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

 

 

 

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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

 

 

THEATRE WITH CLOSE-UPS

Twelfth Night – ‘RSC LIVE’

In his recent book ‘The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations’ (Faber & Faber) Mike Figgis briefly touches on what he sees as the fundamental difference between cinema and theatre: the close-up. Taking his cue from a Bergman quote – “Cinema is the ongoing exploration of the human face” – Figgis expands, writing that the medium, “…allows us to explore the human face in minute detail, to give us insight into the complex psychology of a character in a way that could never be possible in the theatre.” Hard to disagree with that. However, Figgis neglects to consider a relatively recent development in our collective viewing experience – the trend of filming live theatre performances and having them beamed into our cinemas.

“Oh, that’s just a fad!” you cry. Or, “It’s just filming a stage production – what’s the big deal?” True, recording stage performances for later viewing is nothing new. But to be able to watch it live, as it’s being performed, does represent a significant change. We’re watching live theatre, but we’re not in the theatre. And yet we are still sitting with our own live audience. When the production is Twelfth Night, one of Shakespeare’s alleged ‘comedies’ (twins, cross-dressing), it’s slightly disconcerting to hear forced laughter both around the immediate audience and coming from the audience within the screen. Almost as if the production came with a laugh-track, like an audience sitcom.

Crucially, we are privy to different vantage points, different perspectives on the action – the drama – to which the audience in the theatre is denied. We don’t get the buzz of the actors being right in front of us, in the very same room, but we get to see more of the actors; an intimate view that even the most eagle-eyed theatre goer could not replicate.

So, we have a new medium, a new form. It’s not quite cinema. And it’s not quite theatre. It’s something different. It’s theatre with close-ups.

 

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; to 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, that 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

 

 

 

The Restless Scholar

An Intimate Portrait of Claudio Van Der Berg, by Sarah Braithwaite

Everyone seems to want a piece of Claudio Van Der Berg right now. And today, it’s my turn to sample the goods.

We meet for coffee in a relaxed place just off the Old Kent Road. The choice of café is apposite – ‘Brazilian Beans’ is artisan yet modest; Van Der Berg exudes an equivalent aroma of quiet quality. Dressed down in jeans and a plaid shirt, he is refreshingly unstarry. On the way in, Van Der Berg signs a few autographs, poses for a selfie or two and obligingly appeases someone desperate to perform fellatio, but, otherwise, keeps himself to himself.

Van Der Berg greets me warmly, makes sure I’m comfortable and insists I call him ‘Claudio’. Or, ‘Claude’. “Or, even just ‘Jerk’,” he quips. Wonderful self-deprecation from a man who has achieved so much at such a young age. After all, we’re talking about arguably the finest Hollywood actor of the last 3 years. And competition is stiff.

I begin our Q&A. Despite a famed aversion to discussing his craft, Van Der Berg never once gives less than most of his attention.

Do you feel under pressure to maintain the extraordinary level you have already reached in your career?

Oh, I’m just a working actor. Happy to be gainfully employed.

You’re known for your intensive preparation for each role…

 I do a lot of research, and have even been known to dip my toe in the waters of the ‘method’. If the results are good, it’s because I work hard for them.

Your new film – ‘The Brooding Enigma’ – is a biopic of the legendary intellectual and part-time SAS operative, Lieutenant Brigadier Sir Trevor Davenport. A man who single-handedly liberated a small African country while on a weekend break from writing the defining political polemic, “Why the Ruling Class is Good for Everyone”. How do you begin to research a role like that? Did you go full-method?

 Haha Well, I didn’t liberate any countries! But I did work as an SAS operative for 2 ½ days. They told me I had the potential to rise up the ranks.

Any confirmed kills? I’m joking.

 I can’t reveal that intel. And I’m not joking.

How about the accent? Coming from Austin, Texas, I would imagine an upper-class southern British accent is quite a stretch. Did you employ a dialect coach?

 [Van Der Berg frowns.]

 I’m my own dialect coach. I was introduced into the world and posed as a member of the upper classes for a few weeks. That way I don’t just pick up the accent but also the subtle details of interaction specific to that social group. I absorb that stuff almost by osmosis.

Hmmm. Fascinating. And the director of this project, Leon Demino, is known for his obsession with historical accuracy.

 Oh, that guy’s crazier than I am! He won’t settle for anything less than perfection. It was a great collaboration. We pushed each other to reach levels we probably didn’t even know we were capable of.

And everything is authentic: the clothes, the locations, the décor…

 It’s insane. Even the underwear I had on was historically accurate.

But there has been a suggestion that some of the weapons your character uses, such as a precision-guided grenade launcher, are anachronistic in that particular period, the late 19th century.

 Well, maybe if you’re being pedantic. But, come on, how great is that scene?

Oh, it’s an amazing scene.

 I know, right? And me using a grenade launcher is an artistic flourish that Demino couldn’t pass up. I’m behind him on that decision 110%.

[He pauses]

There’s also something intensely existential about that sequence.

In what way?

Well…I…I can’t give you all the answers. I’m just planting seeds. Essentially.

Sure. Shall we talk about what’s next for you? Upcoming projects?

Next up is a remake of American Gigolo. Normally I’m very wary of remakes, but this should be far removed from the usual bad cover version. I’m researching that part as we speak.

What does the research involve?

It involves me working as a gigolo. I’m living the part off camera as a working male prostitute. Although, obviously I’m selective when it comes to my clients.

So…sorry to be crude, but you’re getting paid to have sex with women in order to research your next role?

 Absolutely. And I know what you’re thinking, but don’t worry – my current girlfriend is incredibly supportive and understanding when it comes to my work. She knows how essential it is that I inhabit the character.

How long will you be doing this for?

 Well, this role is so challenging, I feel it’s essential I carry out this research for at least 6 months. Maybe even a year.

Wow. Good luck with the project.

 Thank you. It’s going to be intense, but I’m sure it’ll be worth it.

 

Sam Bowles

 

NEW RELEASE

Macbeth (2015, Justin Kurzel)

The works of Bill Shakes appear to be ideal cinematic fodder. We’re talking murder, intrigue, passion, revenge, knob gags… And the dialogue ain’t bad either. Yet despite these classic ingredients, over the years very few classic Shakespeare movies have been served up.

There’s Olivier’s Henry V (1944), The Welles Shakespeare trilogy of Macbeth (1948), Othello (1952) and Chimes at Midnight (1965), Polanski’s good-but-not-great version of Macbeth (1971) and, er, that’s about it.

The key issue for a director when adapting Shakespeare is how to make it cinematic. Macbeth is a popular choice because there are loads of murders, the potential for special effects (the witches, Banquo’s ghost), and a big-ass climax (the Burnham Wood to Dunsinane battle).

Justin Kurzel with his new version has gone overboard in trying to prove what a dynamic visual stylist he is. Is it possible for a film to have too many good shots? Macbeth might set the precedent. At first, the huge widescreen images of Scotland are bold and dripping with atmosphere. But after a while they become wearing and repetitive. It’s like going round the Uffizi gallery in Florence; to begin with you’re blown away by the pictures, then, after the hundredth stunning Renaissance canvas, you’re reduced to “Yeah, that’s not bad.”

Kurzel does at least save the best for last – the final ruckus between Macbeth and Macduff, against the backdrop of a burning Burnham wood, is seriously good filmmaking.

What of the performances? Michael Fassbender makes a predictably brilliant Macbeth, pulling off the tough-guy soldier/ruthlessly ambitious politician combo at the heart of the character. Marion Cotillard, however, is a strange choice as Lady Macbeth. While obviously a great actor, it seems counterproductive to cast a French speaker to utter Shakespearean dialogue. Put simply, her speech rhythms are wrong. (French is syllable-timed; English is stress-timed). The filmmakers have also chosen to greatly reduce the role of Lady Macbeth, denying us any depth to the story’s key relationship.

Maybe filmmakers need to give up on straight Shakespeare adaptations. One of my favourite Shakespeare films is 10 Things I Hate About You (1999, Gil Junger), which takes The Taming of the Shrew as its jumping-off-point but turns it into a teen rom-com. I admit this sounds horrible, but it’s actually rather good.

Sam Bowles