Understated Malevolence

Vice (2018, Adam McKay)

When an actor radically transforms their appearance for a role, there’s always the danger that we’ll lose the character and focus on the performer – spend the duration trying to find the recognizable underneath the make-up and the prosthetics. In Raging Bull, Robert De Niro played two versions of the boxer Jake LaMotta. Late period LaMotta was depressingly over-the-hill and distinctly overweight, and to achieve the look, method man Bob ate all the pies and then some. When we first see this incarnation, we can’t help (at least initially) marvelling at the feat of metamorphosis rather than immediately falling into the world of the story. This is the irony of an obsession with ‘realism’: it can lead to a loss of the suspension of disbelief.

In Vice, Christian Bale has been transformed into former US Vice President Dick Cheney – he of the calm manner and fascistic outlook. Physically you would never think that Bale would be right for this role but it works; the make-up job is impressive. And if we may initially look for Batman underneath all the maquillage, it helps that the early part of the film cuts between Cheney at different ages and young off-the-rails Dick looks a lot closer to straight-up Christian. We accept Bale as Cheney more readily than we might if we only saw the Bush-era version, with added girth and receding hairline.

An issue for Bale, and the film, is how to remain interesting while accurately portraying someone who avoided being overly demonstrative in public; Cheney was almost deliberately uncharismatic, a true puppet-master. He also worked hard to reveal as few details about himself as possible. On Radio 4’s The Film Programme (24/1/19) director Adam McKay (Anchorman, The Big Short) says he consulted Cheney’s autobiography but that he’s never read one “that says less”; the account resolutely sticks to the “standard official” version of events.

The narrator-figure in Vice, played by Jesse Plemons, describes our protagonist as “monotone” and “like a ghost”, yet Bale manages to pull off the trick of subtly revealing the searing ambition while maintaining a calm, reserved exterior. It helps that he has Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney and Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld to play off. Carell lights up every scene he’s in with a sociopathic gleam in his eye and has several laugh-out-loud moments. In the domestic scenes, Amy Adams fully convinces as a woman who is well aware of the glass ceiling and is therefore determined to make sure the man she signed up with doesn’t blow his chance to rise as high as possible. She has a touch of Lady Macbeth about her.

McKay’s approach to maintaining audience interest is to crank up the pace and assault us with technique, and this is no bad thing. The starting point is the style from The Big Short: voice-over, freeze frames, direct address to camera, and a sense of humour normally absent from biopics and other accounts of ‘real events’. Essentially, it’s GoodFellas/Casino/Wolf of Wall Street Scorsese mixed with a bit of Michael Moore (and maybe even a little Adam Curtis). However, McKay goes further in Vice, such as throwing in visual depictions of metaphor: shots of fly fishing (one of Cheney’s hobbies, along with accidentally shooting people) and a precarious tower of teacups – it’s a technique used in TV news taken to a comic extreme.

McKay also gives us a fake ending (complete with credits) halfway through the film, and a scene in which Alfred Molina plays a waiter offering Cheney, Rumsfeld and their cronies a menu of such delights as extraordinary rendition and enhanced interrogation techniques. Some will go for this kind of bold (or flippant) storytelling; some won’t. I did.

What ultimately comes through is how unexceptional a human being Cheney is – no great level of intelligence, no great ideas…just someone who saw his chance to wield great power from behind the scenes and took it with a little too much relish.

 

Sam Bowles

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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New to Netflix

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018, Joel and Ethan Coen)

I’ve always been a touch agnostic when it comes to the Coen Brothers. The talent is undeniable, the variety and prolificacy of output sometimes quite extraordinary. In just the last ten years, they have written and directed six features and received screenwriting credit on another four. These films range in their diversity from Burn After Reading to True Grit to Bridge of Spies. Few other filmmakers could match that, so what’s the problem?

Well, it’s surprising how rarely the brothers are compared with Mr. Tarantino; the qualities and caveats are strikingly similar. Both seem wedded to genre and pastiche (and do it far better than most), and have a love of loquacious characters, which is often very entertaining but can be at the expense of visual storytelling. Coen brothers films are extremely watchable with memorable characters, genuinely funny lines, and immaculately framed shots. But do they ever really say anything? And how often do they truly move us?

Of course, it could just be that I once heard Michael Gove likes the Coens.

Anyway, their latest is a Western anthology. It’s the first I can think of since Grim Prairie Tales (1990, Wayne Coe), which was part horror and unfortunately didn’t live up to its title. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is made up of six short stories, as if drawn directly from the pages of some cowboy tome, and they are inevitably varying in quality. Short-form storytelling is hard, significantly harder than long-form. That’s why there are so few masters of the art. Just think about it: establishing character, setting and mood quickly; creating a brief but satisfying narrative; and then (usually) surprising the audience with a twist at the end – one that feels justified rather than contrived. You try it.

Individual short films tend to either not tell a proper story or attempt to cram a feature length narrative into a compressed running time as a ‘calling card’. The best shorts are generally cartoons: Tom and Jerry, Looney Tunes, Tex Avery – unpretentious, pacey, properly funny. It must also be acknowledged that TV commercials often manage to tell effective stories in mere seconds and in a manner that can border on the genius (albeit with a motive that is morally bankrupt).

The best story in Buster Scruggs is the third, ‘Meal Ticket’, which runs around 20 minutes. Liam Neeson plays a travelling (and virtually silent) impresario, whose act is his companion: a man with neither arms nor legs, but a beautiful gift for oration – on a tiny stage, he recites poems such as Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ and excerpts from the Bible and the Constitution. They drift across a snowy landscape from town to town, playing to dwindling audiences and less and less remuneration. The tale then has a particularly heartbreaking sting.

This is exactly what you want from a short. The story is more than a sketch but lacks the meat for a full feature; it perfectly fits the format. The characters are not drawn with any great depth but remain vivid enough to make an impact, and the wintry look mirrors the melancholy narrative. When it comes, the twist is more than a surprise: it marks a true revelation of character and dramatizes the theme – what Ethan Coen in a recent ‘Sight and Sound’ called “musings on showbiz”*.

 

Sam Bowles

*‘Sight and Sound’, December 2018 BFI

 

 

 

New to Netflix

Psycho (1998, Gus Van Sant)

Yes, the year and director are correct. This isn’t Psycho; this is Psycho. The almost shot-for-shot, almost line-for-line remake, to which, on initial release, the fairly predictable reaction was: “This is sacrilege!” Back then, I naively predicted that time would be kind to such a bold studio offering. 20 years later, it’s clear I was somewhat wide of the mark. Critics still have zero time for this flick.

You can understand the anxiety at the time. What the arse was Van Sant up to? He wasn’t just doing a remake; he was taking on a hallowed cinematic text. Some say Hitchcock’s best, certainly his most infamous. A new version could never surpass (or even match) the impact of the original, so why bother? Was this an elaborate wind-up? A piss-take? Jay Bauman on the YouTube channel Red Letter Media suggests that Van Sant may have been making a statement about pointless remakes – you can’t do the same shots and script and get the same results.

I agree that this was probably Van Sant’s point, but does that make it pointless? This is a film the like of which we have never had before or since – it has a particular perverse charm. There are many homemade fan versions of classic films, but a big budget ‘fan version’ – with name actors and a highly rated director – is unique. We get to see exact recreations of scenes we know intimately, yet they feel completely different, almost like entering some alternate universe. The effect is more than a little unnerving and leads us to ask why and how great films work the way they do. Psycho-1998 enhances our appreciation of Psycho-1960.

I accept that as a stand-alone piece of entertainment this film fails. It is mostly miscast (Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates?!) and many of the lines and situations feel out of place in a late 1990s setting. Enjoyment of this version is entirely dependent on knowledge of the original. As such, it’s more a piece of modern art than a conventional Hollywood movie. If it were projected on a wall in a gallery, it would get a fairer hearing. Indeed, the closest comparison would not be another cinematic offering, but the artwork ‘24 Hour Psycho’ by Douglas Gordon (1993). This is Hitchcock’s film slowed down so that it lasts for a full day. It’s a fascinating idea, although I doubt even the artist has watched the whole thing. Van Sant’s Psycho would probably work better like this, maybe as part of an exhibition on The Master – it’s playing on a loop, you drop in for 5 minutes (“Hmmm, interesting” etc.) and you move on to the next thing.

My main issue with the Van Sant version is that it isn’t rigorous enough when it comes to reproducing the original camera set-ups and script. There are a few alternate angles and some bizarre dream-style imagery that add nothing. Van Sant should have been stricter with himself and followed through fully on the conception; the introduction of colour and the new cast are the only changes required.

 

On a side note: what are we to make of the original Psycho? As a piece of technical filmmaking and visual storytelling it’s outrageously good; it functions as a two-hour film school in choreographing and camera placement (what is known as ‘blocking’). But it also effectively invented that dead-end genre, the slasher film, and is key in the development of our unsavoury modern obsession with serial killers. This is a movie – an entertainment – in which the key scene (arguably the most famous scene in all the movies) is a naked woman in the shower being stabbed to death. That is what Hitchcock served up for our delectation: titillation and terror on a plate.

 

Sam Bowles

See also:

78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene (2017, Alexandre O. Philippe)

‘The Moment of Psycho’ by David Thomson (2009, Basic Books)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What’s in a name?

Solo (2018, Ron Howard)

You may recall, dear reader, that I have on occasion felt it necessary to voice my displeasure at the output of one Christopher Nolan. This man’s work – specifically the idea that fantasy films need to be ‘grounded in reality’ – has had an unfortunate effect on mainstream cinema. Solo is the latest high profile example; it reeks of Nolanism.

Post the Dark Knight films and their humourless efforts to explain every detail of the Batman myth (how Bruce Wayne got his hands on the Batsuit, Batmobile, gadgets etc.), this sickness has begun to infect other fantasy films, and the Disney Star Wars spinoffs are no exception. In one painful moment in Solo the trend may have reached its nadir. The makers of this crime actually see fit to explain why Han has the surname Solo! Trying to sign up for a flying academy, Han reveals he has no surname and no family. The official desk-bound dude looks off for a second, then decides ‘Solo’ would be apposite in the circs. Cringe-making doesn’t come close.

Does anyone associated with this flick’s production understand the basic workings of fantasy storytelling? These are worlds in which characters have names that conveniently reflect their personalities and status. Offering up a literal-minded explanation for such a moniker makes exactly zero sense. Han Solo is solo because he’s like Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, with the same outlook of: “I stick my neck out for nobody.” The name shouldn’t be given to him; it is him.

It’s a standard device, but it’s also one of the pleasures on offer from stories that aren’t in thrall to ‘realism’. So, in the Harry Potter books, JK Rowling has characters with names such as Lord Voldemort, Neville Longbottom, Dolores Umbridge… They’re outrageous. And glorious. And it would never occur to old JK to offer up some contrived justification.

Solo is available on DVD from Disney

 

Sam Bowles

 

 

New Release

BlacKkKlansman (2018, Spike Lee)

Spike Lee is not a subtle filmmaker. Sometimes this can be an issue. Take the scene in the otherwise excellent Do The Right Thing (1989), for example, in which various characters shout racist epithets to camera. It reminds me of GCSE drama productions.

But, generally – who cares? His great theme is the ongoing problem of racism in America and, unless you’re a complete expletive, there’s not a lot of ambiguity there.

Lee’s latest, BlacKkKlansman, is the best I’ve seen from him since his absurdly underrated masterpiece 25th Hour (2002).

The pitch: 70s Colorado. Black cop Ron Stallworth (John David Washington – Denzel’s son) manages to infiltrate the local branch of the KKK via telephone calls. His white colleague Flip Zimmerman (the ubiquitous Adam Driver) then plays him for face-to-face meetings. Based on a true story.

It’s an inherently compelling setup, both because of how unlikely it is and because there is something undeniably fascinating about the KKK and their practices: espousing a disgusting ideology whilst wearing fancy dress – the sinister meets the absurd. (This was nicely satirized by Tarantino in Django Unchained (2013).)

How are the visuals? Lee’s films have always had a great look to them and here he chooses to shoot on 35mm. It gives the images a nice grain and is appropriate to the 70s; he’s not just using film because it gives him a stiffy, like Tarantino or Nolan.

Lee also continues to make bold stylistic choices, and in doing so, shows it’s a natural expression of his personality and distinctive filmmaking grammar. It is not simply something he did when he was young because he was desperate to show off his skills.

Example: the opening scene of BlacKkKlansman is a clip from an entirely different film, Gone With the Wind. It’s an Old Hollywood classic that looks more problematic with each year that passes. The clip is a technically brilliant long-take crane shot travelling across a pile of bodies in the aftermath of a Civil War battle. The camera finally comes to rest on the confederate flag, blowing proudly in the wind. It shows what used to pass unapologetically for mainstream entertainment. And as for Spike Lee choosing to begin a narrative feature film with a clip from a different narrative feature film (which happens to be nearly 80 years old)? Well, I’ve personally never seen that done before. This is genuinely bold stuff.

Lee also employs colour filters, Dutch angles, direct address to camera, and the use of documentary footage to close the film – this rhymes with Lee’s use of the Rodney King video to open Malcolm X (1992).

BlacKkKlansman is Spike Lee’s most well-received film in years, outside documentaries, and it’s heartening to see. If you’re in the mood to be morally outraged, it ticks that box and then some. It’s also properly entertaining.

 

Sam Bowles

 

 

 

Smiert Spionam

The Living Daylights (1987, John Glen)

I was 7 years old and it was my first time in a multiplex, the Milton Keynes something-or-other. There was the overbearing grandeur, the unfathomable concept of multiple screens, and the almost oppressive stench of too much popcorn. I remember a poster in the lobby that told of delights to come, the thrill of the new. I had already seen a few Moores, maybe the odd Connery…but this was a brand new James Bond! Timothy Dalton was his name. And on that poster – he just looked so damn good.

Of course, when it came to a plot that mixes fake defections, real defections, diamonds, drugs and the Mujahideen, I can’t claim to have fully understood all the on-screen action. (I can’t claim to understand it all now.) But it didn’t matter. Bond seemed to know what was going on and that was good enough for me. And what I did know for sure was that 007 skydived, jumped onto a moving jeep, fired a sniper’s rifle, drove a car that fired rockets, and used a cello case as a makeshift sledge. And he did it all with an edge and a conviction quite unlike Roger and his moderately expressive eyebrows…

Misty-eyed nostalgia is one thing, but I genuinely believe this film holds up. When Daniel Craig started playing Bond there was high praise for his interpretation – dangerous, more believable, closer to the novels…and I thought: Does no one remember Timothy Dalton?

 

Sam Bowles

The Living Daylights is showing tonight, 9.00pm ITV4

 

 

THIS FILM IS IMPORTANT!

2001: A Space Odyssey (re-release) (1968, Stanley Kubrick)

Is the narrative of this film really an odyssey? I can’t claim to have read Homer’s epic, but I’m pretty sure Odysseus is trying to get home. 2001, on the other hand, is surely about mankind moving forward, not coming back. I realise I’m hitting high-level pedantry early doors, but if Kubrick is going to set himself up as some paragon of filmmaking – a kind of Star-Child of cinema – we should judge him accordingly. And I fear the title makes little sense (as well as being painfully pretentious).

2001 really is staggeringly self-indulgent – shots and scenes are dragged out to agonizing, inordinate length. You end up passing the time by scanning the images to see if they will reveal some fascinating detail, some hitherto hidden depth. Spoiler: they don’t.

“Oh, you don’t understand! Kubrick is telling his story in a bold and unique way. He’s challenging conventional modes of cinema.” Yeah, maybe. And maybe he’s just got his head up his arse. And before you suggest I can’t handle a slow pace – trust me, I can handle slow; I like Ozu. The difference between the two auteurs is old Yasujirō is interested in those funny creatures whose quirks and foibles appear to be anathema to Kubrick. You know, human beings.

The film certainly is bold in its storytelling and not just in its attempt to give an account of human evolution as brought about by some kind of extraterrestrial science experiment. (Pauline Kael called this, “…probably the most gloriously redundant plot of all time.”) Critics rarely seem to comment on the fact that there are two distinct plot elements, and with no initially apparent thematic link. Indeed, the middle act of 2001 – where AI in the form of chatty computer HAL turns malevolent – is almost like a different film. It actually has a dramatic core for a start. Those viewers used to ‘conventional storytelling’ might find it a bit jarring to have one story start, stop before the end, then another story to play out, followed by a return to the first story. Confused? You will be if you manage to stay awake. According to Paul Duncan in his book on Kubrick, there may be a narrative justification for this – the struggle between humans and HAL rhyming with the clash between ape tribes in the film’s opening, or something. But if you only realise that afterwards, or have to be told, it suggests the story isn’t working terribly well.

Regularly found on ‘greatest of all time’ lists, to this viewer 2001 doesn’t measure up to the other usual suspects: Vertigo, Citizen Kane, Tokyo Story etc. Yes, it’s a seminal piece of special effects cinema; but coming first and being influential doesn’t automatically make you a masterpiece. I wonder if a lot of the folk who praise it so highly saw it when it came out and haven’t got over the initial thrill and rush of overpraise.

This film is very sixties. As well as the Pan Am sponsorship, it comes on like you’ll be fascinated by every detail of imagined commercial space travel. We get it, Stanley – they’d have to eat. Congratulations, you’re a fucking genius.

2001: A Space Odyssey is definitely different and you can’t imagine it being made today (although Interstellar had a pretty good stab at matching its tedium levels). It also stays with you. I think I could sit through it again…but I’d probably need some Kendal Mint Cake.

The emperor may not be completely naked; but at best he’s wearing some sparkly underpants.

 

Sam Bowles

 

Further reading:

‘Going Steady’, Pauline Kael (1994, Marion Boyars)

‘The Pocket Essential: Stanley Kubrick’, Paul Duncan (1999, Pocket Essentials)