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.

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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

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

 

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

 

 

 

Recently Added To Netflix

Being Ginger (2013, Scott P. Harris)

This documentary made by an American film student in Edinburgh begins as a light-hearted look at his own quest to find one of those elusive women who “have a thing for gingers.” (An amusing observation made by Harris is that he often meets women who “have a friend who really likes gingers”, but never an actual member of this selective club.) But, like many documentaries, Being Ginger morphs as it progresses, becoming a more serious look at Harris’s experiences of childhood bullying and the impact it’s had on his social interactions in adult life. Most of us have had experiences of feeling isolated and somehow ‘other’, so Harris’s story should chime with many; for us ginger-haired folk, unsurprisingly, it holds a particular resonance.

One day at school, when I was around 16, I passed on the stairs a boy with whom I was sort-of-friends. After the usual “Alright”/”Alright” exchange of grunts, he stopped and said, in I believe a well-meaning spirit, “Hey Sam, you don’t look that ginger anymore.” It was like I had had some serious medical condition, the effects of which were no longer too visible.

Being Ginger challenges the idea that this is one prejudice that is actually harmless. The word “ginger” has become inescapably comic, and it’s an easy laugh for a lazy comedian. No doubt many people who indulge in ridiculing, humiliating and bullying others because their hair happens to be a particular colour convince themselves that it’s “just a joke” or “not a big deal”. It’s easy to dismiss ingrained prejudice as “not a big deal” when it doesn’t affect you personally.

Harris tells us painful stories of childhood abuse by classmates and teachers, but the focus of the documentary is the vox pops carried out in the street. Strangers are asked if they’re attracted to ginger-haired people and how they feel about them, drawing out the ingrained prejudices in the process: gingers are “fiery tempered”, “loners”, “nerdy” etc.

The great thing about this method is people reveal themselves and their attitudes in a spontaneous way. They haven’t prepared so, apart from the awareness of being on camera, there is no filter. One of the stand out moments of Being Ginger is an interview with a young woman who calmly comes out with an astonishing onslaught of bigotry, the whole time a smile playing on her lips: “There’s no, like, hot people with freckles – the gingerness is all speckled across your face”; “You’re not just ginger, you’re like the joke ginger, like you’re so ginger.” As Harris’s friend comments, “It’s like she was sent from some anti-ginger god down to you, to tell you off.” It’s genuinely alarming to see how comfortable she is saying this stuff, and to realise in the process how common these attitudes must be. The woman shows up again in the clips over the credits – reason enough to watch to the end.

Being Ginger is not a great documentary. It needed to go deeper into the roots of the prejudice and Harris could have carried out more detailed interviews with other ginger-haired people to hear their experiences. But it’s important to have a film dealing with this issue. And it stays with you.

 

Sam Bowles