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The Force Awakens, A.K.A. The Easiest Paycheque Mark Hamill Ever Earned In His Life.
Let's make no mistake: this is a cynical film, one that feels like they found an algorithm that makes action films and just let it run. I'd like to know, for example, just how many iterations the BB8 design went through before the focus group decided that it was sufficiently mathematically adorable. There's no reason why X-wings and TIE fighters need to appear at all - given the diversity of ships in the canon, and how technology marches on and all that - but it's important to this film to trade on recognisable cultural properties. This can't afford to be the start of another prequel-esque trilogy, which lost 40% of its audience after The Phantom Menace, so X-wings it is. This is cynicism that extends to continuing to use Stormtroopers as disposable people to be mown down in their hundreds, while at the same time offering them the potential of agency and independence as expressed by Finn; the clearly-delineated heroes and villains worked fine in the fairy-tale logic of the original trilogy, but become more problematic given the attempted additional characterisation of the new film.
There's a potentially rewarding postmodernist reading to be had of Kylo Ren, a character motivated by his desire to live up to a mythologised ancestor he never met, the point of borrowing his looks and voice without having any reason to. He's the Buffalo Bill of Star Wars villains, trying to wear the skin of the person he wants to become. I quite like the idea that the mask and his hilted lightsabre exist only to be ostentatious. A Marxist reading might be less sympathetic: how do you continue to commodify a character who, despite being a cultural icon, was definitively killed off thirty years ago? Easy: design a character who's in thrall to him, ensuring that his shadow continues to loom large while necessarily weakening the new character as a consequence. So I'm mixed regarding him, although I think a lot of his character works well in the story.
The attempts at thematic depth have a tendency to drop in and out as well. Take the climactic lightsabre duel, which on its surface seems a conscious response to the overly choreographed and safe fights of the prequels; this is much grittier and seems to have more of an emotional centre. However, one of the cleverer themes of the original trilogy is that lightsabre duels are as dangerous to win as they are to lose. In A New Hope, Kenobi understands that in order to "win", he has to lose, and offer his life to Vader. A key theme of Empire is that Luke needs to stop being a hothead, and he suffers a heavy defeat because he relies on fighting skill rather than the Force. In Jedi he wins a decisive victory, and comes within a whisker of turning to the dark side as a result. Message: relying on physical combat is a dangerous strategy that usually causes more harm than good. This is a clever and daring idea in a story known for its action. In this new film, Rey uses the Force not as an alternative to physical combat, but to help her physically overpower the villain. The Force being used in the service of combat, without also having that link to the dark side, is a disappointing mistake of the prequels that the new film steps into as well.
The story's real weakness is in the narrative structure. It has a tendency to spend a long time going nowhere, and then suddenly rush to the next bit very abruptly. At one point, I asked myself where the narrative had got to, and thought that the central characters had met up and the villains were looking for the droid; I then thought that I'd have answered the question the same way an hour before. Then, suddenly, the "totally not a Death Star, honest" Death Star just kind of appears on the scene, and very quickly we're rushed through the exposition of how to defeat it. Lucas is no master but he knew well enough to establish in the first scene of the original film that the plans to the Death Star were being stolen, leading the film naturally to its final act. Gone is the propulsive narrative of the original trilogy, and in its place is a weird stop-start alternative that made it feel overlong and rushed at the same time.
I didn't hate it, but it's got lots of problems.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
"This conversation can serve no further purpose"
I first saw 2001 about fifteen years ago, as a teenager and on a tiny TV, and predictably enough I didn't react too well to it. Where was the action? Where was the incident? Where was the dialogue?
Now, at the age of 30, I've had the privilege of seeing it on the big screen at the BFI Southbank and you can consider me a convert. I'm not going to call it easy going, but it's an exquisitely beautiful film with a sense of real weight to it.
The plot concerns mankind's progress as it's guided by unseen aliens, whose only interaction with the human race is to leave ominous- looking black monoliths in various locations for it to find, each of which has an obscure yet undeniable effect on those who find it. A plot like this could lend itself to heavy-handed moralising - the monoliths, after all, are teaching tools - but the film's brilliance is in the way it keeps its plot in the background. There is no overt message for the audience to absorb; the aliens' motives, such as they are, are never revealed and the audience is invited to speculate on the role the monoliths really have and what the final outcome is to be.
In the meantime, the human race is required to prove itself worthy of the monoliths. The first one is given free to the hominid species, but subsequent monoliths are more carefully hidden and require some effort to locate; the second, for example, is placed on the moon and must therefore wait there for four million years before humanity's technology progresses to the point of being able to uncover it. The second monolith seems more accessible in relative terms, but the spacecraft crew sent to find it are beset by a murderous, malfunctioning computer. While the link between the HAL 9000 and monolith plot line is never made clear, I like to think they have something to do with each other; HAL effectively represents the next obstacle for humanity to overcome, and Dave Bowman, through his resourcefulness and bravery, outwits a superior intelligence and proves himself worthy of the film's extraordinary ending sequence.
Throughout, a link is drawn between technology and weaponry, and it seems as if technology is a phase that mankind has to go through on its journey to something more pure. The apes' reaction to the first monolith is to learn to create weapons out of bones, therefore coming to dominate their environment and leading - via a startling piece of editing - to the evolution of the human race as an assertive and spacefaring species. It's never made clear whether the second monolith on the moon leads in any direct way to the creation of HAL, but I will suggest that these supercomputers are conspicuous by their absence in the scenes prior to its uncovering in the Tycho crater. The final image of the star-child, on the other hand, is technology-free, bookending the film - mankind has in some respects regressed to a natural state, but in a form that has passed technology by and no longer has any use for it. In these terms, the difference between HAL and the apes' bone-weapons becomes slight.
The film is the embodiment of Clarke's own law, that any sufficiently-advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. It is not meant that Bowman should understand the experience of the ending, and nor is it meant for us to walk away from the film with more answers than questions. It's a film that's simultaneously optimistic in its faith in humanity to overcome the trials of the universe, but also terrifying in its Lovecraftian subtext: that mankind is a tiny part of something huge, and its purpose within a greater plan is not for it to know. Perhaps the film encourages us to believe that there's a plan at all, or perhaps it presents mankind as incidental - are we just an idle fancy for the aliens? Perhaps the entire human species is nothing more than an alien's homework project. Believe whatever keeps the vacuum out.
The Thing (2011)
I have a general rule of thumb when reviewing films like this, which is to try to judge them on their own merits and not to compare them too much with the original.* The main reason for this is that I like to think of myself as a serious critic and nothing screams "whining reactionary fanboy" like fixating on nostalgia. But I'm going to have to break my own rule just this once, because this film does so many things wrong and John Carpenter's film provides a perfect counterexample to illustrate the point.
I should just say that I in no way consider the original to be a particularly deep or sophisticated film. There's nothing revolutionary about its "alien kills an isolated group of people one at a time" plot and it doesn't use its graphic body-horror imagery to explore any particular theme. What it does do is present a very efficient narrative, with virtually perfect pacing and structure, in which a group of clearly-defined individual characters band together and fall apart as their numbers grow ever fewer. The 2011 prequel film presents a group of generic nonentities and one character whom the film relies on so heavily to deliver all the exposition that she may as well be clairvoyant.
It turns out that characterisation is all important in a film like this. What I didn't appreciate until right now is that the smaller cast in the original wasn't just down to the limits of early-80s special effects budgets; it's because, if the audience doesn't know who each individual is, then the entire paranoia-based plot line doesn't work. It's something both films attempt to present: characters set up alliances with some people and oppositions to others, which then develop into expressions of power and dominance based on who's got access to the flamethrowers. The viewer is encouraged to go along with this by joining in the speculation over who's the monster and who isn't; that fell totally flat in the 2011 film because I didn't know who anyone was anyway. People were standing in rooms arguing and I couldn't remember if they'd even been on screen up to that point - the film just asked me to remember too many faces and too many names, without offering enough recognisable personalities to go along with them. At one point the monster causes two characters to literally merge together into one body, and I like to think that was the CGI team making an ironic comment on the scripting. Yes, that's the origin of the "two-headed monster" remains we see at the beginning of the '82 film; we get to see who came to be that monster. Spoiler: a pair of nobodies.
Not that it matters much, because no paranoia-based scene lasts more than a minute in the prequel before the monster suicidally reveals itself in front of everyone for no reason whatsoever. Thirty years of special-effects development allow heads and bodies to split and distort left and right, and my word, doesn't the monster just love showing off now? It also moves much faster than it does in the '82 film and frankly it needs the athletic advantage, because it sure as hell isn't going to outsmart anybody in this film. Apparently it gains several IQ points in between the prequel and the original because its low cunning in the Carpenter film is nowhere to be found here; instead of revealing itself just when alone, or cornered, or attacked, here it reveals itself whenever...er, I don't know, actually. There doesn't seem to be much reason to it, but then it has been thirty years so perhaps it's just pleased to be working again. But because it's so hard to keep track of the characters, and because none of them are developed, killing them off doesn't really make much of a difference to the film. In the original, not only could we care about the characters who were getting picked off, but each death also drove the narrative forward because it was easy to measure how many survivors were left. In other words, the special effects actively served the story because the death scenes that followed them acted as a kind of countdown clock, raising the tension as the film moved towards its conclusion. All that goes out the window in the prequel, which means that the whole thing works the other way round: the deaths, the story, the characters all serve the special effects.
That tail-wagging-the-dog argument is so commonly levelled against modern cinema now that it's become a cliché to state it, but it's true. Characters don't die so that they can move the story forward; the story moves forward so that characters can die in effects sequences. And really, that's the problem with the film. There is a nice addition to the Thing mythology (the monster can't absorb inorganic material, so you can tell who's human by whether they've still got fillings in their teeth, or earrings and suchlike) but the odd clever idea like that isn't going to save a film like this. Neither this nor the original are particularly deep or thematically rich; like I said at the beginning, the original was good because it had a pared-down and efficient narrative, not because it had anything profound to say about the human condition. The prequel doesn't manage either; it's flabby, unengaging and - contrary to the claims of its director - pays only lip service to the notion that stories should be about people first and icky monsters second.
* For the purposes of this review I'm referring to the 1982 film as "the original"; I know there was an earlier adaptation, but it's the '82 film that this film shares its universe with.
Låt den rätte komma in (2008)
"Are you a vampire?"
Let The Right One In, adapted from the novel of the same name by John Ajvide Lindqvist, tells the story of Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), a bullied twelve year-old growing up in a dreary Stockholm suburb in the early 1980s. Living in a small tenement flat, sealed in by the permanent snow, separated from his father and alienated from his stressed, overworked mother, Oskar fills his time fantasising about taking his revenge on the gang of tormentors who make his schooldays a misery and by filling a scrapbook with news stories of gruesome murders. That is until, one night, a girl his age moves into the flat next door with a reclusive older man. Oskar immediately strikes up a touching friendship with the girl, Eli (Lina Leandersson), but can't overlook how strange she seems - she claims never to have seen a Rubik's cube and yet solves one without even trying; she only sees Oskar at night, who notices thick cardboard shutters going up in the windows of her flat; she claims not to know when she was born and casually sits around in sub-zero temperatures, barefoot and casually dressed, without showing any sign of being cold.
This is an odd little film - one that I can say is a great horror film without being particularly scary. Whereas it's considerably less subtle English-language remake Let Me In made prominent use of CGI and explicit bloodletting, Let The Right One In never comes across to me as a film that's particularly interested in scaring its audience. A little like how The Ladykillers is still a great comedy without actually making me laugh, Let The Right One In takes a group of genre tropes and sets them to a different purpose. This is a film primarily about an impossible relationship between a morbid, weakly unstable boy and an ancient monster in the body of a child. Much of the additional detail in Lindqvist's novel is excised, particularly with regards to the true nature of Eli's relationship with her familiar, Hakan (Per Ragnar). The film therefore invites us to scrutinise both characters closely and question the nature of their relationship: does Eli genuinely care for Oskar, or is he being groomed to take Hakan's place as her new familiar? Can Oskar drop his old life so easily, and so young, if Eli requires him to? Let The Right One In's greatest achievement is in presenting these two characters so beautifully that you forget how insane and impossible their relationship is really. Oskar is morbid and obsessed with death before Eli comes along: just before he meets her for the first time, we see him taking out his frustrations on a tree in his tenement courtyard with a stolen knife. Significantly, while he acts out the murders of his bullies, his fantasies take their cues from the bullies themselves - he repeats their insults, mimics their methods and imagines them turned back on themselves. Eli challenges him on this later - she kills out of necessity, whereas Oskar genuinely feels the desire to kill out of anger and malice, even if he can't act on it. Of course, it's more complicated than that. It's more than a simple question of "who is the monster really", especially when the departed Eli - bound to defend her companion - returns at the end of the film to rescue Oskar from his tormentors once and for all in an absolutely breathtaking scene.
Eli is just as subtly drawn. She herself is a tragic figure, sealed into her lifestyle just as helplessly as Oskar. She lives a paradoxically vulnerable existence - ageless, monstrously powerful and immune to injury, and yet would be killed instantly by sunlight, shows signs of decay very quickly once Hakan fails to procure a supply of food for her, and is unable to control herself in the presence of blood. Her pathetic existence is seen most clearly when she attempts to enter Oskar's home without being invited in, in violation of vampire lore; the result is an instant and horrific haemorrhage, only stopped by Oskar's intervention (cutely, Oskar's response to this is to lend her one of his mother's dresses to replace the soiled old one, and put a record on while she has a shower). The film does present a fairly straightforward check-list of vampire mythology and, while some notable elements are omitted, neither is there any real attempt to subvert the form where those elements that do appear are concerned. Hence, Eli becomes sealed inside the rigid and unbreakable rules that have come to dictate the boundaries of vampire fiction over the last two hundred years.
That doesn't undermine her victims' own tragedy. The broken Hakan, unable to provide for Eli any more but loyal to the end, destroys himself in the most pathetic and undignified way imaginable. A woman, hopelessly transformed into a vampire herself by Eli, chooses death by sunlight instead of life as a murderess. Her boyfriend, who in investigating the mystery is doing nothing but the right thing, meets his own end as a consequence. We, as viewers, are not asked to condone these acts - but we are challenged by them. Can we overlook them, if that's what it takes to still buy into the central love story? Throughout the film, director Tomas Alfredson gives us a stark and oppressive aesthetic that perfectly matches the isolation of the characters. The lighting is glaring and unforgiving. The music score, omnipresent in the remake, is here sparse and understated; instead, Alfredson uses silence like a harness, holding the plot and the characters in their places. The end result is the best horror film of the last decade; it's also a touching tale of friendship to boot. Although, depending on how you look at it, it might not be that last one.
Coming of Age (2007)
Children's TV looks really different these days...
Most bad shows I can safely ignore. Some, though, generate such an astonishing reputation for awfulness that I can't help but do some minor investigations; in the case of 'Coming Of Age', I was left staggering away reaching for the mouthwash.
No disrespect to nineteen year-olds out there, but they aren't ready for proper jobs. I know this because much of one of my old jobs was spent dealing with problems caused by the nineteen year-old employees. I really feel sorry for the writer of this show, whose career has opened with a critical evisceration that he might have avoided had he been out to see the world for a bit before putting pen to paper. Successful it may be, and I don't doubt that his bank balance is looking a fair bit healthier than mine is a the moment, but in decades to come when people look back at the 2000s to snigger at how old and uncool everything was then it'll be shows like this that are first in the firing line. It's like a modern version of 'On The Buses' in that respect, only with added smarm and a mystical vision of the demographic it's aiming at.
There is nothing, literally nothing, in this show that doesn't come back to sex eventually. Take a look at the clips on Youtube - the ones put up by the BBC itself to promote the show - to see for yourself. Take a look at the episode titles ("I Suck Coppers") being one of the cleaner examples) for more information. And this is where the real problem comes: this is technically known as "adult humour", but the appeal seems to be limited to thirteen year-olds staying up past their bedtimes on a school night. Check out the comments on the aforementioned Youtube pages, the majority of which consist of "I tried that line on my teacher and got detention...", for evidence that the target audience and the actual audience don't always match up. I don't blame the audience for being too young to know how they're being talked down to. I don't blame the writer for being too young to know how to create characters, resulting in a show where everyone is based around a single defining characteristic ("the dizzy one", "the one who's even more obsessed with sex than everyone else", etc) and every line plays to that. I do blame - and here comes the root of my irritation - BBC Three.
BBC Three is, ostensibly, a channel for young people. It's problem is that it's run by a group of people who have no idea what young people are and whose market research doesn't appear to have involved any. This has resulted in a channel devoted to an entirely phoney vision of youth that doesn't exist outside its own programmes. No wonder "young people" are a notoriously difficult to attract for TV programmers, since the "young people" the programmers have in mind don't exist and never have. There are enough idiots out there to just about keep BBC Three in business (I'm thinking of the people who "won the chance" to record their own continuity announcements, saving the channel the trouble of having to pay people to do them like everyone else), but I'm technically young enough to be part of the target demographic too and I feel vaguely insulted to have this aimed at me.
It must have felt like Christmas at BBC Three when this script came along. Someone from their target demographic writing for their target demographic? Brilliant! The work does itself! Unfortunately though, as long as it keeps chasing imaginary audience figures who fit into neat little pretend pigeonholes, its output is going to continue to embarrass people. Not that they'll ever acknowledge this of course - I'm a statistical anomaly you see, so I can be safely ignored. The channel's idea of what its audience is appeared to malfunction in the face of the show's critical sandblasting and they commissioned another series anyway, so I suppose the kids'll be happy about that. If only the show was actually aimed at them.
"I am the king of the swing!"
I hadn't planned to watch Hostel, particularly after cringing all the way through Cabin Fever a few years ago - but after noticing that it was on TV, I decided to see what the fuss was about. Very quickly, I realised that my opinion of Hostel was going to be based pretty much solely on how I reacted to its portrayal of extreme violence, which in the event generated a sense of indifference I began to find rather troubling after a while.
Eli Roth's petulance is something to behold. If you don't like his films, you're "out of touch", apparently. Because this is art, yeah? It's metaphorical, yeah? It's probably symbolic of something too, maybe, probably, yeah? I don't know if this has occurred to Roth, but if he wants to claim that those trained, articulate, professional critics who bayoneted this film back in 2005 "don't get it", then maybe Hostel isn't doing its job properly.
I can, if I'm generous, see the basic genesis of some kind of artistic statement here that only goes as far as Roth's limited ability can take it. All the obvious touches are there that suggest a film trying to pass itself off as high art - dramatic reversal of roles, characters who talk in silly epigrams, that sort of thing - but Hostel never becomes the modern day Texas Chainsaw Massacre it wants to be by dint of being extremely badly written: the actors maul their way through dialogue that clunks like a broken clock, while all the time being characterised as weird cartoons. (A quick glance through IMDb's "memorable quotes" section reveals just how banal the dialogue is.) The narrative is just as shabby, as time and time again our hero is rescued in the nick of time by a chance event (such as a knock on a door) happening at exactly the right moment. After a while this kind of contrivance just distances me from a story that's supposed to suck me in and unnerve me; Roth lacks his mentor Quentin Tarantino's ability to present the Postmodern and therefore just comes across as crude and shoddy, rather than subversive and self-analytical.
I won't say much more, except that I'll grant one more star than Cabin Fever got because it doesn't strike me as being quite as smug. Ultimately though, if you don't get turned on by the extreme on screen violence, then there isn't much in the film I can recommend to you. If you do get turned on by the extreme on screen violence, then stay a very long way away from me.
"Well, Pete, the ants are eating your friend."
WARNING - THIS REVIEW DISCUSSES THE ENDING There are some films that you just don't know what to make of at first. The Western period or otherwise remains the definitive genre for portraying warped morality plays packed with layered themes and dense symbolism, but I found this one more difficult than many. I feel that to appreciate a film I have to get to grips with the leading players' motivations, but in a film where the supposed hero is a lunatic who's blown an unremarkable event up to absurd levels, what am I supposed to do? The answer is to constantly ask questions about the film. The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada offers no particular answers of its own, but it remains accommodating to whichever possibilities you wish to assign it. The lead question, of course, is what has driven Pete Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones) to such extreme measures. Whether the attitude of Patrolman Norton (Barry Pepper) ever actually changes is another obvious one. But this is a film on which obvious answers to obvious questions are only going to shed a limited amount of light. Why, for example, the cuts back to the dessicated border town, where the citizens have no way to pass the time except to sit in a diner and smoke, or to have casual sex with people in motel rooms? Most importantly, what would Pete do if Melquiades (Julio Cedillo) had been buried in a pauper's grave having died of a heart attack? In the end I came away very impressed, but still feeling that I'd missed many of the nuances.
The first half of the film uses complex chronological fragmentation to give the viewer an immense amount of information in a small space of time, by allowing us (for example) to observe an event knowing what its consequences are going to be. It also disrupts any sense of empathy by not allowing us to watch the characters' emotions progress in a linear fashion; in a sense, these early scenes become semi-independent vignettes. They allow us to identify early on what turns out (retrospectively, to the characters) to be a key scene: a promise that rancher Pete makes to his illegal immigrant labourer Melquiades to take his body home should he die in America. This fateful conversation takes a central role in Pete's motivations when Melquiades is later accidentally shot and killed by pig-headed border patrolman Mike Norton in a moment of carelessness. When Pete learns who killed his friend, and realises that the local police don't plan to do anything about it, he decides to take matters into his own hands.
So far so good. But Pete's idea of revenge is anything but simple. It's not enough to gun down Mike, as Mike did Melquiades. Mike must be shriven. He must suffer in the desert. He must realise exactly what he did. As his estranged wife Lou Ann (January Jones) lounges in a diner muttering through her ennui that her husband is "beyond redemption", he is busy atoning for his sins (albeit against his will) by returning the festering corpse of his accidental victim back to his home village. If my use of religious terms seems pretentious, then I'd like to point out that there's a scene where Mike is dunked in a river. Admittedly he's dragged through it by a horse, but I never claimed that allusions have to be airtight. We don't like Mike, but we grow to sympathise with him. He's certainly closer to being redeemed at the end of the film than Lou Ann is. That might just be what drives Pete to his extreme course of action, of kidnapping Mike, digging up Melquiades and carrying them both off on horseback towards Mexico: however insane, at least someone in the town is actually doing something. As such the old man in the desert, begging to be euthanised, becomes a weird, living prophecy of the town's future; he could easily be all that's left of a similarly dead town, in a symbolic sense at least.
What takes the film deeper into surrealism is the ending, where it is revealed that Melquiades, to an unknown extent and for unknown reasons, has lied to Pete. The little village of Jiménez, where he wanted to be buried, doesn't exist. The woman he claimed was his wife is nothing of the sort, and cannot understand how Pete has come to possess a photograph of herself and her children. As it happens this is only a minor setback for Pete, who quickly locates a suitable spot out in the hills that looks about right based on the background of the photograph he's got. And like that, with Melquiades's final burial, the film is virtually over. It just lingers on the face of Norton, whose brutal "lesson" is now complete, asking the departing Pete if he'll be okay. He has gone from the film's least sympathetic character to it's virtual hero, a man who made a terrible error through thoughtlessness and was made to pay for it in the most painful way possible. A satisfying transition to watch.
The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada is a grotesque and extremely complicated portrait of a madman out to do the right thing in a world where right and wrong have been hopelessly skewed. This meaty concept is what makes it such a satisfying film, and why there's still very little that can top a good Western.
Very nearly a darn toot'n' classic...but not quite
Tarantino without the fractured narrative. Fargo is the kind of film that people call "quirky", which is ironic in the light of its opening claim to being a true story I had my suspicions the instant it said that the events were portrayed exactly as they happened, a tall order for any film. While I think it's flawed in places, it's still an extraordinary peep into an enclosed environment; while some films like to point out small-town suburbia as a front for some seriously freaky goings on, the great strength of Fargo is that it undermines that sense of juxtaposition; it deals with life in a sleepy town and an investigation into a series of brutal murders without really presenting any major difference between them.
In many thrillers setting is used to box the story in, to provide clear boundaries that provide the characters with their definitions and beyond which they cannot pass. A lot of film noir is an example of this. With the white snowdrifts of a Midwestern winter though, Fargo appears to take place in a void: it has no need of boundaries since there is nothing for it to mark, no sense of a place where here stops being here and becomes there. In some indoor shots the outside world is literally featureless, as if the entire film takes place inside a giant ping pong ball. This sense of blankness is far more isolating than any found in the kind of crime film that romanticises the idea of Mexico as a criminal's escape route, turning it into an Eden-like haven.
The atmosphere of the film comes from the sense that every character in the film feels like they belong precisely there: they are so much an intrinsic part of their setting, unlike the usual stereotype of bringing in the hero from outside so that they can in effect become the audience, pointing out the place's oddities from an external perspective. Fargo gives the viewer credit for noticing this for themselves, without really having to actively reinforce the sense of place and culture. Characters are allowed to be people first and narrative devices second: they sit around repeating themselves and stating the obvious, while the camera impassively lingers on shots to record them shuffle around doing whatever it is that they do. The best illustration of the film's dynamic is its leading lady, the very ordinary Marge Gunderson (a fantastic performance by Frances McDormand), who slips between her homely personal life and her gruesome professional responsibilities so smoothly that there ceases to be any delineation between the two. Her character's slow, pregnant waddle becomes her greatest asset: she is someone so unbelievably good at her job that she has no need to actually look the part and hit all the usual marks. Hers is not a role that calls for an Ellen Ripley, and this justifies the film's endless and endlessly charming digressions here there and everywhere, which never feel like they're disrupting the plot.
Perhaps it's no surprise then that the lease convincing characters are the out-of-towners, the two thugs (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) hired to kidnap a housewife (Kristin Rudrüd) so that her husband (William H. Macy) can collect a fortune in ransom money from her rich father (Harve Presnell). Carl (Buscemi) shows up the film's Tarantino influence most strongly, with his rambling monologues deliberately about nothing. However, this has a tendency to compromise the film's sense of authenticity since his dialogue is nowhere near as natural as Tarantino's; this is screen writing taken to the opposite extreme, with a character casting about for topics of conversation for little reason other than for the sake of not talking about the plot. Far more interesting is Stormare's near mute, Gaear. Carl is the brains of the pair; Gaear is not the brawn, but the will. He is the one who takes matters into his own hands to resolve a problem, but his motivations lie far deeper. While Buscemi's snippy crook is motivated fairly unambiguously by money, Gaear seems indifferent to it. He kills out of necessity, convenience, sometimes just pure whim, while other times it is genuinely impossible to imagine his reasons, making Marge's final words to him not understanding how he can kill people just for money all the more resonant.
For all its charm and comedy, Fargo is a sometimes distressing film. Innocent people get killed or bereaved, and they evoke sympathy because of their relentless likability. Even Jerry (Macy) still feels like a nice guy in the face of his vile and cowardly crime, because he's so helpless and pathetic. The brutal violence is shocking in Fargo not because of its nature but because these are real characters getting killed rather than nameless meat-puppets who exist merely to provide action scenes to titillate the audience. If only the film had tighter characterisation of its lead villain, we could be looking at a classic: with that slightly weak link in place though, Fargo is merely very good.
Slickly made but soulless
For a film that chronicles one of the most vibrant cultural eras of all time, Blowup is oddly cold and clinical. A young photographer (David Hemmings) is taking pictures in a park, apparently at random, when a young woman (a coolly alluring Vanessa Redgrave) runs up to him and demands the film be handed over to her. Intrigued, he develops the photographs and finds that they appear to show evidence of a murder. Sound like an intriguing premise? I think it does. Unfortunately to present that as a plot summary, while not exactly inaccurate, is to profoundly misrepresent the film.
Blowup tries to do two things at once. It has its mystery, but first and foremost it is content to bathe in the essence of the swinging sixties. The titular photos don't appear until the film is half over and even then only nudge the film forward a tiny fraction, because there's always something happening somewhere to distract the photographer from investigating the mystery. I say bathe in the essence of the '60s rather than investigate or explore the essence of the '60s because there is absolutely nothing in the film that can be considered remotely active. The photos, when the do appear, just sit there waiting for meaning to be assigned to them from outside. Even Redgrave's character, desperate to get them back, is content merely to take her top off (very tastefully done, naturally) and wait for him to behave as she wants him to.
The problem is Hemmings's character. Named as Thomas in the script (although never on screen), he is a placid man indifferent to virtually everything he encounters. The irony is that he superficially appears to be the definitive sixties stud, wearing all the right clothes and listening to all the right music. We never learn much about his profession but we know that his services are in demand, as a couple of giggling dolly birds who fancy themselves as models are so desperate to be photographed by him that they are willing to essentially prostitute themselves. Ultimately though his desire to swing with the times is down to pure narcissism rather than any genuine connection with the age; he is content to sit back and watch the sixties rocket by, taking a few photographs occasionally, and I can imagine him in exactly the same state ten years later as one of punk's foremost chroniclers.
The best way to explore something is to look at it from the outside, with a certain amount of critical detachment. However, it does help to have at least a passing interest in what you're investigating and the photographer is utterly passionless about everything. Since the film is told entirely from his perspective we see what he sees, go where he goes, and learn what he learns. He just isn't bothered by learning anything ultimately, which is why the film is content to just drift towards its ending by Brownian motion. Upon discovering what's hidden in his pictures, he takes a break to cavort with some nude models (a horrible, misogynistic, unsexy scene) before spontaneously remembering that he's just uncovered a murder. At one stage he orders an antique aeroplane propeller, which ends up being delivered during a crucial moment of exposition, thereby interrupting it. After this scene it is never seen again; its only function is to disrupt the plot and divert it down one of its innumerable cul-de-sacs. If the propeller is a metaphor it is an ironic one, since there's no form of propulsion anywhere to be seen in this film. Even when the mystery is at its height the film is still more concerned with the iconography of swinging London, hanging out in a club where the Yardbirds (look out for a very young Jimmy Page) are playing the proto-punk blast of 'Stroll On' (a title loaded with meaning in context), a song which, in hindsight, looks forward while the rest of the film looks strictly inward. Eventually the same indifference the photographer feels is instilled in the viewer.
Technically the film is near flawless. Every shot and scene is expertly controlled by Michelangelo Antonioni to emphasise the photographer's isolation from his surroundings there is very little dialogue, with long stretches playing like a silent film with only the ambient noises of footsteps, wind blowing and birdsong to fill the soundtrack. Dialogue, when it does appear, is sparse, clipped and doesn't tell the viewer very much. This isn't a film where ideas are expressed: this is a film where some guy goes somewhere and does stuff, sort of, and that's it. It's great film-making but it doesn't make a great film.
The ending, where the photographer engages in a game of imaginary tennis played by mimes, is no different to the rest of the film. The photographer just stands and watches until directly invited to participate (by throwing the imaginary ball back after it has gone out of the court), which he does. This sums up his character: he is a no-person, devoid of principles or motivations, who passively allows himself to be defined by his surroundings. If he is surrounded by mimes, then he's a mime. If he's surrounded by models, then he's a photographer. If he uncovers a murder, then he's a detective. It makes the film's premise (the nature of perception versus the nature of reality) a bit of a damp squib because it doesn't strike me as a question that would bother the photographer much. Did he really uncover a murder, or did he just imagine it all? Who cares? He certainly doesn't.
It's possible to admire Blowup but I wouldn't say I like it as such. Sterile and self-indulgent, it feels more like a technical exercise than a film. I'd say it's worth watching once but after that it's more of a film to own than to see.
The Long Good Friday (1980)
The 1980s begins with a bang
WARNING - THIS REVIEW DISCUSSES THE ENDING OF THE FILM AT LENGTH.
Portraying Britain at the dawn of Thatcherism, The Long Good Friday presents its central character and itself like a spinning coin, looking towards the future but always about to slip back into the past, about to go one way or the other. Harold Shand (Bob Hoskins) tells nostalgic and emotional stories about his National Service (which had been abolished for almost two decades when this film was made) and how he began his career as a street urchin An hour earlier, he had been proclaiming his glorious vision of 1980s Britain while in a rather unsubtle piece of direction framed by Tower Bridge. This world of opposites is expressed most clearly in Francis Monkman's zesty score, blending traditional classical instruments with Moroder-style synth-pop. It is ultimately hubris, the kind of overconfidence normally associated with '80s excess, that delivers Shand helplessly into the maw of a truly monstrous enemy that had existed for decades.
Not as complex as I've heard it made out (admittedly the DVD age means I can zip straight to the exposition scenes without effort, which helps), The Long Good Friday is still a breathtakingly audacious film and one that at times runs a real risk of alienating its audience while still retaining mass appeal. It blends together elements of various crime subgenres: it takes the criminal-turns-detective idea from Get Carter and marries it to the sickly, sleazy decadence that Scarface would portray so unflinchingly three years later, while the outlandish, ostentatious tactics Shand employs to intimidate his enemies come straight from The Godfather. Harold Shand is essentially a Tony Montana-style character: someone not very bright who has gone from poor to rich very quickly and doesn't know what to do with his loot, who thinks that money somehow equals invincibility. As his enemies continue to undermine his modern-man fantasy (he refers to himself as a businessman, not a criminal) he becomes steadily more delusional to the point where he eventually expresses an intent to wipe out the entire IRA. This is a self-evidently absurd statement that Shand takes totally seriously, immediately before slashing his most trusted lieutenant's jugular with a broken bottle, as Hoskins's incandescent performance charts the erosion of the character's veneer of sophistication. As the first two members of his gang are assassinated he asks himself who could make him and his associates a target: a legitimate question in the circumstances, but the emotional burst with which Hoskins delivers the sentiment suggests less a rational question and more a little child screaming that "IT'S NOT FAIR!".
Now, the IRA. Before September 11 2001 they were synonymous with terrorism in the UK and their omnipresent threat throughout the 1970s led to London becoming one of the most CCTV-heavy cities in the world. No wonder the film's original backers got cold feet, since while it doesn't in any way romanticise them it does portray them as the very essence of power. Against them Shand no small fry in his own right is nothing at all and even his ice-cold mistress (Helen Mirren) cracks under the threat against her despite being able to effortlessly parry the advances of Shand's lecherous thugs. But here's the twist: the whole thing's totally pointless.
This is what makes the film so daring. Virtually the entire film concerns the quest for Hichcock's MacGuffin, which in this case is defined by its absence: it is the answer to the mystery itself. The IRA are fingered fairly quickly, but the question is why. Keeping this question unanswered for so long rather than giving hints occasionally requires a predictably huge scene of exposition, which is totally subverted when it turns out that Shand hasn't actually done anything at all. The IRA mistakenly believe he is responsible for the murder of some of their agents and once fanatics get an idea in their heads that idea stays there. I can't think of another film that has its central premise turn to fairy-dust so spectacularly not even The Maltese Falcon. This I think is where it risks losing its audience, because everything turns out to be so pointless. Is that dramatically satisfying? In the event yes, because rather than going into hiding (like Michael Corleone in the first Godfather) Shand's feathers get ruffled even more and, the irony apparently lost on him, he kills two IRA agents for real and is tracked down and captured within minutes. As he's driven away, almost certainly to his death, we get an extended close-up of Hoskins's face. Among the despair and panic, there's the occasional flicker of an impression that he's finally got the joke.
With complex characters, great writing, scintillating performances and a brave, uncompromising attitude to storytelling conventions, The Long Good Friday is an essential piece of British cinema.
Inspired, but rough around the edges
WARNING - THIS REVIEW CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS FOR ALL SECTIONS OF THE PLOT, INCLUDING THE ENDING.
It wasn't long after I started school that I realised that Maths was a blind alley for me. I've taken the Humanities route, and my numerical skills consist of the basic mental arithmetic needed to live in the real world. In many ways that puts me in a good position to appreciate a film like Pi, because I can analyse it as a film while the alleged flaws in its premise go right over my head. So the 216-digit number is actually a 218-digit one, but unless I'm going to freeze-frame and actually count then that makes no difference to the narrative at all. Its take on Kabbalah is skewed? I don't know any better. So as far as I'm concerned the premise is fairly solid, if only because I'm prepared to take their word for it that the Fibonacci sequence is A over who-knows-what.
In some respects Pi can ride on visuals alone: the grainy black-and-white points to an extremely self-conscious low-fi ethos, which seems to glory in the knowledge that it would never happen in Hollywood, but the high-contrast effect looks fantastic and the direction is watertight: Pi takes place in a claustrophobic environment where your choice is to melt away into dark shadow or step into the light and fry in its glare. The characters are trapped in a world coiled in on itself: Max (Sean Gullette), the mathematical genius, sits inside his tangled supercomputer Euclid (literally), which itself sits inside the stock market, which is in turn the product of the human race working together, which exists on a planet governed by the patterns of nature, which exists in a universe governed by the laws of physics, and so on into infinity. Searching for a clue as to the nature of it all, Max is struggling to escape his place, and as such is as much a bug as the ones that literally crawl over Euclid. If he breaks his place in sequence, the sequence collapses.
The plot concerns Max's quest to find out the secrets of a 216-digit number that Euclid spontaneously spits at him, before making impossibly accurate stock market predictions and finally crashing. People want that number: it might contain the key to understanding the entire universe, but the more Max learns about it, the more his own mental instability tears that universe apart. Gleefully destroying the boundary between reality and fantasy, the idea that there might be pattern to it all becomes increasingly absurd. The pattern eventually becomes irrelevant, overtaken by the importance of Max's perception of the world around him.
The film takes for granted, as its premise, that there is a pattern governing everything. But that isn't the point: the point is whether humanity is capable of understanding it, whether it needs to know it, or whether it is getting above itself by trying to find it. The only person Max can talk to about this is his elderly mentor Sol (Mark Margolis) over repeated games of Go one of the film's better-used symbolic motifs. Sol has a much more laid-back attitude to life, but it is implied that he has previously encountered the number before and that he knows something of its true nature. The Go board is a microcosm of the universe, which Max sees as another example of the universal spiral: apparently simple, then incredibly complicated, but ultimately governed by a pattern. Max does not assert that there is a pattern to the game because he has found one, but because logic seems to dictate that one must exist, and it is in that same gap where something should exist only because of what's around it that the Jewish cult finds its own meaning. This is in some respects an answer to the accusation that the film's premise is implausible: it deals with something that the brain is not meant to comprehend, and it places that incomprehension at its heart, not the pattern.
It isn't a perfect film. Some of the symbolism is very obvious (Euclid's bugs, in the form of an ant infestation); the end is an old art-film cliché (wait you're telling me it might not literally be happening? Whoa!) and some of the dialogue is very corny. How many movie villains have ranted about "survival of the fittest" before pulling the trigger, for example? Or, more accurately, before the hero is whisked to safety at the last minute? I wouldn't hold it against anyone who finds the end unsatisfying, since everything we learn about the number is vague and ambiguous and leads to more questions. The end isn't about the mysteries of nature being returned to nature; it's about Max finally being satisfied that they are always going to remain as mysterious as ever, whatever glimpse of some bigger truth occasionally slips through the cracks. It was the quest that made Max important, and the film ends with him finally understanding that the conclusions are irrelevant because he was never going to reach them.
There's something going on under the surface
NOTE: This review discusses the ending of the film.
Jaws is virtually goreless, and we don't see the shark at all until almost an hour has gone by, and yet watching this film remains one of the most terrifying ways anyone can ever spend two hours. What sells it isn't the big toothy beast with the fins, but the people who have to deal with its presence.
Jaws is set in Amity Island, a self-consciously idyllic tourist resort around the July 4th holiday. The beauty of the setting, shot to resemble the wonderful summer breaks we all think we experienced, is crucial to a film that hinges on the sense of contrast. The monster is horrific but this horror is set in stark opposition to the carefully-constructed carefree bliss of Amity, and that makes it all the harder to get to grips with – there is no retreat, nowhere that people can go to unwind because perfection has a killer lurking just out of sight. The cynical, paranoid chief Brody (Roy Scheider) has to endure the unimportant domestic quibbles of the town's bovine population, a stumbling block preventing him from giving full attention to the real problem. This sense of contrast and the frustration it fosters is never illustrated more effectively than the scene where old Harry (Alfred Wilde) sits in front of him, blocking his view of the sea just before the shark attacks.
This being the era of burgeoning postmodernism, Amity's idyll is wholly artificial, a construct by the cynical and greedy mayor (Murray Hamilton) and various local businesses that depend on summer tourists for the economy of the town, and who value the dollar far more than human life. The shameless capitalism is best seen in the journalist Meadows, who wants to downplay the story of Alex Kitner's death and then highlight the captured tiger shark, which realistically is highly unlikely to be the real culprit but, more importantly, is a perfect excuse to keep the beaches open. As Mayor Vaughn impedes Brody at every turn, putting people in danger, the tension of the film mounts. This, and the film's lack of any real red herrings (perhaps the shark ate them) contribute to the forced removal of any sense of false security. In its place is just a sense of permanent, knuckle-gnawing uncertainty. Things come to a head in the only way they can – the heartless businessmen have pushed their luck as far as they can the result is spectacular, fatal and very, very public.
And so into the second half, where Brody, oceanographer Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and grizzled seaman Quint (Robert Shaw) – who looks like instead of being born he just came walking out of the sea one day – set out in a ludicrously ill-equipped floating shed called the Orca to find and kill the shark. The levels of fear diminish slightly, but the tension is maintained in the tiny, claustrophobic environment as personalities clash. The Ahab mk II that is Quint has nothing but disdain for the educated Hooper, whom he perceives to be an ivory-tower intellectual whose dedication to academia is no substitute for his own practical experience; Brody meanwhile is a cowardly landlubber who is best suited to the menial tasks like chumming and tying knots. Any distinctions between characters are soundly mocked by the threat they face – a soulless killer that can't be understood, rationalised or empathised with. It simply kills, because that's all that's in its nature. Meanwhile, Quint's famous monologue about the U.S.S. Indianapolis, delivered by a breathtakingly intense Shaw, shows that the characters themselves have more to them that meets the eye.
So it is that the pale-faced intellectual ("been counting money all your life" sneers Quint at one point) proves his worth by choosing to enter the water with the creature, the hard-nosed working man's strength comes to nothing as the shark gobbles him up, and the coward saves the day. This isn't done in a trite "finding the courage" kind of way, but simply because there are no other options left. It's that or get eaten, and as such the complexities of the characters fall under the might of the shark's sheer indiscrimination and simplicity. He's no less of a landlubber, and consequently all the more a hero, and Jaws is all the more a classic film.
The Proposition (2005)
One of the best films of the decade
WARNING: THIS REVIEW DISCUSSES THE ENDING OF THE FILM.
In some respects, the simpler a film is, the more complex it can be. The Proposition is driven by a visceral but arrow-straight plot as soul-searching criminal Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) is sent to kill his older brother Arthur (Danny Huston) in order to save his younger brother Mikey (Richard Wilson) from being hanged on Christmas Day. That harrowing foundation provides a blank canvas on which director John Hillcoat and writer Nick Cave paint a gorgeous, lyrical landscape of good, evil, idealism, and harsh reality.
It's impossible to watch this film without realising the debt it owes to Joseph Conrad's novel Heart Of Darkness, which also involves someone being sent deep into a raw and dangerous British colony in order to assassinate a hermit-like rogue element who has taken on semi-divine status amongst the indigenous people. It is this spiritual element that lends the film so much of its power, as it allows for a far more interesting study of characters. The film is hyper-real: nothing in it is impossible as such, but everything is heightened a little bit. Thus Arthur Burns, the Kurtz of the film, is as troubling as his literary progenitor, a massively charismatic and intelligent figure who is nevertheless a psychopath given to moments of shocking cruelty (at one point asking his brother why he can't ever stop him from indulging his more excessive impulses). However, in his contemplative moments he seems to be the only character who knows where he is, able to reconcile the desire to "civilise" Australia with the unmerciful reality of the country. His flaw is that he cannot reconcile the different elements of his own persona with each other.
Ideological conflict in one form or another is what drives the film; the fey and unsympathetic mayor (David Wenham) is the only character who retains a simplistic black-and-white view of events, and as a consequence seems to be permanently detached from reality. By contrast, bounty-hunter Jellon Lamb (John Hurt, in a wild performance) can only grapple with his situation by drinking himself senseless. One of the driving forces of the film is how Charlie's quest to save one brother by killing another is how it teaches police chief Captain Stanley (the excellent Ray Winstone) that human morality is not an absolutist concept, and that his initial obsessive desire to "civilise this land" is far more complicated than merely catching criminals and subjugating the natives. For me, the central scene of the film is Mikey's whipping. Stanley disapproves, realising that the young and mentally-handicapped criminal is not responsible for his actions, but he agrees to it when his wife (Emily Watson) asks him to imagine her in the place of the Burns gang's victim. The struggle between his ideological desire to fight crime and his love for his wife with his realisation of who he is really dealing with is brilliantly played, and in the event he is the only character who is prepared for the shockingly brutal result of the lashing. His wife, who seeks to turn the arid patch of land on which she lives into England, cannot cope with the idea that a criminal could elicit sympathetic feelings.
As long as intention and deed cannot be reconciled, the conflict will continue even as the people involved die and are replaced. The film ends it cannot go further when Charlie finally makes up his mind about who he wants to be, and Arthur ends the film with a moment of realisation of his own, in his way. In so doing Stanley is taught a brutal lesson about his earlier overestimation of his authority: he emerges bloodied and broken, but wiser for realising that he is not, and never was, judge and jury. If the film is predictable, it is because the characters ultimately assign their own fates.
Beautifully written and filmed and with largely gorgeous music (only Cave's lyrics push the cheese-boundary on occasion), The Proposition is a sumptuous masterpiece that is brutal without ever being gratuitous. See it at once, and switch your brain to 'on.' 10/10
The Ladykillers (1955)
Dark, unsettling, rarely all that funny...and yet still a great comedy
If you're going to call this film funny, it might be better to think of the word as meaning strange, rather than amusing. In truth The Ladykillers rarely provokes laugh-out-loud moments, but that doesn't make it a failure in its own terms as I would argue that it sets out to use humour for a different purpose. This film isn't a comedy; it's an absurdity.
Take away the comedic elements that have dated slightly Katie Johnson's story of alien visitors at the beginning seems rather twee now and we're left with a core of dark humour that gives the film a very unsettling tone. In fact, it's the film's status as a black comedy that saves it for a modern audience, as it transforms it from a caper movie it would seem very dated today into something else entirely.
This is obvious from Alec Guinness's make-up and performance. On the one hand all the elements that make up his character are traditionally funny: the false overbite, for example, his permanent smile, and his upper-class obsequiousness towards his landlady should be funny. They're contrasted though with a pallid complexion and thinning hair to emphasise a malnourished, gaunt appearance that looks as if he's recently done a lengthy stretch at Her Majesty's pleasure. So, when we first see him at her door, dramatically lowering his hat to reveal his face, it looks as if the doddering old lady has been visited by something that's just come tottering out of a graveyard.
The rest of the gang contrast off each other the size of the gang is crucial, since when Guinness is taken away we are left with an even number of thieves who can therefore be paired off against each other. As a consequence the humour of the fawning, inept major and the dumb, lovable oaf is offset and undermined by Herbert Lom's snarling gangster and Peter Sellers's amoral wideboy. By placing such disparate elements together on screen the fear of the less pleasant characters is offset, but also the comedy is drained from the funny characters and therefore the humour seems strange and slightly disturbing. This particularly affects the climax: the violence is slapstick, and yet at the same time it somehow isn't. Supposedly comic set-pieces, such as when the criminals are forced to endure a tea-party and sing-song around a piano become absurd and from the moment we're told that the crime is now "a hanging matter" it becomes clear that this film cannot end in the cosy way that you might expect a comedy caper to.
This works because of the quality of the acting, as Katie Johnson's performance as Mrs Wilberforce despite being a comic exaggeration keeps the film grounded in reality enough to offset the five grotesques that plot a robbery under her lopsided roof (even the main location of the film is distorted in a slightly spooky way, and the motif of attempting to straighten the pictures is continued throughout the film to emphasise discomfort at this peculiar place). Meanwhile the five criminal characters are played with conviction that immerses the viewer in their world, creating a series of believable caricatures that further create the atmosphere of the film.
The Ladykillers is a classic film, and uses comedy in a way that's about as sophisticated as anything I've ever seen. Just don't expect to actually laugh.
Shallow Grave (1994)
Just about manages despite its self-imposed shackles
The film-making team of Boyle-MacDonald-Hodge more or less came to stand as a metonym for the whole of British cinema in the 1990s but the film that elevated them to such lofty heights was not this one. Trainspotting was a work of genius, effortlessly blending elements of postmodernism in with its story to create a beautifully crafted piece of cinema. The seeds that would eventually produce that film can be seen in Shallow Grave, but they have yet to develop; the film is inspired, but very rough around the edges.
Postmodernism is all about subversion, and to begin with a wildly creative and imaginative core idea is to miss the point. As such Shallow Grave has an extremely simple plot three flatmates gain a fourth, who dies leaving a suitcase full of money. They decide to dispose of the body and keep the cash, but the stresses of hiding the event, keeping the police at bay, being attacked by the stranger's criminal associates plus their own deteriorating psyches tear them apart. All ripe for modern trickery; unfortunately Danny Boyle and John Hodge seem to have crafted their film directly from The Beginner's Guide To '90s Edginess and as such the film feels garish rather than clever.
The film is full of surrealism, and the viewer frequently sees events through the hallucinatory perspectives of the characters. But there seems to be a general lack of imagination about it, and all the spinning cameras, interior monologues and strategic cultural references (one minute Alex watches the football, then the news, then a rubbish game show, then The Wicker Man they listen to pounding trance, then sophisticated blues, then jazzy Nina Simone not to mention the casting of Ken Stott, playing Detective Ken Stott) scream out at the viewer. They may be effective in a shallow way (no pun intended), but it's all so brazen that the film feels unsophisticated. While surrealism made up part of a complete world in Trainspotting, in Shallow Grave it has the effect of dragging the viewer out of the narrative.
I'm being overly critical as at its heart this is a good film, and its flashiness doesn't make its plot any less dynamic. Indeed on the first few viewings it's thoroughly absorbing, with the violence potent enough to cause a reaction without being so sick that the viewer turns away. It's engaging enough and nothing with Ewan McGregor and Christopher Eccleston in it can stand up to the accusation of being badly acted, at least when McGregor isn't putting on an accent. The characters aren't in any way likable, which can make it difficult to feel sympathy for them, but it does mean that their breakdown comes from a new angle. The only real flaw in the characterisation is Eccleston, who's increasingly withdrawn David would work better if the character wasn't withdrawn enough already.
Shallow Grave is basically a good film, but it isn't as clever as it thinks it is and that takes the edge off it. As a first attempt at film-making it shows an obvious vibrancy and energy, but it took Boyle, MacDonald and Hodge until their second attempt before they actually managed to make a great film instead of merely a good one.
Surreal, chilling, and beautiful
Whenever you see something described as "instantly recognisable", beware: it means that whatever it is has been spoofed/homaged/ripped off so many times that the original isn't what you actually recognise. Half the people who recognise Max Schreck's terrifying Count Orlock haven't seen the film at all, but have seen plenty of clip shows, parodies, or worse, Buffy The Vampire Slayer. In effect, certainly in this case, "instantly recognisable" means that worthy source material has become synonymous with and indistinguishable from the clichés that have followed in its wake.
That's why on first viewing Nosferatu is interesting for all the shots that Schreck isn't on screen. Thomas Hutter, Professor Bulwer these are all new characters, presented fresh for audiences eighty-five years on. The shots of Orlock rising from his coffin, lurking in his crypt and, of course, coming up the stairs are fantastically exciting, but only when the rest of the story is added are these moments validated and a truly great film is made.
Nosferatu was made a score of years after Bram Stoker wrote Dracula (in fact his widow was still alive), and the vampire it gave us is now such a ubiquitous trope that it's easy to forget how comparatively recent it was, and that Nosferatu comes from a period when the imagery surrounding it was still being defined. The film dates from when something new was being brought to the table with every retelling of the story, and this film's major contribution to the tale is the idea that sunlight is fatal to vampires. Since technical limitations meant that scenes could only be shot in bright sunlight, in retrospect they were lucky to get away with it.
But it works. F. W. Murnau was the king of German Expressionism in silent cinema, and the abstract, surreal and symbolic style of film-making makes a virtue out of necessity. Hand-cranked cameras mean that people move strangely this is actually incorporated into the film here, to give characters a sense of grotesque distortion. Similarly the bright sunlight during what is supposed to be the middle of the night is used to give the feeling that time itself has been subverted in Orlock's realm, as the enigmatic figure disappears from one place and reappears in another without apparently travelling through the intervening space. All this contributes to Nosferatu's status as one of the most atmospheric and visually beautiful films of all time.
Murnau died in 1931, around the time when silent films were being phased out in favour of talkies. This means that he will forever be associated with the style of cinema of which he was the undisputed master. He famously liked to use the visuals to tell the story, and to keep title cards to a minimum; as a consequence, the plot of Stoker's novel has been stripped to its bare bones. Once again however limitations and necessities are taken and turned into bonuses, as the plot here becomes a frame around the film. Expressionism was, after all, concerned with symbolism and suggestion rather than the purely literal, and it feels appropriate that the various milestones of the novel become mere points of reference here, starting places for it to divert away in its bizarre, frightening manner.
These days, modern audiences find silent films increasingly difficult to get to grips with. It's understandable, but it's a shame. I haven't mentioned the poor quality of the film stock because it simply doesn't matter (in fact it adds to the evocative nature of the film by increasing the distorted effect), but common gripes don't end there. A common accusation is that silent films are badly acted, or that the comedies aren't funny. They are well acted just in a different way. And they are funny just in a different way. They follow a different set of rules. But I need make no such excuse for Nosferatu, which remains as scary (if not more so) than any horror film I've ever seen, while remaining a beautiful, intelligent, literate piece of cinema. So put aside your preconceptions, if you have any, and forget about the silly spoofs. Just enjoy a film that's almost perfect on every level of its conception.
A deeply melancholy and complex farewell to the west
"You just shot an unarmed man!" "Well, he should have armed himself..."
Plenty of films have tried to examine the human side of violence. This is especially appropriate for westerns, where very often rows of men are gunned down without a thought. 'Unforgiven' does better than most, but where this differs from other films is that at the end this whole theme is flipped around as the outlaw William Munny (Clint Eastwood) pulls of a truly legendary piece of shooting. This scene though only emphasises a great sense of failure for the characters, which for me is the most prominent theme of the film. For most characters, their failures are obvious, but I won't give too many examples for fear of spoiling it.
Look at the way the trio of Munny, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) and the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) are slowly whittled down to just Munny, as the others realise that they just don't have what it takes to kill people anymore. Munny, although carrying out his task to the full, has equally failed in his attempt to reform himself as he proves to himself that he is not a pig farmer after all, but still the legendarily cold blooded killer from years ago.
Westerns have had different ways of looking at violence. Leone looked at the build up. Peckinpah looked at the violence itself. Eastwood here looks at the moment after the violence and shows the heartbreaking consequences. Given this it is all the more shocking to see just how merciless and devastating Munny's furious assault on the saloon really is, with him shooting unarmed and wounded men just for the sake of completeness. There is a question of motivations though-before he was in it for the money, but when a personal element is added to the mix the results are volcanic. But this is no blaze of glory for Munny, but something that has to be done, and although treated in a callous way there is a sense that this will have consequences as far reaching as before. Munny has failed in his attempt to reform himself, and the purpose of his life is defeated. There is a suggestion that Munny is damned-there is a moment in the carnage where Munny stops for a drink. The scene is shot so that Eastwood appears to have no reflection the large mirror placed above the bar. More obvious is the following exchange between Munny and Sheriff Dagget (Gene Hackman):
"See you in Hell, William Munny" "Yeah."
The way the climax is presented would be perhaps more appropriate for a more lurid western, with most shots going wild-far more shots are fired than are strictly necessary, in true action film tradition. This is just the point though, as the end is supposed to be at odds with the grittily realistic nature of the rest of the film. The end result is a powerful message powerfully put across.
That is not to say that other westerns that do not necessarily share this sentiment (at least to this level) are less powerful-the theme of 'Once Upon A Time In The West' is equally strong and affecting, but the message is different and presented in a different way. 'Unforgiven' proves though, both to the writer W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek) and to the audience, that there is a flip side to every story and a dark side to every man.
C'era una volta il West (1968)
The death of the west maybe-but a noble death indeed
In 'The Good, The Bad And The Ugly', Sergio Leone made what is generally known as the quintessential spaghetti western. All the more remarkable then that his follow up has won even more acclaim from fans of the genre-in fact, fans of great films in general.
With the trademark close up/long shot style of shooting, the dollars trilogy can be easily classed as arty. At a dramatic level, however, they are still for the most part (albeit excellent) pulpy shoot-em-outs, a fact all the more obvious when compared to 'Once Upon A Time In The West'. Here, serious art mixes with ultra-cool gunslingers and filters through all parts of the film, to create one of the most stylistic and visually gorgeous films ever made.
To review the film itself, the best place to start would be the beginning. The Virgin Film Guide argues that this film's title sequence is the most famous in cinema history. I'm not sure if I agree with that totally-my vote would go to 'Reservoir Dogs', although doubtless there are many others that I am entirely ignorant of-but while maybe not being as famous as made out, it still ranks as one of the best title sequences ever. This is all the more remarkable given that nothing happens: three men wait for a train at a station. That's it. The ten minute scene is dialogue free (apart from a few lines uttered by a doddery old ticket collector at the very beginning) and totally without incident, yet it is taught, nerve-tugging and hypnotic. The tension is carried by the natural menace of Woody Strode, Jack Elam and Al Mulock as they collect water, shoo flies and crack their knuckles, while in the background the sounds of the breeze and a creaking windmill bypass the ears completely and go straight to the brain. Then, suddenly, the train arrives, Charles Bronson gets off, blows his harmonica, and BOOM...
The film then cuts to a devastating massacre scene in which a family of innocents (for added poignancy) are wiped out by the bad guy to end all bad guys. The scene is dramatic, shocking (really) and totally perfect, in terms of drama, acting, cinematography and score, thus usefully leading me into several other points that can be applies to the film in general.
In dramatic terms, the film is too slow for some in this modern age of films that look more like music videos (I'm talking to you, McG) but what Leone is doing here is cranking up the tension. Take the scene where Cheyenne arrives at the bar and has his handcuffs shot off-the "action" is so low key that it is not sufficient to relieve the tension, and by the end the viewer is about ready to explode. There is only one proper action scene-where Frank is attacked by his own band of treacherous mercenaries-in the entire film. A far cry from the wall-to-wall gunfights of other westerns, but no bad thing. The drama ties in with the music to create an emotional effect to make us sad even when the baddies die, let alone the goodies.
Next: the cast. Charles Bronson's role is one that suits him perfectly, a stoic mystery man with little to say. Jason Robards's Cheyenne is charming to watch. Gabriele Ferzetti, although he plays a villain, gives the role such emotion that the viewer is compelled to like him, however pathetic he may be. By general consensus though, the real tour-de-force is Henry Fonda as the ice-cold murderer Frank. Although the whole typecasting issue is probably lost on modern audiences, he still makes a terrific bad guy all the same-so frightening he makes the crickets stop chirping.
The film is beautifully shot. The McBain massacre, where the gunmen stride menacingly out of the bushes...and especially the flashback, where we learn the motivations of Harmonica. I won't give it away, but wow. The flashback is probably the best-shot scene of the film, which is really saying something.
It's late at night now as I write this, so I'll give the final word to the music. THE music-Ennio Morricone does it again. This is an extremely varied score, ranging from a sweeping, love theme to electric guitar that sounds like it is being plucked with a razor blade. And given that it was all written before shooting started, it is given an added mystique for fans of scores. Beautiful.
That's it. I have only scratched the surface-no review could cover everything without hugely exceeding IMDB's word limit-and I have not even touched on the whole "death of the west" theme, or mentioned Claudia Cardinale. But it's all there for you to find out. Ladies and gentlemen: the perfect western.
Cabin Fever (2002)
A great diseased hippo of a movie
The only half-clever part of this film was the marketing campaign that made the most of its low budget status to encourage people to see this film. I admit that I was a sucker and saw it. Cabin Fever is the worst scripted, worst plotted film I have seen for a long time, with a plot that seems to be a series of coincidences strung together (water supply gets contaminated-next scene, characters just happen to decide not to drink the water. Come on Mr Roth, you can try harder than that) and the script is is a crass, dreadfully written and juvenile exercise in idiocy that assumes that the viewer is as stupid as the film.
Add this to some thoroughly un-scary scares and you have a film not worth the plastic disc you buy it on. The low budget, smugly boasted of by the film makers, can do nothing to excuse the sheer dreadfulness of the film; a good plot, idea and script has nothing to do with money. In short, this is an offensive, vulgar waste of time.
Tarantino was right!
Although I had wanted to see Sergio Leone's Dollars trilogy for a long time, it was the "cinematically perfect" quote from Quentin Tarantino on the front of the box that got me to shell out for the new Special Edition DVD (in the UK) of The Good, The Bad And The Ugly. And I can tell you now-Tarantino wasn't wrong! A Fistful Of Dollars and For A Few Dollars More are excellent films in their own right, but The Good, The Bad And The Ugly is more than just an excellent film-it is a major artistic achievement. The reasons for this permeate every aspect of the film.
Starting with the obvious, the acting is wonderful, both on the parts of the actors themselves and also the voice artists. Clint Eastwood has come under some criticism for his supposedly "wooden" portrayal of the Man With No Name, but the character description is of a laconic, taciturn mystery man and there's only so much you can do with that. Lee Van Cleef is one of the coolest and scariest villains of all time, while Eli Wallach's "lovable rogue" portrayal of the Mexican bandit Tuco makes a welcome change from the "psychopathic killer" that Gian Maria Volonte had played in the two prequels. Special mention at this point goes to the voice artist used to dub the scenes starring Lee Van Cleef that weren't dubbed while he was still alive, having been added for the Special Edition. He gets the voice absolutely spot on. Also of note is the alcoholic Union Captain who strikes the perfect balance between wry humour and despair.
The cinematography is breathtaking. Leone's trademark style was to mix extreme close ups with extreme long shots, which is taken to a spectacular extreme here and gives the film a huge sense of scale. The very first shot of the film, in fact, is both a close up and a long shot at the same time. The faces Leone chooses to zoom in on are, shall we say, interesting to look at, as well. While the build up to scenes of violence is long and intense, the violence itself is for the most part short and sharp. The film is therefore extremely tense. The one extended scene of violence, Tuco's torture, is transformed by the juxtaposition of the orchestra playing a slow lament outside-the sight of the young musician crying in the knowledge of what is happening behind closed doors is a haunting moment. The rather flashy cinematography comes to a head at the film's climax in the graveyard, culminating in the single most perfect shot in cinema history. I won't reveal it as I loathe spoilers, but it's there.
Good scenes are made better by a wonderful score by the ever-dependable Ennio Morricone. The rousing 'Ecstasy Of Gold' transforms Tuco's sprint through the graveyard into a scene so beautiful it hurts, and 'The Trio' does the same for the climax. As for the title theme...well, everyone's heard it so I won't waste time talking about it, except to say that even if you thought you hated it you'll end up loving it.
Ennio Morricone stated that he tried to reflect the film's "larger-than-life" quality. Indeed, there are some moments that are somewhat surreal. These range from the obvious ("the good", "the bad" and "the ugly" appearing in brightly coloured letters next to the characters' faces) to the subtle (the insane fight over the bridge and the state of the soldiers). The film is at the same time unreal and grittily realistic, to great effect.
Several questions have been asked about the film. Firstly, there is the question of whether or not Clint Eastwood plays the same character throughout all three films. I say no: looking at it like that causes continuity problems. Plus, if Eastwood is the same character in all three films, then what about the other actors who appeared in the other films like Lee Van Cleef, Luigi Pistilli and especially Mario Brega, who dies in all three films? "The Man With No Name" is a marketing exercise, post-modernism before the term was invented. One thing I do agree with is the softening of Eastwood's character-although you have to do more than play with a kitten to come across as a goodie in my book, the tending to a dying soldier and the famous quotation "never seen so many men wasted so badly" make Blondie much more human than either Joe or Monco. Also, some have said that the film is a Christian allegory. There are scenes to support this, such as the prisoner being made to carry his coffin to his place of execution, but these scenes are unconnected both to each other and to the main plot and thus this claim is a somewhat dubious one.
The film has entered my top ten at number two, not quite dislodging Pulp Fiction. Nevertheless, it is a beautiful piece of work and anyone who worked on it should feel justly proud. If you don't believe me, believe Quentin Tarantino.
The Terminator (1984)
I was brought up with this film
In the battle between The Terminator and Terminator 2, the original often loses out. This is unfair. I have seen both films more times than is good for me and I rank the original as being far superior. The second one feels very Hollywood, like it was made by a bunch of businessmen. The first one was done for no reason other than to make a great film. This is refreshing in this day and age, and the film carries it off perfectly.
Most of the reasons for its derision are unfair.
First reason: "It is low budget, consequently with bad special effects". Personally, I like the special effects. I like stop motion animation. I like good model work-and the model work is exceptional.
Second reason: "Not enough action scenes." There are less action scenes than T2, I admit. But T2 seems to hinge on action scenes, which are hugely overblown and excessive. T1 has one great centrepiece-the police station massacre. This action scene is simple, unpretentious, and utterly utterly spellbinding.
Third reason: "It is very 80s, and looks dated". It is dated, yes, but this does not work against it in the way that it does for, say, "The Lost Boys". It features ordinary people of that period-not EVERYONE wore excessively ridiculous clothes and styles. Also, the music is actually very good. I am not a fan of 80s music, but this is actually great-the Terminator theme song here is better than anywhere else-mournful and haunting, not melodramatically orchestral like in T2.
Special mention #1 mention must go to the scenes set in the future. These are brilliant, oozing with atmosphere. In T2 the human fighters are a tightly regimented band of marines running around in uniforms. Here they are dressed in rags, living in holes in the ground, and eating rats. The effect is startling and scary, and the grainy nature of the picture works well.
Special mention #2 goes to Arnold Schwarzenegger. His performance is fantastic, and is what makes the film so great. His utter lack of emotion is the key; in the sequels the Terminators occasionally showed flashes of emotion, to their detriment, but here he is totally inhuman. This purist approach, which includes giving him only a handful of lines, actually makes the one hint of him being something other than a monster (when he smooths down his hair) work well.
His lines are excellent, and not at all cheesy-even the infamous "I'll be back." When this was written it was not a cheesy catchphrase, just another line that works well in the context of the scene-and it shows. It BECAME cheesy when it was used in every film Scwarzenegger made over the next fifteen years.
I hope when you see it you recognise that almost all of the criticism levelled against it is unfair. If you have a piece of criticism that you think it deserves, let me know.
P.S, It sounds like I don't like T2. I like it very much, but it gains more praise than perhaps it deserves compared to the original.