Sunday, 31 December 2017

Notes on 2017 cinema visits

I think this year I prefer to ramble about highlights rather than make a list of the best. There really wasn’t many lowlights – only ‘Attack of the Adult Babies’ was horrible – so there doesn’t seem to be any reason for that.

My first trip to the cinema in 2017 was a double-bill of Kenneth Lonergan’s  ‘Manchester by the Sea’ and J.A. Bayona’s ‘A Monster Calls’ which proved a real emotional work-out. The first was an excellent portrayal of how adult trauma is challenged if not overcome by everyday drama, about how some people may not be able to move on; this is a nice shrug and rare sober corrective at the positivism of the typical overcoming-trauma narratives. I thought ‘A Monster Calls’ was going to be worthy but maudlin, but I found it much less typical than that, treating rage as a wing-man to grief as our young protagonist learns nothing more than that narratives are not always what they seem, and that maybe what you are thinking and feeling are not quite as clear cut as you believe. Both are considerable evocations of male grief and anger. And both prove clear-eyed tear-jerkers.  

I went to see Barry Jenkins’ ‘Moonlight’ before it became a phenomena and there was barely a seat available in the theatre. When it was announced as an Oscar contender I was surprised because it seemed so much to me to be one of those exceptional indie films that gets its worth outside the mainstream. But don’t be put off by the Oscar win: it’s every bit as touching and as great as they say. The final segment where they meet again is exceptional.

Mike Mills’ ‘20th Century Women’ was a delightful but generally neglected drama about various women influencing one teenager at a crucial time of development that deserved more recognition, centred by Annette Benning’s wonderful, slippery performance. The moment where the culture war origins of graffiti written on a car has to be explained is a highlight and, if it’s your thing, you’ll immediately speed off home to listen to early Talking Heads.

James Franco’s ‘Disaster Artist’ emerged as one of the year’s best comedies and character studies of the mystery that is Tommy Wisseau. An essential drama on anti-heroes and the film industry.

Maren Ade’s ‘Toni Erdmann’ was another great film. I did encounter a response of “yeah not sure I want to see a three hour German comedy” which seemed to fall into the presumptions of what German comedy is (shall we say) – not as if we would see many in the UK – but I wasn’t expecting it to be more dramatically grounded and prone to surrealism. The themes of social anxiety, farce and surrealism culminates in the naked party with a full-blown abstract monster wandering around, topping several preceding moments that pushed just that little bit more. If it was founded on the comedy of embarrassment and awkwardness, the achievement is surely in  how it never indulges in cruelty. And Sandra Hüller and Peter Simonischek were just two of the many exceptional performances this year.

Musicals are not so much my thing – I love ‘Bugsy Malone’, ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’, ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ and ‘The 5000 Fingers or Dr T’, if that’s any help – so if the full-throttle love for Damien Chazelle’s ‘La La Land’ eluded me, I enjoyed it well enough. I am probably going to forgive Ryan Gosling anything because of Dead man’s Bones, but it’s the coda where the film shows how songs can create other histories and realities in our minds, just for a moment, that made it all the more credible for me.

James Gray’s ‘The Lost City of Z’ had much of the worthy epic about it, and although there were visuals and moments to make it vivid, it was also a film where the flaws come with equal weight so that there was a feeling that it was never quite as good as it ought to be. A common refrain was that people would have preferred it to be about the Robert Pattinson character, which surely points to a major mistep when people think a secondary character would have been more interesting (as well as pointing to Pattinson’s seemingly effortlessly intriguing qualities). 

‘Free Fire’ took the cool affectations out of the ‘Reservoir Dogs’ gangsters-in-a-warehouse scenario and replaced it with scuzzy humour. It proved to be entertaining but arguably lesser Ben Wheatley – but why shouldn’t he have fun too? And it certainly didn’t hold the same disappointment as Edgar Write’s ‘Baby Driver’, whose car chase musical started well but couldn’t disguise that it ultimately offered slim pickings, even with Jamie Foxx eating up the scenery all in sight. Most of the general comments I heard were of indifference.

Takashi Miike’s ‘Blade of the Immortal’ was straightforward
gungo-ho Miike bookended by two exceptional fight scenes. Despite how many corpses and limbs just laid around – hey, isn’t that a stream running red in the middle-distance? – it was surely the constant slicing and squelching on the soundtrack that upped the super-violence. A simple tale of an immortal assassin getting caught up in one annoying/sympathetic young girl’s confused thirst for vengeance, the pile up of massacres was given texture with a little politicking and immortals constantly bemoaning their deathless existence. The flip side of the studied intent of ’13 Warriors’ and ‘Hari-Kiri: Death of a Samurai’. Miike fans will be satisfied right from the start when a blood-spray splashes over the opening text.

I didn’t know the plot of Sarah Waters book ‘Fingersmith’, so the twists of Park Chan-Wook’s adaption ‘The Handmaiden’ came as a surprise and an absolute delight to me. Handsomely and sumptuously mounted and, like many films listed here, boasting great central performances and as brilliantly executed as you would expect from Chan-Wook. 

Wildfred Oldroyds ‘Lady Macbeth’ moves its protagonist (Florence Pugh) from victim, to defiant heroine, to anti-hero to villain with such fluidity that it’s hard to see where the changes come. With precision and sparse framing, the film exerts a cold chill that you don’t really feel creeping up on you. 

As women were trying to get in on the superhero game with ‘Wonder Woman’, they were also finely represented not only by ‘20th Century Women’ and ‘mother!’ but also by ‘In Between’ which ended on a note that female resilience would win out, no matter what. But female stories were also well-served by oddities such as Nacho Vigalondo’s ‘Colossal’ where the rampaging monster Id was also clearly owned by girl’s too. There were a lot of crappy men around for an excellent Anne Hathaway to contend with, but this crappiness was often also subtle and complex, which is another benefit from a narrative taken from a feminine viewpoint. But for balance, one of the biggest female arseholes was surely Bria Vinaite’s mum in Sean Baker’s ‘The Florida Project’; but, boy, she felt real and somewhat heroic in her stubborn refusal or inability to just play nice. And Willem Defoe has never been so "ordinary" and charming.

Taylor Sheridan’s ‘Wind River’ was diverting and solid enough until you thought of how a white man defined so much of a tale that was meant to be about a murder of a Native American woman on a reservation. Elsewhere, other minorities were vigorously and splendidly represented, not only the gay black community through Oscar Winners like ‘Moonlight’, but in the gay narratives of the grubby but ultimately tender ‘God’s Own Country’ – which seemed to me something like what if Bill Douglas has turned his hand to the genre – and ‘Call Me by Your Name’

Rupert Sanders’Ghost in the Shell’ showed that CGI with live action can match anything animation might think up: it was a reasonable adaption but the much beloved original was always lacking a magic ingredient for me and this remake did nothing to fill that. A lot of bluster with very little to warrant the call on emotions it seemed to want, but this is all in line with its source. Traditional animation was represented gloriously by the sublimely serene ‘The Red Turtle’ by Michael Dudok de Wit and Claude Barras’ ‘My Life as a Courgette’. Both were exceptionally visually striking and full of dense emotional pay-offs.

Although Gore Verbinski’s ‘A Cure for Wellness’ was lush and intriguingly elusive for the most part, but surely too long. In the end I was amused and enjoyed at its full-throttle plunge into the Gothic. It was only the very final moments that I thought were truly terrible.

Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ ‘King Kong: Skull Island’ is indeed a film about a giant ape hitting things, so smarts aren’t really expected, but even if it offered several striking visuals – Kong against the sun; people hiding out in a giant skull, etc – the script was just the wrong side of stupid.

On the other hand, ‘Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle’ proved a lot of fun. Its central gag of a bunch of high school archetypes sucked into a game as the avatar’s they have chosen was one to carry the whole film: so the nerd finds himself personified as Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, the whinging alpha male jock finds himself as a diminutive sidekick, the nervey shy girl becomes a kick-ass Lara Croft type – and just as ridiculously dressed – and, best of all, the popular girl who can’t get off her phone becomes Jack Black. Of course, through their avatar, they learn to be better people. Considering how contrived this is, that they will learn to overcome their weaknesses (not just cake), it perhaps earned more emotional resonance than expected. 

Daniel Espinosa’s ‘Life’ showed how passable coasting derivative genre b-movie conventions can be whilst Jordan Peele’s ‘Get Out’ showed how those conventions can be given new life by being placed in a different culture and tapping into the zeitgeist. The latter is certainly of the moment and is surely to go on to be one of those genre films that defines its decade. It’s funny, well-played and creepy.

Julia Ducournau’s ‘Raw’ was one of the essential horrors of the year, with cannibalism and coming-of-age melding to deliver a neat slice of French family drama and extremism.

In the past, there has usually been one particular trait that defines the overall FrightFest festival every year (i.e., rape; found footage; etc) and this year it was humour. Comedy-horror and satire was on top form and the one that I have come away with thinking that it’s subversive traits are much under-noted is Chris Peckover’s ‘Better Watch Out’. Perhaps we are just too used to American precocious brats that many couldn’t see the woods for the trees and just treated it solely as a romp (and the majority of comments on twitter, including mine, say “don’t watch the trailers”)?

I was made aware of a lot of hate for Olivier Assayas’s ‘Personal Shopper’ but it seemed to me an intriguing piece of work that mined not only indie drama but both thriller and horror techniques to create chills and suspense without ever truly verifying outright the supernatural. I am all for pushing at the edges of ghost stories and David Lowery’s ‘A Ghost Story’ did that too, although I venture I found it more agreeably goofy than moving. 

Trey Edward Shults’s ‘It Comes at Night’ also proved a winner and much maligned for not quite being perhaps what such a title promises. But horror again proved that locked doors are slabs of paranoia and people are their own worst enemies.

Perhaps aside from ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’, nothing proved as divisive and ladled with audience outrage and disgust as Darren Aronofsky’s ‘mother!’ But upon reflection I can see it treading much of the black humour, gleeful provocation and indulgent flourishes that Peter Greenaway used to trade in. And that’s no bad thing.

Horror was much more conventionally covered by Juan Carlos Medina’s ‘The Limehouse Golem’, filling in the Gothic delights unironically with a heap of social commentary on the side to give it gristle. 

For super-powered blockbusters:

James Mangold’s ‘Logan’ was a winner because it added a bit of post-‘Deadpool’ grit and grue to the super-hero formula, but with a straight face. Its riding on more adult themes was welcome and surely accounts for its popularity over much else. And the edge of nastiness was a much needed colour for Wolverine, whose character was well-fitted for more Western genre tropes.

James Gunn’s ‘Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2’ continued to show the others how superheroes should/could be fun and offered up a sequel that – despite the element of surprise being gone – proved the equal of the original. Probably guilty, like most of these things, of being too long and a bit bloated, but it’s consistently amusing and probably turns being overstuffed into an asset. And it wins alone for the opening with baby Groot dancing to E.L.O.

Whilst Patty Jenkins’ ‘Wonder Woman’ proved that a female director could deliver just as good and problematic a superhero film as any male, it was Jon Watts’ ‘Spider-man: Homecoming’ that proved the real surprise. ‘Thor: Ragnorok’ was agreeably amusing, which was only to be expected from Taiki Waititi, and showed again that, post-‘Guardians’, the powers that be saw money in adding humour to their properties, but Peter Parker proved the real surprise. ‘Spider-man: Homecoming’ was probably the way I felt Peter Parker ought to be done (although it’s a given that Sam Raimi’s first two ‘Spider-man’ films were good-to-great), mixing a real high-school comedy-drama with super-powered tropes. Yes, it stole Miles Moran’s storyline – and there are proper problems with that – but Tom Holland proved an excellent version of Parker and I and the audience I was with laughed all the way through. That such a big property could get a laugh from the simple line “Chess?” instead of heavy wisecracking zingers proves that the genre was learning to be defter with appeal, concentrating on the tiny stuff as well as the big explosions.

Like ‘Wonder Woman’, Matt Reeves’ ‘War for the Planet of the Apes’ wasn’t quite as exceptional as it ought to have been. It hadn’t quite overcome the problem that anytime a human is on screen it isn’t particularly good. Was that a meagre if not bad performance from Woody Harrelson? (Go see ‘Edge of Seventeen’  to see him firing on all smouldering canons) But the apes and the motion capture and all that were as breathtaking as you would want.

And then there was Denis Velleneuve’s ‘Blade Runner 2049’ for which the main criticism seemed to be style-over-content, but it seemed a much tricksier and more slippery product than Ridley Scott’s original (which, seminal as it is, is surely style-over-content). It was visually stunning, of course, but what impressed more was that it maintained an air of abstractness whilst simultaneously seemingly filling in some blanks.

The other big film was Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dunkirk’: although it was inevitable that it would take severe wounding from people calling doubts on its veracity and accuracy, but what made it win for me was that rather than the large heroic sweeps, it cast war mostly as the individual’s race to survive. 

And in terms of classics I saw at the cinema, there was David Lynch’s ‘Mulholland Drive’ – as unnerving as ever – and then William Friedkin’s ‘Sorcerer’ whose rope-bridge scene proved one of the most jaw-dropping scenes I saw this year. And all without CGI.

Maybe I'm easily amused, but it was a good year with so many great performances and much agreeable quirkiness in general and blockbusters delivering a lot of funny. 

Friday, 29 December 2017

The Spy Lodgers: "Codename: Redacted file 002"

The second "Codename: Redacted" EP from The Spy Lodgers, for which I sing and inform for.

Friday, 22 December 2017

Call Me by Your Name

Luca Guadagnino, Italy-France-Brazil-USA, 2017

Luca Guadagnino’s adaptation of André Aciman’s novel is sun-drenched, wealthy and luxuriant and is full of a summer romance wish-fulfillment. It’s also primarily measured and sumptuous which mitigates how much idealism defines this tale of talented seventeen year-old Elio seducing and romancing the man that comes to stay to assist his father’s research. The age difference between them isn’t truly addressed but the key to this romance is consent.

Elio (Timothée Chalamet) may be precocious but he is not bratty or spoilt. Not for this bourgeois family the underlying rot and obnoxiousness of something like Lucrecia Martel’s ‘La Ciénaga’. These are decent, thoughtful people. When Oliver (Armie Hammer) appears on the scene, a smart American beefcake who disarms everyone around him, Elio tries to find fault but he is protesting too much. Elio goes through the motions of having a girlfriend but Oliver’s allure pulls him out. If perhaps the opulent summer and Oliver’s charm seem idealised, this is surely because it is all filtered though Elio’s viewpoint (the film is too knowing and well-realised for it to be bad writing). It takes a little time to show us that, no, this talented youth and this brazen man are not obnoxious stereotypes. Chalamet’s performance is wonderfully physical and knowing, catching the somewhat inelegant gangliness of youth even as he is negotiating his restrained feelings and how to articulate them. Hammer is charming and effortlessly colours in what ostensibly could have been a very thinly characterised object of desire.

Yes, the film takes it time to draw things out, bolstered by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s cinematography of Northern Italy’s Crema for a lush canvass, and eventually these men come out whilst circling a war monument. One advantage that this kind of gay narrative has is that longing and repression often calls for restraint, for inventiveness when finding the right dialogue and images and language. Euphemism reaps rewards in understatement. It is, though, the opposite of the clumsy aggression that pushes the declaration of passion in Francis Lee’s ‘God’s Own Country’ (which is sublime in a different way). James Ivory’s screenplay is swamped by atmosphere but the dialogue is often restrained and expressive in its pacing and silences. Occasionally it’s a little on-the-nose – Elios’ father saying how antique statues seems to be daring you to desire them and a few music cues (in that pop-songs-spell-out-the-emotions way... except The Psychedelic Furs’ ‘Love My Way’ which grants no criticism) – but it’s the kind of film that allows for a little indulgence. And then there’s the final talk.

The final monologue where Michael Stuhlbarg brings out the big acting guns and dazzles with his warmth and delivery is the domestic drama’s version of Darth Vader felling the rebels in the final action piece of ‘Rogue One’. If Chalamet and Hammer have been quietly stunning, it is here that Stuhlbarg just settles in and stakes his claim. Perhaps this talk is a little too long but is an unforgettable articulation of generosity – and the film is probably guilty of both these things as a whole. Luckily, Chalamet is more than up to the task of being left wordless in the aftermath for the end credits. 

It’s not unlike the sunnier but melancholic tones found in texts such as Umberto Saba’s novel ‘Enersto’ or Patrice Leconte’s ‘The Hairdresser’s Husband’. Or a romantic daydream inspired by a postcard.

Saturday, 16 December 2017

Jumper - super-privileged tourists

Doug Liman, 2006, USA-Canada

A tale of how teleportation superpowers turn guys into super-jerks, who do nothing with their powers except to act as the worst kind of privileged tourist and smug brats. Oh, it also helps them to sleep around a lot and to disappear in the morning without responsibility. They are pursued by religious zealots (because the gifted ones are always persecuted) led by Samuel L Jackson (you know, the stern-faced kind of Jackson that really isn’t doing much), but they are so obvious with their powers that it is a wonder that they aren’t captured earlier. They just appear in libraries and Emergency Rooms, sometimes causing shallow action-craters when they appear and sometimes not (depending upon whether the plot requires it); they speed cars recklessly down busy streets, etc. Actually, the zealots are just as obvious, leaving a trail of bodies and explosions and killing officials, etc.

Considering they can go anywhere, the range of locations seems pretty limited (hey, on top of a Sphinx): it’s as if all locations jumped to are mostly from a postcard collection; certainly they don’t quite seem adventurous enough. To the fact that they do nothing selfless with their powers, the film seems to nod to this with a moment where our hero David Rice (Christen Haydenson) ignores a report of people drowning in a boat accident or something: is he thinking Well, maybe I could help….? In fact, the powers prove a bit superfluous when, by the magic of cinema editing, David just goes to Rome with Millie (Rachel Bilson) on a whim: Millie just kind of leaves her job and they seemingly have the cash (he can jump to rib banks so I guess cash is not a problem); then with a cut, they are in Rome. And that’s where the jumpers and hunters have a showdown but, although it’s meant to be a great location for a fight, it only adds to the impression of boneheaded tourists with no respect for their surroundings.

 Glossy, lazy and conceived without any complexity of thought seemingly by a teenager with parent issues that just wants to, you know, break free and do whatever the hell he wants. Superpowers for those who don’t want any real context bringing down the wish-fulfilment. 

Friday, 1 December 2017

The Death of Stalin

Armando Iannucci
2017, France-UK

Armand Iannucci has long been a reliable source of satire and ‘The Death of Stalin’, his adaptation of Nury and Thierry Robin’s graphic novel, showcases his potent skills as a political humorist. The set-up is in the title and then all hell breaks loose as the main players in Soviet government, 1953, try to work out what to do next and how to extricate themselves from previous adminstration. Understanding that it’s working on multiple levels, a top tier cast play relatively straight without becoming cartoonish, relying on the natural absurdity that comes from the circumstance of a bunch of conniving but dangerous people trying to break off the shackles of The Great Terror whilst trying to figure out what exactly they should do next. What helps greatly is that the cast keeps their own accents, allowing Adrian McLoughlin’s Stalin to sound like an East End gangster, Steve Buscemi’s Krushchev to sound like a weary plotter (like Steve Buscemei, then) and Jason Isaacs’ to let loose with a showstealing Yorkshire bolshiness for his Georgy Zhokov.

And then there’s Simon Russel Beale whose turn as Lavrentiy Beria is truly chilling in his casual psychopathy, reminding everyone just how high the stakes are. As a thoroughly cold-blooded executioner by whim, it is Beria’s side of things that perhaps may have caused some to find this too chilling for a comedy, even despite the slapstick and humour of the corpse-carrying and lying in state set-pieces. But this balance of funny-horror is correct and deftly played, showing how the ridiculous pantomimes these officials go through to keep authority and, indeed, stay alive have terrible effects across the country that they barely seem aware of, so caught up as they are in their power plays. Iannucci has been very vocal about his intention in keeping that balance and has made it clear that muting the horror for the comedy would have been to belittle how truly terrible the truth of it was. 

Unlike, say, Sokurov’s ‘Moloch’ or Schlöndorff’s ‘The Tin Drum’, this does not use abstraction or magic realism to realise its absurdism: rather the absurdism comes from the buffoonery of Georgy Malenkov’s (Jeffrey Tambor) blundering vanity; or Comrade Andryev (Paddy Considine), panic-stricken, having to hastily recreate an orchestral performance for Stalin that wasn’t recorded originally; from Krushchev writing a list of notes of things that he did or said that pleased Stalin; or Zhukov’s confident crassness, etc. It’s like Monty Python meeting the seriousness of, for example, Andrzej Wadja. 

Some may find it’s framework of seriousness too much, even despite the set pieces, the funny-horrible black humour and slapstick, the droll script and performances, but it makes ‘The Death of Stalin’ more textured and more essential as a satire showing the terrifying effects of farcical politics. And of course, such satire is almost inherently subversive because fascism kills humour and loathes mockery. This is surely why it is also likely to only grow in stature over time. 

Friday, 24 November 2017


William Friedkin, 1977, USA

This is like Georges Arnaud’s ‘Le salaire de la peur’ imagined as a straightforward thriller by Werner Herzog. That is, rather than men stranded by the vagaries and random cruelties of fate, ‘Sorcerer’ pools together its drivers from four men running from thriller plots and their drive is more like a fight with nature itself. It’s a masculine thing, but it’s led by Roy Scheider who does the injured hard-man character and panicky/steely stare well; and nuance of performance is needed for there is little of the shading of character here as there was in Clouzot’s ‘The Wages of Fear’. Rather, this is a more bare-knuckle interpretation, if that’s possible, for it almost makes Clouzot’s film with its crisp black-and-white photography by Armand Thirard look glossy and civilised by comparison. That is, the trucks used look like a peril in themselves even before we begin, eaten by rust and neglect; and the weather seems to have swamped, flooded and rotted everything. It’s all mud, dirt and dampness.

The set-up here comes from four disparate thriller scenerios that start in different countries and meet up in South America: a hit man, a failed robbery, terrorism, white collar crime. This colours our unsympathetic protagonists’ fates as the consequence of their own choices and so a lot of sympathy is off the table and the social commentary is greatly diluted. Friedkin meant this to be more about the workings of fate – it’s called ‘Sorcerer’ – but these characters triggered this path so although the film is not without existential angst, it doesn’t quite capture fate’s random cruelty. And, as we don’t particularly care for them (although Scheider naturally draws out empathy) and aren’t particularly asked to reflect on the context, we’re left with the action. But that’s enough

The most memorable set-ups are the robbery in a church as a wedding is taking place, filmed in Friedkin’s deceptively straightforward style, and the terrorists bombing a public space filmed more in the style of the French New Wave. There’s a little morsel to chew on as stockbrocker Victor (Bruno Cremer) discusses “soldier poets” with his wife and reflects that “No one is just anything.” Tangerine Dream’s electronic score pulses and keeps pace as these lowlifes meet in South America and sign up for the suicide mission of transporting nitroglycerine through the jungle. Tension starts as soon as they drive around the first bend of a rough mountain road. There’s no bonding here – well, only as a prelude to death. What there is is excellent sound design and set-pieces exceptionally executed. There may not be the same raw tension that derives from characterisation frm the Clouzot version, but ‘Sorcerer’ is a very tactile film so that not only will the audience feel waterlogged but the screen radiates with the uncontrollable danger of the fires. Best of all is the jaw-dropping sequence where the trucks battle to cross a rope bridge in torrential weather and a flood.

With a re-release ‘Sorcerer’ seems to now have claimed an appreciative audience: perhaps the overwhelming fantasy of ‘Star Wars’ (released at the same time in 1977) really did realise that public preference was for overblown but morally simplistic fantasias rather than raw but grandiose realism with a hint of existentialism. But it’s true that I can’t quite fathom the extent of negative reception since ‘Sorcerer’ is intense and muscular, consummately realised, is bold and exciting and aimed at action for adults. So much so that it’s easy to see why it’s now being called a masterpiece.

Monday, 20 November 2017

The Wages of Fear

'Le salaire de la peur'
 Henri-Georges Clouzot, b/w, France

Courzot’s adaptation of Georges Arnaud’s novel is rightly held up as a quintessential suspense-action film. Indeed, rarely will close-ups of wheels going back-and-forth cause such tension and anxiety. Four desperate men, stuck in a dead-end South American town, agree on a likely suicide mission to drive volatile nitroglycerine over rough terrain to deal with a raging fire at an oil well. But it’s an hour in the runtime before they get in the trucks and the long set-up – mostly cut from the original American release – allows a rambling exploration of the men rotting away in a Latin American town with only the Southern Oil Company offering wages or any kind of opportunity.

And it’s in this town that we find the film’s most glaring weakness in its use of its one notable female character as most clearly imagined as on her knees cleaning or fawning over men that mistreat her. Indeed, when we meet her she is on all fours, cleavage showing, being petted like a dog. Véra Clouzot (Henri-Georges’ wife) as Linda is such a weak character that it blemishes the film’s otherwise often critical slant on machismo: whereas the male characters are allowed nuance and room to be contradictory, she is given no room at all and indeed is shoved aggressively from the excitement of the trucks as they drive off into a considerably edgy male adventure. If this meant to be a comment of machismo, it is grossly underwritten so that there is little option but to take it at face value.

But the men all get some shading. Male camaraderie is initially mostly defined by lazing around, interludes of music, rivalry and the search for jobs: they have nothing to do but they’re still posturing. Mario (Yves Montand) is a posing wastrel type, treating the obsequious Linda appallingly, who rises to the occasion with tough resolve that is needed for the drive. He bonds with the gangster-type Jo (Charles Vanel) at the expense of all else, and Jo plays the bully but under the stress of the drive he cracks and becomes cowardly. The affable Mexican foreman Luigi (Folco Lulli) holds his own, but he’s dying of cement dust in his lungs – a hazard of his job. And there is Bimba (Peter van Eyck) a German that is assumed to be an ex-Nazi but was an actually against the Reich and spent time in salt mines as punishment. Even the SOC foreman (Bill O’Brien) insists these men get their fair wage even as he tells them it’s a suicide mission. It’s a context of social desperation and exploitation that is clear in its condemnation of capitalism. That may have contributed greatly to why it was initially badly received: as Karel Reisz notes’ “The film is admittedly anti-American, but it would be unfair to single this out for special mention, for Le Salaire de la peur is unselectively and impartially anti-everything.”* Or as Penelope Huston writes, that although the film is "skilful in its pre-occupation with violence and its unrelieved pessimism, it is unlikeable."** The nihilism and anti-corporate sentiment were surely ahead of their time in being so blatant and visceral and surely more in tune with a post-‘Easy Rider’ post-‘Bonnie and Clyde’ post-Watergate cinema that was to come decades later. In this environment, William Friedkin’s version of ‘The Wages of Fear’ – ‘Sorcerer’ – makes more sense, although that wasn’t liked at the time either.

But in the end, it is the set-pieces of the drive that remain indelible even if the politics remain sadly contemporary and relatable: the trucks not being able to either slow down or overtake on a perilous road; turning on a rotten bridge; blowing up a boulder in the road; driving through a lake of oil... Men are covered in sweat and oil as the tension makes the air even drier and Clouzot makes every yank of gears, creak of wood and tumble of rocks count. It’s gritty, tense, a fine melding of neo-realism and action cinema. As Bosley Crowther memorably put it, “The excitement derives entirely from the awareness of nitroglycerine and the gingerly, breathless handling of it. You sit there waiting for the theatre to explode.”*** And yet, despite the accusations of nihilism, its rough characters and fatalism, it is surely not a film of cruelty but rather about the cruelty of their hardships and the fact their lives are so often held as worthless when profit is involved. But ultimately it does hit a sour truism that it is at our happiest that we let our guard down and endanger ourselves. In this sense, in stating clearly that fate is ruthless, its message is a tough one but, boy, the suspense is in getting there.

Karel Reisz, ‘Sight &Sound. Spring 1954
**  Penelope Huston, ‘Monthly Film Bulletin’, April 1954, pg. 54

Sunday, 12 November 2017


John Frankenheimer, 1966, USA

As a kid, John Frankenheimer’s ‘Seconds’ always gave me serious chills. Not only did this come from the grand guignol of the ending, but also from the idea of failing at life, of not quite being in control, of not quite knowing the tricks of assimilation and survival that others seem to possess so effortlessly. It’s based on mid-life crisis and, as Kim Newman says, on a wartime generation that felt they had missed out on all the fun the youth culture were just about to enjoy. As a kid, I venture that this was unnerving me as it tapped into the suspicion that life would not be the constantly upward curve I was promised. The idea of wanting to do your life over again, of wanting a second chance, of being an outsider not quite fitting in, are not likely to go out of vogue. 

It’s the kind of scenario you might find in ‘The Twilight Zone’: Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) is a rigidly unhappy and unremarkable soul when he receives an odd offer from an old friend - one he presumed dead - to be “re-born”, of starting life over. It’s an offer of a second chance, to be what he never was but wanted to be. To this end, the mysterious company who orchestrates this seems quite accommodating – after they have snared him staging him with a false rape, that is. He is reborn as Rock Hudson in an idyllic Californian location. The trouble is: once an unhappy soul, always an unhappy soul.

Based on David Ely’s novel and populated by a cast of faces that would become familiar but weren’t so much at the time of casting – it is very well cast and notably Frankenheimer went for a lot of previously actors black-listed in the McCarthy era – ‘Seconds’ was never popular and greatly derided. As Brian Eggert says, “Frankenheimer himself noted how the film “went from failure to classic without ever being a success.’” There’s a truth and poeticism when Landon Palmer calls ‘Seconds’ the loneliest films of the 1960s. 

With James Wong Howe’s crisp black and white cinematography, Saul Bass’s disturbing credits sequence, the distortions by fish-eye lenses, a seasoning of psychedelic sensibility and undertones of body-horror, there is something always off-kilter in this world. Even the early scenes of Hamilton’s humdrum life alternate from claustrophobic close-ups and agoraphobic wide-shots, creating unease immediately. Not only the accentuated camera techniques but the bedrock of plastic surgery, identity theft and over-reaching corporations were ahead of the times, as Edward Tenner notes; and perhaps its seemingly contemporary backdrop fooled people and contributed to the backlash. Maybe if it had looked more like ‘Fantastic Voyage’, it would have been more obviously a genre piece and audiences may not have felt so threatened, have recognised such a clear attack on their culture.

It’s a world of the mid-life crisis, where post-House of Un-American Activities Committee paranoia is paramount and the film attacks commercialism, bourgeois privilege, arty pretensions and free-love hedonism equally, seeing in it all a phoniness and tapping into our fear that our whole life is performance and our surroundings staged for us, that everyone else in on it. As Eggert notes, ‘Seconds’ offers as a solution neither conformity or escapism – but perhaps “escapism” is the wrong word and hedonism is more appropriate. And yet, rather than a criticism, it seems more a cautionary tale and a warning that happiness lays not within what you are told by corporations and social movements.

Will Greer gives a sublimely genial folksy old man performance as the apparent owner of this somewhat bizarre and mysterious firm which is both sinister and weirdly empathic (hey, they seem to go out of their way to upgrade your second life). Rock Hudson cracking up is the attention-grabber, but John Randolph’s sad-sack performance is equally haunting. This is a far cry from the action inclinations of mainstream genre fare. Indeed, the science isn’t credible at all, but that’s not the point: this is the kind of science fiction whose vigorously bleak attitude shows that the phenomenon of progress will always be susceptible to human weaknesses. With a greatly disturbing finale to top off this haunted tale of a lifetime of dissatisfaction, ‘Seconds’ is uniquely disturbing.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Blade Runner 2049 (just a first watch)

Denis Villeneuve, 2017, 

I know it’s going to take second watch to fully determine what I think of Villeneuve’s continuation of Ridley Scott’s classic. I like Villeneuve ever since I thought the direction of ‘Sicario’ proved exceptional, but I felt ‘Arrival’ had major problems that dented my appraisal of him (although that was more the material than his execution). From the trailer, I thought ‘Blade Runner 2049’ was going to be a more action-filtered rendition of the premise, hyped-up with adrenalin for a modern audience, so I was pleased and surprised that the tone proved to be measured and faintly abstract. In fact, it’s so wilfully – and in my opinion appropriately – languid and conceptual that this seems to obscure its storyline: it has been accused of lacking story, but the storyline seems to me to offer plenty to chew on. A replicant (an artificial human) with an identity/midlife crisis is going about his job of killing other replicants when he is given reason to follow up on his heritage; this leads him to a revelation that makes him think he is special as well as to the narrative of the previous film, but in a nice snub to The Chosen One trope that is so dominant in fiction, he finds he is mistaken. Rather, he sacrifices himself for the greater good. This seems plenty to be getting your teeth into and perhaps it is the overwhelming art-design and mood that leads people to believe the narrative is smothered and lesser than it is. 

And this is a gorgeous film. Many times, I found myself marvelling at the visuals, with Roger Deakins’ cinematography accentuating the glare of the opening, the perpetual neon night of Los Angeles and the art design of Jared Leto’s domain. The film is almost overwhelming with visual wonder – many of the urban vistas are breathtaking – but it also abundant with details to sift through: Pan Am adverts left over from the original; 'Peter and the Wolf' as a ringtone; the idea that a personality is just memory on a data stick (an idea completely in tune with Philip K Dick’s agenda); etc. Surely it is a veritable wealth of Easter Eggs that it is impossible to parse on a single watch. On top of that, the holo-Vegas fight and the final battle in a flood are exemplary action pieces.

“K” (Ryan Gosling) has a personality built upon artificially implanted memories, but when he gets home, all he wants is a traditional set-up where a devoted wife-figure serves him dinner and dotes. Is such an old-fashioned domestic desire programmed into him? Indeed, are we to deduce such desires can be credited to his programming or a more independent personality, growing from the programming, and that this vision of an idealised lifestyle is derived from the surrounding patriarchal/misogynistic culture? Nature or nurture? And are we to assume in this future setting that gender-politics haven’t gathered any nuance in the past hundred years, at least? It’s easy to take issue with such details but it remains steadfastly ambiguous and that is surely a strength and a nod to the unresolved questions of the original, questions it snakes around answering and mostly leaves open-ended.

We can maybe attribute “K”’s heterosexuality (and that is presumably programmed too) as triggering the objectified female holograms, but we don’t see any parallel and balancing experiences from the women character’s perspective so it leaves the film wide open for accusations of misogyny. This is mitigated by having Robin Wright as “K’”s boss, even taking advantage of her power by making a pass at him; also by shading Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) by having her seem increasingly saddened during her actions, as if she is asking herself Is this all I am: a murderous replicant? Mark Kermode makes a solid argument that actually it is the women of ‘Blade Runner 2049’ that hold all the power and that it is the patriarchal mindset of the male characters that hinders them in seeing things clearly. More than once, characters are told their attractions are programmed and then the film continues to maintain the air of ambiguity. Perhaps it is human vanity that we wish the replicant characters to be human? But the original surely took a jab at this by having Roy Blatty (Rutger Hauer) in the original be the most soulful character, despite the humans?

Indeed, it is surely the female characters that actually have more to do and show. The men come from the stoic, underplayed side of things, and one of the main frictions is waiting to see if Ryan Gosling will break out of his reserve. When Harrison Ford turns up, he effortlessly shows that you don’t need so much to exude a broken, grizzled machismo. Jared Leto has come in for attack for its high mannerisms, but that is surely a piece with the original replicants. But no, it’s the women that get to show more layers, more evident intelligence and range; and with the female prostititute and assassin replicants, they express a barely subsumed tiredness at working within patriarchal culture is expressed. It’s this that muddies the waters of criticisms for ‘Blade Runner 2049’s gender politics: it’s not that they don’t have some grounding but that it’s working on a more complex terrain than might be originally thought.

The thematic heft of ‘Blade Runner 2049’ is surely stronger than the original, which benefited and may be seen as superior from having a simple film noir narrative and a romantic intention that were instantaneously familiar as a guide through the tremendous art design. That Villeneuve with Michael Green and Hampton Fancher’s screenplay manages to capture and continue much of the ambiguity and abstract tone, smothered in state-of-the-art effects and set design, is surely a remarkable and stubborn achievement (although it might be seen by detractors as just pilfering and imitation). The fact that it is surely to be hotly grilled and debated in many studies to come – not least about its gender politics – is surely indication that, although already mostly warmly received, it’s true worth is yet to come. And even in that, it follows in its seminal original’s footsteps.