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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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)

 

 

 

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

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.

        *                      *                      *                      *

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

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