About a third of the way through Kong: Skull Island, Warner Brothers latest bid to recapture the franchise crown from the house of mouse, marooned Second World War airman Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly) yells how happy he is that a military expedition has finally arrived to save him – ‘I heard you were coming, they told me you were here’ he feverishly exclaims. The problem with this exchange is that he is alone on the remote pacific atoll of Skull Island, exiled since he crash landed almost thirty years ago, apart from the standard issue deployment of a primitive tribe whom have also just discovered the expedition, mere moments before. His potential saviours are a reassigned Vietnam Marine unit – this film is set in the early 1970’s for no qualitatively discernible reason – captained by a standard issue Samuel L. Jackson blustering lazily through his usual blockbuster bricolage. That such a elemental disregard for narrative script logic has surpassed the studio QC test speaks volumes of this productions disregard for the audiences intelligence (who are they, exactly?), the incremental tip of an insulting iceberg, in what I am afraid to report is this year’s worst movie so far – and I’ve seen Hacksaw Ridge.
So let’s rewind a little and outline the plot, as much as there is a semblance of such things. Bill Randa (John Goodman) is the senior executive of the secretive government organisation codenamed Monarch, a unit charged with investigating the mysterious and clandestine caverns of the globe. Despite being enveloped in a mysterious, permanent storm which obscures any satellite penetration (not to mention defying the laws of physics) he has spent years lobbying for an expedition to Skull Island, a remote archipelago situated in the deeps of the Pacific Ocean, which due to its unique qualities has never been crawled over by scientists like a phalanx of curious climate attuned toddlers. So finally, despite being ignored by centuries of inquisitive homo-sapien exploration Randa finally convinces the powers that be to assemble a B-Movie battalion of character tropes to see what’s going on, and whom, or indeed what might be roaming around this Eukaryoteic eden.
Quite how you waste an ensemble cast of Tom Hiddleston, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Jing Tian, Toby Kebbell, John Ortiz, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchel, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann and Terry Notary is a gargantuan achievement, as no attention has been aimed at assembling any sliver of adventurous creation, Hiddleston in particular being spectacularly miscast as some roguish adventurer in a desperate grasp for Han Solo symbiosis. Second lead Larson as Mason Weaver, a self-proclaimed ‘anti-war’ photographer recruited to the mission also yields no internal instruction or arc, no political purchase or indeed personality, but she does get the ‘best’ line in the film when she reports for duty and a surprised military attaché exclaims ‘Mason Weaver? But (dramatic pause, scrolling through the ship deployment manifest)…but…you’re a woman?’…’Last time I checked!’ she retorts. Alas, I am not joking.
After half an hour of this tedious stumble through the labyrinth of lazy Hollywood engineering I recalibrated my expectations accordingly, as even if we can’t have anything resembling fun characters or dialogue, any graze of excitement or energy we can at least reel in some scintillating CGI and mirthful monster mayhem, right? Wrong. Blockbuster brawlers such as Guillermo and Jackson have consistently and correctly reasserted that an essential element of any monster movie is to invest your creations with some semblance of personality, a trait that is fully absent here, there’s just no there there beneath the CGI carapace. The main draw of the movie, the almighty Kong who squats atop the pinnacle of American monster movies since 1934 in this incarnation is simply boring to behold in all his supposed simian stupendousness – it’s all inertia, with no metaphoric gravity nor heft. That critical, fatal flaw is reinforced in the design of the perfunctory flora and fauna of Skull Island that assail our heroes, the supporting characters are picked off red-shirt style with no human dimension nor consequence, as we progress through a plot untroubled by interest or consequence. Sure, I am fully aware that you should perhaps check in any concerns of reason or logic at the ticket collection booth – this is a big, loud, brash blockbuster intended to deactivate the cerebellum – yet the flippant lack of quality or design in any other dimension of filmmaking, the set pieces, the SFX, any sense of exotic adventure or mysterious investigation, they all render this movie as mediocre par maximus.
Predictably the wider movie references are speared throughout the film like a postmodern skewer (including a nod to this), but the obvious antecedent is Apocalypse Now which I detected from the initial trailer and the colour palette, period soundtrack and those images of mosquito framed choppers shrouded against a blazing oriental sun. A cold opening of Marlow’s initial arrival on the atoll in 1944 is pinched from Boorman’s Hell In The Pacific when a Japanese airman is also marooned along with Marlow, a plot point which is suitably set up and then thoroughly abandoned. Gentle reader, given the deliberate historical locality I’m not necessarily expecting some squirming subtext of an arrogant battalion of Westerners invading an exotic oriental locale, raining napalm and ordinance on the denizens and arousing the wrath of some ancient, gargantuan, elemental wrath, but a movie on this scale has to be fun on its own genre terms, and on that front Skull Island fails abysmally. Once again the studios have drafted in a talented Indie director, Jordan Charles Vogt-Roberts (helmsman of 2013’s charming Kings Of Summer), and ruthlessly crushed any potential flourish or notable technique, as all must be in thrall to lowest common denominator blockbuster banality personified in the near ubiquitous and groan inducing post credits sting – see also Jurassic World. Doug McClure must be spinning in his volcanic grave, as taken as a franchise inceptor or mere creature feature Skull Island is a colossal disappointment;
There is clearly something in the water as the full trailers for this years nervous franchise holders are dropping thick and fast, and this looks several parsecs more entertaining that Alien 8. Still, not sure they had to crowbar in that fairly major spoiler;
OK you fucking mooks, OK, I feel bad about this, I’m feeling especially guilty and useless at not posting anything concerning my Scorsese blitzkrieg over the past few weeks. Truth be told I have six or seven full reviews in the pipeline, but wider considerations have fumbled my intent, and it has proved difficult to find the effort or inspiration to continue this increasingly monumental effort – real life can sometime intrude. Nevertheless I’ve only got one more full movie to see in the season which on a whole has been a revelatory season, there is just one more of the classics to finally see on the big screen, so I keep telling myself to wait until that is absorbed until I get chained to the keyboard. Until then here is some more adjunct material which is fascinating, one of the core figures in recent Amercian cinema whom would not exist, as we known it, without Marty;
Yes, it’s that time of the year again. I must admit to finding it difficult to muster any genuine enthusiasm for this years announcements, I have made a concerted effort in seeing some of the inevitable nominees this month, with Jackie still to see when it opens toward the end of the week, and Moonlight soon after which I’m really looking forward to given the exemplary feedback. For my sins I’ve been toying with going to see Hacksaw Ridge despite the rather eyeball rolling trailers, I’m also not sure I wish to contribute to the coffers of Mel Gibson even with the rudimentary pennies that would be allocated through my Cineworld Card, but I’ve heard that the action sequences are equivalent in power and brutality to Saving Private Ryan, so being a weird sort of cruelty junkie that has piqued my interest. As it stands I’ve never, in now a venerable ten years of conducting this ridiculous and infinitely pointless exercise (in public) managed more than a 60% or 65% accuracy rate with my predictions, but we live in hope and its just a piece of pointless frivolity to while away the endless days until we all die. So as always the rules are to bold the films I’ve seen, italic the films I think should win, and underline those I think will win, with the everlasting caveat that I haven’t seen everything, so am having to make some choices based on compromised information.
Amusingly, as I write this I am catching up on a few of last years blockbusters, namely In dependence Day 2 and X-Men Apocalypse, both of which, as expected, are total gash. this industry really needs to start rethinking itself along these high exposure, high visibility lines, as some of the rumours I’ve heard coming out of the disgruntled technicians and junior players are growing increasingly depressed with their products, as the studio executives and senior producers simply not caring about plot inconsistencies, illogical scripts – they are literally telling them not to worry as the audience don’t care, and the spectacle and energy of the films are enough to play in China and other developing international markets – depressing. More positively the ceremony has already caused history, as La La Land enters the exalted trio of films with the most nominations in history – 14 – joining All About Eve and Titanic, even Gone With The End only managed a paltry 13 nods. Looking through the nominees I note that we now have to go and see Lion which didn’t exactly grab my attention from the trailer but I’m willing to be surprised, but I draw the line at Fantastic Beasts in the SFX category which I have absolute zero interest in. It’s good to see Arrival warping into so many nominations, but lets face it La La Land is going to obliterate this years ceremony – completely. We are in dire need of some simple, unadulterated colourful escapism right now, not to mention the slightly more worrying prospect of a temperature in the culture of yearning for an allegedly simpler, more prosperous earlier time, no matter how warped and unglued from reality that nostalgia may be. It’s not a criticism per se of the movie, but for a Los Angeles set film it is spectacularly Caucasian, innocent and defiantly individualistic, where even human relationships and warmth are sacrificed on the altar of unimpeded commercial success and wealth;
Only nine nominees eh? Strange number, but here we are. Not having seen Moonlight this is a difficult one to judge, I think we can assume that Fences, Hacksaw Ridge, Lion and Hidden Figures are the outliers. La La Land will take it down to Chinatown, however….
Hell or High Water
La La Land
Manchester by the Sea
No Kelly Reichardt for Certain Women? What a travesty, but it looks like the rehabilitation of Mel is complete, right? Well, out of those I’ve seen both Lonergan and Villeneuve conduct exemplary work at either end of the scale – one a tiny, modest, performance scoped drama, the other a major technical blockbuster with empathic and narrative fracturing elements. Jenkins for Moonlight is a long shot but you never know, but I still think Chazelle is gonna win…….
Arrival – Denis Villeneuve
Hacksaw Ridge – Mel Gibson
La La Land – Damien Chazelle
Manchester by the Sea – Kenneth Lonergan
Moonlight – Barry Jenkins
Not wishing to prejudice my full Manchester By The Sea review this might be one of the upsets for La La Land – Gosling was fine in that but not exactly best actor nominee levels of achievement – and richly deserved it is to as Affleck is astounding, although some of those allegations surrounding his conduct may prove difficult. Garfield is having a fairly spectacular career post Spiderman isn’t he? I’ve got Captain Fantastic on my priority Lovefilm list so should catch that over the next week or so, but this and perhaps screenplay will be Manchester’s only achievements…..
Casey Affleck – Manchester by the Sea
Andrew Garfield – Hacksaw Ridge
Ryan Gosling – La La Land
Viggo Mortensen – Captain Fantastic
Denzel Washington – Fences
No Amy Adams for Arrival? Damn, well, it wouldn’t be the Oscars if Meryl didn’t get nominated for something, right? I wonder if she would get a nod even if she took a year off, just..because? I’ve got nothing against her you understand, I was in appreciative awe of her putting her head about the parapet during her Golden Globes speech, but c’mon. I’ve just seen Jackie and as I’d heard Pablo Larraín has coaxed out a very different sort of performance from Portman, a punt which actually takes some time to acclimatise to during the course of the film, so I think she’ll take it as a somewhat less controversial choice than the other front runner Elle.
Isabelle Huppert – Elle
Ruth Negga – Loving
Natalie Portman – Jackie
Emma Stone – La La Land
Meryl Streep – Florence Foster Jenkins
Best Supporting Actor
Fantastic to see Lucas Hedges here which is probably the biggest surprise, he holds his own against far more experienced colleagues so it’s good to see him nominated. Bridges is great but maybe a little too obvious, Patel is the best I’ve seen him in Lion, and I can’t comment on Moonlight – yet. So let’s go with Shannon, because, well, he’s Michael fucking Shannon…..
Mahershala Ali – Moonlight
Jeff Bridges – Hell or High Water
Lucas Hedges – Manchester by the Sea
Dev Patel – Lion
Michael Shannon – Nocturnal Animals
Best Supporting Actress
“Seven of the 20 nominees in acting categories for 2017 Academy Awards are non-white” notes the Daily Mail, in accurate reporting accident’ tweeted Sight & Sound editor Nick James after the announcement, which made me chuckle. As much as I love Michelle Williams to be perfectly blunt she is barely in her film, sure she has one pivotal scene but apart from that little more than a few transitional moments, so I can’t in good conscience elect her as a favourite. So for now, until I see more of the nominees, I’ll go with Viola Davis as she’s always great;
Viola Davis – Fences
Naomi Harris – Moonlight
Nicole Kidman – Lion
Octavia Spencer – Hidden Figures
Michelle Williams – Manchester by the Sea
Best Adapted Screenplay
A roll of the dice, until I see Moonlight. Arrival was quite revolutionary but again the Academy is resistant to awarding SF out of the technical categories, which leaves us with the entire arc of Hidden Fences which can be detected from the trailer – it looks worthy but not following the usual ‘triumph over adversity’ path. In a similar way so does Lion but seems to evade any clichés, so for now I’ll go with that;
Best Original Screenplay
No Nocturnal Animals nod? Well, that is odd given the previous form, but I can’t say I disagree. I did see the film last year but couldn’t find the appetite to craft a review, the framing structure of a film within in film is curious and could have been utilised to great effect, but the rest of the film was cluttered and quite unsure of itself. So, back to the actual nominees and I’m going to have to go with Manchester By The Sea as one of those almost consolation prizes, unless La La Land begins to look like a clean sweep on the night….
Hell or High Water
La La Land
Manchester by the Sea
20th Century Women
Best Animated Feature Film
Not exactly my specialised area, and I’ve heard great things about all of these but lets go with Moana as a Disneyfied guess.
Kubo and the Two Strings
My Life as a Zucchini
The Red Turtle
As always a strong field, again until I see Moonlight which I’ve heard has some ravishing moments this is difficult to call. Silence was a beautiful film if an ideologically troubling one, but I think the La La Land juggernaut will continue, especially that magic hour & crayola colour schema.
La La Land
Best Documentary Feature
This is a slam-dunk, having powered through the five and a half hour O.J. Simpson epic over Xmas I can vouch for its brilliance, drawing in issues and observations far in orbit of that horrendous event.
Fire at Sea
I am Not Your Negro
O.J. Made in America
Best Documentary Short Subject
Watani: My Homeland
The White Helmets
Best Original Score
Should they even bother opening the envelope? Strange to see Passengers on here, there is a beautiful piano leitmotif in Lion which is worthy of an award, and it’s a shame that Arrival missed out here;
La La Land
Best Original Song
“Audition” – La La Land
“Can’t Stop the Feeling” – Trolls
“City of Stars” – La La Land
“The Empty Chair” – Jim: The James Foley Story
“How Far I’ll Go” – Moana
Best Foreign Language Film
Goddamn it. It’s always the same, isn’t it? I arrogantly assume I have kept my finger on the pulse of international cinema, following the antics of the major film festivals, and while I may not have seen everything due to distribution patterns I’m at least aware of the general population of International Cinema. Apparently not as not only have I not seen four of the five nominees, I’ve never even heard of them. Completely oblivious. Not a peep about these pictures, not through my Sight & Sound subscription, not through the scattering of film websites I visit almost daily, not through the two dozen or so weekly podcasts I am subscribed to. Just who is sending the Academy these films to see and getting them nominated? Well, of course the exception is Toni Erdmann which has been justifiably cresting the wave of breakthrough popularity and audience affection, which surely has to take this one back to Berlin.
Land of Mine
A Man Called Ove
Best Animated Short Film
Pear Cider & Cigarettes
Best Live Action Short Film
La Femme et le TGV
Best Costume Design
I think Jackie might offer an upset and it certainly looked amazing to me, but my sartorial skills are questionable;
La La Land
Best Makeup and Hairstyling
Well, that’s a surprise, with Suicide Squad, one of the most maligned films of last year, getting a nomination. I’ve never heard of A Man Called Ove so let’s guess with Star Trek;
A Man Called Ove
Star Trek Beyond
Best Sound Editing
I’m going out on a limb with Arrival as a final offering of support;
La La Land
Best Sound Mixing
Action and combat films usually do well in this category, so lets go with the Ridge;
La La Land
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
14 hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi
Best Film Editing
Crikey these all seem proficient to say the least, but again Arrival had that fractured timeline to master. Nevertheless La La will prevail;
Hell or High Water
La La Land
Best Production Design
Whilst I think Arrival should take the top set SF never wins production design awards, which closes down the odds somewhat. Normally I’d go with Hail Caesar for the old-school Hollywood vibe, but I think this might be a case of the vote for everything for the same picture syndrome for those Academy members who haven’t seen all the films…
La La Land
Best Visual Effects
Having seen The Jungle Book recently I must admit I was very impressed, it was the best rendering of anthropomorphic animals I’ve seen on screen, and whilst it didn’t always convince the blending and rendering was exquisite. Still, I’m going for Dr. Strange as those folding hexagonal headspace scrambling was almost unique on screen, as opposed to the text book designs and execution of Rogue One.
The Jungle Book
Kubo and the Two Strings
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
As is my idiom, I do like to post some ancillary material when indulging in a director season, so I thought it best to keep the flow running with some acclaimed non-fiction material which is often overlooked in favour of Marty’s crime epics or spiritual sojourns. The BFI, as usual are doing a comprehensive job by showing many of his documentaries on the big screen alongside the movies, but I’m not inclined to spend precious resources in catching these on the big screen when I can barely keep up with the January new releases and tackle big, iconic movies such as a certain boxing picture which I have tentatively begun assaulting. So, courtesy of the inter-webs here are a couple of his highly regarded pieces, modest little examinations of his family in the first instance and a colourful acquaintance in the second, to keep things ticking over while I catch Manchester By The Sea this week and hope to bring you the story of brutalised boxer by the weekend;
I should say that this exercise has ballooned out of all proportion as I have committed to and made great inroads into re-watching every single Scorsese movie on my HD home A/V system, which has included upgrading some films to high definition from their mediocre DVD masters, thus so far I have powered through Gangs Of New York, Cape Fear, The Age Of Innocence, Boxcar Bertha, Hugo, The Aviator, Bringing Out The Dead and The Departed – not bad for a weeks work, with more still nesting on my watch-list. Anyway, here is his interview with the rather squalid Steven Prince, star of one of the key scenes in Taxi Driver you’ll recall, and his O/D story which Tarantino lifted for that sequence in Pulp Fiction;
You might be as bemused as I was to discover that we have a recent sequel, well if you consider 2009 as ‘recent’, that you can see here…..
It will not surprise any of you regular visitors to lean that I am not a fan of musicals. Well, OK let me quantify that – there are some musicals I like, I was raised on the likes of Pink Floyd’s The Wall and The Who’s Tommy for example, but I’m broadly referring to the more traditional song and dance jamborees of Hollywood’s golden era, pictures such as Anchors Aweigh, Seven Brides For Seven Brothers or An American In Paris to name just three. I have no problem with broaching the fourth wall of convincing artificiality, or with the slightly strange idiom of characters suddenly bursting into song and dance routines in order to express their evolving motivations and drives – that is digestible. No, it’s just that the music and vocals that accompanies these fantastic flights of fantasy is rarely attractive to my ears, even as the coldly academic cinephile inside me can appreciate the skill of the choreography, the luxurious production design and spectacular camera techniques. In that light I have observed the snowballing popularity for La La Land with a distanced distress, knowing that at some point I will have to go and see this picture as a part of maintaining a finger on the contemporary cinema pulse, my own personal idioms and preferences be damned. Fortunately after many months of staggering praise my antipathy has slowly thawed, to the point where I have metaphorically thrown my arms up in mock disgust, and bitterly muttered ‘OK, OK, I’ll go and see it, are you satisfied?’when in fact I was secretly kinda looking forward to it. There are two potential asides to this entertainment, the first is director Damien Chazelle’ previous form with his debut picture Whiplash which I throughly enjoyed, an incredibly skilled debut which while flawed managed to dazzle in technical prowess and J.K. Simmons captivatingly cruel performance. Secondly I’m not completely immune to the charms of Golden era musicals, Singing In The Rain for example is a throughly entertaining film, providing a fine backdrop of the paradigm shift of Hollywood from silent to sound. So in anticipation of the Academy Award nominations I ambled along to the local multiplex to see what all the fuss is about, and left the venue a couple of hours later with a modest, appreciative spring in my step.
Fortunately, and rather refreshingly I went into this completely blind, I hadn’t even seen the trailer so any expectations were abscenl, other than the knowledge that this was a modern musical which everyone from the festival circuit to the critical intelligensia seems to have fallen in love with. It is love, of the bittersweet and interrupted sort which drives the narrative, the real world and its diverting ambitions that disrupt the path of true happiness, as two ambitious creatives seek their fortune in the glittering, magic-hour framed City of Angels. Seb (Ryan Gosling) is a passionate jazz pianist, fully committed to his craft who yearns to open up a club committed to keeping the legitimate history of authentic improvisation alive. Mia (Emma Stone) works as a beleaguered barista on the Warner Brothers lot while striving through a brutal parade of depressing auditions, furtively awaiting her big break as an actress among the hundreds of other prospective stars. As you’d expect our ravishing couple meet-cute, follow the well trod path of the usual boy meets girl / girl meets boy / divergent success of their career paths placing insurmountable obstacles in the second act climax. Fortunately for the film Gosling and Stone are third time lucky with a gushing Niagra (or should that be Viagra?) of on-screen chemistry, this swirling musical romance punctuated with some fantastical moments, some genuine laughs and tender tears, all set to a shifting seasonal sequencing that moves from the joy and anticipation of spring to the clammy death of winter. Mark my words, this charming throwback is going to win every Academy Award imaginable come February, and probably steal a few categories it’s not even nominated in by sheer force of osmosis.
Although I am aware of Jacques Demy I can’t pretend to be fully au fait with his work, I’ve seen maybe two of his pictures over the years and the experience simply hasn’t carved a trench in my memory bank. From my reading and general cinema knowledge I recognise the primary coloured shadows his work casts across this film, particularly the prismatic palette and his romantic inclinations, but I also was reminded of Coppola’s colossal folly One From The Heart which also tempered its amour with a bittersweet bite. La La Land is a far more successful movie, it’s unashamed deployment of classical syntax – iris transitions, the blossoming costume palettes which look like the debris from an explosion in a Smarties food colouring factory, the frequent and deliriously dexterous plot accelerating montages. We’ve been speaking a lot about fluid camera work recently with the Scorsese material but I can’t avoid repeating similar gushing praise, the twirling and yearning coverage makes the pulse quicken and the heart soar, with its seductive CinemaScope framing La La Land is an unalloyed technical marvel, and even if you’re not particularly attracted to the trope of musical cinema the craftwork alone is worth the price of admission. The background is plastered with nostalgic references, some quite ostentatiously frank – an Ingrid Bergman street etching here, a Casablanca shooting location there. Being Los Angeles denizens and show-business slaves of course Mia and Seb go to the cinema, the magical beams refracted back over their wonderstruck faces, heck they even get to visit well-beloved movie locations such as the Griffith Park observatory of Rebel Without A Cause. It’s a film in love with the history and fading magic of its California location, as much as it wallows in a pool of Post-Modern edification.
One of the functions of the Golden Era musical, intentional or not, was to supply pure, unvarnished escapism from the horrors of the great depression and the subsequent anxieties of World War II. The studios provided a stream of opulent, undiluted fantasy divorced of any pregnant social or political commentary, beguiling those pre-TV, pre-internet audiences with beautiful, sybaritic silver screen sophistication. Why am I bringing this up? Well, no reason, but if this film continues its award momentum then we can expect similar pictures in its wake, as Hollywood will always carnivorously seek to replicate any success, which might be a repeat of some sort of cultural cycle given the current social temperature – we’re already saturated with super heroic speciousness. I’m also amused to see yet another example of the ouroboros digesting its own movie history, like The Artist, Argo, and Birdman once again we see Hollywood celebrating itself again in an onomastic orgy of self-congratulation, as the media landscape becomes more diffused and their ascendant position as the gatekeepers of dreams becomes increasingly degraded. I’m not suggesting this is a bad film as I’m a sucker for a bit of nostalgia, and this is a expertly aligned piece of genuine entertainment, it’s merely an observation of a particular strain of hemispheric cinema continuing to turn inward rather than look outward for new stories and techniques to express them. Would this have pirouetted into my best of 2016 list if I;d seen it at the LFF last year? No, because as I said musicals simply don’t arouse my particular moving picture peccadilloes, but this is a throughly charming and seductive film, marking Chazelle as an ascendant talent to watch, and further cementing Gosling and Stone as two of the most assured talents currently at play. La La Land is a testament to the enduring lure of Tinseltown, a pleasurable, heartfelt and vibrant pastiche;
Well, in true cowardly fashion I for one welcome our new Soviet cinematic overlords;
Given all the disruption in the wider world concerning anglo- Soviet relations this is almost satiric, right? Like a comedy sketch of a Russian film adopting the Hollywood blockbuster aesthetics? Welcome to 2017 comrades…..
In order to provide the most comprehensive cover for this seminal season we have to delve down into the lesser known, more neglected films in the Scorsese canon. Rifling through the material in my film book library there is unsurprisingly a wealth of anecdotes and analysis on the likes of Goodfellas, Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, but I could barely glean a half-dozen pages on the making of The Color Of Money, the loosely grained 1986 sequel to sports classic The Hustler which starred a fresher faced Paul Newman in one of his iconic roles. Curiously to me, the 1980’s have usually been considered as Scorsese’s wilderness years, the period where he fell from the pedestal of one of the greatest filmmakers of his generation following a litany of incredible pictures, even managing to recover from the annihilating reaction to his tribute to the Golden era Hollywood musicals New York, New York with what is widely considered as one of the greatest ever post war American films – Raging Bull. He kept working throughout the following decade, kicked the debilitating coke habit that landed him in hospital for exhaustion a number of times, but it wasn’t easy to convince the studios to fund his uncommercial projects. Sometimes however the movie gods would smile and the talent would approach him with opportunities, as Newman did when he raised the prospect of a return to the life of ‘Fast’ Eddie Felson, pool shark turned wholesale liquor salesman, a quarter century after he abandoned the life. Personally I love 1980’s Scorsese so we will be lavishing a particular emphasis on this period during this season. Even within that enclave this is perhaps his most overlooked picture which crackles with that whip-crack energy and emphasis on character and conflict, yet another man writhing in an existential web of regrets, half-imagined hopes and degraded dreams, with one more elusive shot at glory a chance to transcend their personal purgatory.
I’ve always had a soft spot for this film for a number of reason which I hope to unpick here. Unlike some self-important directors, slowly casting their imperious aspersions over the numerous scripts that pass through their aides fingers and only committing to a prestige project every four or five years Marty decided he wanted to keep working, to keep learning, to collaborate with new and established talent and to expand his repertoire – I admire that. Maybe some of this was commercially minded as we all have bills to pay, but after a cursory glance through the material and one assumes the chance to work with Newman he thought ‘yeah, fuck it’ and committed to the project – I get the same sense of instinctive decision-making arising from his remake of Cape Fear which enabled him to get his full Hitchcockian anxieties exorcised into another project. Paul Newman plays Felson a quarter century on from his rejection of the fugitive life, longer in the tooth and more temperate in his dealings, he initially senses a money spinning opportunity if he can harness and mould the skills of the volatile Vincent (Tom Cruise) and manage the possessive instincts of his girlfriend and partner Carmen (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). Shot during a grim Chicago winter Scorsese’s regular DP Michael Ballhaus straddles the film in shivering greys and whites, the palette coming to life when the road-movie plot reaches Atlantic City, just as Eddie’s slow awakening and new-found faith in his own prowess coalesces in a conspicuous climax. Along the way we see the internalized mechanics of the con, of the sweet nectar of the hustle which I’ve always found fascinating, the psychological games and feints which Newman has prior pedigree in one of the all time great grifter movies The Sting. However, unlike more straightforward con movies like House Of Games or Nine Queens which rely more on their serpentine plot mechanics The Color Of Money strives for a deeper purpose, a character study of a man in the twilight of his career lamenting past glories, wondering and yearning if he can recapture his youth which fate and his own foibles snatched from him a generation ago.
As character study The Color Of Money is a picture which rests entirely on the quality of its performances, and Marty shepherded an Academy Award winner from Newman, and buttressed Cruise’s emerging screen persona as a cocky, charismatic all-American boy. This was released just as Cruise had just broken the sound barrier of superstardom, already a hot property after the previous years Risky Business, blasting into the fame stratosphere launched by Top Gun which opened five months earlier. Of course the box office receipts weren’t remotely comparable but he carries his purpose in the picture with his usual chutzpah, this scene the perfect encapsulation of his arrogant adolescence. The associated energy comes from the spectacular exhibition shots and the skilled montages dropped over the various games, I’m not a particular fan of sports films as, well, I’m just not into sports, but the skill on display is fascinating and gripping, all the more impressive as with the exception of one spectacular jump shot every stroke in the film was conducted by Cruise or Newman. Far more interesting is the hustle, that fine psychological game of convincing your opponent that you are an inferior player while slowly coaxing the prize money higher and higher, the act of losing while your ego demands revenge, the ability to walk away and nurse that hunger for revenge until you revisit your mark months later with the bookies odds stacked heavily in your favour. That’s where the characters come to the fore and the intrinsic drama of the film lurks, that struggle between male posturing in Vincent and the venerable wisdom of Eddie’s street smarts, although he isn’t totally immune to his ego obscuring his intellect. These nodes are the pinions of the screenplay by the always brilliant Richard Price – an acclaimed urban novelist in his own right whom has also written episodes of The Wire, Clockers and cult gang movie The Wanderers. Through his research and life experience he has developed a real ear for the argot of the street, for the genuine hustles and scores that this sub-class have developed, all of which gives the films a fascinating authenticity as backdrop to the internal ideological struggles. There is some fine supporting turns from John Turturro and Forest Whitaker as a portly prestidigitator, and keep an eye out for a youthful Iggy Pop making a small cameo as another ignorant mark.
The towering presence isn’t Scorsese’s direction or the economic script, the real bounty is of course the lamented Paul Newman, a real screen legend who managed to laminate his late career with a scattering of incredible performances, see also Lumet’s The Verdict and Nobody’s Fool for how you populate the latter stages of your career with some incredible punctuation points. His reprisal of Felson is an aging chancer with a twinkle in his eye, slowly coming to terms with his own mortality and declining opportunities, hell-bent on one last blaze of glory before his star inevitably must diminish and fade. In terms of style Marty winds up his camera like a taut cluster of vivacity, before detonating the mechanism to dizzyingly orbit the baize battlefields as the games commence, tracking the ricocheting balls and thrusting cues like some general monitoring the forward deployment of his assets and his opponents ambushes and counter-strikes. The narrative is clean and compact, a linear journey which educates Vincent and Carmen in the various skillsets of the hustle across a frigid landscape of smoky pool halls and dive bars, as Eddie regenerates his mojo and confidence in his own ambitions. Scorsese’s usual darting coverage, long-takes shifting from perspective POV to mise-en-scene is just so skilful it brings a smile to the eyes, and as I’ve said before and will say again it drapes his films with such an effervescent energy, I just love the technique which makes his films such as joy to watch and revisit again and again. This time around what I found truly compelling, away from the insight into the street was the shifting motives of the characters, and Eddie’s conscious or unconscious use of Vincent to put himself back in the game and rekindle his dwindling confidence. Cleverly, the script probes that grey landscape between being confident enough to throw a game, to build confidence in an opponent before fleecing him with your superior skills, and not being hustled yourself by a stronger player, turning your own ego against you in a more devious and surreptitious manner – that’s the query that the film alights upon yet never definitely answers, wisely leaving the audience to draw their own conclusions. This was another well-preserved 35mm print, overall a minor Scorsese perhaps but no less rewarding with its spiritual self-flagellation and adrenalined aesthetics, so rack ’em up;
Not exactly off to a punctual start of the year are we? It’s been a few weeks since I caught Rogue One, the long anticipated first wider universe film set in the Star Wars universe, and to be frank I just haven’t been able to muster the enthusiasm to collect my thoughts. Then of course tragedy struck which threw an entirely new shadow across the film, with the passing of Carrie Fisher the first loss of the primary acting talent of the franchise although we also lost Kenny Baker earlier in 2016. Just to be a hideous, privileged soul I remember sitting at Frightfest 2010 when Monsters was showing, a mere five feet from Gareth Edwards who took to the stage for a rapturous Q&A, and look at him now, one of the corralled and manageable directors that seems to be the current studio executive strategy in controlling these dollar spinning franchises – see also Disney’s Marvel imprint, Universal’s Jurassic Park behemoth, and the Warner Bros. DC Universe. I loved Monsters, a genuine achievement of a fresh new talent assembling a movie at zero budget, utilising the new trajectories and abilities of digital equipment, with a fine understanding of story, character and empathy. Something is intergalactically amiss in this film in those crucial areas as although it’s already cliche to state this Rogue One is the biggest fan-fiction movie ever made, stuffed full of lip-service and nerd nuggets for the converted to mutter and coo appreciatively, but fatally lacking in anything resembling rich and engaging characters, or even the slightest dregs of emotional drive which is so crucial to this specific franchise. I didn’t hate the film, it had its moments and strengths that we will come to shortly, but until it reached its final act I was deathly bored, and even then none of the climactic story beats detonated with any impact whatsoever.
It’s all about keeping it in the family for this franchise, and this first picture nested away from the tragedy of the Skywalker clan flirts with the same territory of estranged patriarchs and hidden secrets. A nordic flavoured opening sequence introduces us to Jyn Erso, a young woman separated from her parents when the Empire arrive and threaten her father to return to work for them on their secret, planet devouring super-weapon. After her mother is killed and father (Mads Mikkelsen) captured we smash-cut to some time later, with Jyn all grown up and played by a neutered Felicity Jones – more on that phraseology later. It’s murky but she’s either a thief or scoundrel of some sort, soon rescued from the prison camp by the Rebel Alliance in order to join the effort to rescue her father, a mission led by intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna). Eventually this chemistry free couple manage to recruit Imperial defector Bodhi (Riz Ahmed), the blind monk Chirrut (Donnie Yen) and his heavily armed grunt Baze (Jiang Wen) – all of their ideologies and motivations I perfect mystery, other than Chirruts mystical ramblings about some strange alchemy known as the force. So, from a kernel of familial strife and guilt the film warps into a mission movie, in a scrappy and fractured narrative line which fails at numerous dramatic hurdles.
The neutron core problem with Rogue One is just how manufactured it feels, how designed by committee, with a critical and fatal disregard for character. From the potentially offensive Zatochi clone and his mate I just didn’t care about anyone in this picture, just like it appears neither did the screenwriters who were clearly directing their efforts into the avenues of fan-service, references, and crafting a film whose sole purpose is to reference other entries in its own bloody franchise. None of the principals get any decent lines or tangible development moments, the first half feels very fractured and scattershot, and whilst I’d concur that the final section is a marked improvement it all comes to little too late to save this plundering product. If you compare and contrast with The Force Awakens (or indeed Episode IV or V) within seconds we given enough information to form our own ideas and backstories – Ren’s a mischievous and resourceful with dreams of getting off-world and into wild adventures, Finn’s a fractured yet spirited conscript whom is struggling with his moral compass. In this film we know nothing of our main protagonists, the prologue aside we learn nothing of Jyn’s interviewing struggle, her drive or reasoning, so when the character moments arrive they don’t land with any density whatsoever – her sudden transformation for inspirational speech orator was ridiculous. In his role as some sort of mentor / father surrogate / Afrika Bambaataa clone Forrest Whitaker is a terrible over-actor with his wheezing portentousness and husky, and quite frankly the main character we met in the trailer, the arrogant and brooding Jyn has been transformed into a much more, well, feminised archetype . There was so much they could have done here, the thriller trope of this being an assassination mission not a rescue mission, and what about the notion of Jyn, our heroine, spending her life as a the daughter of a collaborator – theres plenty of drama and tension to mine. Instead we got some limping procession from one planet to another, drizzled in flat and inspired dialogue, and some feeble stabs at humour from the reprogrammed Imperial droid K2-SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk) which missed my funny bone by about 10 trillion parsecs.
SPOILERS SECTION – Yes, Darth effortlessly scything through doomed hordes of Rebel redshirts was highly amusing albeit pure fanboy masturbation, I felt his appearances were listless and not exactly squirming with menace, and very poorly written – what the hell was that ‘choke’ ‘gag;?.\ The entire connection of this story into the opening frames of Episode IV smacks of huge executive interference, it is clunky, it is ugly, and stinks of pure incoherent ‘hey this would be cool’ rather than letting the story be guided by any inconvenient diversions such as character arcs, logic or emotional closure. Some of the other cameos were almost embarrassing – the droids moment might retain their fidelity as the central characters who have appeared in every Star Wars film but it’s just pointless and distracting. Unfortunately Hollywood still hasn’t cracked the uncanny valley as the Peter Cushing resurrection was just weird and deployed far too often, it completely threw me out of the film, although I guess it is meta-commentary amusing to see na actor who spent his entire career grappling with the undead back on the screen a couple of decades since he slipped this mortal country. I quite liked the Leia cameo though, unlike most that kinda worked for me, even with the rather clunky line delivery – although I saw it before the sad news so I’m not sure if this just won’t play as deeply disrespectful. I also quite like the idea of the two reprobates from Mos Eisley engaged in some intergalactic pub crawl after they inadvertently bumped into Jyn, I’m sure there are numerous other references I missed but this is what has just curdled in the memory banks. Just to be really picky, the decision to nuke the final battleground, considering that they hold all the Empire’s plans and numerous intelligence assets seems a little extreme, a bit like nuking the Pentagon if the generals learned that some F23’s secret blueprints had been compromised. Why did Forrest Whitaker’s character just stay in his home intoning gravely instead of getting the fuck out of dodge with everyone else, and what was the fucking point of the psychic tentacle thing? SPOILERS ENDS
Most amusingly I have recently learnt that director Gareth Edwards, also graduated from the same Surrey University as me back in the mid 1990’s, I don’t specifically remember him as he would have been on a different course, but it was a small colleague so I’m sure our paths crossed at me point. I don’t quite know why he was stalking me at Frightfest but here we are. Not wishing to psychoanalyse his intent but he’s evidently one for apocalyptic instincts, big broad metaphors like the creatures in his debut and his Godzilla remake, but like the new generation of malleable directors they serve in obvious thrall to the franchise behemoth, delivering some acceptable product with any fiscal polluting edges and controversies whittled away. Thankfully the film improves dramatically once it reaches the final stretch and the climax begins to coalesce begins, it almost transforms into an actual Star Wars movie with the cross cutting between parallel planes of action to power the dramatic crescendos, but without any genuine investment in any of the occurrences it is all too little too late. To be a little more positive I did enjoy spending some more time in this franchise world from a nostalgic perspective, seeing the ship designs and costumes was fun, including Bahamas Stormtrooper © and was that a new horizontal TIE fighter design I spied? To deny that didn’t depress some nerd buttons would be dishonest. I also did like the sense of a teeming and populous universe which the film just about mustered, skipping from one planet to the next, and I wonder if the lack of traditional wipe edit patterns and inclusion of planet inter-title introductions (which haven’t been deployed in the franchise before) weren’t a deliberate effort to distinguish this movie from the Skywalker saga. But none of this can fully detract from an imaginary realm populated with dull and uninvolved characters, a bruising lack of camaraderie or comradeship, and an utterly unearned heroes journey from jaded criminal vagabond to inspired guerrilla leader who can inspire noble souls to join her on a doomed suicide mission. Oh and a quick memo to the next film producers – decide who your villain is, for fuck sake. Rogue One has at least three villains oozing around the galaxy and cackling over their nefarious plots, which left Ben Mendelsohn flailing for any presence or nefarious heft, in a completely wasted role.
The other reason its taking me so long to pull this together is that I didn’t want to start the year on such a tepid, negative posture, but for me the Scorsese season starts in earnest tomorrow with a screening of Silence so I need to disintegrate the back-log, no matter how distasteful. The film was subjected to reshoots before release which is par for the course these days, almost all major films do this so it’s not necessarily a warning sign, but the shift of emphasis from that original trailer alongside rumours and whispers coming out of the set smacks of Executive molestation a la Suicide Squad, where certain key moments have been culled to the cutting room floor to actively change the pace and tone of the narrative and the characters – ‘this will play gangbusters, so who cares about the plot’ is the corporate mantra especially with more receipts coming from overseas. Then again, apart from a few of us rare dissenters everyone seems to be loving this, or at least giving it a pass as fun couple of hours and upon reflection I can’t necessarily disagree with that for a major blockbuster, a distraction from the increasing ominous shift of the culture. Fine. Maybe I was in a bad mood when I saw this as I wasn’t particularly excited about it, as I’ve said before I’m of the generation that grew up with and was obsessed with this universe when I was a kid, but those pangs have faded partially due to its unearned ubiquity in the cultural landscape, but while I’m always down with some fun big dumb SF opera my exhaustion with this series is becoming overwhelming. So maybe it’s not for me and that’s fine, if people are throughly loving this then great, more power to you, the world is lacking in enthusiasm and genuine enjoyment these days, and perhaps a message of committing to fight against the darker forces in our world, no matter how futile as it might just make a difference isn’t such a bad shell of message to offer. Churning these out every year will inevitably tarnish the brand however, the appearance of a Stars Wars film was a major event for good or ill, and inevitably when we get to the Chewbacca: The Early Years dregs of the series it will have amassed enough in merchandising trillions to justify a reboot of the whole Skywalker saga again, from A New Hope, just in time for a 2027 50th anniversary treat. Rogue One is better than the I-III trilogy but then rampaging case of necrotic syphilis also occupies the same dubious qualities, so on that note ‘Beam Me Up Scotty’!!…wait, that’s the right franchise, right?;
Another expensive looking SF drama, with a top-drawer A list cast – however this looks a little flat to me, a little rote, if you will….