this one will be something of a drag as I’m really not much for these adaptions of kids books. Still, the SFX looks pretty amazing so there should be some distractions to be enjoyed……
I don’t know about you but after six months of restless prowling through these crime sodden Parisian streets I’m exhausted, both spiritually and mentally as we take another walk on Jean-Pierre Melville’s nihilistic wild side. Nevertheless we have just one more score to settle, thus I thought it best to close this season appropriately enough with Melville’s last film which was released a mere year before his death in 1972. Un Flic opens with an atmospheric robbery at a rather implausibly remote coastal bank located in Saint-Jean-de-Monts, the solemn crash and burst of the sea spray providing an elemental expressionistic counterpoint to the criminal’s cool and professional robotic demeanours. The crew is led by Richard Crenna, a US actor making an unusual appearance in this France helmed picture, and he’s probably best known for his patronage of his comrade John in a certain Vietnam veteran franchise . After the robbery goes sideways and one of his fellow is mortally wounded the crew limps back to Paris, burying their ill-gotten gains and evading their collars being felt by the gendarmes led by Melville favourite Alain Delon in his third coolly dispassionate collaboration. New to the scene is Catherine Deneuve in feline femme fatale mode, oscillating between the affections of Delon and Crenna and seemingly playing the angles across both blurred sides of the law, as another train set heist promises to provide that final big score and enable the criminal crew to finally fade into underworld legend for good.
Truth be told it’s a relief to finally padlock this season as you’re probably as bored of reading the same quantifiers as I have in writing them- cold, implacable, minimalist, deadly. Un Flic is Melville’s style refined to its final keen intensity, a remorseless procedural narrative which follows the hunt for the criminal crew after they abandon one of their mortally injured comrades. I guess you can’t say he wasn’t ambitious in his final film, expanded his canvas by planning a second set-piece following the tense opening robbery, a mission involving numerous moving mechanisms as the criminals discreetly assault a moving train via helicopter assisted propulsion. Normally as a critic you raise above such derisive snorts as the SFX being poor due to a films pedigree and vintage, but the exceptionally poor model work and matte backgrounds are deeply distracting, reminiscent of the model work that Hitchcock deployed in some of his 1930’s pictures – you’d have thought the suspension of disbelief would have advanced in the intervening years. As you can discern from the photos the film has an icy cobalt chrome palette which would make James Cameron shiver in admiration, perusing the delicate graduations of the colour blue, reinforcing the icy pallor that runs through the cops, criminals and associated denizens, with barely any warm colour semiotics to counterbalance the overall aura of a remote and isolated annihilation.
“The only feelings mankind has ever inspired in policemen are those of indifference and derision…” is the motto of the film, provided in an opening title screed which is a technique that Melville frequently deployed to frame his films in terms of theme. Although the operative word as always with Melville is ‘mankind’ Catherine Deneuve blesses the feature with a much needed sense of sophistication and sultry champagne, her motives and machinations as deadly as her crimson blood lipstick. Un Flic is particularly sour and nihilistic even by Melville’s standards, the cops drained of all empathy as they ceaseless prowl down out their criminal prey, as we come to the end of the season its almost a blessed relief that Melville passed and could perhaps find some peace in the sweet sleep of eternity. Some of the flourishes are the result of a lack of countervailing force which is a common complaint of a directors twilight years, with no-one prepared or equipped to challenge creative decisions such is their venerable stature within the industry. Spending roughly ten minutes of screen time to show a washing his face and grooming after a rather absurd helicopter to moving rappel strains fidelity to realism and consequent audience patience. Even fans of a well planned and executed deception we are reminded that cinema is equipped with a grammar and syntax that is able to compress or expand time to present information within a context of pace and flow, and when you’re directorial decision are erring toward the realms of the tedious rather then tense the picture is starting to unravel with diagnostic danger. Un Flic is simply too self-indulgent, and quickly goes off the rails after the initial heist, and although it harbors many of Melville’s unique qualifying traits – the minimalism, the nihilism, the gallic masochism – thus closing his influential career with an appropriate synopsis and symbiosis. Now, finally, we can shift our gaze from the grim pastures of 20th century continental Europe to the elemental battlegrounds of feudal Japan, and bow in rapt awe gaze to sensei Kurosawa’s formidable oeuvre….