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

 

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

 

THE BEST FILM ON TV THIS WEEK

Django Unchained (2012, Quentin Tarantino)

There is an uncomfortable, but inescapable, truth at the heart of Quentin Tarantino’s films: he really does love the n-word. From his debut Reservoir Dogs onwards, the word crops up on a worryingly regular basis. Spike Lee has been a particularly vocal critic on this issue, describing Tarantino as being, “…infatuated with that word.” Tarantino’s response was to say the word was appropriate to the setting of the film (in that case, Jackie Brown) and that it is racist to suggest a white director should not be allowed to have a character utter it. An obvious counter-response is to ask why he so frequently feels the urge to conjure up worlds where its use seems (possibly) justified, or even, in his eyes, essential.

I don’t for a second believe Tarantino to be a racist. But, maybe, as Lee suggests, he has the desire to be seen as a kind of “honorary black man.” Tarantino is a lover of African-American culture, particularly the music and movies of the 1970s, when he grew up; Jackie Brown is a fond homage to Blaxploitation films of the period. And his work is full of brilliantly memorable roles for African Americans, perhaps the most famous being Samuel L. Jackson’s Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction.

Still… Quentin, do you think maybe one day you could make a film with strong black characters where the n-word isn’t uttered even once?

Django Unchained is the first Tarantino film where the omission of the n-word would seem odd. The movie begins in 1858, during the height of slavery in America. To omit the word here would be a denial of reality and might even feel like an attempt to ignore the inherent racism of the time. Watch an old western and it can feel like you’re being plunged into some bizarre alternate version of the past where black people weren’t routinely being treated appallingly.

The story concerns a slave, Django (Jamie Foxx), who, via serendipitous circumstances, is freed by a bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). The two ultimately become partners and set out to free Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) who is a slave at the “Candyland” plantation, owned by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).

Django Unchained is, like all Tarantinos, inspired by old movies. In this instance, Sergio Leone Spaghetti Westerns of the ’60s and Blaxploitation westerns of the ’70s. But the film also attempts to address the reality of slavery, a topic that Hollywood has, over the years, been relentlessly reluctant to take on. There was Beloved in 1998, and 12 Years A Slave shortly after Django, but little else to speak of. Interestingly, mainstream TV has been far more willing to take on such material with Roots in 1977, and even a TV movie version of the 12 Years story made in 1984. (Steve McQueen likes to keep quiet about that one.)

Django asks us a moral question: Can you combine genre pastiche with a hard-hitting look at a bleak period in history? (Scorsese’s Shutter Island dealt with a similar issue, combining horror movie references with a central character traumatised by his experiences at the Dachau concentration camp in WWII.) Some would see this as bold, visionary filmmaking; others might consider it in terrible taste. (You can guess which side of the fence Spike Lee sits on.) Thus, Tarantino stages comic scenes that could have been in Blazing Saddles (early KKK members discovering none of them can see properly through their white hoods), but also incredibly painful scenes of slave abuse, such as whippings and being put in a hot box. Incidentally, Tarantino has said he could not show the full horror of slavery because, “the movie would be unwatchable.”

Whatever your view on this tonal tension, one thing about Django Unchained is undeniable – no one else could or would have made this film. For better or worse, it’s a singular work by a singular artist.

Also, moral questions aside, Django Unchained just has so many things going for it. For one thing, it looks stunning. You could argue that Tarantino peaked as a writer with his first few films, but he has been steadily improving as a director, particularly with his camera style. His movies have always had great individual shots, but they didn’t always fit together in a completely satisfying way; now they all feel ‘right’. The contribution of cinematographer Robert Richardson, who has worked with Tarantino from Kill Bill onwards (with the exception of Death Proof), should not be underestimated. Richardson has been a significant factor in Tarantino’s visual progression, in much the same way as Gordon Willis has contributed to the films of Woody Allen.

Tarantino’s work with actors is also much improved and there are none of the awkward line readings that occasionally plague Reservoir Dogs. Foxx, Waltz, Washington and DiCaprio, in particular, are all great. (It’s just a shame Washington isn’t given more to do.) In fact, the only dodgy performance, perhaps unsurprisingly, comes from the man himself in a cameo so shameless it’s strangely endearing. Not only does QT have more lines than ever before, he also tasks himself with adopting an Australian accent. At least, I think that’s what he’s going for…

 

Django Unchained is showing tonight, 10.00pm Channel 5

 

Sam Bowles

 

NEW RELEASE

Spectre (2015, Sam Mendes)

The good news is that the new Bond, Spectre, has a pretty damn sexy pre-title sequence, staged at the Day of the Dead festival in Mexico. The bad news is pretty much the rest of the film.

The pre-title looks fantastic; Spectre’s cinematographer is Hoyte van Hoytema who worked with Tomas Alfredson on Let the Right One In and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It begins with a rather impressive long take of Bond in a skull-mask moving through the enormous crowd and up onto the roof of a building. I’m not suggesting that overnight Sam Mendes has metamorphosed into Brian De Palma, but he has at least finally learnt – after 6 films – that you are allowed to move the camera. Mendes also flaunts his cine-literacy with a sequence that has nods to both Touch of Evil and The Godfather Part II.

Alas, after this standout opening, Spectre goes downhill faster than a Pierce Brosnan. The film is like a greatest hits of disappointing moments –

Bond’s in the snow! Oh…it’s an embarrassing action sequence where 007 suddenly finds himself flying a plane with no explanation.

Christoph Waltz! Oh…he’s facetiming in his performance while thinking about that juicy pay cheque.

The Villain’s Lair! Oh…nothing appears to actually be happening there and it gets blown up after 10 minutes in virtually an aside.

Added to all that, the great Monica Bellucci is given a criminally condensed role that amounts to little more than a glorified cameo. All that pre-release talk of a 50 year-old ‘Bond girl’ has turned out to be bollocks. I mean, why should Daniel be saddled with someone 3 years his senior when there’s a 17 years younger model waiting for him in Act II?

They save the worst for last: the climax gives us the old ticking time bomb/damsel in distress routine. I’m not bullshittin, dawg. Seriously?! Is that the best 4 credited screenwriters can come up with?

There is one notable, and not unwelcome, moment…

Am I mistaken, or did Bond (albeit only for a brief period) actually get dumped in this film?

Sam Bowles

HALLOWEEN HORROR

The Exorcist (1974, William Friedkin) / Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977, John Boorman)

The critic Mark Kermode once said of The Exorcist, “It’s the greatest film ever made.” That’s a stupendously misguided and embarrassing statement. (It’s not even the greatest American horror film of the ’70s. That would be Halloween.) And he’s stuck with it. Like a supporter of the invasion of Iraq who refuses to admit they were wrong, Kermode can’t bring himself to recant his position. I almost feel bad for the man.

Obviously, to single out any movie as the greatest ever is plain dumb. (There are masterpieces of such markedly differing styles and tones how can you possibly play them off against each other?) But, in the case of The Exorcist it’s particularly painful because we’re talking about a film directed by William fucking Friedkin! Murnau, Renoir, Hitchcock, Welles, Ozu, Mizoguchi, Ford, Hawks, Bergman, De Sica, Kiarostami, Kieslowski… They’re all competing for a spot behind the genius that is Billy.

But maybe I’m falling into Kermode’s trap and he was deliberately being provocative; trolling before the phrase had been added to the national lexicon.

Anyway, The Exorcist may not be the greatest film ever, or even a great film period, but is it any good? Well, it’s got a few things going for it: Tubular Bells on the soundtrack, that poster shot of The Exorcist himself arriving to do battle with the cringe-makingly named demon, Pazuzu… OK, maybe it’s got 2 things going for it. And it’s surely the most humourless horror film ever.

[If, dear reader, you’ll permit me a moment of scaling the moral high ground, may I also say this film (and any other dealing with “possession”) is deeply offensive towards people who suffer from seizures and mental health problems.]

John Boorman’s Exorcist II: The Heretic, on the other hand, is completely bonkers and absolutely brilliant. If you have any interest in studio films that break with convention and push the cinematic form, you have to see this flick.

I’m yet to see another sequel that differs so greatly from the original. Boorman has a gift of visual virtuosity that leaves Friedkin looking like a tired craftsman, studiously adjusting his spirit level without a shred of imagination.

If you can’t be arsed to watch the whole film, I beg you, please check out the trailer – surely one of the best ever:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tFspymGVZLY

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

MORK CALLING ORSON

Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles (2014, Chuck Workman)

Is it possible to love the cinema and not love Orson Welles? It would be like loving Christmas but not rating Santa Claus; he’s the guy who provides the magic. And they’ve both got beards.

The documentary Magician is not Welles-level filmmaking, but it’s a decent overview of the man who lived a fuller life than Charles Foster Kane. The main drawback is its length – only 96 minutes. Separated into chapters covering 10-20 year periods, each of these would have enough material to fill an hour and a half and then some. Welles’ life was not exactly without incident or creative endeavour. The dude just never stopped doing – acting, writing, directing, shagging, bullshiting…and eating. Lots of eating.

Like Harry Lime, Orson Welles had many lives…

You could make a documentary just about young Welles, the Boy Wonder who dazzled the worlds of theatre and radio and thought it would be fun to make a movie.

Or just about just about Welles as an actor, in great roles such as Kane, Hank Quinlan, Falstaff etc. and whoring himself in some often quite dodgy films to finance his own productions.

Or about Old Welles, dressed up like a magician and pulling F For Fake out of his arse.

Of course, the man was a cinematic conjuror. Arguably the best film director of all time. Look at Welles’ filmography – every work is like a first film, in thrall to the medium and its possibilities. Citizen Kane is the one everyone bangs on about but the artistic (if not commercial) hits just kept on coming: The Magnificent Ambersons, Macbeth, Othello, Touch of Evil, The Trial, Chimes at Midnight. Even later on in his life, and to be honest not looking too hot, Welles made F For Fake, one of the great achievements in cinema. But that’s a blog for another day…

Magician is available on DVD from the BFI.

Sam Bowles