Well fuck me it’s darn weird being back here again, after many, many months of neglect. I could barely remember my password let alone the functions of writing a blog post, so please bear with me as I reconnect with an old but terminal exercise. The good news (I guess) is that I’m going to commit to a few year closedown posts of timid length and analysis, the bad news (if anyone really cares) is that this will lead to a final execution of this ten year project once and for all as the day job has officially overtaken this now redundant blog. What have I been doing? Phase 2 of this. What am I involved in from January 2018? This. As such I need to be spectacularly careful of my digital footprint, wary of the press for reasons myriad and numerous, especially since I’m more than positive that some of the comments and jokes I have made on here could easily be located and exploited out of context with horrific consequences. Anyway, back to the matter at hand, here is the usual December montage which isn’t particularly transcendent, and as such representative of a rather average year;
I have been relatively active over the axial orbit movie going wise, but due to project pressures I completely missed the LFF this year (didn’t see a single screening or event) as my schedule simply didn’t gel with other priorities. Ironically I am on target for seeing over 500 films this year on various eyeball assaulting formats, and have managed to cram in some mini seasons on Eric Rohmer, all of Soderbergh’s 21st century material, a revisit of Kieślowski’s Three Colours trilogy, all of the Jarmusch films on Amazon Prime, Ōkami’s Lone Wolf & Cub series and even a revisit of a John Cassavettes box-set. I still don’t chime with the love for him, as much as I can appreciate his ground-breaking achievements in championing independent American filmmaking before Sundance was a faltering glint in Robert Redford’s azure eyes. More montage mischievousness here;
So in order to temper expectations here are my films of the year thus far, presented without commentary or debate and in no particular order – make of this what you will ; Wind River, Personal Shopper, Get Out, Blade Runner 2049, Thor: Ragnarok, Moonlight, mother!, Lady Macbeth, The Death Of Stalin, Logan and maybe Malick’s Song To Song and the eerily prescient Nocturama. Alas I didn’t see The Florida Project, You Were Never Really Here, Brawl In Cell Block 99, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, Good Time, The Killing Of A Sacred Deer nor The Shape Of Water, some of which I’m sure could have arisen to the 2017 Menagerie pantheon if I’d seen them at the LFF. As it stands the ultimate event of 2017 was of course David Lynch’s spectacular bookend to his incredible career, maybe there more there will be more on that……later;
Bonjour Luc Besson. I grew up enjoying and deeply admiring the likes of Subway, The Last Battle and Nikita, but once he got into his American financed groove my interest waned. I dislike the Taken and Transporter films as evidently I’m a snob, but held out some interest in Lucy which were dashed on the rocks of stupidity. Now he’s back once more but the real interesting facet of this project is not the text itself, but something else…;
What has got the industry fascinated is the business model that underpins it, and how this may finally be mounting a full assault on the Hollywood behemoth through a canny mosaic of international pre-sales, an emphasis on foreign markets (particularly China of course) and the retention of artistic control which you have to admire. I think I’ll give this a chance as the eye candy looks pleasing if nothing else, and this reminds me to watch The Fifth Element again, as a SF nerd I never liked that film, so now is the perfect time for a reapprisal…
I can’t remember if I’ve posted this before, but I’m off to see Malick’s latest today, which is playing at a staggering two screens in London – how the mighty have fallen. I appreciate the reviews have been less than glowing, but hey it is Malick and he always demands a big screen assessment;
A little delayed but I’ve been reading up on some of the winners and curios from this years Cannes, and alongside the new Lynne Ramsay, Sofia Coppola, Haneke and Yorgos Lanthimos queasy sounding The Killing Of A Sacred Deer this seems to be another ‘must- see’, apparently proving that Pattinson can actually act;
The Basildon boys are back, and like a dutiful soldier I naturally attended their only 2017 UK date, in the hallowed halls of the old Olympic Stadium in Stratford. Regular readers will appreciate that I have been following this band nigh on 27 years, missing only one tour, so here are some highlights with the usual apologies for poor filming techniques;
Here is an amusing and earnest chat with frontman Dave ‘Call Me Dave’ Gahan, from the frequently excellent Nerdist podcast. Unfortunately we missed the first track due to some poor time management issues, but the party only really got rocking when they delved into the back catalogue and the crowd rose to its feet;
As something of an obsessive list person it was brilliant to finally tick off some songs of theirs I have never seen live, and for the ‘proper’ fans I think the two track Martin Gore mid-set sequence was the best I’ve witnessed during the numerous times I’ve seen them;
If you put a gun to my head I think this was the best track of the evening, another back catalogue highlight that chimes with the ethos of their recent album Spirit, which I confidently assert is their best album in a decade;
So yet another great evening, somewhat overshadowed by the events at London Bridge that we learnt about once we retired to a pub in Bow for a final nightcap, but let’s just leave that event undiscussed as that’s the antithesis of what those fuckers want us to do. Instead, enjoy this main set closer which is always an exhilarating experience, 60,000 people in arm swinging unison which is what is uniquely great about these big, stadium events;
Having lived in the Limehouse area of London for a few years until my recent decant this interests me, and the book was fairly interesting;
Thirty years ago this month, UK boozy cult classic Withnail & I was released to an unsuspecting audience. Here is a excellent revisit to some of the movies classic scenes and moments, which you can revisit through the magic of cinema here;
‘You never knocked me down Ray…‘ I’ve never particularly cared for Raging Bull. It’s a shocking admission as on paper it should be among my favourite films, what with that triumvirate of Scorsese, Schrader and De Niro in the driving seat, particularly when the latter was at the peak of his powers. I’ve always suspected that the film was ahead of me, that I lacked the insight and wisdom to fully appreciate it when I first saw it as a teen, and again through a handful of revisits over the intervening years. I could always appreciate the craftwork, Schoonmaker’s astounding assembly of the punishing fight scenes, Scorsese’s dizzying camerawork, and of course De Niro’s method madness with the weight gain and boxing regime he undertook to don those gloves of pugilist Jake La Motta, a commitment to the physicality of a performance that has since acquired mythic status. I’ve always wanted to revisit this on the big screen, an approach which could activate the revelatory experience this classic, and I have conducted some research into the films history which might also contextualise the film not only in the Scorsese oeuvre, but also in the wider channel of American cinema as it came to that crossroads of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.
Even if you accept 1/10 of what Biskind alleges in the seminal Easy Riders, Raging Bulls reportage this was a turbulent period. Scorsese’s private and artistic life was in crisis after the immense financial and critical failure of his previous film New York, New York and his tempestuous romance with the rarely stable Liza Minnelli was in freefall. Plagued by insecurities during a terrible shoot he’d worked with De Niro with the last three movies and wasn’t jumping at the chance for another failure, and as was the environment they were all seriously hopped up on deep coke habits – Schrader was doing four grams a day – and after a Telluride festival a combination of contaminated powder, his asthma medicine and overwhelming exhaustion Scorsese experienced a medical convulsion and almost died, and during recuperation in a New York hospital he had what addicts term ‘a moment of clarity’ and poured this destructive angst into a project he could now see from the inside out, the self destructive impulses, the aesthetic impotency and growling, Neanderthal, masculine insecurity – these are the hammer blows of Raging Bull.
Amusingly the film went into production the same month as Cimino’s Heavens Gate which struck the death knell of the decade, where Raging Bull can be considered its artistic apogee. Long time Scorsese scribe Mardik Martin made a first pass on Jake LaMotta’s autobiography, but something pivotal was missing. Schrader’s second assault introduced the tension between brother Jake (De Niro) and Joey (Joe Pesci), inflaming the jealousy that was absent in the book but forms the dark nucleus of his life and the carnage he wrought in and out of the ring. At first the United Artist executives were nervous, they didn’t feel such a reprehensible character won’t exactly entice in the ticket receipts, but Rocky had made all boxing projects hot properties, even shorn of their triumph of adversity plot predictability. Scorsese insisted on a tabloid feel, highly influenced by the work of photographer Weegee (a patron of Kubrick’s early Time career by the way) hence the insistence on the black & white palette which while problematic was a little more receptive to the suits after the relatively recent success of The Last Picture Show. Crucially this was also the first collaboration of arguably the greatest director and editor team of all time, Scorsese hiring Thelma Schoonmaker, although I’m sure you fact fans will be fascinated that the previous two films of his had been cut by a certain Marcia Lucas, wife of George, who was instrumental in the craft of New York, New York and a little modest picture called Taxi Driver – more on that later….
Raging Bull opens with a framing device in 1964, the corpulent once champion now fallen from grace, muttering his street soliloquy to a mirror before cutting back to his physical and celebrity prime, Thus the scene is set for an epic fall from grace, a man demolished by his own demons and insecurities, an aligned marriage of career and substance that pushed Scorsese to his artistic borders. The environment is a vividly reconstructed New York once again, Scorsese intimate since birth with those sweltering summer sidewalks, the red brick townhouses and tenement ambiance of overlapping arguments and domestic distress, a cacophony of constant barking animals and shrieking sirens. In this way the film is constantly, well, its angry and energetic, there are few calm asides nor allusions, a maelstrom of near constant flux and threat. This was Cathy Moriarty’s first film and she by her own admission completely ignorant of the practice of filming, but she had that undeniable chemistry with De Niro on screen, she wasn’t intimidated by him and handled herself admirably by tossing lines back during improvised scenes and sequences, so it seems a shame she never had much in the way of a subsequent career. Also look out for Frank ‘shinebox retrieval instructor‘ Vincent in his screen debut.
Older and wiser in the ways of cinema I can now recognise something of the street confessional, the raw virtue of early Pasolini which was an evident influence, channelled through the earlier pulses of the home countries Italian Neo-Realism. Bit Scorsese took this influential infrastructure and strained the character through a specific American lens of the punishing dream, of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and achieving victory at all costs, no matter the impact on your marriage or soul. To have as your main character a narcissist, misogynistic self hating abuser, a man so paranoid he accuses and beats his own brother was a tough sell as you never sympathise with LaMotta and his distressing antics, but De Niro keeps you glued to the screen through sheer force of personality and profundity. As Schrader frequently attests for him character is action, what they do marks who they are rather than relying on the techniques of long soliloquys or illuminating dialogue, and we are in the orbit of a thoroughly odious, yet curiously understandable ogre. Whilst the contemporary parallels are evident Raging Bull strums deeper than surfaces, it has a wider breadth to suggest how we all fight, sometimes against ourselves and our own self destructive impulses and instincts, in the theatre or boxing ring of life. This being Marty we are treated to an expert entrance steadicam shot, the fight scenes took ten weeks alone to shoot, two and a half months, improvisation utilised to keep the energy and tempo consistent through what was a gruelling experience.
After the exhausting shoot was tapped out the post production schedule was almost as brutal, the sound mix alone took six months, Scorsese in perfectionist mode as he insisted on delicate completion of the Foley signalled rifle shots into melon to replicate the assault of flashbulbs and punches. Seen now the thundering editing in the fight scenes are intoxicating, in terms of sheer physicality these are among the greatest fight scenes committed to celluloid, dizzying, delirious and deadly. Crucially the camera stays in the ring with LaMotta during his dance with his opponents, a third character ducking and weaving through the melee, with special, almost expressionistic designed sets expanded beyond the realistic curtilage, giving every fight scene it’s own individual schemata that represents a different stage of LaMotta’s career as it closes in and fails. These were all specially designed and storyboarded in pre-production, Scorsese not opting for a traditional three line camera crew covering various angles, but instead resorting to one camera, perfectly choreographed like a dance movement with high speed interludes and expressionistic touches like the blood literally dripping from the encircling ropes.
At this stage in his career and psyche Scorsese assumed this would be his last film, and he’d retreat into teaching or academia after the films assumed failure, and I love how he termed it as ‘kamikaze film-making’, hurling everything into the picture and going for broke with nothing to lose. The results are there to see even as much as it simply still doesn’t connect with me, as much as I can fully admire the immense craft and dedication. It remains a text which you can’t deny for the sheer sweat and passion, crucial to the bruised and battered body of work, even if it doesn’t still engage on a personal level. Seeing it on the big screen at last revealed some of the films sheer technical prowess which leaves you shell shocked on a visual level, punch drunk and reeling from the sheer assault of sound, image and intensity, and that alone ensures its seminal status in the lexicon. Now, we all know how P.T. Anderson lifted the final monologue for that notorious final scene in Boogie Nights, which in turn traces a lineage through Kazan’s On The Waterfront of challenging characters throughout American cinema, all human beings, wrecked and wracked with their own failures, struggling to be better men despite their own burdens;
Sometimes, when you think the cinema you are constantly exposed to can seem staid and similar a broadside thunders, and your expectations are beautifully shattered. The reputation of Moonlight hustled up a high bar of brilliance, coalescing since its rapturous responses throughout the festival circuit of 2016. Initially, during the first part of my screening I was intrigued but I wasn’t necessarily immersed – an early, flashy single take that dervishly swerves around a scorching Miami neighbourhood smacked a little of indulgence, and setting yet another film in a narcotic nested centre of the African American experience could only make me think that we’ve been here too many times already. But then one early scene pours from the screen in such indecipherable beauty, when mid level drug baron Juan (Mahershala Ali) teaches a young boy, Chiron (Alex Hibbert) how to swim in the Miami surf, and this deeply moving film never looks back. Juan has taken this neglected and withdrawn boy under his wing after discovering him wondering through some ruined tenements in the ghetto of Liberty City, his father absent, his mother grappling with her own substance abuse demons.
Barry Jenkins adaptation of screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue charts Chiron through three formative periods of his life, as a boy, as a gangling and sullen teenager (played by Asthon Sanders) and then as a young man (a broodingly fragile Trevante Rhodes), his moniker shifting from school nickname to street name through a procession of identities. That is just one of the connective tissues that emphasise the underlying currents of self and soul that permeate the picture, beautifully rendered in a trio of linked performances from three previously unknown actors. Although I was initially perturbed by the unfolding of yet another tale of African American experience unfolding in the ghetto, of slinging on the corners and avoiding 5-0 it soon becomes clear that this is merely the backdrop of a wider psalm on our perceptions of the self and how these can change through time and circumstance, the id in a constant state of flux and evolution. Naomi Harris (better known as Moneypenny in the latest Bond’s) as Chiron’s mother and Ali (the fixer Remy in House Of Cards) are both fantastic support, surrounding Chiron with fully rendered adults to his wounded interior, with all their complexities and contradictions in full display.
For a sophomore effort (his first film, Medicine For Melancholy is already being reassessed) this is a film which is deeply accomplished, fully deserving of the panoply of awards it has attracted and its affinity with the best work of Wong Kar Wai and Lynne Ramsay, both cited by Jenkins as crucial influences. The palette is that of combining intimate, handheld closeness coupled with broad widescreen environments, James Laxton’s cinematography brilliantly blazing within the alabaster Miami sun and a twilight of shimmering oranges. Through these designs the film levitates, hovering in that space between self daydream and cognitive inquiry, where crucially Laxton lights the space, not the characters so they can work and move within the dimensions of specific scenes. Carefully orchestrated through the performances, score, masterful manipulation of exposition and colour schemata Moonlight weaves through the influential moments of this young man’s life, before alighting on a devastating emotional conclusion, without resorting to the usual closure of the screen-writing 101 playbook.
A rather lazy but accurate pitchline for the film has devolved to Boyhood meets Boyz In The Hood. Rather more beautifully I’ve heard Moonlight compared to ‘Caravaggio in Florida’, and as a culturally shrewd punctuation mark on the Obama era, of racial advancement and civic progress for gay rights, whch forms a an important thread but not the entirety of Chiron’s story. What is clear is that beyond the surface sexual and racial politics is that Moonlight is a cartography of shifting identities, not just of his life and struggles but also those of his mother and other ancillary characters, divorced from the usual social realist take on growing up poor, in troubled circumstances in modern America. Rather forlornly one hopes that it can overcome the steam train of the undeniably entertaining, skilled yet in comparison rather hollow La La Land come Sunday night, but I’m sure the Academy will favour another valentine to itself rather than this infinitely more complex meditation on masculinity. Believe the hype, this is a major film from a major new voice, aching and vibrant with bittersweet beauty;
It’s always January isn’t it? That somewhat bleak, recuperation and recovery month when the cinemas suddenly resonate with the flotsam and jetsam of the previous year, especially the award attuned ‘serious’ cinema that dominate the discourse of the Oscars, the Golden Globes, the BAFTA’s and all the others. I recall going to see Kenneth Lonergan’s previous troubled film Margaret during a chilly January release, a long gestating project that required the intervention of luminaries such as Scorsese – yes him again – just to complete the films editing and guarantee a limited domestic and international release. Five years later his follow-up Manchester By The Sea arrives on a gilded cushion of critical praise, already clutching a panoply of awards and nominations, with acting and screenplay nods seemingly guaranteed with this years Academy Awards are announced next Tuesday. When we first meet Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) we quickly parse that he’s a withdrawn and troubled soul, working as a handyman cum janitor in a quiet Massachusetts coastal town, prone to bouts of drunken violence in a local bar, while resisting the advances of men and woman into his hermetic, almost monastic world. A frosty morning phone call sets the story in motion – his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has passed away from a long-suffering cardiac condition, summoning Lee back to the titular Manchester to conduct the various legal and bereavement arrangements, also nominating Lee as the temporary guardian of his sixteen year old nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) since their alcoholic mother Elise (Gretchen Moll) fled, or was exiled from the family a few years earlier.
Beware gentle reader, consider yourselves seriously warned, as this film is fucking heartbreaking. Through an expertly orchestrated lattice-work of flashbacks we incrementally learn of Lee’s tragic back-story, ignited and recalled in his imagination by the stresses and strains of the present’s new emotional responsibilities, with many of his fellow townsfolk whispering of a dark history when his back is turned. Affleck has always struck me as a haunting presence, malevently malefic in Oscar nominated turns such as The Assassination Of Jesse James etc., adroitly amusing in the Oceans movies, genuinely certifiable in The Killer Inside Me. But beneath that sinister edge there is a vulnerability which reminds one of Montgomery Clift or early career Sean Penn, and he is perfectly cast and perfectly plays those qualities to the fore in Manchester By The Sea, wracked with guilt and withdrawn from the pains of the world, suddenly thrust into a new lexicon of blood-tied responsibilities that he struggles to surpass. Having listened to a recent WTF interview with him he knows from bitter experience the impact parental psychosis can levy on the family unit, how rage and for some substance abuse clouds deeper haunting problems of the psyche, and he seems to be drawing from that personal reservoir for this shattering performance. He’s a different man, happier, genial and invigorated by life in flashback, a severe counterpoint to the muted husk we follow in the present day, he’s bulls-eyed a nomination and potential Oscar win and this controlled and internalised turn would be my front runner for February.
This is very much a winter film, shot with a shivering authenticity in the small coastal town of Manchester which squats an hours drive from Boston, perfectly melding the seasonal torpor with the Chandler family tragedies. It’s a generationally blue collar community where the denizens love their hockey and basketball, they enjoy fishing with their buddies so they can enjoy a beer or seven, the blood ties that bind forming the spine of the community. Lonergan is too much a respectful chronicler of the human condition, of our frustrations and foibles to offer any pandering solutions to torment, he doesn’t posit such platitudes that obliterating events may ever heal or regenerate. Still, beneath that bitter observation there is a quiet tender core to the film as fragments of joy and relief still remain, and the continued affection between Lee and his nephew – an amusing Lothario in training – has also earned Lucas Hedges a deserved Oscar nomination.
While there is a drizzle of observational humour to alleviate the oppression Lonergan is also an expert in the minutia of day to day life, the small quiet moments signalled by the slight curves of a smile or a painful sideways glance, those miniscule moments of unconscious communication which can transmit more than a thousand word soliloquy. It’s also a treatise not only on the repercussions of tragedy and bereavement but on the administration of death, the protocols of passing. Who makes the phone calls to impart the terrible news? How do you arrange the details with the undertakers, and whom arranges storage of the cadaver when the ground is to cold to commit to a service? Anyone who is suffering some density of family strife and struggle – in other words 99.9% of the human race – will find the film brimming with empathy while perhaps an exhausting experience, expertly modulated and paced with key information being revealed in key emotional flashbacks, which as narrative devices are revealed with maximum effect. Sometimes the unvarnished truth of our lives and their unresolved and messy strands need to be reflected on screen, to remind us that we’re not alone, and not everyone can easily shoulder the burdens of their lives, the destructive decisions and drives, as traditional resolutions would have us believe. It’s very early I know, we’re barely a month into the year, but this deeply moving and tragic film is a certain contender for one of the years best;