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

“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

 

 

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

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