The Basildon boys are back, and like a dutiful soldier I naturally attended their only 2017 UK date, in the hallowed halls of the old Olympic Stadium in Stratford. Regular readers will appreciate that I have been following this band nigh on 27 years, missing only one tour, so here are some highlights with the usual apologies for poor filming techniques;
Here is an amusing and earnest chat with frontman Dave ‘Call Me Dave’ Gahan, from the frequently excellent Nerdist podcast. Unfortunately we missed the first track due to some poor time management issues, but the party only really got rocking when they delved into the back catalogue and the crowd rose to its feet;
As something of an obsessive list person it was brilliant to finally tick off some songs of theirs I have never seen live, and for the ‘proper’ fans I think the two track Martin Gore mid-set sequence was the best I’ve witnessed during the numerous times I’ve seen them;
If you put a gun to my head I think this was the best track of the evening, another back catalogue highlight that chimes with the ethos of their recent album Spirit, which I confidently assert is their best album in a decade;
So yet another great evening, somewhat overshadowed by the events at London Bridge that we learnt about once we retired to a pub in Bow for a final nightcap, but let’s just leave that event undiscussed as that’s the antithesis of what those fuckers want us to do. Instead, enjoy this main set closer which is always an exhilarating experience, 60,000 people in arm swinging unison which is what is uniquely great about these big, stadium events;
Having lived in the Limehouse area of London for a few years until my recent decant this interests me, and the book was fairly interesting;
Thirty years ago this month, UK boozy cult classic Withnail & I was released to an unsuspecting audience. Here is a excellent revisit to some of the movies classic scenes and moments, which you can revisit through the magic of cinema here;
‘You never knocked me down Ray…‘ I’ve never particularly cared for Raging Bull. It’s a shocking admission as on paper it should be among my favourite films, what with that triumvirate of Scorsese, Schrader and De Niro in the driving seat, particularly when the latter was at the peak of his powers. I’ve always suspected that the film was ahead of me, that I lacked the insight and wisdom to fully appreciate it when I first saw it as a teen, and again through a handful of revisits over the intervening years. I could always appreciate the craftwork, Schoonmaker’s astounding assembly of the punishing fight scenes, Scorsese’s dizzying camerawork, and of course De Niro’s method madness with the weight gain and boxing regime he undertook to don those gloves of pugilist Jake La Motta, a commitment to the physicality of a performance that has since acquired mythic status. I’ve always wanted to revisit this on the big screen, an approach which could activate the revelatory experience this classic, and I have conducted some research into the films history which might also contextualise the film not only in the Scorsese oeuvre, but also in the wider channel of American cinema as it came to that crossroads of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.
Even if you accept 1/10 of what Biskind alleges in the seminal Easy Riders, Raging Bulls reportage this was a turbulent period. Scorsese’s private and artistic life was in crisis after the immense financial and critical failure of his previous film New York, New York and his tempestuous romance with the rarely stable Liza Minnelli was in freefall. Plagued by insecurities during a terrible shoot he’d worked with De Niro with the last three movies and wasn’t jumping at the chance for another failure, and as was the environment they were all seriously hopped up on deep coke habits – Schrader was doing four grams a day – and after a Telluride festival a combination of contaminated powder, his asthma medicine and overwhelming exhaustion Scorsese experienced a medical convulsion and almost died, and during recuperation in a New York hospital he had what addicts term ‘a moment of clarity’ and poured this destructive angst into a project he could now see from the inside out, the self destructive impulses, the aesthetic impotency and growling, Neanderthal, masculine insecurity – these are the hammer blows of Raging Bull.
Amusingly the film went into production the same month as Cimino’s Heavens Gate which struck the death knell of the decade, where Raging Bull can be considered its artistic apogee. Long time Scorsese scribe Mardik Martin made a first pass on Jake LaMotta’s autobiography, but something pivotal was missing. Schrader’s second assault introduced the tension between brother Jake (De Niro) and Joey (Joe Pesci), inflaming the jealousy that was absent in the book but forms the dark nucleus of his life and the carnage he wrought in and out of the ring. At first the United Artist executives were nervous, they didn’t feel such a reprehensible character won’t exactly entice in the ticket receipts, but Rocky had made all boxing projects hot properties, even shorn of their triumph of adversity plot predictability. Scorsese insisted on a tabloid feel, highly influenced by the work of photographer Weegee (a patron of Kubrick’s early Time career by the way) hence the insistence on the black & white palette which while problematic was a little more receptive to the suits after the relatively recent success of The Last Picture Show. Crucially this was also the first collaboration of arguably the greatest director and editor team of all time, Scorsese hiring Thelma Schoonmaker, although I’m sure you fact fans will be fascinated that the previous two films of his had been cut by a certain Marcia Lucas, wife of George, who was instrumental in the craft of New York, New York and a little modest picture called Taxi Driver – more on that later….
Raging Bull opens with a framing device in 1964, the corpulent once champion now fallen from grace, muttering his street soliloquy to a mirror before cutting back to his physical and celebrity prime, Thus the scene is set for an epic fall from grace, a man demolished by his own demons and insecurities, an aligned marriage of career and substance that pushed Scorsese to his artistic borders. The environment is a vividly reconstructed New York once again, Scorsese intimate since birth with those sweltering summer sidewalks, the red brick townhouses and tenement ambiance of overlapping arguments and domestic distress, a cacophony of constant barking animals and shrieking sirens. In this way the film is constantly, well, its angry and energetic, there are few calm asides nor allusions, a maelstrom of near constant flux and threat. This was Cathy Moriarty’s first film and she by her own admission completely ignorant of the practice of filming, but she had that undeniable chemistry with De Niro on screen, she wasn’t intimidated by him and handled herself admirably by tossing lines back during improvised scenes and sequences, so it seems a shame she never had much in the way of a subsequent career. Also look out for Frank ‘shinebox retrieval instructor‘ Vincent in his screen debut.
Older and wiser in the ways of cinema I can now recognise something of the street confessional, the raw virtue of early Pasolini which was an evident influence, channelled through the earlier pulses of the home countries Italian Neo-Realism. Bit Scorsese took this influential infrastructure and strained the character through a specific American lens of the punishing dream, of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and achieving victory at all costs, no matter the impact on your marriage or soul. To have as your main character a narcissist, misogynistic self hating abuser, a man so paranoid he accuses and beats his own brother was a tough sell as you never sympathise with LaMotta and his distressing antics, but De Niro keeps you glued to the screen through sheer force of personality and profundity. As Schrader frequently attests for him character is action, what they do marks who they are rather than relying on the techniques of long soliloquys or illuminating dialogue, and we are in the orbit of a thoroughly odious, yet curiously understandable ogre. Whilst the contemporary parallels are evident Raging Bull strums deeper than surfaces, it has a wider breadth to suggest how we all fight, sometimes against ourselves and our own self destructive impulses and instincts, in the theatre or boxing ring of life. This being Marty we are treated to an expert entrance steadicam shot, the fight scenes took ten weeks alone to shoot, two and a half months, improvisation utilised to keep the energy and tempo consistent through what was a gruelling experience.
After the exhausting shoot was tapped out the post production schedule was almost as brutal, the sound mix alone took six months, Scorsese in perfectionist mode as he insisted on delicate completion of the Foley signalled rifle shots into melon to replicate the assault of flashbulbs and punches. Seen now the thundering editing in the fight scenes are intoxicating, in terms of sheer physicality these are among the greatest fight scenes committed to celluloid, dizzying, delirious and deadly. Crucially the camera stays in the ring with LaMotta during his dance with his opponents, a third character ducking and weaving through the melee, with special, almost expressionistic designed sets expanded beyond the realistic curtilage, giving every fight scene it’s own individual schemata that represents a different stage of LaMotta’s career as it closes in and fails. These were all specially designed and storyboarded in pre-production, Scorsese not opting for a traditional three line camera crew covering various angles, but instead resorting to one camera, perfectly choreographed like a dance movement with high speed interludes and expressionistic touches like the blood literally dripping from the encircling ropes.
At this stage in his career and psyche Scorsese assumed this would be his last film, and he’d retreat into teaching or academia after the films assumed failure, and I love how he termed it as ‘kamikaze film-making’, hurling everything into the picture and going for broke with nothing to lose. The results are there to see even as much as it simply still doesn’t connect with me, as much as I can fully admire the immense craft and dedication. It remains a text which you can’t deny for the sheer sweat and passion, crucial to the bruised and battered body of work, even if it doesn’t still engage on a personal level. Seeing it on the big screen at last revealed some of the films sheer technical prowess which leaves you shell shocked on a visual level, punch drunk and reeling from the sheer assault of sound, image and intensity, and that alone ensures its seminal status in the lexicon. Now, we all know how P.T. Anderson lifted the final monologue for that notorious final scene in Boogie Nights, which in turn traces a lineage through Kazan’s On The Waterfront of challenging characters throughout American cinema, all human beings, wrecked and wracked with their own failures, struggling to be better men despite their own burdens;
I think some of you might be interested in seeing this;
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;
This year’s ambitious season started for me with a screening of Silence today which will take a few sleeps to digest, so I thought I’d kick things off with a lovely little montage. Plus, if I’m honest, I also wanted an excuse to post this astonishing list of all the films which are coming throughout 2017/18 which doesn’t uniquely dwell on Hollywood product, so we can all get jolly well excited for new material from Haneke, Armando Iannucci, Martel, two projects from Claire Denis, Kitano, Kiyoshi Kurosawa (I haven’t seen the last two yet!) and Mikke, Bigelow, Lanthimos, Del Toro, Aronofsky, Alfredson, Craig Bone Tomahawk Zahler, Malick, Lynne Ramsay, Alexander Payne (always wondered where he had got to), Audiard, Wenders, Soderbergh (wait a second, Soderbergh?), Korine, Alex Garland, Joachim Trier (although his recent English language film didn’t quite work), Duncan Jones Blade Runner inspired Mute, Martin McDonagh, Bong Joon-Hoo and maybe, just maybe, Carruth’s The Modern Ocean – and these are just the ones I’m specifically interested in as there is much. much more coming through. Those rumours of cinema’s imminent demise are a little premature if you ask me, and I think Marty would be proud;
There are also rumours floating around today of a Twin Peaks preview at Sundance at the end of the month. Anyway, back to the subject at hand, as it somehow seems apt to begin our story in New York, where Scorsese was born in 1942. What’s that? Oh go on then, let’s take a little more of an academic look at a specific scene in the canon, which should help set the context for whom we are dealing with over the next couple of months;
It is already a cliché to open any assessment of the year with the distressing roll-call of tragedy, catastrophe and loss – Bowie, Ali, Prince, Princess Leia and the Reef, Brexit, Aleppo and Tru…no…no, I still can’t stomach even mentioning his name here, as I fear that even any subsequent deep-digital scrubbing would fail to dissipate the stench of brimstone. That’s just scratching the surface of course, there have been plenty more losses in this wretched year among the entertainment and artistic spheres, and the world seems to be plunging down a very frightening right-wing trajectory the likes of which I haven’t seen in my lifetime. I am still horrified by the resurgence of the intolerant and ignorant in society, the traditional rules and customs of behavior obliterated by a new acceptance of bigotry and misogyny, all cheered on by a corporate mandated press who have dredged new levels of bile, hatred and sheer, unimpeachable falsehoods to further their propaganda aims and objectives – it is fucking sickening. In my accidental and unintentional path to be some super-powered contrarian I on the other hand have had an absolutely spectacular year, probably the best of my adult domestic and professional life. I moved to a new place quite unthinkably fantastic just a few short months ago which I’m still enjoying, I significantly upgraded the Audiovisual entertainment equipment and with my newly acquired entry level Whitehall security clearance I have unlocked vast lucrative veldts of contracting opportunities, although I have to say it took me a while to assimilate into the culture and tempo of the environment – it was certainly much more this than this. If we don the rose-tinted goggles of nostalgia for a second I wistfully remember walking to the shops one day as a teenager gentle reader, my mind idly turning over as one’s mind does one’s dreams and ambitions for the future, during which I believe a trio of competing instincts surfaced – a) To become a member of the BFI, to write about cinema and enjoy seeing films on the big screen, as god intended – b) To work in Whitehall, to see the reality behind the facade and witness the mechanisms of the levers of power behind those political edifices and c) Make sweet, sweet lurve with Sherilyn Fenn. Well, as a forty(coughs)something two out of three ain’t bad, and when’s that 2017 UK based Twin Peaks cast reunion again?
But I digress as it is a little gauche to wallow in one’s success, on November 9th I was erring on the mindset of ‘fuck it, burn it all down’, and gave serious consideration to abandoning this now ten-year gestating, quiet corner of the internet. That was my knee-jerk reaction of continuing to interact with the on-line world given the culpability of social media and associated technologies in our new world order, where it seems that video documentary evidence of one thing being said is rejected as an objective, truthful event if the opposition denies it vehemently enough, where dangerously insane figures actively promote views that the mass murder of children was a government conspiracy have the ear of the White House regime. Do we now exist in a post-factual society where incontrovertible scientific truths such as climate change are dismissed as heresy, a annihilating position which essentially has doomed the next generation to tsunamis of human misery and suffering throughout the rest of the century? Probably, and I can only see it getting worse with disorder on the Korean peninsula, Soviet incursions into Eastern Europe, a terrified Iran risking a new cataclysm across the Middle East, and an utterly incompetent ego driven corrupt billionaire ‘serving’ as the leader of the western world. We. Are. Fucked. Heh. Happy New Year, eh? Still, I have talked myself back from the ledge and cooler heads have subsequently prevailed, when it comes to the movies however I don’t think I’m being too controversial in also asserting a very poor year, in some kind of unholy alliance with the ominous developments in communications, politics, socio-economics and the global culture in its wider scope. There has been some soaring achievements that we’ll get into a little later, but I have genuinely struggled to source ten top movies this year, given the paucity of material on offer – the summer was particularly dire.
Now, some of that may be due to my woeful festival attendance, I only got to the LFF this year and due to competing pressures caught maybe 60% of what I had planned to see, so as always there is always great material out there if you spend the time and resources to search it out, but on overall aggregate it has not exactly been 1939 or, say, 1999. From my perspective I’ve also neglected my retrospective screenings, I didn’t really conduct any small screen ‘seasons’ this year, but I am committing to a revisit of my Cassavette’s box-set and to take another run at Eric Rohmer next year via this, as frankly re-watching just about any movie, even the old ones on my new upgraded system is quite a different experience – I saw James Toback’s The Gambler a couple of weeks ago and digesting this up-scaled version from a pretty poor DVD master was like feasting on an entirely different and more precious artifact. Later in the year we will also launch my Kurosawa season, if we have managed to reach the summer without immolating the globe in a radioactive death-shroud. When I scan through what I have completed this year on the big screen I’m actually a little more positive – we gnawed through two Carpenter seasons which has essentially covered 99% of all his films I ever want to cover, with only They Live remaining outstanding from a review point of view – as a major Menagerie icon this is a milestone. Then we caught three crucial Spielberg’s, a couple of Godard’s, some Alan Clarke and with that Scorsese season on the horizon we shall also be busy for the next two months. So let’s get moving as time is a wasting, normally I’d also touch on the best TV but I’m not so inclined this year other than to say I loved The Knick, Penny Dreadful Season 3, Hannibal Season 3, Ash Versus Evil Dead (Lee Majors and bringing Cheryl back was fucking genius), Daredevil 1&2, and something else we will discuss later. So as always in no particular order here are the best films I’ve seen, in no particular order;
The 2016 Films Of The Year
The Witch – (Robert Eggers, USA, 2014) First of all, let me share a quote with you from a podcast review of this nefarious chiller that made me howl with laughter – ‘Katherine Heigel takes her baby brother to the woods for a game of hide and seek. The baby wins’. Heh. When the depraved debutante Robert Eggers decided to open his movie with infanticide it was fair to assume that all bets are off, even if the slaying is seen off-screen – well, kind of off-screen – a minuscule horror that sets the tone for the subsequent hecate hectoring histrionics. On a pure craft and atmospheric level this is an incredibly assured introduction, a compelling metaphor for America’s troubled genesis.
Arrival – (Denis Villeneuve, USA, 2016) First of all, read this, it sucks any wind of my sails, but beware of severe spoilers. Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to see this again at the flicks, but I am anxiously awaiting the Blu-Ray release in the Spring, primarily to interrogate that Möbius structure and unveil some of this astounding films secret techniques. Arrival is a real rarity, a genre situated film with a realistic fidelity to its dramatic situation, intellectually perplexing, with exemplary work being delivered at every level of the departmental totem pole – sound, editing, script, design. It is unafraid to grapple some big, hulking ideas – free will, destiny, perceptions of time, mortality – in the arena of the modern SF blockbuster, and defiantly throws the gauntlet down to Chris Nolan’s feet in terms of nesting challenging material within a multiplex pleasing carapace. Probably, if I had to nominate a single winner, the Menagerie film of the year.
Midnight Special – (Jeff Nichols, USA, 2016) Whilst I enjoyed but wasn’t blown away with this on a first viewing my affection accelerated upon a second viewing, it still reeks of bureaucratic interference but some beautiful and moving moments spear through the studio inflected fog – those Bradburyesque suburban prairies of the mid-west, the symmetrical elegance of the hidden mirror realm concealed amidst our own, a fractured families final, wordless, loving embrace. The comparisons to Netflix smash Stranger Tides are inevitable. That series was fine, but little more than a collection of fun and worthy influences Xerox imposed over each other to no emotional effect (and shamelessly ripping off Under The Skin along the way) while Midnight Special resonates with a parents unconditional love for their son whatever his origin, instead of mere postmodern posturing and playing to the nostalgic instincts of the internet cultural crowd. Maybe my selection is partially influenced by a movie with a positive conclusion of others which seems literally worlds away from what the path we are staggering down, and we can all dream, no matter how desperately, for some sort of celestial salvation ….
I, Daniel Blake – (Ken Loach, UK, 2016) Truly, we approach the end times when the seas will run communist red as the seals are broken and the trumpets are heard across the earth, as we elect a Ken Loach drama to our films of the year list. I exaggerate of course, I like many of Loach’s films although the Menagerie doesn’t naturally feel like a fit with his particular strand of cinema, but this brutally effective swan song is simply phenomenal, devastating, and a worthy summation of a career made of critiquing the establishment and agitating for social justice. The performances are brutally honest with the only small snag of some plot strands threading off inconclusively, yet for my money it has one of the most thunderous and staggering scenes of recent cinema history which burns itself into your brain.
Dr. Strange – (Tim Manners, USA, 2016) It was a close run race between this and the mischievous Deadpool, as quick slices of irreverent, distracting fun you usually can’t beat a well constructed Marvel film. Yes, they do dissipate in the light of any stringent analysis, and have difficulties with giving their female leads much to do, but they are highly entertaining in that greasy cheeseburger and a refreshing coke kinda way. I loved the depiction of the mystical Marvel omniverse, Cumberbatch surprised me with a well toned metamorphosis into action-hero, and it had a hexing brew of jokes and mystical melee.I might even go and see the next Thor picture if he’s in it, which is high praise indeed…..
Elle – (Paul Verhoeven, France, 2016) It will be interesting and potentially explosive to see how this film fares when it goes on general release in early 2017. The notion of a Paul Verhoeven crafted rape-comedy is not exactly for the fainthearted, but although that’s how the film is being marketed Elle is something far more nuanced and provocative, through an incredible cinematic case study. Isabelle Huppert.demonstrates again why she is one of the finest actresses drawing breath, her courage to take on such challenging material speaks for itself – every American actresses approached for the part declined which is why Verhoeven had to turn to Europe to make the film. It’s one of those texts that I’m sure will reveal more of its craft and subtlety on a second viewing, and brave enough to forge new paths in uncovering the depths of human complexity and behaviours, especially when we are at our absolute worst.
Certain Women – (Kelly Reichardt, USA, 2016) – It’s difficult to articulate what I enjoyed so much about this which serves as a compelling double bill with the next film on the list, an emphasis on the hidden enclaves of America perhaps, the modest blue-collar population eking out their frugal but no less fascinating and moving lives. This is very much a slow burn, a film which eases you into its metronome and hypnotic pace, with subtly finessed performances from Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart and newcomer Lily Gladstone. Reichardt it seems can do no wrong with her affecting, socially attuned and minimalist style, eschewing the overtly dramatic for character authenticity, dissolving some of those barriers between the imaged movie world and how people really act when they interact with each other.
Hell Or High Water – (David MacKenzie, USA, 2016) – Given this years catastrophic upheaval it is all to easy to embrace a work whose purring plot engine is powered by corporate maleficence and economic depression, particularly one set in the so-called flyover middle American states. No doubt we’ll start to get a raft of ‘this TV show is post Obama’ or ‘this sequence of movies encapsulate the new political temperature’ style of cultural analysis over the coming months. That’s fine, it is justified and worthy of debate, but what has stuck with me is the sheer craft and lasting impression of this terrific little genre film, the solidly cast characters, the draining atmosphere and quiet rage, and a story which isn’t too shackled by its trappings which could still harbor a surprise or two. That Jeff Bridges can be matched by the likes of Chris Pine and Ben Forster proves that everyone was working at the peak of their game, and quite frankly it was simply a solid, old-school comfort compared to the regular tsunami of comic-book & franchise product……
Victoria – (Sebastian Schipper, Germany, 2015) We’ve all been there right? Skull stoked, whizz shamed, burned and buried deep into the night that should never end, until it does with fatally unintended consequences. Well, I exaggerate of course, as I’ll always support an ambitious approach when the material matches the subject, so this one-shot, single camera picture must be celebrated for its technical audacity as much as its viscous vertie. Victoria is a picture that snatches the Euro-cinema relay baton from Noe ad Refn just as they move into the mature phases of their career, with the new young pups adopting some of their ambitions in disrupting tradition in the margins of the form. Those initial urban orange tungsten lights signal a descent into a European underworld, although it does take its time to establish character, place and tone. Is the entire one shot approach distracting? Yes, as a film nerd you are almost dared to spot the stitches, but the technique can generate a unique energy, with some beautiful moments of indiscriminate immediacy. This Sebastian fella is officially on the Menagerie watch-list, I look forward to see what he’s up to next….
Mr. Robot – (Sam Esmail, USA, 2016) For me, the spectacular highlight of audiovisual entertainment of 2016 was Mr. Robot. Yes, yes, before you bark your protests I know it’s not a fucking movie but I’m adopting the Sight & Sound excuse of celebrating audiovisual storytelling in whatever format, especially for such a prescient show given the various dimensions of 2016’s most calamitous events. It’s a show about anxiety, about technological isolation and rage, about how the world can be inverted from a keyboard, and how no-one, absolutely no-one knows how it will end and the ultimate consequences. Quite apart from the insurgent politics and reflections it also has fantastic performances, but primarily the craft of the show is stunning, the visual and sonic storytelling the equal and better of its cinematic big-brother overlord. It really is the equivalent of Nic Roeg’s schizophrenic cartography merged with Kubrick’s sterile, mortician autopsy of the subject, subsequently cremated with Fincher’s nihilism – high praise indeed but the framing, the direction and design work ooze in perfect harmony with the story and its intellectual instincts, just like cinema at the peak of its powers. There has been a quiet electronic war occurring for a decade (at least) between nation states which is only now coming to the worlds wider attention, where superpowers as well as rogue states have routinely been infiltrating clandestine territory, which for the first time in history doesn’t require the physical penetration of borders or the seizure of tangible, physical assets – and like this magnificent series central character no-one seems to know where the fuck this leads. It’s also a show with a distinct corporate agenda and haven’t all those Panama Papers / off shore tax haven revelations faded from public exposure, as the media engine juggernauts onto new outrages whilst vomiting manufactured propaganda – which has finally enabled the seizure of the highest political offices. This is the real deal, the only media entity that really gnaws at our modern world Venn diagram of institutional corruption, propaganda, and the collapse of the last few decades of world order, with an imminent generational insurgence which is primed and on its way. I’m calling it now but I fully believe that we will witness mass civic unrest in 2017 and beyond, I grew up during the Cold War and remember some of the fears that that period engendered, so to see the rabid right-wing demagogues cosy up with their ancient enemy is just….well, it leaves me speechless. Still, may you live in interesting times I guess, so Mr Robot is an entity that reminds me why we should be glad to be alive, because admidst the hellions there are some people out there on the same wavelength, monitoring the same algorithms, creating and commenting as the future spirals out of control……
U-Turn – (Oliver Stone, USA, 1997) Is this Oliver Stone’s most overlooked film? Some of us remember when he was a genuine, slightly exciting figure to follow, before the recent slide into mediocrity with the likes of The Savages, World Trade Centre and from what I’ve heard Snowden. Back in 1998 however he seemed to have an abundance of post Natural Born Killers, whip-pan film-stock shifting energy to get out of his system, retreated to what on the surface seems to be a stock neo-noir thriller which is elevated to a delirious and deliciously grim black comedy. The cast is the initial joy, from Sean Penn’s perfectly sleazy gambler in thrall to the Russian mob, Nick Nolte’s grizzly bloated patriarch and senorita seductress Jennifer Lopez , through to cameos from the likes of Joaquin Phoenix, Billy Bob Thorton (playing against type as a knuckle dragging redneck mechanic) Powers Boothe, Jon Voight and Claire Danes. It represents the best of neo-noir which was enjoying something of a renaissance in the late 1990’s, transported to a morally parched and barren Arizona where everyone has an angle and secret agenda, as they all struggle in their tangled and nihilistically fatal webs of seduction, greed and murder. The style gives it the energy required to propel the usual ‘femme-fatale, please murder my wife and I’ll split the insurance’ plot, from usual Stone DP Robert Richarson’s off kilter framing and haloed source lights, to the cartoonish cruelty of both the performances and coincidence critical narrative – some times a guy just can’t catch a break. Shot with a twitchy hurry in 42 days it’s one part peyote psychedelia to two parts sleazy sangria, quite the brutal brew.
Looker – (Michael Crichton, USA, 1981) With everyone hooked on HBO’s latest triumph Westworld I coincidentally ‘looked’ back to an earlier Michael Crichton effort, the little seen Looker. Puns aside the film acts as curious bridge from the social commentary of the 1970’s to the commerce driven self of the 1980’s, postured as simultaneous corporate conspiracy thriller and evolving media satire. Albert Finney stars as an inquisitive Beverley Hills plastic surgeon – yes, I know – who becomes enmeshed in a series of murders of the beautiful models who frequent his surgery, once they have been contracted to undertake the most minuscule corrections possible – 2mm sheered from the arc of a nose, a slight percentile adjustment of the earlobes. All roads lead to the ominous Digital Matrix corporation who are replacing humans with digital clones, with even murkier intentions to conjure and parade facsimile future presidential candidates – hmmm. It’s no classic, the plot is erratic with the authorities spectacularly interested in the mounting body count, and some of the dialogue is a little on the nose (joke intended), but as an artifact of that shift into the ‘me’ decade obsessed with commerce, self-worth, surface and the all-conquering propaganda grooming of product it is a prescient harbinger of the next few decades. The SFX are also kinda clunky, but the film holds the dubious prestige of being the first film to feature 3D CGI textured shading, and the Light Ocular-Oriented Kinetic Emotive Responses (L.O.O.K.E.R.) weapons are kind of amusing, it would be worth a remake but alas I doubt it’s to obscure
Threads – (Mick Jackson, UK, 1984) I swear, hand on heart that I had already re-watched and selected this terrifying blast of my childhood prior to November, given subsequent events I don’t think I could face watching it again. Even before the increasing tensions between the superpowers (and I’m referring to China in that contemporary mix) this most disturbing and distressing portrayal of the prologue to epilogue of a global thermonuclear war still transmits sheer, unalloyed terror through a certain generation who came of age during its 1984 BBC transmission. In those perilous days of the Cold War, when operation Able Archer had almost prompted the paranoid Politburo to push the button we all lived with that radioactive shroud lurking over our heads, and isn’t it just dandy to see it coalescing back into its nightmare form some three decades later? Threads remains just as harrowing in its sheer, matter of fact brutality and utter rejection of pulling punches, as the entire global civilization disintegrates into medieval barbarity, when the unseen umbilical links between society are obliterated during one, limited exchange. Seen initially through a specific focus on a almost quaint 1980’s Sheffield the narrative zooms out to report the near annihilation of the UK, following a genocidal nuclear winter and the solemn procession of years and decades that follow attack day +1. Shot through with that bleak, 1980’s Play For Today format which invokes early Ken Loach or Alan Clarke it is the absolute dictionary definition of bleak, with the BBC spokesman voice-over communicating the unsparing statistics on incinerations, food stock depletion, radioactive casualties (in the tens of millions) and civil destruction – total. For amusements sake that consideration, projected thirty years ago, is not remotely comparable to the weapons that currently exist. Compared to the much more saccharine American version The Day After which was transmitted in 1986 this is a brutalist classic, a useful primer on post holocaust survival, and an inducement to prayer of being vaporized in the initial MIRV exchange as a comparative mercy to the hell on earth that follows – Not Nice!!
Films To See In 2017
Ghost In The Shell – (Rupert Sanders, USA, 2017) Already, there has been something of a backlash against this, not only the whitewashing allegations of the main character, but also the claims that the trailer makes the project look like some Underworld, Equilibrium or Resident Evil quality B Movie. I’m not sure if we’re actually viewing the same material as I can see a much deeper visual dexterity in those designs and SFX, but maybe I’m being hoodwinked at the prospect of finally getting something resembling a decent cyberpunk film on the big screen – to date much of the programming has been atrocious. OK, the director doesn’t have much of a pedigree, I wasn’t crazy about his previous effort, but there was some skilled integration of effects work in there, and as that weird glut of fairy tale re-imaginings of the past few years goes it was probably the best example in that odd little sub-genre. I’m no huge fan of the original manga but am familiar with the source material, it was one of the zeitgeist peaks during the adoption of anime in the west back in the late 20th century, alongside the trailblazing Akira, which was followed by the likes of Ninja Scroll and the notorious Urotsukidōji – Legend Of The Overfiend. Is this just a poor excuse for some ScarJo male gaze titillation which she so effectively challenged in Under The Skin? Maybe. Will this have any more depth than some post Lucy, Matrix IV clone with some cool action sequences? Possibly not, but that might be enough for me if we simply get drenched in cyperpunk soaked metropolis, pal around with around some vat-clone manufactured corporate ninjas, and the casting of Kitano Takashi is cult movie-fan genius.
Blade Runner 2049 – (Denis Villeneuve, USA, 2017) On similar lines as the world is usurped by corporate tyranny can a classic be potentially reborn? If there are two cultural artifacts I am yearning to see before the planet is plunged into a pan-axis China / Iran / USA conflagration then it’s the chance to see both the Twin Peaks return which is all shot and been in studiously post-production for many months, and of course the long-awaited return to that dystopian neon-cloaked Los Angeles of the 21st century. My antipathy has thawed following Villenuve’s recent rise to success and the marshaling of such genuine powers as Deakins on camera, Jóhann Jóhannsson on music and original screenwriter Hampton Fancher, and welcomed the distant involvement of Scott given his latest debacles – I’m not holding my breath for the next Alien movie which I’ll see of course but that trailer wasn’t very promising. For me the original Blade Runner will always be an instrumental part of my life and nothing can ever besmirch that, not dissimilar to The Thing and its pathetic prequel, so even if this return is terrible – and I suspect it might be mediocre at the worst – we’ll have always have the Bradbury building, the Ennis-Brown House and the 2nd street tunnel….
Silence – (Martin Scorsese, USA, 2017) The early word is extremely positive, with numerous commentators citing it as Scorsese’s 27 years in the making obsession worthy of the long trek to the screen. With both Malick and Spielberg treading water with their last couple of pictures I just can’t wait to immerse myself in some of the last fading gasps of that generation of American auteurs, and what better way to start a new, ominous year with a near three hour intellectual feast? Alas, in some quarters the stupidity of our current culture has already tarnished the project as a perceived Oscar-grab, a patriarchal produced translation with it’s central triumvirate of three white men, with agitators complaining there are few women, people of color or orientation diversity in a tale about three 17th century Portuguese Jesuit priests. Give me a fucking break, it’s that sort of ridiculous sneering which has assisted us in getting to where we are today, and maybe we should just wait and see the film when it is actually released before making any pronouncements on its alleged diversity credentials? Stories are located in particular times and places, and while I celebrate more diversity and more stories from other positions (I’m looking forward to Moonlight given the stellar reviews) these complaints are counterproductive, and only serve the enemy. In any case I am excited by this as an adjunct to the BFI Scorsese season, and it will be interesting to compare and contrast this as an alleged summation of many of the themes and obsessions which run throughout Marty’s work, as he inches toward eventual retirement. This opens on New Years Day so will be the first visit of 2017….
Dunkirk – (Christopher Nolan, USA, 2017) I’m such a fanboy, aren’t I? Nolan’s first historical picture should be an interesting counterpoint to his puzzle movies or reinvention of the iconic origin story, in fact if you crane your ears can already hear the growing cacophony of post Brexit thinkpieces and 1939 – 2017 similarity pieces rattling from the typewriters/laptops of journalist and commentators workstations before this pushes away in the early summer. A quick, perhaps unrelated aside – as a contractor in the Cabinet Office we get free access to the Churchill War Rooms, and I was struck while wandering through the exhibition how he deliberately brought the major political factions of the UK together in his War Cabinet to oppose the greater threat, including some of his most ardent, native, virulent opponents – a combined approach of unity in the face of potential annihilation. Hmm. I suppose the notion of a major defeat and rout being historically spun into a strange sort of victory holds a contempoary volume of dramatic water, and the previous emphasis on major battles such as Stalingrad and D-Day might make any major A list director wary of treading a similar path. I like the ticking, the sense of impending doom, and the stark visual sheen of this glimpse, a full trailer will follow shortly I’m sure…….
Guardians Of The Galaxy 2 – (James Gunn, USA, 2017) Jesus Christ in a sidecar we need some fun in 2017, eh? Some colourful, psychedelic amusement to look forward to? A sequel was inevitable after the surprise success of Marvel’s least established character properties, which for me is probably the best and most genuinely entertaining issue in the entire frenetic franchise. I loved the oddball companionship and camaraderie that the original Guardians managed to conjure among its group of prismatic oddities and exiles, and Chris Pratt in cheeky rogue mode can be a quite a charmer. The secret weapons is both James Gunn’s mischievous sense of humor and the Kirby/Dikto influenced intergalactic back-drops, injecting a bit of lysergic lunacy into that staid old space opera blue-print. I’ve not read any details on plot which I can only assume will delve into Starlord’s past and link into the whole Thanos sub-plot, I just hope, although I wouldn’t bet a single Kree credit on it, that they finally manage to introduce a nefarious and charismatic villain which seems to be a malevolently misguided miracle that still eludes the mighty Marvel Movie Multiverse……
There’s plenty of other potential nuggets if you beat your chest and roar loudly enough, Skull Island might be fun in a ironic big budget B-Movie way, and the next installment of the surprisingly effective Planet Of The Apes series ambles into multiplexes in June. John Wick 2 will hopefully correct some of the failures of the first with some explosive set-pieces, It really looks a banner year for SF as alongside BR2049, Guardians 2 and Ghost In The Shell various other projects are warping in, The God Particle could be interesting, where there is Life there is hope, Alien Covenant drops in May, after the supernova disappointment of Promethea I have re calibrated my excitement sensors accordingly, and having seen first hand the vehicle designs of Ready Player One littered around the Barbarian in August I can only assume Spielberg’s return to SF feels like a close approximation of a 2000AD strip. Auteur wise Sofia Coppola’s remake of The Beguiled is apparently a move back toward her dreamy debut, World War Z 2 which allegedly Fincher is directing, and both Stephen King adaptations The Dark Tower and It finally get their big screen iterations, well aligned for a world plunged into global uncertainty and terror. Comic book wise I’m not spectacularly excited by either Logan or Wonder Woman but I’ll probably go and see ’em, I’m really not interested in the Justice League nor the next Thor film, I am surprised to see the next Spiderman movie is set to hatch in the summer. Despite some relative media silence P.T. Anderson’s 1950’s fashion world set reunion with Daniel Day-Lewis might darken multiplexes in 2017, a new Haneke is promised, and my regrettable LFF omission Manchester by The Sea is absolutely essential from the more studious sector of film-making. Finally of course have another Star Wars movie, should we survive the first twelve months of the most stultifying incompetent and corrupt leadership the western world has seen in my lifetime, coupled with a sabre-rattling Machiavellian psychopath in the Kremlin.
So as always I like to close on some swift reflections on the wider world of cinema, and her current trends and developments. so lets talk about the digital versus analogue screening experience. Well, I have nothing against digital projection, that is the now not the future but the ubiquitous present, but yes I still harken for a film projection of certain screenings depending on the movie in question. Heck, while I vaguely looked into the two options for Interstellar it was never a particular concern, and it’s not as if I ever bother, new release wise, to check on the format that the picture I’m seeing was produced. Similarly I did enjoy The Hateful Eight just from a special event perspective, the specialist 70mm screenings did drape a whole special sheen over the experience considering only one or two cinemas in the country were capable of the technical feat, and I can’t imagine going to see film in any other situation while retaining my film nerd credentials. I do however have an issue with seeing certain films, of a certain pedigree, usually at the BFI or other retrospective hosting venue on a format which doesn’t map to the subjects…well, lets’ call it’s ‘aura’ for want of a better phrase. The purist in me can come to the fore, and I’ve lost count of how many screenings which have arisen only for me to dismiss them when I noted that they were going to be little more than Blu-Ray projections on a large screen, which is a slight con that some of the less reputable London cinemas can occasionally commit. When you see an older film at the cinema the lights dimming and the curtains parting feel like more of an event, when the cigarette burn spark into life, when the screen starts to distort around the reel changes and the dialogue and sound track get a little stuttered the entire experience just feels more tactile and genuine, which is ironic when you’d presume the purpose of a film is to keep you mentally grounded within its self-generated, illusory, fictional space.
However, it’s more complicated than that still, as part of the imminent Scorsese season Taxi Driver alongside Goodfellas have both been blessed with new 4K digital transfers. I am spectacularly excited to finally see them both appropriately projected but I can’t help but feel that some authenticity is lost from a physical, chromatic print, despite the technical increases in image density and stability, colour timing and quality that a new transfer can deliver. But it doesn’t feel as ‘real’, you want to see a seedy, slightly distressed print of Taxi Driver, the equivalent of which would be screened in the seedy Times Square grindhouses of 1970’s New York in which the film was made, right? I refused to see Night Of The Living Dead on digital as it just seems…wrong, having its ugly and taboo breaking serrated edges sheered off with some bright, perfectly balanced grain dulling texture. So, my choices are formed of an arbitrary decision I make depending on the films inherent qualities, in any case it can be a revelation to see a film projected in whatever format, in the correct aspect ratio intended by its technicians and designers, which is where even a frequently viewed text can spark in new magnificent life, and that is the continual wonder of the big screen. Is there a point to all his confused cerebral rambling? Probably not, and with new 4K system at home we do seem to be moving onto a new gradation of quality domestically speaking, but that will never beat the experience of an intimate cinema screening, with a theater full of appropriately expectant strangers which will always be the Menagerie favored optimum format in which to experience the continual magic of the movies – while it lasts;
Ah, how appropriate, I see on preview that the festive WordPress snow has started to drift, an altogether appropriate underscore to our final concert of the year. I first saw The Cure just over twenty-five years ago during a one-off festival type day they were headlining at Crystal Palace, supported by such luminaries as Lush, All About Eve and James. There were always a favorite when I was growing up, like many moody teenagers I gravitated to their post-punk, gloom laden aural ascendance, not unlike my similar devotion to the likes of Nick Cave, Depeche Mode and NIN, alongside the whole Madchester scene and so-called American alt-rock popularized by Pixies, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr. and others – I wasn’t exactly a Stock, Aiken & Waterman kinda guy. It’s not as if I haven’t had numerous chances to see them since they are regular tours but I’ve just never got around to it, they kinda fell out of favor once I left home and explored new musical arenas, but like those first flutterings with music they’ll always have a special place in my ears, if you know what I mean. So with them embarking on yet another epic European tour I and an old friend took a long trip to the wild veldts of Wembley last week, for the first night of their three date residency. True to form they were pretty darn epic, now let me count the ways…..
First of all I need to apologize for the shaky-cam footage, I’ve curated these tracks according to my personal favorites rather than the quality of the filming, and I don’t think I’ve timed a gig arrival better in my life – they ambled on stage literally twenty seconds after we’d taken our seats. You must admire their eclectic approach to touring, usually, in my experience, a band has a well rehearsed, relatively fixed set-list, that it might interchange three or four tracks or the running order a little just to keep them alert and keep repeat audiences fresh. Not so with these portly smudged vampires, The Cure really love to wallow in their four decade career and thirteen studio albums, while also unearthing rarities and tracks not played in years. Last Thursday I experienced some of that, they played a couple of tracks from almost every album from their inception to the late 1990’s, and even managed to squeeze in an unreleased track and a one-off single for a film soundtrack. I’d have preferred a few more album tracks from Faith, Pornography or Disintegration but hey, you can’t have everything. This was a particular highlight;
After the storming first third which comprised of well-known singles and appreciated album tracks they slipped into more recent material mode, well, if you consider stuff recorded since the early 1990’s ‘recent ‘that is. This was a bit of a come down after the high energy start but that’s the risk with a band with such a vintage career, but once they got back into the first of three lengthy encores my energy levels started to replenish, particularly with this essential live track;
Obligatory set list here, for your perusal. Although this was an epic gig the band have gone to insanity shredding levels in recent years, giving the die-hard fans what they want which I think, from what I’ve read over the years, only the Grateful Dead in their heyday can equal them in terms of duration and adoration. So, just over twenty-five years later for me they came full circle from with an almost identical final burst of nostalgia, two storming tracks from their inception which formed a final electrifying echo to a fantastic live experience – I really must do this more often;
Any fears I had of breaching superhero saturation point have been keenly banished to the astral plane by Dr. Strange, Marvel’s latest instalment in its pervasive and swiftly expanding cinematic universe. On paper, or rather parchment, four Marvel movies in one year strikes one as overkill, in yet another season marred by reboots, remakes and resurrections, pushing any potential originality or inspiration out to the margins of the art house or independent film arenas. I didn’t have any specific investment in this particular project, I quite like the character from my comic book collecting youth but he was never exactly a favourite, and the trailer while intriguing made me react with mostly a ‘hmm, I think I’ll check that out’ rather than any sense of enhanced enthusiasm. The rather obvious casting of Benedict Cumberbatch also made me raise a quizzical eyebrow, I’ve never quite understood the devotion he inspires, while he’s been very good in some things he’s been throughly predictable in others, although, to be fair I’ve not seen some of his highly regarded work such as Sherlock which I’m told is solid OCD orientated entertainment. Furthermore I re-watched Civil War a fortnight ago and some of the action set-pieces aside I was mostly bored, caring very little for the characters or their throughly tedious struggles, so it seemed that the sheen of the Marvel franchise was beginning to lose its lustre. Nevertheless like a good soldier I ambled over to the multiplex this weekend, buoyed by strong word-of-mouth and an eerily appropriate bout of fog shrouded weather which has blanketed London all day. I now consider my chakra’s re-energised and my transcendental ascension complete, as this is one of the years best blockbusters, another bolt of bedevilment in the heart of Warner Brothers faltering film failures.
Here we have an origin story which can get a little stale after their numerous iterations, but when they are handled so proficiently you really can’t complain, the conceit, fall from grace and subsequent renewal the benchmark of hero films that align with the Hollywood three act structure, flayed with a mind bending para-reality twist. Like the first Iron Man picture we are introduced to an arrogant and brilliantly skilled protagonist, the brilliant neurosurgeon Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch), Strange and Stark two peas in the franchise product pod. He’s a man who has everything, the Manhattan penthouse suite, the seven-figure sports car, the sartorial closet that would make Saville Row swoon, and a burgeoning romance with his surgical colleague Christine (Rachel McAdams). All this crashes to the ground after his hands are decimated in a violent car crash, forcing Strange to frantically seek solutions beyond western medicine in order to resurrect his crushed career. When he hears whispers of another crippled soul who managed to overcome his ailments his journey leads him to Kathmandu, in search of the fabled Kamar-Taj, where a mystical seer known as the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton, baldly brilliant), her major-domo Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and their coven of mystical warriors protect the earth from para-dimensional threats through their mastery of sorcerous powers. A pre-credit prologue hints at a sinister plot which is engineered by Kaecilius (an adequate Mads Mikkelsen) who has rejected the teachings of the Ancient One in favour of a hidden and immensely powerful force, seeking immortality and a new epoch of order and bliss if only those pesky ideals of free-will and harmony are sacrificed at the altar of a near omnipotent and infinite entity. If that all sounds a little too spiritual then no fear, this is an action orientated blockbuster through and through, as for a coven of transcendental monks they sure enjoy knocking seven shades of cyttorak out of each other to solve their problems and maintain the secret and shielded equilibrium.
So, first things first. Visually, the film is staggering, perhaps too much to take in even on the biggest screen possible, with almost every pixel fluctuating and morphing in the films most extravagant set-piece scenes. In that sense I’d say 3D is a must if you are comfortable with the format, genuinely adding a depth and dimensional delirium, and on that front alone I am seriously contemplating a second big-screen viewing. Yes, a lot of sneering nerds have dismissed the film as Matrix-lite or little more than an Inception clone from just a brief glimpse of the trailer which are both obvious visual references, but Dr. Strange takes those perception perverting designs to omni-dimensional plateaus, warping and weirding reality in a throughly bewitching way – it feels fresh and genuinely exhilarating in the blockbuster format which hasn’t been so confidently conceived for quite some time. Strange’s initial introduction to the para-realities beyond mortal comprehension is a transcendental tour-de-force, and these sequences are the films strengths which manage to camouflage some of the more traditional plot definitions and designs, which faithfully follow in the the usual superhero footsteps of the hubristic fall and rise. True, there might be a bit of overkill as the sheer onslaught of visual information is a little difficult to process sometimes, such is the density of the pixellated pandemonium, but that’s why the lord invented Blu-ray’s and 4K playback systems didn’t s/he? As someone who has never felt kinship with the cult of Cumberbatch he nailed this performance, being an arrogant, insular egomaniac thrown on a journey of self discovery, with a genuine arc which was satisfied by the films clever climax. It’s here that Dr. Strange cleverly and confidentially cleaves closely to the properties sequential storytelling origins, utilising intellect and guile rather than strength and combat in order to overcome para-dimensionally oppressive foes. As pointed out by wiser souls than I it’s also amusing to see a major Hollywood blockbuster pilfered by not one, not two but no less than four British thespians, as Bundersnatch, Swinton, Eijofor and Benedict Wong all acquaint themselves admirably, the latter as an initially humorless warrior monk arrayed with the forces of good.
There are some mild transcendental themes running as undercurrents through the film, the script and plot mesh the physical with the spiritual in some scenes both metaphorical and kinetic, a yin and yang which is buried somewhat beneath the binary blitzkrieg of battles and metaphysical melees. Some of the plot sequencing is convenient to say the least, with events erupting in fisticuffs after another bout of plot exposition, and McAdams gets sidelined with a thinly written character whose sole reason seems to be a mere plot device reflection of Strange’s oscillating destiny – it’s not her fault but if she was surgically removed the picture wouldn’t suffer. Directorially you can’t sense any individual agency which is by no means a criticism, these are films by committee with Marvel producer Kevin Feige arguably the sole creative captain behind the MCU, as we all know that attempts to deviate from the carefully calibrated chassis can result in a heavily padded P45 and a return to the unemployment queue. In this issue it’s the cast and the SFX that makes this picture work rather than any central inspiration or particularly withering writing, this could have gone so very, very wrong, but Marvel & Disney have navigated a graceful path between humorous asides, avoiding orientalist offence or tedium entangled origin cliché, conjuring instead a genuine sense of spellbinding visual sorcery which is a worthy addition to their franchise paddock. For me, at least on an initial screening this is up there with the giddy heights of Guardians, some of the sequences in the first Avengers picture and the paranoid purpose of The Winter Soldier, terrifically compelling Hollywood entertainments with just enough fidelity to their Dikto and Lee sequential story telling genesis. So yes true believers, Dr. Strange is another historiography of hilarious Hollywood holography, holistically primed with their prismatic pixel punishing pandemonium – Excelsior indeed;