History Lesson

Dunkirk (2017, Christopher Pompous)

 You know when you go to a museum and they show you a video of a historical event, like the Great Fire of London or whatever? Dunkirk is like the best one of those videos ever made. If the maker had some real talent and was given $150m to play with.

Christopher Nolan has always been praised for his filmmaking facility and interest in playing with story structure. But doubts have been raised over whether his films are too ‘cold’, valuing the technical over the emotional. There are also people who spend their time arguing over whether Nolan measures up to their chosen cinematic deity, Stanley Kubrick. (Maybe one day they’ll grow up and watch some Mizoguchi.)

Dunkirk is Nolan’s 10th feature, and therefore I think we can say conclusively that the jury’s back. And the verdict is inescapable: Christopher Nolan cannot do character. I suspect he’s just not that interested in people. He’s far more interested in what format he’s shooting on.

Sam Bowles

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May the (box office) gross be with you…

Rogue One (2016, Gareth Edwards)

 If anyone’s available over the remainder of the Festive Season, I’m assembling a ragtag cross-cultural group of heroes for a seemingly impossible mission: to steal the screenplay for the next Star Wars movie from Fortress Disney.

Surely something must be done to stop the spread of this evil empire as it aims to indoctrinate us all in its warped worldview; one where synergy talks and creativity can take a trip to the Sarlacc.

Calm down, I’m not suggesting that George Lucas-era Star Wars was anything other than commercial fodder; Lucas made his billions off the tie-in toys and other merchandise. (It’s hard to imagine the next Haneke having an accompanying set of action figures) But at least Lucas understood entertainment, and his own directing and writing limitations. He duly handed over the reigns for The Empire Strikes Back to different screenwriters and a new director. Lucas then financed the film himself. Yes, The Empire Strikes Back is technically an independent film. As the great film writer Pauline Kael said, Empire could almost certainly “…not have been made with such care for visual richness and imagination if it had been done under studio control.” Rogue One (like The Force Awakens) is a Disney product; very professionally produced by people who no doubt love Star Wars. But it also betrays a fear of not flattering its audience, so there are endless nods to familiar elements from the past.

The Force Awakens was a lot of fun. Rogue One is a bit of a slog. Both have been vastly overpraised. This is probably due to the disappointment surrounding the Lucas produced prequels. The Phantom Menace (and its successors) had such a build up and was such a let down that all these new films needed to do was not be appalling. The collective relief has led to critics and audiences thinking they’re legitimate classics like the originals.

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The big pre-release talk about Rogue One was of a more ‘realistic’ or ‘gritty’ version of the galaxy far, far away. So we get hand-held camerawork and storm troopers decorated with designer dirt. There’s one man to blame for this fundamental misunderstanding of the appeal of fantasy. And his name is Christopher Nolan. It is only necessary that we buy into the situations and are interested in the characters. This ‘realistic’ sheen is just window dressing.

In the film’s defence, we have got something different. We’ve got a fairly tedious pastiche of a WWII ‘guys-go-on-a-mission’ movie with added Star Wars galaxy accoutrements. And in this post-Hunger Games world you’re now allowed to be a woman! (Just as long as you’re white, thin and pretty.)

But compare Rogue One with the films it’s a ‘homage’ to, such as Where Eagles Dare. That film begins with Richard Burton, Clint Eastwood etc. already on the plane ready to kick start the mission. Here we have an interminable amount of exposition about the backstory to the Death Star and the various ‘characters’. It takes an age before the mission actually begins. The director Gareth Edwards (who previously made the bore-fest Godzilla) has proven himself adept at special effects and clunky when it comes to storytelling. Rogue One is not short of action and it all looks very impressive. But there’s no subtlety, no humour, nothing that makes you give a toss about the outcome.

Edwards is also developing a major talent for wasting great actors. In Godzilla it was Juliette Binoche and Bryan Cranston. Here it continues with Felicity Jones, Riz Ahmed and many others. Take Ben Mendelsohn – normally such an interesting, surprising performer (Animal Kingdom, The Place Beyond the Pines), here reduced to playing some kind of Imperial middle manager. But without David Brent’s comedy.

Compare Rogue One with a film from 1977 I still call Star Wars (because that’s its title). Rogue One has many better actors giving more professional performances. Star Wars has significantly more interesting and likable characters. And that’s the key.

There’s also a major issue with the music. John Williams’ scores have always been a huge part of the appeal of this film series. Here we have a different composer, Michael Giacchino, occasionally incorporating bits of the originals. It’s an inevitable disappointment, especially when cues hint at Williams then veer of into something new and less memorable. It’s not really the composer’s fault; he’s been given an impossible job. Consequently, having been so starved of the ‘real’ music (like a heroin addict trying to cope on methadone) the highlight of the film comes during the end credits when there’s a full rendition of the original theme.

So far, the film has been well received, but I suspect its reputation will diminish greatly in the coming years, if not months. Rogue One isn’t bad. It’s just not a whole lot of fun. And I’m pretty sure Star Wars should be fun.

 

Sam Bowles

 

 

 

 

On TV Tonight

Starred Up (2013, David Mackenzie)

In one of many subtly profound but almost throwaway moments in the sitcom Seinfeld, George and Jerry briefly discuss incarceration. Rather than describing how terrible it seems (as you might expect), we get this –

GEORGE: I love prison.

JERRY: It is fascinating.

Of course, when George and Jerry refer to “prison” what they really mean is “prison in movies”. And this is a perfect example of how film can glamourize like no other medium. In reality I doubt I could handle 30 seconds behind bars, but I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve daydreamed about long hours of moody, stubbled confinement; doing pushups and reading Chomsky.

Starred Up is a British prison drama starring hot young thing Jack O’Connell as a violent young offender prematurely moved to an adult institution (he’s been “starred up”). I don’t need to tell you how good it is – the rave reviews are already out there – but I will say this for its success: I never once wanted to trade places with any of the characters.

 

Starred Up is showing tonight, 12.05am Channel 4

Sam Bowles

The Sincerest Form of Flattery

Stranger Things (2016, The Duffer Brothers)

 Critics (film or otherwise) have a neat trick: they can use exactly the same observations to either praise or condemn. One of their favourites is to point out when a work makes several obvious references to other works. The resulting piece can be cast as either “a wonderful homage” or “a shameless rip-off”.

Netflix’s current hit with viewers and critics, Stranger Things, perfectly demonstrates this. Here we have a programme that wears its influences (mainly 1980s sci-fi films) on its sleeve. The ‘creators’, the Duffer Brothers, want us to feel flattered every time we notice an allusion. Every time we smile and nod in self-satisfied recognition. “That was just like a bit in E.T.!” “OMG The score is so John Carpenter!” “Kids walking on train tracks – Stand by Me!”

As such, Stranger Things could easily be dismissed as a collection of tropes, and in some cases virtually entire scenes, which have been lifted from other films and TV series: Carrie, Close Encounters, Alien, The Shining, E.T., The Thing, Gremlins, The Goonies, Explorers, Stand by Me, Twin Peaks, Eerie Indiana, The Faculty, The Mist, Let the Right One In… Those are just the ones I’ve noticed.

But who decides where to draw the arbitrary line between referencing and plain copying? And does it matter anyway? After all, Quentin Tarantino has made a career out of demonstrating the diversity of his cine-literacy. And he’s made a fair few classics along the way.

Wherever you stand on this, Stranger Things is still pretty damn entertaining. It’s not as thrilling and wondrous as Spielberg. Not as weird and unsettling as Lynch. Not as bold as De Palma or Kubrick. But it is pretty damn entertaining.

Sam Bowles

“Young, dumb and full of cum”

Point Break (1991, Kathryn Bigelow)

I challenge anyone to watch Point Break and not get a little moist over Keanu Reeves. From the second he appears, in the gorgeously designed title sequence, the man just looks so good. Reeves is FBI newbie Johnny Utah, ritualistically preparing for some target practice: stick of chewing gum in the mouth, one-handed rack of his pump shotgun. A tight t-shirt clings to Keanu’s perfectly sculpted chest – an aesthetic object with a heartbeat. It’s raining. It’s in slow motion. This is better than life. This is cinema.

Of course the success of this opening, and the film in general, is not really about Keanu: it’s about Kathryn. Bigelow that is. The only woman ever to win the best director Oscar, for The Hurt Locker in 2009, actually peaked 18 years earlier with this action masterwork. Yes, the plot is ridiculous and the characterization thin at best. But Point Break contains several action set pieces that are shot and cut like an absolute dream; heists, chases and shootouts become pure visceral cinema.

It’s summer in the City of Angels and a string of perfectly conceived bank jobs have been pulled by a gang calling themselves “The Ex-Presidents” – they wear masks of Nixon, Reagan etc. Seasoned FBI Agent Angelo Pappas suspects, for tenuous reasons at best, that the Ex-Presidents are a surfer gang, using the robberies to finance their counterculture lifestyle. Pappas encourages his new partner, “quarterback punk” Johnny Utah, to go undercover and infiltrate the surfing community. There Utah gets into some serious bromancing with enigmatic “surfer guru” Bodhi. Could he be the leader of the Ex-Presidents? Take one fucking guess. Yes, that’s really the plot. And, yes, the Fast and Furious franchise is a major league rip-off.

In another director’s hands Point Break would be just another over-the-top cops-and-robbers flick. Bigelow elevates the material through the force of her singular cinematic vision. The camera style is bold in the extreme and fully justifies the film’s tagline, “100% Pure Adrenaline”. When Johnny Utah is first shown round the FBI office Bigelow covers the action with a technically stunning long take; whip pans glance at people and objects, mirroring the character’s thrill and disorientation at his new world. If this were Brian De Palma or Alfonso Cuarón, the critics would be purring. There’s more –

The heist sequences sweat with energy and intensity. Remember this is 4 years before Heat, 17 years before The Dark Knight. (The Joker and his gang in their suits and novelty masks are strikingly reminiscent of the Ex-Presidents.)

An ill-fated FBI raid on a suspected gang’s hideout erupts into a heart-rate jacked shootout, climaxing in a moment of terrifying tension involving Utah and the spinning blades of a lawnmower.

And then there’s the standout set-piece, a seminal chase sequence: Utah chasing after Bodhi in the aftermath of a robbery. Bodhi leads him a merry dance through alleyways, gardens and strangers’ houses; at one point even chucking a dog at Utah. All of this is captured in glorious steadicam. It’s like Bourne but better; it doesn’t make you want to hurl. And it was fashioned over a decade earlier.

Today, as absurd as it might sound, I find it hard not to feel a touch nostalgic about Point Break. I was 12 when the film was first released to rent on video; 6 months later my brother and I negotiated to “go halves” on a widescreen retail copy. This is back when widescreen was a big deal. I swear that video (yes, I still watch it) looks better than any DVD or Blu-ray I own.

A note on the final scene: Is this Hollywood action film just a tiny bit subversive in its closing message? Like Clint Eastwood at the end of Dirty Harry, Reeves throws away his badge. However, their motivations (and, implicitly, their politics) are radically different. Harry Callahan was a world-weary right winger, resigned to the fact that the pussy liberals in charge would never let him get the job done his way; i.e. break the law to bag the bad guys. Johnny Utah, on the other hand, knows a life chasing criminals is not for him; he’s has been transformed by Bodhi’s alternative worldview, captured in the surfing metaphor – it’s freedom, personal expression, a re-acquaintance with the natural world and more. Earlier in the movie Bodhi tells the other gang members, “This was never about money. It was about us against the system.” Utah isn’t going to start robbing banks, but he’s grown his hair long and rejected the life of a law enforcement official. “Still surfing?” Bodhi asks, having not seen Utah for months. “Every day.”

 

Samuel Bowles

 

 

In Memoriam: Kiarostami

Taste of Cherry (1997, Abbas Kiarostami)

The Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami passed away yesterday aged 76. He had been making films almost continuously from the early 1970s up until his final work, Like Someone in Love (2012). He didn’t just direct; he wrote, edited, and produced. When not making films, Kiarostami was known to dabble in poetry, painting, photography, graphic design… Basically, he was one of those bastards who appear to be able to do anything they put their minds to. I hated him. And I loved him.

Taste of Cherry was the first Kiarostami film I saw, and it changed the way I view cinema. Usually, filmmakers who thrill us (Welles, De Palma) do so with their virtuosity – a flashy camera move here, a cute editing trick there; Kiarostami instantly blew me away with what he didn’t do. No conventional shot-reverse/wide-medium-close-up coverage, no big dramatic moments, no simplistic good/bad characters, no easy resolutions, no music… After watching Taste of Cherry, a friend’s immediate reaction was, “You can tell he’s good because he doesn’t give you anything.”

The tale the film tells is so simple you could barely call it a plot: the protagonist, Mr. Baadi, drives around Tehran asking various strangers if they will get in his car to assist him with something. Is he after a good time? Just some company? It turns out he’s looking for someone to help him with his suicide. He plans to dig a hole, get in, and then kill himself. And he wants someone to fill in the hole afterwards. Seriously. It’s so straightforward, yet totally compelling. And the pared-down style, the completely non-bombastic telling of this potentially melodramatic material, only adds to its fascination.

No one but old Abbas could have created this masterwork. Nevertheless, credit should also go to the lead actor, Homayoun Ershadi. He is in every single scene and for much of the film the camera is trained on his face. Yet we never tire of him. Ershadi doesn’t resort to easy actorly tricks. There are no dramatic vocal shifts or mournful gazes to hold our attention or engender our empathy. The quality of the performance is such that we barely notice it.

Taste of Cherry is not an easy watch. This film requires a bit of effort and a bit of patience. Does that mean it’s pretentious to make that effort? Perhaps. But it’s easier to flick through a copy of Heat magazine than to read a great novel. Does that mean we shouldn’t put in the time reading George Eliot or James Joyce for fear that others may see us as jumped-up, affected wankers? And maybe a bit of affectation is a good thing anyway; it means we’re pushing ourselves and our experience.

After watching Taste of Cherry I sought out more Kiarostami films, discovering that he went on a run in the 2000s where he seemed to be reinventing the medium every time he picked up a camera: ABC Africa (2001), Ten (2002), Five (2003), 10 on Ten (2004), Shirin (2008). The only comparable period of sustained creativity I know of is the sequence of films Hitchcock put out in the 1950s.

Taste of Cherry won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1997. In the age of Michael Bay, the fact that an artist like Kiarostami was able to make it into the almost-mainstream should be cherished.

 

Samuel Bowles

 

 

 

The Best Film currently on Netflix

Rear Window (1954, Alfred Hitchcock)

You’re a photographer, one who rarely stands still. You shoot action and drama, travel to places unheard of in the 1950s. You’re courting a stunning socialite; “hot” is tame for this dame. But she wants you grounded and she’s got her wish. A crash at a rally track saw to that. Now you’re stuck in your apartment for a couple of months with a broken leg, an acerbic masseuse, and too much time on your hands. You spend your days trying to ignore the New York summer heat, and gazing out of your rear window…

There’s a whole courtyard of mini dramas for this Tom to peep at: differing neighborly tales of love and relationships. Some have just got together. Some are drifting apart. Some are at each other’s throats. It’s diverting more than compelling. If only this place would liven up a bit. Maybe a row? A fistfight? How about a murder?

Sam Bowles