Finally, after those intriguing teaser trailer we get a proper look at Nolan’s first historical feature. I think it looks pretty epic and worthy of an opening day matinee, even if it all seems a little, well, clean and sanitised, cinematography style speaking – is that just me? As I’ve mentioned before the onslaught of post Brexit, post election think-piece musing is also going to be horrific, if todays local election results are anything to go by;
The long road to penitence begins here. Almost three decades in the making Martin Scorsese’s latest, and potentially penultimate picture is finally anointed in the church of cinema, if he keeps to his recent comments about hanging up his viewfinder. This passion project has been adapted by Scorsese and his frequent screenwriter collaborator Jay Cocks from the celebrated 1966 novel Silence by the Japanese Catholic author Shūsaku Endō. This is not the first time this striking story has been brought to the screen, in fact it has been filmed twice before, once by Masahiro Shinoda in 1971 and by João Mario Grilo as The Eyes of Asia in 1996. I’ve seen neither so we’re not operating from a position of comparison, but I can assume that analysing all three could be a fascinating exercise as they emanate from the perspectives of the host and interloper countries – Japan and Portugal – with a neutral approach provided from the US with this latest translation. Anyway, that’s a whole other exercise, Silence has already been compartmentalised as the final entry in Scorsese’s so-called spiritual trilogy, mused in theological trysts alongside 1988’s controversy baiting The Last Temptation Of Christ and 1997’s zen like Kundun, neither perhaps Marty’s most celebrated works but both harbouring an essential and central ingredient of his entire cinematic oeuvre – the spirit and faith, and how our physical actions connect with the divine via our morally constructed maelstroms.
I’ve mentioned it here before but after growing up in those ‘mean streets’ of Queens and later in his childhood the Little Italy enclave of Manhattan Scorsese was submitted to the Catholic seminary at age 15, a path of devout clemency being laid before him. Thankfully for us heathen cinephiles he didn’t take to his studies and instead turned to the cinema, where he has spent a career examining men – and the fact is that it is nearly always men – wracked in some lacerating mortal or spiritual torment, sometimes finding some sort of redemption or transcendence, and sometimes….not. These themes find themselves at the heart of Silence which reminds one of Apocalypse Now given the similar trajectory into a pagan Heart Of Darkness, a clandestine pilgrimage into the hostile unknown of another culture and country, in order to resurrect with a lost mentor, to rescue an almost saint like idol. It’s 17th century Portugal, and Jesuit Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver) are advised by their superiors that a letter has fallen into their hands from a colleague long thought lost to the lord. A Dutch trader, one of the rare merchants from Europe allowed entry to the isolated Japan of that era has passed on correspondence from their inspirational mentor Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), but the wonderful news of his mortality is coated with concerns, as the liaison also slanders Ferreira by claiming that he has since renounced the church and turned away from god. Refusing to believe this both Father Rodrigues and Garupe decide to follow in their teachers footsteps, and risk torture, death or worse in the mysterious Orient, where the practitioners of the Christian faith are lethally repressed since an earlier flowering of the faith was crushed by the Shinto / Buddhist majority.
This is an aesthetically beautiful film, a late flowering of a great master marshalling his frequent collaborative choir to beautiful crescendos, but the final effect rests on your own plinth of faith and belief, so speaking as a lifelong atheist I worshipped the craft but rejected the credo. Silence is set during a period of imperialistic colonisation of other corners of the globe by many Judeo-Christian sects, so their arrogance with converting others from their native beliefs, the prideful righteousness in enforcing their ideology on the poor and disenfranchised made me harbour zero sympathy for either Fathers journey, but we’ll come back to those dimensions shortly. Nevertheless as a historical backdrop the film is fascinating, following my visit to Japan a decade ago I have absorbed a little of Japanese history and was au fait with the shift from the Tokugawa period to the Meiji restoration, 17th century Japan being a near hermetically sealed culture and society. The fact that 300,000 converts had been raised and then been suppressed was a revelation, so there is much to enjoy from the sheer historical framework of Scorsese’s spiritual sociology. The design of the film is exquisite, from the gilded costumes of feudal Japan to the harmonious architecture of the dynamic dojo and seething peasant villages, garnishing Dante Ferreti (this is his 9th collaboration with Scorsese) a guaranteed Academy Award nomination. The colour palette is dominated with the frail and pale, the mist choked and mysterious in the opening sequences as slowly DP Rodergio Piasto infuses golds and flickering harbingers of light into compositions, as the Priests are tested and their religious odyssey requires a more frantic grip on their Jesuit faith. The camera movements are discreet, Scorsese’s usual inquisitive, darting minnow guidance through scenes shifting from POV to isolate specific sectors of interest, but there is no showboating here, there’s no Copacabana centrepiece, as Silence is a much more pious visual experience – although some of the landscapes are spectacular. In penitence to the title the soundtrack is also sparse and diagetic generated led, cloaking the auditorium with the chirping cacophony of the Japanese flora and fauna, enveloping all the senses in a pre-industrial Oriental Eden. Oh, and for you cult movie fans out there yes that is Shinya Tsukamoto – cybermind behind the Tetsuo pictures – who appears in a reasonably large part as one of the diligent and devoted faithful.
Can we elevate Scorsese to the other great spiritual seers in the vestry, alongside Bresson and Dreyer, Bergman and Malick? No, his faith follows the poverty of Pasolini, finding the struggle in the street among the dispossessed and depraved, although his style certainly apes the celestial. When his name is uttered the first thoughts are usually of the machismo oozing urban malaise of New York, his energetic and fluid camerawork, all set to a rocking soundtrack of baby boomer classics. I’ve long linked his work to a quiet moral authority, they might be buried under the cinematic chutzpah of Wolf Of Wall Street or Goodfellas but without wasting my powder on my review of that masterpiece (with hopefully a special guest attended screening if I can get tickets) there is always quiet moral sermon underpinning his character odysseys, a search for asomatous nourishment and solace, although the conclusions remain intangible and as etherial as a wisp of smoke from a tabernacle candle. These enigmas are dropped in Silence which is more studious, slower paced and contemplative, whose maker is uncharacteristically wearing his heart on his sleeve. Despite its beauty and the dense theological and ethical debate it elevates this for me is where Silence comes unstuck. Usually Scorsese is too skilled and wise an artist to ever make his position so oblique, but questions of faith such as the priests insistence of their holy righteousness are dressed with a solemn endorsement. More problematically the dire consequences of the theocratic insurgency the Jesuits are fostering are explored but through the cinematic syntax it is clear where the sympathies ultimately lie. That was my reading of it and I don’t find that comfortable, although more pious souls may arrive at different conclusions. Still, like the best of ambitious, passion projects I’m sure these reactions could change or warp with age, Garfield is convincing as a man stretched to the absolute limits of his faith, and his climatic scenes are extremely powerful, dramatically and emotionally in the same category as Willem Dafoe in Last Temptation. I have to confess I have no intention of catching the film again at the cinema which should also speak volumes, as a major late period work by arguably the greatest American filmmaker of the past fifty years it of course remains essential viewing, even if Silence won’t be golden for everyone;
You can you stick your Game Of Thrones up the perilous pit of Ungmar the Unameable, the real fans of high medieval fantasy know the real action is going down way back in Berlin’s UFA studios during the equidistant pre and post war year of 1925. The movie industry was a very different beast back then, when tyrannical movie directors would muster bloated, hugely expensive studio-bound epics which seemed to run for days rather than hours, where the cult of celebrity had establishing itself as the central marketing hook to spear the attention of the depression and austerity starved masses and give them a few hours respite from the economic terror of their day-to-day lives, of industrial technique and visual dazzle entrancing the senses at the sacrifice of emotional or political nuance, a cinema of sensation anxiously awaiting the new enrapture of an auditory sense which would become the industrial standard in just a few years – the coming of sound. So yes, the cinema of the 1920’s was completely different to current contemporary standards, and producers of all nationalities and geographic birth certainly didn’t have their avarice rich eyes on lucrative emerging markets beyond their borders as the Tinseltown executives are hypnotizing today. I offer this all as proof that the more things change the more they seem to stay the same, like developments and trends in any industry the market seems to ebb and flow in a cylindrical fashion, so although I am ostentatiously going to be looking at a German filmed and financed, silent five-hour epic from 1925 in this piece I’ll try to weave in some present day echoes, before we begin in earnest I have to say this review has been a long time coming, I purchased and first saw the film back in March of this year but the day job and new release priorities have interfered with this fitfully stuttering season. I must admit that the prospect of collecting my thoughts on a film of such density from a period I’m not exactly and expert within (despite studying German Expressionist cinema back in my Academic hey-day) I do think it’s good to set yourself challenges and goals, so once more into the breach dear friends…..
Over the years I have seen and even (briefly) academically studied some of Lang’s expansive, technologically paradigm busting and genre hopping optical oeuvre but this is the first time I’ve seen this particularly lengthy ‘lost’ classic, whilst many of his other films of the period such as the Mabuse series and Metropolis have received a wealth of attention and discourse, mostly related to the former’s eerie pre-shadowing of the Third Reich and the German slide into genocidal fascism and the latters long robotic shadow that is cast upon the then embryonic SF genre. At first glance Die Nibelungen can be filed away with many of the other expansive cinema epics of the same relative period, Griffith’s Intolerance, Abel Gance’s Napoleon and the early biblical epics of Cecil DeMille immediately spring to mind, as certain visionary riding crop wielding tyrants struggled to elevate the medium into what was then regarded as ‘art’. They all share common DNA in the studio-bound industrial production techniques which were at the apex of their time, this project being all the more mysteriously fascinating as it was not crafted on the glittering Western coast of America which was the pulsing global centre of film production of the era, whereas Germany was still a bruised and economically subdued empire looking internally to heal its wounds and embrace an uncertain and financially fractured future. Split over two disks and moving through two significant story arcs Die Nibelungen wails through various cantos rather than following a traditional scene juxtaposition, cleaving the heroic story of Siegfried (Paul Richter,) the son of King Siegmund of Xanten, enticed to the kingdom of Burgundy and entranced by her beautiful princess Kriemhild. Through guile and enemy subterfuge Seigried is despatched to traverse the eerie Wood of Woden, a trick that deflects him from reaching Burgundy and taking his beloved’s hand in marriage, trapping him in mortal combat with the magical creatures inhabiting the wood, including a powerful smoke belching dragon. This is just the first part of an odyssey which maps to the epic poem Nibelungenlied whose genealogy has been traced to around 1200 AD, a battle-cry charge into Götterdämmerung rather than Dungeons & Dragons;
The Tolkien allusions are as clear as a Nargothrond stream in a Melian weaved moonlight, and indeed John Ronald Reuel drew heavy inspiration from the poem as he did from other medieval texts such as Beowulf. Film-wise one assume this is one of the first fantasy movies in the vein of the LOTR saga, or The Beastmaster, Krull or Hawk The Slayer, it’s hearty companions being the Douglas Fairbanks derring-do of The Thief of Bagdad which was similarly born in the cradle of Méliès phantasmorophs, a cinema of heroic scale and mythical landscapes and creatures, rendered by technological innovation, prosthetic designs and camera tricky. Partitioned around title cards and animation asides the film constructs a fantastical infrastructure of abstraction, reminiscent of early Disney and specifically Fantasia,with a much more adult themed musing on sacrifice and slaughter, a melding of the mythic with the metaphoric.
One of the strengths and specific merits of silent cinema is the devotion to the image, to the fusions in time and space between edits which infer relation and drive a story forward, a tale as localised as a dog rescuing a child ballooning out to a legendary mythos of fantastical beasts and titanic deeds communicated to a diverse collection of individuals sitting and watching in the dark. When it comes to some of these venerable epics the sheer scope of the enterprise are genuinely majestic, of knowing that hundreds of extras were marshalled by furiously barking assistant directors through primitive communication techniques, that vertigo inducing edifices were precariously erected in the physical world and not in squeezed out of a computer, that one take was literally one take when all the complex components marshalled in one shot were subject to the forces of entropy and accidental destiny. Whilst Lang’s framing is rather static and theatrically toned (no different from his contemporaries, still haunted by the dimensions of the stage and its slow transition to screen with wide shots exposing all the action set back to where an approximate theatre goer would sit) he permits resources to enter into the frame from non-diagetic origin points, punctuating these staged-bound dimensions by plunging his camera into the space at key periods to build momentum and a sense of dramatic intensity. From a mere operative and technological perspective these effects were difficult to achieve back in the 1920’s, the camera rigs and lightning infrastructure being the equivalent of the boisterous industrial clanging of a Betamax player compared to the digital purr of a top-range Blu-Ray today, the technology of narrative method and mode moulded by the storytelling medium, a restriction that was only shattered by Lang and the likes of Murnau, Chaplin and Keaton at their innovative best.
This being Lang the attention to production design is crucial and key, even in these medieval trappings an angular attention to detail is anvil hammers home the visual cues of the characters internal psychology, in a period where spendthrift producers would have balked at the cost of constructing roofs in interiors which could be shot around to save money and still maintain the suspension to disbelief. By closing and framing characters in angular lines on a 2D canvas Lang (a draftsman and architect by trade) instinctively grasped the importance of these subtle details and flourishes, understanding that the human relationship to its environment can be a rich seam of metaphorical and subconscious persuasion. On a more general level the sequence of the burning of Etzel castle is bombastically impressive, with tangible and physical sets genuinely torched and destroyed, again a concrete immediacy adding to the films’ aged sense of awe and danger. Cinephiles can also wallow in the instructive primitive (or should that be lyrical?) forms of film grammar that were common for the period, most deliciously the iris valve instructing the audience what to contemplate in the frame before oscillating the image out to reveal the full panorama, a communication method which now seems to rest in the edit of the cut, breaking scenes and spaces into more digestible portions of information. When it comes to the auditory functions of the film a recent comment from the great film director and scholar Peter Bogdanovich rang a historical chord with me, his affirming that films were never ‘silent’ and were usually consumed with a rowdy, disruptive and raucous audience hurling commentary at the screen or engaging in rather excited discourse with their companions. As the art form evolved in-house and live performed musical accompaniment was added to the sensual mix, instructing the audience when to feel trepidation, to swoon with romance or yelp in excited glee, so although the screen itself was silent the cosseted environment of the theatre was anything but. Now of course we have Dolby 5.1 earfucking Supra-ATMOS throbbing in the multiplexes, chorused with the charming cacophonous din of patrons chatting, of repetitive cell phones pings and associated light pollution – the more things change…..
In a rather primitive form the film does remind one of Jackson, a big broad canvass and an affinity to legendary and mystical beasts, as you can’t help but think of Smaug when that German wyrm starts smoking and smouldering on-screen. Taken in context the scale and dimensions of the film are fairly impressive for its time, it’s also fairly violent with the mythic plucking of the eye of the beast provoking its discharge of acidic venom, it also in a curious non-denominational way brought Aronosky’s Noah to mind, if only for the grandiose pre-historic bombastic exuberance of the project. Lang loves his angular compositions, the foreground frame positioned carefully to juxtapose against various axis of arrangement, with carefully considered production design and lighting patterns embedded in the accruing fields, in that sense I’d argue he’s a pathfinder precursor to Ridley Scott and Chris Nolan who are amongst his most transparent heirs apparent, as their strengths also rest in a formulation of design and artistic technique rather than dialogue or finely honed screen performances. Some of the villains are somewhat problematic when viewed through the lens of history, any film, particular one made in Weimar Germany with hook nosed moneylenders will immediately read as archaic and disgusting (although it didn’t stop Mel did it?), so its worth noting that Lang was part-Jewish but his screenwriter wife at the time Thea Von Harbeau embraced the National Socialist movement as it emerged in the coming years, and remained as a central figure in Goebbels propaganda machine after Lang has fled for Europe. Whilst we’re on the subject it has always amused me (if that’s the right word) that history’s most notorious dictators are enormous movie fans, from Stalin to Hitler to Kim Dong Un they all revelled in private regular screenings as one of their primary entertainment activities after a hard day at the office executing dissidents, signing genocide decrees, constructing death camps and systematically starving their citizens. In cinemas defence one assumes that they’d be equally adoring of TV had they been born a generation later as a far more pervasive and insidious conduit of propaganda and (it lives in your house after all), and don’t get me started on the suppressive possibilities of the Internet…..
Films such as Die Nibelungin breathe animated life into Orson Welles’ famous assertion that a movie set is ‘the biggest electric train set any boy ever had’, with almost unlimited stage bound resources at their disposal the major directors of the day could indulge in every one of their most profligate whims – recruiting another thousand extras for a more densely populated wide-shot scene, conjuring up elemental typhoons and tsunami’s to prod the audience into gasp induced wonder, the most exotic wildlife displaced from remote continents to suggest a seething, primordial physicality that seems to sexually lurk in the pre-code star system and swwon inducing content of the period. It’s worth stressing that the vast majority of films were studio bound in Europe during this period and it was only Hollywood that actually had the vision ti investigate shooting on location, one of the numerous attractions and coalescing factions of California as the birth of Hollywood was its distance (both physical and legal) from the early copyright cartels of the East Coast. As the restless vagabonds stumbled across the serene orange groves and hills they discovered brush and plainland that could easily stand-in for the mythical frontier for early cinema genre champion the Western, one of those amazing conflagrations of space, location, weather and production styles which birthed the golden age of Hollywood. Where does this film slot into the auteur evidence of Lang’s debonair career? Well apart from the steely Teutonic rigour of the design and vastly ambitious visual scope (like I said you can trace him to Jackson, Scott and Nolan in numerous ways) there are the psychological attuned elements, a central protagonist directed by his desires and dreams as opposed to more corporeal conerns or sense of muscular morality, a flagrant flaunting of the rule of law and the social restraints of civilisation, men mesmerisied by ambition and moral absolution.
The film transfer is stunningly rich and textured and the boffins have done a fine job with scrubbing clean the usual glitches and frame damage you’d normally endure from films of this vintage, with the tarnished tinted sickly gold providing an apt visual metaphor for the damaging desire for wealth and prestige. As you’d expect from a label so dedicated to film connoisseur this is the fullest version of the film assembled since its debut almost a century ago, lovingly embroidered with extant scenes from the best surviving negatives across numerous foreign markets, so like the recently assembled Metropolis it’s something of a Frankenstein monster which provides the most faithful recreation of Lang’s original vision. Speaking of that SF landmark I did also acquire the new Blu-Ray but I’m going to kick my review of that into the long grass as it’s screening as part of the BFI’s interstellar SF season at the end of the year, I’d much prefer finally catching the full restoration on the big screen to fully inform my commentary. Until then there’s plenty to keep us distracted so I think we’ll jump forward a decade or so to another challenging picture to get my teeth into – M. Lang’s first sound film is widely regarded as the first sound masterpiece, its international impact provided his calling card to Hollywood as he fled the Nazi scourge in the late 1930’s, but until we get our ears around that here’s a final look at an early example of Fritz’s fascination with dreams, the submerged unconscious and its divining power over our waking lives, still present in the distant purlieus of medieval mysticism;
Hmm, this slipped out rather quietly, after Noah are we going to be subjected to another cycle of biblical guff? Still with Sir Ridders behind the viewfinder I’m sure it’ll be visually impressive, if nothing else;
The last time we saw Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly in a successful movie together* she was the distressed love interest to a fragile man plagued by piques of insanity, hearing voices and hallucinating inspirational yet terrifying visions, slowly and incrementally losing his tenuous grasp of reality. It was a paranoid formula which led to Oscars galore, winning Best Picture, Supporting Actress, Script and Director back in 2001, with nominations in many of the other major categories as well. Many among the critical fraternity, myself included, found that film mawkish, absurd and overbearing in its strutted seriousness, with the odd attractive montage sequence which soured the saccharine texture of Ron Howard’s lacklustre and staid direction. You can probably divine where I’m going with this but this time the barking megalomaniac is Darren Aronofsky, finally wielding some financial clout after the Oscar-winning Black Swan it seems he still has this gnawing urge to tell the story he had grazed in The Fountain out of his system, an epic fantastical tale of faith and creation, the splitting and sundering of worlds both physical and emotional. First of all an ominous burning bush warning – there is a specific element of this film which nervous Paramount Executives successfully expunged from all the marketing material, an affectation which is essential to discuss in order to fully explore the film. Technically I guess this is a ‘spoiler’ in that sense but given that this element is revealed in the first ten minutes of the film it’s not anything as revealing as a plot twist, but I’ll be referencing this from the synopsis onward so consider yourself ‘warned’ if you’re really that concerned about such trivialities. So from a box-office perspective Noah is not the waterlogged failure that early industry shamans predicted, and initial reports that disgruntled North American Christian literalists fled preview screenings wailing at the liberties taken with the source material made me think of the geek squad similarly screeching away at message boards bemoaning the latest Superman Versus Batman casting rumour. Truly this is an age of terrible wonders as I mostly find myself agreeing with Christian fundamentalists – this film is a deeply frustrating, cosmological mess…..
Extrapolated from a slim four pages of Old Testament text it feels almost ridiculous to attempt a plot synopsis of one of Western civilisations most enduring myths, but as Aronofsky has repeatedly pointed out whilst sailing the current marketing tsunami the water cataclysm is an enduring parable that has soaked into many cultures and religions – fair point. Grizzled Noah (Russell Crowe), resplendent with his dutiful wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) has been suffering strange visions and apparitions as he and his family scourge a pitiful existence among the creators fallen Eden. Man has been tempted by the serpent and fallen from grace, paradise now a barren and inhospitable realm where bandits and marauders steal and murder with impunity. Noah translates the visions as an instruction to visit his father Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins) and obtain further insight, thus it was so that an epic quest is undertaken, traversing the barren lands and meeting the fallen angels entombed as rock heavy golems (voiced by Frank Langella and Nick Nolte in the first slice of divergent madness), and rescuing the young waif Ila from murderous thugs. She soon grows up to be Emma Watson and falls for the blue-eyed charms of Noah’s first son Japeth (Leo McHugh Carroll), leaving second son Ham (Logan Lerman) somewhat frustrated when he learns of the fate of the earth and the severely dwindling possibility of finding a mate of his own. For lo it has been intoned from on high that Noah the faithful should construct a fuck-off ark with his stone-skinned servants assistance, a holy crusade to preserve the creators bounty from the imminent water fuelled Armageddon, but local warlord Tubal-cain, (Ray Winstone) descendant of the original murderous father of sin has a different vision for the future of the planet and its exploitable species…..
After a collegial preview screening one can imagine Terry Gilliam getting onto the directors hot-line and demanding to be patched through to Aronofsky, and respectfully warning him to reign it in – this film is absolutely nuts, crazy, bonkers, berserk and any other adjective you care to throw at it, but unfortunately not in an altogether righteous way. My antipathy sprinted from an promisingly insane opening half-hour which swiftly degenerated into the pits of incoherence, overacting with a repellent moral universe, a slow and dreary ark bound act which is so sodden and lifeless I was praying for a righteous thunderbolt. It also doesn’t help that for many lurking aeons I have harboured and cultivated an animosity to both Winstone and Hopkins telegraphed by rote villains and mystical elder stereotypes, although the latter is actually a 16th level priest in this film (who casts sleep at one point, restoration the next) through the powers of some unexplained magical mumbo-jumbo which Aronofsky gleefully pours into each increasingly inconsistent and head-slapping induced scene. I don’t enjoy opting for Dungeons & Dragons metaphors but that is exactly where this film descends, complete with 18HD stone golems fighting with the evil men under Tubal-cain’s thrall, a mid-point Lord Of The Rings affectation which utterly damns any notion of this film chiefly concerned with deeper ideological psalms, the biblical baby thrown out with the metaphysical bath water. Most amusingly for infidels such as I – and when you’re laughing at overtly serious scenes your picture is in serious trouble – there are visions of wanton abandon, of evil, wicked and unrighteous humankind selling their children and kin for wine and gold with satanic glee, complete with heretics sporting industrial acetylene torch faceguards, building muskets and other tampering with blemished technology which make the cottage genre industry of Fundamentalist Christian films seem like models of subtly and religious harmony. It’s insane, but with a weeping sense of incoherence and juvenile moralism.
Aronofsky moulds his meiter from his furiously driven protagonists – wrestlers, ballerinas, scientists, mathematicians – masters of their profession, utterly obsessed with their individual quests at the risk of their body and sanity (imagine what Herzog could have done with this subject and six figure budget?), and there are a couple of superb montages charting the evolution of existence from the amoeba to the Miley Cyrus which remind one of the stuttering stop motion intensity of his debut feature π. In that sense this long mooted passion project of the director gives the film a circular rhythm from his own low-budget genesis, but alas it is the only filmmaking concession of interest which is soon overwhelmed by the facile metaphysics and medieval musings. Like his previous ambitious failure – and I suspect this is where some of you will check out as I know that film firmly divides the faithful from the agnostic when it comes to Aronofsky – like The Fountain this film is a steaming unresolved flotsam of character, theme and form which doesn’t find any emotional or visual alignment beyond the strictly superficial. One prays that the film’s environmental message will be the films saving grace, although the boat may have sailed on that front, but then again what do we critics really know?;
* Emphasis on the word successful here, this simply does not count….
I must admit to being somewhat bemused by this project. Given that he’s the screenwriter is Aronofsky trading on his post Black Swan clout to finally get that thwarted epic out of his system after the downgrade of The Fountain? Is he genuinely a religious type who feels compelled to tell this story? Is it a cynical ploy to court the religious dollar? Either way I think it looks like a biblical mistake;
Maybe its me but I’ve had enough of Ray Winstone as an unconvincing tribal sort, and Anthony Hopkins left credibility town many years ago. What a strange-looking film……
Yeah, so then, this is doing the rounds – it’s pretty exhausting;
You must have heard the joke by now – A War Horse walks into a pub and the barman says ‘Hey, what’s with the long film?’ and lengthy it is, as over the course of two and a half hours Steven Spielberg programmes his viewfinder to ‘epic’ mode with an adjacent instruction of ‘majestic sweep’ in this grandiose adaptation of the 1982 Michael Morpurgo novel and subsequent smash hit theatre production which has enjoyed sold out-runs on both the London and New York circuit. It’s not difficult to see what attracted the king of gloopy sentimentality to this project, what with the mud drenched butchery of the First World War being stoically witnessed by a faintly anthropomorphized protagonist whom immediately seizes the audiences heartstrings, whether its doe-eyed youngsters, a stressful family dynamic or an inadvertently abandoned extraterrestrial you don’t need to absorb the credits to assess who’s behind the camera. Spielberg’s touchstones for this project are also fairly obvious, he’s clearly spent the last year reviewing the work of his heroes John Ford, David Lean and Victor Fleming as the film has an almost anachronistic feel of Hollywood that thrives on awe-inspiring spectacle and widescreen landscapes, heck there may even be a touch of Stanley J. Kubrick in one sequence but naturally I’ll come back to that. If you enjoy the strand of Spielberg’s career that privileges the historical epic, whether that be the pollen hued wheat fields of South Georgia in The Colour Purple, the corpse strewn beaches of Normandy in Saving Private Ryan or the desperate refugee camp of The Empire Of The Sun then War Horse will gladly to report for duty, it’s rather unsubtle juxtaposition of bombastic spectacle and saccharine emotion won’t be to everyone’s taste, but this just about managed to sabotage my low blubber diet.
Devon, South West England, the early 20th century. The proud but struggling Narracott family of farmers have a new acquisition to the family courtesy of hard-drinking Ted (Peter Mullan), the cavalier patriarch of the family whose unmentionable experiences in the Boer War have left him with a limp and a bitter taste for the demon drink. When he brings home a noble young stallion his teenage son Albert (Jeremy Irvine) is soon besotted with the latest addition to the family, and sets about breaking him in to the gruelling tasks of rural life. His fierce yet loving mother Rose (Emily Watson) fears that her husbands booze soused pride has got the better of him and the outrageous 30 guineas he has paid for the mare means they won’t be able to settle their rent to scheming landlord (David Thewlis) who is hungrily eyeing the Narracott farm as a small addition to his development portfolio. But soon events of a wider nature overtake these local concerns, the First World War is declared and Ted is forced to sell Joey to the Army in order to alleviate his financial pressures and assist in the war effort, and Albert makes a tearful promise to one day be reconciled and reunited with his equine brother. The film then moves into vignette, episodic mode as Joey’s sojourn in France sees him passing from master to slaver, from British to French then German, both military and civilian, a pious observer of a land racked by terrible slaughter and carnage.
Your reaction to War Horse will probably be dictated by your resistance to Spielberg’s iconoclastic cloying sentimentality, this is probably his most directly manipulative picture since he embarked on those literary translations back in the mid 1980’s but if you’re amendable to such fare then there is much to enjoy. The epic scenes are a veritable smorgasbord of grandiosity with a capital ‘wow’, with call-backs to epoch defining scenes such as this and heightened, treacly lighting affectations such as this, which are particularly resonant in the films closing moments. The already famous charge through no-mans-land by Joey is simply breath-taking from a compositional and editing stand-point, and an extended trench battle sequence is equal to the horrific D-Day landings that opened Saving Private Ryan, Steveo has evidently been reviewing other presentations of celluloid battle for inspiration and influence. On the other trajectory the cloying score and occasional wince inducing exchanges between Joey and Albert might have you fumbling for the vomit bag, but the film is outrageously open about its facade and mannerisms so from its opening scenes so you’ll be able to assess if you need a refund. I’m obviously getting soft in my old age as for the most part I was swept along in the scope of Spielberg’s expansive canvass, although I grimaced at a few moments that ladle on the syrupy melodrama if you let yourself go then even a potentially ham-fisted collaboration between a British Tommy and German infantryman (which made me cringe when I heard about it on a podcast review) actually works on-screen as the noble stallion ushers forth a shred of humanity in the midst of the horror. Harkening back to a simpler time with some impressively fustian arrangements, War Horse may just trot away with your heart;
*Whilst we’re on the subject of bearded tyrants, this article is shocking, at least once every paragraph I had to check the date and make sure it wasn’t April 1st – words fail me, particularly utterances such as ‘these people?’
The term ‘epic’ is bandied around a lot these days, Transformers 2 is the greatest ‘epic’ summer movie, Australia is a sweeping, romantic epic, and American Gangster is a crime film of epic proportions. Let me be clear – no they’re not. Epic is a film spanning the life of a character, from childhood to old age. Epic is encompassing sixty, seventy years of detailed social history. Epic is fusing these strands into a captivating comment on the human condition. Epic is Once Upon A Time In America. Concealed within its gangster movie trappings the film is a detailed mediation on the notions of loss and time, filtered through the prism of the American Dream from turn of century New York to the 1960’s as it follows the rise and fall of a clutch of Jewish gangsters led by Noodles (Robert De Niro) and Max (James Woods) whose lives are chronicled from childhood friendship to twilight years and death – that is fucking Epic. There will be spoilers around for America and a few other films, we’re talking about movies that have been around for over 20 years here so if you ain’t caught ’em yet then that’s your lookout pal. I’m being all tough n’ shit and getting into character ya frickin mook.
Based on the novel The Hoods by Harry Grey, America proved to be Leone’s final film, the first in yet another projected trilogy similar to the Dollars series. The film concentrates on three periods throughout its exhausting run time, the establishment of the gang – the main other players being Patsy (James Hayden) and Cockeye (William Forsythe) in the early portion of the century, their growing power and influence throughout the height of Prohibition in the early 1930’s and Noodles investigation of a mysterious letter that he receives in 1968 which draws him back to his home, thirty five years hence, all his friends and partners in crime believed dead and buried. Central to the tale is Noodles love for his childhood sweetheart Deborah, played by Jennifer Connelly in the early scenes and Elisabeth McGovern as an adult, a love that is not unentirely unrequited but complicated by Noodles criminal and Deborah’s artistic ambitions.
Out of all the musical pairings of Leone, for me one of the finest all-time Italian directors and Ennio Morricone, one of the all time finest screen composers this is my favourite, of course his spaghetti western compositions have become iconic and the harmonica moments in Once Upon A Time In The West are brilliant but I just prefer the cadence and melancholy wrapped up in the America score. Leone’s directing style, whilst identifiable from the Westerns is somewhat restrained and subdued when you compare it to the bombastic and exuberant methods at play in the likes of The Good, The Bad & The Ugly. To echo the themes of memory and nostalgia Leone signposts many of the transitions with slow pans, POV’s and cuts between doorways and apertures, signalling a portal to another time, a journey through a doorway to reach the past. These visual flourishes are compounded with a judicious use of mirrors, smoke and mist throughout the picture to generate a period evocation that is palpable, especially around the 1900’s scenes with the young gang prowling the mean streets of New York, a sepia toned yet unforgiving, brutal playground.
What happened to Elizabeth McGovern? The best scene in the film for me was the 35 year reunion between Noodles and Deborah, that scene really nailed the haunting lamentation of lost time with performances that are given a chance to breathe with long takes and an almost palpable register of emotions raging across the actors faces. According to IMDB she moved into lots of TV stuff which is a shame, I guess she needed a better agent. More pertinently, what the fuck happened Bob? I won’t accept the usual excuse that there is not enough good stuff being green-lit to attract actors of his calibre, there are infrequent gems out there which I’m sure crossed his agents’ desk. Lets have a look shall we – 1973 to 1984; Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, The Godfather II, The Deer Hunter, 1900, Raging Bull, Once Upon A Time In America, King Of Comedy. 2000 – 2009; Meet The Parents. Analyse This. Analyse That. Meet The Fockers. Rocky and fucking Bullwinkle? I don’t know, I guess your priorities change as you get older and perhaps you want to take in lighter, fluffier fare but that is quite a catastrophic drop in quality. I like to think that he and Marty have one more outstanding collaboration in them but they ain’t get any younger so they’d better pull their respective fingers out, here’s the trailer for Scorsese’s next picture which looks, well, strange…
Let’s alight on the ambiguous ending. It was quite a feat to reach this point after nearly four hours in the cinema and everyone in the audience was absolutely silent or at the very least asleep. I jest of course, it was a fairly packed NFT1 crowd most of whom who returned after the brief intermission at the 3 hour mark. It was quite a moment to reach the crescendo as the music rises and Noodles turns to the camera to reveal that rictus grin after the marathon running time, like my Heaven’s Gate experience I can honestly say it didn’t feel that long and I found the finale quite affecting. Are all the scenes from Noodle’s betrayal in 1933 forward the fevered imaginings of his opium drenched mind? It’s a plausible scenario, after musing over the films opening movement, its almost non-verbal montage of events with the ringing telephone obscuring the soundtrack which occurs at the same point of time could is another signal of the dreamy, hazy mood of the entire film, not dissimilar to your own memories of past events. It’s an interesting take on the film but I prefer to take the movie on face value (if you’ll forgive the pun), one of the key central moments in Noodles life providing the ideal, final moment of reflection.
Gangster movies, I love ’em. Other than America my favourites range from the genuinely classic and obvious to the cult and obscure, you have to go back to the 1930’s to see where this all started and I’m excited to see an upcoming Gallic take on the genre which has gone down like gangbusters in France. Then there’s the comedies, the art-house fusions, the noir hybrids, the chilly Parisian yarns, the obvious and less known British tales, the Yakuza translations and the pulpy oddities. I’m sure such a long running genre will continue to prosper as there is something magnetic about seeing people on screen violate the conventions of society, no matter how loathsome and violent they are you’re always secretly cheering them on to succeed and prosper, even though inevitably their accrual of power is usually met with a violent end or utter destruction of their humanity.