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

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

Bond

Moonraker (1979, Lewis Gilbert)

“Where are you? Why do you hide? Where is that moonlight trail that leads to your side?” (from the song Moonraker, profound lyrics by Hal David, belting vocal by Shirley Bassey)

I first saw Moonraker when I was a delightfully inquisitive five-year-old. And it made about as much sense to me then as it does now, thirty years later. This is some avant-garde shit right here. Godard et al’s experimentation with the cinematic form in the late 50s and 60s doesn’t come close to mid/late period Roger Moore Bond. There is nothing in the nouvelle vague to compare with the tonal switches, stylistic lurches and complete disregard for narrative coherence you get in Moonraker, Octopussy and A View to a Kill. (For Your Eyes Only is slightly more in touch with reality and, as a result, slightly more tedious.)

So what’s the plot of this heady brew? It goes something like this…

Evil beardo Hugo Drax secretly builds a space station just off Pluto, where he assembles a group of perfect human specimens, transported there on his Moonraker space shuttles. His dastardly scheme is to wipe out the Earth’s entire population with nerve gas and then repopulate the planet with his master race. (Clearly the ‘5 GCSEs at grade c or above’ threshold wouldn’t cut it with old Hugo.) Drax’s motivation for doing this remains fascinatingly unclear, but it does sound like a great origin story for a new religion. Bond, naturally, is out to stop him. He does this with the aid of a bracelet that shoots poisoned darts, a deadly ballpoint pen and a woman.

But the thing about Moonraker is a synopsis of the plot doesn’t begin to convey the insanity that was committed to celluloid. For a start there’s the character of Jaws, last seen at the end of The Spy Who Loved Me besting a shark with his metal teeth and then swimming off to bite another day. As his previous employer, Stromberg, has shuffled off this mortal coil, Jaws is out for new challenges and throughout Moonraker moves between different employers like some kind of agency worker henchman-for-hire. By the end of the film, this fair-weather foe has made peace with JB and even got himself a girlfriend. They meet in Rio after Jaws has ploughed into a building with a cable car and somehow managed to survive with just a bit of dust on his shirt.

One of my favourite scenes in Moonraker is when Bond runs into Jaws while driving a speedboat down the Amazon (Bond’s looking for the origin of a rare orchid, since you ask). Jaws and some underlings ambush 007 in several speedboats of their own, which they’ve parked behind some river foliage. But how did they know Bond would be there? And how long are they supposed to have been staking out this particular stretch of river, hoping 007 might come by? Maybe sportsmanlike James placed a phone call to Jaws in advance, letting him know of his planned route and a rough estimate of the time. Anyway, after an exchange of hardware, Bond escapes on a hang glider built into the roof of his speedboat.

I have a theory about how to read Moonraker. Like the work of those new wave Frenchies, Quentin T, and many others, its subject matter is cinema itself. The basic plot turns a spy thriller into sci-fi, but there’s more to it than that. This movie jumps genres and styles with a thrilling disregard for logic or sense. There are scenes that jar so much with one another at times it’s like you’re flicking between channels as you watch.

Example: a scene of Bond dispatching a would-be assassin (who looks like an aging French poacher) which concludes with a moment of classic Roger comedy+eyebrow raise is followed directly by a – no bullshit – “release the hounds” moment. This turns the film briefly into some kind of Hammer horror pastiche but played totally straight.

Much later in the film, a scene of Bond escaping a dangerous paramedic aboard an ambulance is directly followed by a sequence of our hero dressed in cowboy hat and poncho, riding a horse, accompanied by the theme from The Magnificent Seven.

Oh, and there’s a bit when a Venetian gondola turns into a hovercraft.

I’m not making this stuff up.

ITV4 is having a Roger Moore Bond season for a couple of weeks. I have no idea why. Possibly because it’s summertime and the schedulers are lazy. But, whatever their motives, this decision should be applauded, and I’d like to make passionate love to all involved in making it.

Moonraker is showing Wednesday 12th August, 9pm ITV4

Sam Bowles

The Best Film on TV this Week

Heavenly Creatures (1994, Peter Jackson)

When, as it must to all men, death comes to Peter Jackson, doubtless the obituaries will focus heavily, if not exclusively, on his epic movies based on the preposterously pompous works of J.R.R. Tolkien. That would be a shame. Those overblown bore-fests are far from being Jackson’s most significant contribution to the medium. The man peaked seven years earlier with his one indisputable masterpiece, Heavenly Creatures.

This film is based on a true story, but don’t let that put you off. This is no movie-of-the-week.

1950s New Zealand. Two teenage girls, Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme (Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet), form an obsessive friendship that ultimately leads to murder.

The girls are bookworms and begin writing their own collaborative fantasy stories which they become more and more wrapped up in. This leads to some extraordinary sequences in which the girls’ fantasies blend with the real world; the magical seeps into the mundane. Jackson is using special effects with purpose, not simply to dazzle but to illuminate character and propel the drama.

Like many of Jackson’s movies, Heavenly Creatures is often hilarious. And you may wonder what happened to this pre-Titanic Winslet with her precisely detailed, and very funny, portrayal of arrogant precociousness.

The brilliance of Jackson’s direction is that he manages to maintain an uncomfortable intensity alongside the humour and the special effects. He then achieves a late switch into devastating tragedy. This isn’t easy. Try thinking of another film that successfully balances so many varying tones and stylistic changes.

-One of the best English language films of the 90s

-Peter Jackson’s career curveballs: splatter horror films Bad Taste, Braindead – Muppets parody Meet the FeeblesHeavenly CreaturesThe FrightenersLOTR

-Mario Lanza music – quaint, enthralling, sinister

-Postscript: what happened to the two girls…

Heavenly Creatures is showing tonight, 12.35am BBC 2

Sam Bowles

Music in the Movies – Scores

Jaws (1975, Steven Spielberg)

Old Stevie has said that if Jaws had been released without its John Williams score, the film would only have come back with half the preposterous amount of dosh it reeled in at the global box office. He may be underestimating. The film and its aquatic antagonist are unimaginable without those accompanying strains of dread.

Famously, the mechanical shark didn’t work very well. But this ended up being a blessing to creativity. We never see the great white in the blow-your-bollocks-off-brilliant opening sequence (when a lithe young woman becomes a late evening snack) but we do see through its eyes as it cruises through the ocean to the best monster theme ever.

According to those in the know, John Williams was somewhat ‘influenced’ by Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and Dvorak’s New World Symphony when he wrote this score. Try having a listen – even to a musical illiterate like myself the similarities are striking. Of course, this does not mean the Williams work should be regarded as simply a rip-off. All art is the product of something that came before, and the line between being influenced by another work and full-blown plagiarism is always drawn arbitrarily.

Jaws is not an isolated example of the enormous impact a score can have on a film. So often (and possibly without our full acknowledgement as viewers) those films that live on in our heads, gatecrashing our daydreams, exert their power primarily through their musical accompaniment. A few years ago I sat in the Shaftesbury Avenue Odeon laughing with happiness at the sensory stimulation of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive; it was like getting drunk on pure cinema. I loved every shot, every cut, every casting choice…but most of all, I loved the music. That 80s-inflected electronic score that seemed to be playing in The Driver’s head. And was still playing in mine weeks later. I’m yet to own a copy of the movie, but I do own the soundtrack. (I may or may not have listened to it while cruising the streets of Hemel Hempstead in a Vauxhall Corsa.)

Further reading:

Jaws BFI Modern Classics by Antonia Quirke (2002, BFI Publishing)

The Jaws Log: Expanded Edition by Carl Gottlieb (2012, Dey Street Books)

Sam Bowles