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. Every time we 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, which 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

Advertisements

“Young, dumb and full of cum”

Point Break (1991, Kathryn Bigelow)

I challenge anyone to watch Point Break and not get a little moist over Keanu Reeves. From the second he appears, in the gorgeously designed title sequence, the man just looks so good. Reeves is FBI newbie Johnny Utah, ritualistically preparing for some target practice: stick of chewing gum in the mouth, one-handed rack of his pump shotgun. A tight t-shirt clings to Keanu’s perfectly sculpted chest – an aesthetic object with a heartbeat. It’s raining. It’s in slow motion. This is better than life. This is cinema.

Of course the success of this opening, and the film in general, is not really about Keanu: it’s about Kathryn. Bigelow that is. The only woman ever to win the best director Oscar, for The Hurt Locker in 2009, actually peaked 18 years earlier with this action masterwork. Yes, the plot is ridiculous and the characterization thin at best. But Point Break contains several action set pieces that are shot and cut like an absolute dream; heists, chases and shootouts become pure visceral cinema.

It’s summer in the City of Angels and a string of perfectly conceived bank jobs have been pulled by a gang calling themselves “The Ex-Presidents” – they wear masks of Nixon, Reagan etc. Seasoned FBI Agent Angelo Pappas suspects, for tenuous reasons at best, that the Ex-Presidents are a surfer gang, using the robberies to finance their counterculture lifestyle. Pappas encourages his new partner, “quarterback punk” Johnny Utah, to go undercover and infiltrate the surfing community. There Utah gets into some serious bromancing with enigmatic “surfer guru” Bodhi. Could he be the leader of the Ex-Presidents? Take one fucking guess. Yes, that’s really the plot. And, yes, the Fast and Furious franchise is a major league rip-off.

In another director’s hands Point Break would be just another over-the-top cops-and-robbers flick. Bigelow elevates the material through the force of her singular cinematic vision. The camera style is bold in the extreme and fully justifies the film’s tagline, “100% Pure Adrenaline”. When Johnny Utah is first shown round the FBI office Bigelow covers the action with a technically stunning long take; whip pans glance at people and objects, mirroring the character’s thrill and disorientation at his new world. If this were Brian De Palma or Alfonso Cuarón, the critics would be purring. There’s more –

The heist sequences sweat with energy and intensity. Remember this is 4 years before Heat, 17 years before The Dark Knight. (The Joker and his gang in their suits and novelty masks are strikingly reminiscent of the Ex-Presidents.)

An ill-fated FBI raid on a suspected gang’s hideout erupts into a heart-rate jacked shootout, climaxing in a moment of terrifying tension involving Utah and the spinning blades of a lawnmower.

And then there’s the standout set-piece, a seminal chase sequence: Utah chasing after Bodhi in the aftermath of a robbery. Bodhi leads him a merry dance through alleyways, gardens and strangers’ houses; at one point even chucking a dog at Utah. All of this is captured in glorious steadicam. It’s like Bourne but better; it doesn’t make you want to hurl. And it was fashioned over a decade earlier.

Today, as absurd as it might sound, I find it hard not to feel a touch nostalgic about Point Break. I was 12 when the film was first released to rent on video; 6 months later my brother and I negotiated to “go halves” on a widescreen retail copy. This is back when widescreen was a big deal. I swear that video (yes, I still watch it) looks better than any DVD or Blu-ray I own.

A note on the final scene: Is this Hollywood action film just a tiny bit subversive in its closing message? Like Clint Eastwood at the end of Dirty Harry, Reeves throws away his badge. However, their motivations (and, implicitly, their politics) are radically different. Harry Callahan was a world-weary right winger, resigned to the fact that the pussy liberals in charge would never let him get the job done his way; i.e. break the law to bag the bad guys. Johnny Utah, on the other hand, knows a life chasing criminals is not for him; he’s has been transformed by Bodhi’s alternative worldview, captured in the surfing metaphor – it’s freedom, personal expression, a re-acquaintance with the natural world and more. Earlier in the movie Bodhi tells the other gang members, “This was never about money. It was about us against the system.” Utah isn’t going to start robbing banks, but he’s grown his hair long and rejected the life of a law enforcement official. “Still surfing?” Bodhi asks, having not seen Utah for months. “Every day.”

 

Samuel 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

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

New Release

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015, George Miller)

One need only be a cursory viewer of televised professional sport to be aware that words such as “astonishing”, “amazing” and “incredible” are bandied around these days with farcical abandon. Apparently, just about every Premiership football match justifies these descriptions. It’s rarely the case. But the new Mad Max movie unquestionably astonishes, amazes and…er…incredibles. It explodes off the fucking screen.

The director, George Miller, recently turned 70. Bloody hell, I hope I’m still alive and vaguely lucid at that age, let alone able to marshal the troops and resources required in bringing this maelstrom to the big screen. The last Max installment, Beyond Thunderdome was released thirty years ago, so it had long been assumed that Miller had taken this idea as far as he could. Also, Beyond Thunderdome was a bit shit. The peak of the series until now was the final truck chase from Mad Max 2, also known as The Road Warrior (if you’re American or a wanker). In Fury Road Miller manages to top this sequence. Twice.

Many viewers and critics are snobbish about action films; they’d prefer an earnest drama in which “complex characters” discuss “serious” stuff. But what they’re missing is that action moviemaking at its best can be a form of pure cinema. Miller has said that he wants the film to work even if you don’t understand English, like a silent movie. After watching Mad Max: Fury Road, imagine for a second someone trying to tell the same story using a different medium. Would it work as a novel? A play? Even a TV programme? It’s big, it’s loud, it barely requires any dialogue; it belongs on an enormous cinema screen.

A quick caveat…

Is this film really feminist? Many people seem to think so. Like Terminator 2 and the Alien movies, Fury Road has been praised for having a “strong” female character; in this case Charlize Theron as Imperiosa Furiosa (great name). Furiosa is virtually the protagonist of the film – she has the clearest arc and goals – and Theron gives a great performance. But is depicting a female character driving fast, shooting guns and hitting people really enough to praise a film for being feminist? Or, is it just having a female character behave in ways we normally expect of male characters in action movies? It’s not just action films that are over-populated with male characters and their concerns; it’s ALL mainstream cinema.

Still, it is nice to imagine there might be a follow-up in which Charlize Theron is officially the lead, and the film takes her character’s name: Furious Furiosa maybe?

Sam Bowles

The Most Overrated Film on TV this Week

The Dark Knight (2008, Christopher Nolan)

Why? Why did people get so excited about this flick? WHY?! Because most films are so bad? Because people take Christopher Nolan as seriously as he clearly takes himself? Or, have people just forgotten?

Forgotten what? About the Tim Burton Batman films, of course. Yes, there was already a darker, more brooding, graphic novel-inspired take on the Batman myth, with Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992). These films also managed to retain a sense of humour and remembered they were supposed to be based on a comic strip. (And they didn’t involve Christian Bale.)

Batman Begins (2005) started a trilogy of superhero movies within which Christopher Nolan appeared progressively more in denial that he was making superhero movies. Thus, Batman is almost never called “Batman”; he is either “The Batman” (apparently a definite article confers depth and maturity) or, even better, “The Dark Knight”. These films are entertaining and extremely well shot, but also riddled with flaws, the fatal one being an attempt to make the Batman myth realistic. I’m sorry, this is a story about a dude in a rubber suit with pointy ears on his head. The more Nolan and his cohorts get caught up trying to make a Batman movie which is “grounded in reality” or some such cobblers, the more they paradoxically highlight how ridiculous the whole enterprise is. It would appear Nolan was watching a little too much Michael Mann at the time and tried to remake Heat as a superhero movie.

Everyone knows the highlight of not just The Dark Knight but the entire trilogy is Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker. What’s notable is there is no equivalent performance (that combination of danger, comedy and charisma) in any of Nolan’s other films. One can’t help wondering if Ledger pulled off this performance despite Nolan’s direction rather than because of it.

The Dark Knight is showing tonight, 9.00pm ITV 2

Sam Bowles