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

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

 

 

 

Easter Special

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988, Martin Scorsese)

Christian fundamentalist terrorists. Yes, they do exist. And in 1988 a group of them weren’t too happy about the release of The Last Temptation of Christ, which dares to depict Jesus on the cross imagining a ‘normal’ life with Mary Magdalene. (They have sex and everything.) The fact that the film begins with a disclaimer saying it is not based on the Gospels and is a work of fiction didn’t dissuade these morons from chucking Molotov cocktails in a Paris cinema. (No one was killed, but there were many injuries.) I’m sure Jesus would have approved.

What of the film itself? The Last Temptation of Christ is definitely the Scorsese I’ve found the toughest to get into. It’s long, I’m not crazy about Willem Dafoe as Jesus (he’s a little bit dull for a conflicted Superman), and it can be hard to take this religious stuff seriously.

It is worth the effort though. Scorsese films always give you strong images and performances, and moments of profound intensity that most directors could only dream of creating. An example would be an early sequence where Jesus assists the Romans in crucifying another poor bastard. The sound of the nails and the guy’s screams hit you before you see any blood. The fast cutting includes a brief image of the crowd reaction: a split-focus shot with a woman’s pained face in close-up on the left of the frame and other horrified people watching in long-shot on the right. The juxtaposition of images and the rhythm of the cutting are unmistakably the work of Scorsese and his editor, Thelma Schoonmaker.

The Peter Gabriel score should be incongruous but somehow works. There’s also a weird, but very Scorsese, opening shot: an unmotivated camera move that could be seen as a visual representation of Christ’s inner struggle.

Of course, what those fundamentalist geniuses were forgetting was this crucial point: it’s only a bloody film. Superman II had basically the same plot. And no one got worked up over that.

 

Sam Bowles

 

 

 

SUMMER MOVIES

Five films to enjoy while the sun’s around:

Dirty Dancing (1987, Emile Ardolino)

1963. A 17-year-old girl, while on holiday with her family in the Catskills, learns how to dance to professional standard in about 2 days. Then gets jiggy with Patrick Swayze.

I know, I know. Why is a man in his 30s drawing attention to a film that’s been precision-engineered to appeal to teenage girls? Because, if you can get past your prejudices, it works like a motherfucker. I think about Dirty Dancing all the time.

Do the Right Thing (1989, Spike Lee)

Racial tensions explode over a single summer’s day in Brooklyn. To the sound of Public Enemy.

Surely the hottest film ever. (And I’m not talking about Rosie Perez in a vest top.)

My Neighbour Totoro (1988, Hayao Miyazaki)

Two children and their father move to a new house in the countryside, while their mum is ill in hospital. They discover some big-time magic is going on in the natural world.

Miyazaki’s masterpiece. Proof that a story doesn’t require an antagonist. The precise observations about the ways in which children interact with their environment are unparalleled. (Nb. Please, if you have the option, watch this film in the original Japanese with subtitles. It’s not pretentious; it’s just better.)

Rear Window (1954, Alfred Hitchcock)

A photographer with a broken leg spies sinister goings-on out of his flat window.

It’s funny. It’s cool. It’ll make you wish one of your neighbours would commit murder. I’m still waiting for one of the bastards near me to come through…

A Scene at the Sea (1991, Takeshi Kitano)

A hearing-impaired man learns to surf. And that’s it.

Kitano’s reliably idiosyncratic staging, camera style and sense of humour are wedded to a stronger emotional hook than usual. The storytelling is so visual, you could turn off the subtitles. It doesn’t get much better than this.

Sam Bowles

The Most Overrated Film on TV this Week

The Dark Knight (2008, Christopher Nolan)

Why? Why did people get so excited about this flick? WHY?! Because most films are so bad? Because people take Christopher Nolan as seriously as he clearly takes himself? Or, have people just forgotten?

Forgotten what? About the Tim Burton Batman films, of course. Yes, there was already a darker, more brooding, graphic novel-inspired take on the Batman myth, with Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992). These films also managed to retain a sense of humour and remembered they were supposed to be based on a comic strip. (And they didn’t involve Christian Bale.)

Batman Begins (2005) started a trilogy of superhero movies within which Christopher Nolan appeared progressively more in denial that he was making superhero movies. Thus, Batman is almost never called “Batman”; he is either “The Batman” (apparently a definite article confers depth and maturity) or, even better, “The Dark Knight”. These films are entertaining and extremely well shot, but also riddled with flaws, the fatal one being an attempt to make the Batman myth realistic. I’m sorry, this is a story about a dude in a rubber suit with pointy ears on his head. The more Nolan and his cohorts get caught up trying to make a Batman movie which is “grounded in reality” or some such cobblers, the more they paradoxically highlight how ridiculous the whole enterprise is. It would appear Nolan was watching a little too much Michael Mann at the time and tried to remake Heat as a superhero movie.

Everyone knows the highlight of not just The Dark Knight but the entire trilogy is Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker. What’s notable is there is no equivalent performance (that combination of danger, comedy and charisma) in any of Nolan’s other films. One can’t help wondering if Ledger pulled off this performance despite Nolan’s direction rather than because of it.

The Dark Knight is showing tonight, 9.00pm ITV 2

Sam Bowles

The Worst Film on TV this Week

Rambo: First Blood, Part II (1985, George P. Cosmatos)

Hollywood action movies don’t come much more compellingly offensive than the clunkily-titled Rambo: First Blood, Part II. This hymn to Sylvester Stallone’s glistening upper body is repugnant; yet I can’t help rather liking it. Or, at least, I find it grimly fascinating: a bombastic opera of violence porn.

John Rambo is a Vietnam veteran with some massive demons and even bigger biceps. He’s sent back into ’Nam to rescue some POWs and generally finish the genocide. The Hawkish message goes thus: we didn’t lose Vietnam; the pussy bureaucrats in charge wouldn’t let us win. Rambo even says at the start, “Sir, do we get to win this time?”

The first Rambo movie, First Blood, is ridiculous but vaguely interesting. It begins with Rambo going to visit an old army friend, only to discover that he’s died from the effects of Agent Orange. There are also shades of Taxi Driver in its story of a lonely Viet vet unable to engage with society. The sequel, however, is a macho cartoon from the word go.

This is a WEIRD film, particularly considering who’s behind the camera. The cinematographer is Jack Cardiff! He worked with Michael Powell and Hitchcock, and here he is training his astonishing eye on Stallone’s muscles and Rambo’s weaponry.

There are bizarre scenes of Rambo being tortured. Stallone, like Mel Gibson, seems to have a narcissistic/masochistic desire to see himself suffer on the screen. If Stallone had played Indiana Jones, he really would have had his heart ripped out by Mola Ram. And then he would have mumbled something self-pitying before replacing the organ and pulling out a bazooka.

But the weirdest thing about an action film that made $300m at the worldwide box office is this: the action isn’t even any good. The first time I saw Rambo I remember being amazed that no individual action scene stood out. Only a few days later my memory of the film was a vague blur of random gunshots and explosions. Potentially good ideas, such as a bow with explosive-tipped arrows, are wasted on unimaginative sequences. The great action films – Raiders of the Lost Ark, Die Hard – contain setpieces so well-conceived that they remain thrilling even when you know every shot before it comes.

The director, George P. Cosmatos, went on to fashion further masterworks such as Cobra (Stallone as Dirty Harry) and Leviathan (Alien underwater, starring RoboCop, but not half as much fun as that sounds).

Rambo: First Blood, Part II is showing tonight, 10.40pm ITV 1

Hopefully you’ve got something better to do on a Friday night. (I haven’t.)

Sam Bowles

Easter Special

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988, Martin Scorsese)

Christian fundamentalist terrorists. Yes, they do exist. And in 1988 a group of them weren’t too happy about the release of The Last Temptation of Christ, which dares to depict Jesus on the cross imagining a ‘normal’ life with Mary Magdalene. (They have sex and everything.) The fact that the film begins with a disclaimer saying it is not based on the Gospels and is a work of fiction didn’t dissuade these morons from chucking Molotov cocktails in a Paris cinema. (No one was killed, but there were many injuries.) I’m sure Jesus would have approved.

What of the film itself? The Last Temptation of Christ is definitely the Scorsese I’ve found the toughest to get into. It’s long, I’m not crazy about Willem Dafoe as Jesus (he’s a little bit dull for a conflicted Superman), and it can be hard to take this religious stuff seriously.

It is worth the effort though. Scorsese films always give you strong images and performances, and moments of profound intensity that most directors could only dream of creating. An example would be an early sequence where Jesus assists the Romans in crucifying another poor bastard. The sound of the nails and the guy’s screams hit you before you see any blood. The fast cutting includes a brief image of the crowd reaction: a split-focus shot with a woman’s pained face in close-up on the left of the frame and other horrified people watching in long-shot on the right. The juxtaposition of images and the rhythm of the cutting are unmistakably the work of Scorsese and his editor, Thelma Schoonmaker.

The Peter Gabriel score should be incongruous but somehow works. There’s also a weird, but very Scorsese, opening shot: an unmotivated camera move that could be seen as a visual representation of Christ’s inner struggle.

Of course, what those fundamentalist geniuses were forgetting was this crucial point: it’s only a bloody film. Superman II had basically the same plot. And no one got worked up over that.

Sam Bowles