Monday, 15 June 2020

Da 5 Bloods (Spike Lee, 2020)

Mother, mother
There's too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There's far too many of you dying
You know we've got to find a way
To bring some lovin' here today.

Father, father
We don't need to escalate
You see, war is not the answer
For only love can conquer hate
You know we've got to find a way
To bring some lovin' here today.

Spike Lee's new Joint sees him back with the nearest thing to an epic since his 1992 magnum opus Malcolm X. This story tells of four black Vietnam veterans reconveyning back in the country they fought in 50 years ago to recover the remains of their fallen squad leader (Chadwick Boseman) as well as a lost shipment of US gold meant for the war effort. Using multiple aspect ratios, timelines, photographic mediums, genre DNA, and an earthshaking career best turn from Delroy Lindo,  Da 5 Bloods is set on reckoning with the past and our existing knowledge of this messy war and its place in African American history.

The film's opening newsreel style montage details the history of the Black experience during War time; included is Muhammed Ali's infamous reasoning of why he denied his service to the United States in the face of the Vietnam War. In his defence he declared how his people continue to be used and spat out after generations of promises that weren't kept. Da Bloods of the film's title, unlike Ali, did in fact serve in Vietnam and regroup once more; Paul (Lindo), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), Otis (Clark Peters) and Eddie (Norm Lewis). The four of them soon turn into five when Paul's concerned son David (a brilliant Jonathan Majors) tags along uninvited. 

The participation of America in the Vietnam War was a contradiction in itself due to the war effort being against the US's ideals in order to save US ideals i.e. aiding attempts to stop liberating a country in order to stop wider spread of communism. While the aforementioned view of America's involvement is very high-level, Ali's words remind us that Black troops drafted in Vietnam were fighting for ideals and freedoms denied to them by their own country. During the war and working for the North, radio DJ Hanoi Hannah would target African American troops with her broadcasts aimed at making them defect or cease fighting by detailing explicitly the atrocities happening on US soil during the Civil Rights Riots. She is played in the film by Van Veronica Ngo as she releases news of Dr Martin Luther king's assassination.

On paper Da 5 Bloods is easy to boil down to an adventure, men-on-a-mission sale war vehicle and with the amount of scenes involving shootouts, explosions, and nail biting tension no one is getting short changed if that's what they want. But the film is forever forking and changing shape as we've come to expect from Spike Lee and perhaps here more than ever he's not happy with us feeling comfortable for long. We may get moments of humour and downtime when Da Bloods are roasting each other or sadly reminiscing but these are broken up by the screen changing ratio to accompany a change in period where we're shown our characters fighting during their tours alongside their squad leader Stormin' Norman. Norman is represented as a Christ like figure to "our Malcolm and our King" as Da Bloods say. He connects these four young men to their black history and politics and offers guidance in there daily struggles. The film asks us to reflect on what integrity we let go of as we get older and to pick back up what was lost. As Norman speaks, sermon like, his reference to historic people such as Crispus Attucks are accompanied with insert shots identifying them. Spike Lee is saying if you don't get the reference you will now. The film doesn't just save this for Norman either; as Da Bloods spend their first night in contemporary Ho Chi Minh they talk about getting, rather than Rambo, a real hero such as Milton L. Olive III. Again, no name is referenced without a face. Private Olive's decorated heroics are also used here to foreshadow later events.

Whether this war epic veers towards the paranoia of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre during long stretches where Da Bloods are recovering the lost gold, the docu-like action of The Battle of Algiers during the early Vietnam War scenes, or the Stephen King like emotions laden within a group of friends regrouping to confront a past trauma, these veins all stem from the main artery of Delroy Lindo's Paul in a painful journey of PTSD, fatherhood, and forgiveness. 

Paul, the MAGA hat wearing embittered veteran hasn't dealt with his demons as seemingly well as his fellow Bloods. His early, outwardly proud voting for President Trump is brushed off quite easily by his peers, something they seem to expect but also don't take seriously. It makes for a great introduction to the most complicated character in the film. At one point Clarke Peter's Otis says to Paul, "You need to talk to someone" and tries (not for the first time I'm sure) to convince Paul to attend a group therapy session that has clearly benefitted him. It's worth noting here that it wasn't uncommon for two men to have known each other for 10+ years to not know that they had both fought in Vietnam. This was just something Veterans or their country at the time were not prepared to talk about. 

Paul still isn't ready to talk about it, at least not to another human. One of the film's standouts is at a point where Paul is cut-off from the rest of the pack, alone in the jungle and crying while shouting Bible verses. In an address to camera similar to that of Edward Norton's in 25th Hour but with ten times the wallop, Paul rants for minutes veering towards the nonsensical but with unflinching emotional honesty. It's one of the best scenes of the year from one of the best performances of the year, something better seen than described. Lindo has acted for Spike Lee several times, most notably playing his director's fictional onscreen Father in Lee's autobiographical 1995 film Crooklyn. How fitting, then, that in a film filled with brothers, fathers, and Marvin Gaye (lyrics of What's Going on begin this review), that Lindo has delivered his finest work.

Paul's relationship with his son David is another river that runs deep through the Da 5 Bloods and is played very well indeed. Even for a film that is basically four films for the price of one it never once felt too much of an addition that it might capsize the rocky piece. Like the cumbersome backpacks that our flawed protagonists wear to survive the Vietnamese jungle once again, Spike Lee's latest is jaggedly uncomfortable, daring, and filled with gold if you're prepared to unpack it.

Spike Lee has always been an important and vibrant filmmaker since he burst onto the scene in the mid 1980s and yet his place as both a celebrity and as an artist has been unfairly maligned. He has delivered great and varied works in every decade, films full of as much warmth as the overly commented fury that he has come to be known for. The double hit of both 2015's Chi-Raq and the box office hit of BlaKKKlansman that earned him his first Oscar in 2018 added points back to the Spike Lee brand after a relatively obscure 10 years of shaky independent projects. Yet he's back with a film much better than than his last two, his best film since 2002's 25th Hour, and at Netflix no least. Lee hasn't been shy (when is he ever?) stating that the streaming giants were his last calling point when pitching the project, yet they were the only ones ready to back him. While I'm not comfortable saying that 'this is the film we need right now, it's certainly powerful timing given the doubt regarding the film industry's recovery that during a pandemic and civil unrest that echoes the Civil Rights Riots of the 1960s that it was not via a traditional film studio we were gifted this film. 

Sunday, 17 November 2019

Once Upon A Time...In Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino, 2019)

Much has been made of Once Upon a Time...In Hollywood as Tarantino’s valentine to 1969 Los Angeles and the now long gone Hollywood he grew up with. As joyous as the film can be there is too much pain on display, however, to regard it so simply. 

This tale of once successful actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) dealing with a declining career and his loyal stunt-double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) who in tow is also one step from the showbiz scrap heap, is profoundly moving in a way no other of the director’s films have been. Movies and TV reflect real life and vice versa here; In a brilliantly surreal finale that sees history fork into an alternate reality all in a single shot as if God was splicing two 35mm prints together to his liking, we feel the magic and meaning that cinema can provide, and feel even more, that saddening realisation when those lights come up.

Tarantino’s ninth and penultimate film (the penultimate is important when reading this film) is the director at his most mature and yet most adolescent. The latter is normally used as a means to de-merit but the adolescence showcased here is actually what provides the film with its heart and resonance.

This is best shown in a scene where Rick, hungover as hell ("Eight Whiskey Sours!") and working yet another guest spot on someone else's TV show, has down time on set before shooting begins. He happens to stumble across a witty and precocious young girl who is also performing later. What follows is the most touching moment in any of Tarantino’s oeuvre. Hesitant and awkward Rick asks the young girl if she minds him reading his book next to her as she reads her’s. He is welcomed and the two share silence before Rick asks her what she’s reading; Trudi reveals it's an autobiography of Walt Disney and her enthusiasm for the book further demonstrates an intellect beyond her eight years. Rick is impressed and still awkward as he is coaxed to then share what he is reading, a pulp-western novel of an aging Cowboy who feels weaker and less relevant as each day passes. Rick can barely finish his description before he breaks into tears. The young actor (she prefers actor as actress is "nonsensical") kneels beside Rick to comfort him, saying that ‘it’s only a story’ to which Rick and we the audience know too well it’s not. It’s Rick’s life as he begins to feel his age and his golden years behind him.

It’s a beautiful scene that’s played out with the simplicity, humour, and sadness of Chaplin or Keaton. The film speaks on multiple meta points (it has too many to list) but this one feels strikingly poignant and as I said earlier - adolescent. Rick is asked by the young Trudi to tell her the story of the western he’s reading (western iconography runs through this film like complicated veins) and he almost doesn’t, explaining to her that he hasn't finished it yet and is only halfway through (we’re also halfway through this film), she almost scolds him for his unimaginative response as she wants to know the idea behind the story not how it ends. I’ve seen the film three times now (once on 35mm) and the subsequent viewings hit me that Trudi’s want for the idea behind a story and not the story’s logical conclusion spoke volumes about the way the film approaches tragic history with a childlike innocence. Once you understand the degrees to which Tarantino lets his story play out over history, this scene then is possibly the most important moment in the entire film. 

I felt it was also the director’s duel nature in front of us, vulnerable and conflicted; Tarantino the successful artist, showman, and celebrity who has gained much but feels the best is behind him and is coming to terms with age and the pain of nostalgia that permeates all of his film. This artist face to face with the future and therefore his past, the young, bright, unadulterated imagination of an 8 year old yet to be burdened with life’s hardships who only sees a future that’s worth making herself better each day with each new try. That word again, adolescent - though not to describe an undeveloped state of mind but one that still retains an untapped purity.

Tarantino was 6-7 years old during the year 1969 and he’s made no secret that this is his memory piece akin to Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma. This idea of 56 year old LA native Tarantino looking back painfully at how once a young child looked lovingly at a city he at times loved but also feared is what makes Once Upon a Time...In Hollywood such a profound film and also helps explains much of its profundity. This is not a film that takes liberties with history and horrific real crime events for shock value, it’s how a little boy would view and wish the world to be when faced with unfathomable horror and violence. That there are heroes out there, like Steve McQueen in Wanted: Dead or Alive, like Rick as Jake Cahill from Bounty Law, these white hat vs black hat tales of good and evil that end with the bad guys dead or in jail.

People who are offended by the film’s revisionist depictions have a right to be (Sharon Tate’s Sister Debra fully endorses the film and gave it her blessing after reading the script), and it’s great that a film has garnered such a huge public debate (this is what art should do) but in a post-9/11 world where the superhero film continues to dominate the market, what Hollywood sets out to do isn’t actually that different. Society as a whole flocks to these films to see narratives play out that make sense of the carnage of modern warfare, suicide bombings, and random unexplained violence. By watching The Avengers (et al) save the day and keep darkness at bay, it helps make sense of chaos, or nonsense, the very thing that runs through the Charles Manson mythos that here Tarantino expertly and hilariously shoots down.

It’s at this juncture that we simply must talk about Sharon Tate. One of the great pleasures of Hollywood is its day-in-the-life approach. The beauty of driving in the sun to a great song, enjoying a movie in the middle of a day off, buying a gift for ourselves or a loved one. It’s these kinds of simple joys that can pass us by and not be truly appreciated, especially those who refuse, or don't need to live in fear. In Hollywood we see many people unburdened by fear, a dark turning point that we know is coming on August 9th 1969.

Watching Sharon, she is one of us, she is a young woman full of life and love and is enjoying the simple things. She not only goes to watch a movie on a quiet sunny day but one that stars herself (The Wrecking Crew). The elation of her name on a cinema billboard is savoured and she gains entry (for free) after an effort to convince the theatre staff that she is indeed the actress in the film. It's worth noting that a similar thing happened with Tarantino at a screening of True Romance at this very same cinema during the early 90s while his fame was very new. Watching herself on the screen with childish glee as the audience reacts well to her comedic pratfalls, it’s one of the most moving and joyous scenes this year. Watching the young rising actress enjoy her new success, seeing her silly film embraced by the public, her name on the marquee starring beside Dean Martin and feeling like the best is yet to come.

The decision to keep Sharon’s presence, which is beautifully performed by Margot Robbie, as exactly that, a presence, rather than another more lived in character is one of the film’s successes in its balancing act of taste. Keeping Sharon’s place in the story away from the centre and not explored as Rick and Cliff are is equally as important as how minor Charles Manson is made to be. The film manages to both humanise Sharon Tate without leaning into her enough to judge what we could never know, and reduces Manson and his followers to the butt of a joke.

Take the scene in which Rick's stunt double Cliff visits Spahn Ranch, the current home of The Manson Family and still home of an old friend of Cliff’s, the real life George Spahn. The only fictitious part of this scene is Cliff. The tense set-piece that feels one part Sam Peckinpah to two parts Texas Chainsaw Massacre operates on two levels; On one hand we see Cliff battle a real life Western-showdown of sorts while his actor associate Rick battles his lines on TV Western Lancer, seeing the Stuntman living what the actor is performing in safety. The second function is to begin the mythos stripping of Manson and his tribe. Tarantino - always one to take his time anyway - essentially says if you stare long enough it’s a bunch of rude teenagers, moldy dishes, lazing about watching TV and abusing the weaknesses of the man who owns their dwelling. The stripping of mythos doesn’t stop there and is completed by the film’s warped climax but it begins here. This, along with its treatment of Sharon Tate, 50 years in the making, to celebrate how a life should be characterized by life and not in death, taking the power back from the killers and to the innocent slain, is what makes Hollywood such a marvel to breathe in. 

Cliff isn’t particularly likeable on a real world level, he’s a guy with a shady past that possibly involves the murder of his wife, lives in a trailer with his pinball and has no discenerable friend other than Rick. Within the confines of the reel world, however, he certainly is cool, like seriously cool, movie-cool; As handsome as Redford or Newman with all the swag to back it up. Brad Pitt basically. What makes stuntman Cliff so magnetic runs deeper than this, though; We are the paying audience wanting the illusion cinema provides and yet we are also Cliff, aware of the machinery behind it all. He is, like us, on the wrong side of the screen both figuratively and literally when we see him drive back to his caravan behind that drive in theatre. Like Cliff we don’t have the luxury make-believe of film sets and characters like Rick, we go home and do something mundane like in Cliff’s case fixing the TV aerial or deal with real world problems in our own Western confrontations. Cliff, as he says in the film’s opening 16mm black and white segment - “carries the load” - the load may as well stand for reality itself. When the lights go up again from this Once Upon A Time… we get up from our seats and carry the load once again and forget the dream of the Hollywood machine because we’re on the wrong side of the screen just like Cliff. We plug into the dream machine to take us away from our problems and to see a better world, our cinema seats may as well be Rick’s sofa as we stare at the screen and chuckle like the two of them do watching FBI, but we know, as sure as that drive back home after the credits is, that we’re just house guests on borrowed time, just like Cliff.

The last decade has seen Tarantino's work move into more dense and literary modes, his westerns more verbose and violent than ever. Though these works functioned as sprawling novelistic works that had to be crammed into a feature film, not until now has a film by him contained the richness and emotion contained in a great piece of literature. Once Upon a Time...In Hollywood had me laughing uncontrollably at points, and yet at all other times I was floored by the elegiac sadness that runs throughout. The feeling it left me reminded me of one film (for Tarantino this is a miracle) and that was Robert Altman's last picture A Prairie Home Companion. Anyone who knows the work of Altman and understands what this film meant and represented to the 81 year old, understands the beauty and sadness inside it. The story of a radio show's last live performance is simultaneously a farewell to Altman's career and to his life.

I'll sign off now by cheating a little bit as I use part of the late great Roger Ebert's review of Altman's film to sum up my own feelings of Tarantino's latest:

"What a lovely film this is, so gentle and whimsical, so simple and profound. Robert Altman's "A Prairie Home Companion" is faithful to the spirit of the radio program, a spirit both robust and fragile, and yet achieves something more than simply reproducing a performance of the show. It is nothing less than an elegy, a memorial to memories of times gone by, to dreams that died but left the dreamers dreaming, to appreciating what you've had instead of insisting on more. Like the show that inspired it, "A Prairie Home Companion" is not about anything in particular. Perhaps it is about everything in general: About remembering, and treasuring the past, and loving performers not because they are new but because they have lasted."

Sunday, 11 August 2019


When Quentin Tarantino screened his widely anticipated WWII movie Inglourious Basterds at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, critics were divided and mostly perplexed. When the film opened wide in August that same year the reviews were mostly still mixed by the same critics and yet this was the writer/director’s biggest box office hit to date and a firm fan favourite almost immediately. As time has gone on and the ten year anniversary of its general release is upon us, I look back at the lasting appeal of the film and how it has endured despite its subversive, outrageous, and uncommercial sensibilities. 

The film tells the story of two seperate plans to assassinate members of the Nazi high command at a Nazi Propaganda film premiere during occupied France in 1944. It charts the personal quest for vengeance of a young Jewish woman, Shosanna (
Mélanie Laurent), who in the film’s 1941 setup, is the sole survivor of her family’s execution by Col Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz). Elsewhere in France during this time, America has joined the war and we follow a Jewish military unit (The Basterds) led by Lt Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) behind enemy lines as their shocking fear tactics that make waves felt as far up as Hitler himself. As the film dovetails and hurtles towards its explosive finale, fates converge and history is altered forever under the roof of a cinema, the only place where anything can happen. 

The film is mostly remembered now by the extraordinary performance of Austrian actor Christoph Waltz as Col. Hans Landa; an SS Officer who is the film’s main villainous drive. Waltz, a virtual unknown at the time of casting famously said to his director, “Thank you for giving me my career”, to which Tarantino responded, “Thank you, for giving me my movie”.

It’s true that production on Basterds was only a week from being shut down during casting; it appeared Tarantino had written a character so devilishly talented in linguistics that it was impossible to find an actor who could both speak four languages and deliver everything else the script demanded. Thankfully fate intervened and careers were revived on both sides of the camera. Landa is arguably the greatest character of Tarantino’s career, from a body of work that has boasted many memorable characters. But although it’s the villainous Landa who remains the main pop-culture touchstone of the piece and the pinnacle of Tarantino’s career, the film boasts many delights.

Like the heist film without a heist that was Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino’s long awaited ‘men-on-a-mission’ WWII actioner that had been talked up since 1998 was devoid of notable warfare. The film still functioned somewhat as a men-on-a-mission style caper but was also a Spaghetti Western-style revenge story, a spy thriller, an examination of Nazi Propaganda, as well as a love letter to cinema itself.

From the moments that Nick Perito's rendition of ‘The Green Leaves of Summer’ accompanies the opening credits.

To the beautiful fairytale like vistas of the opening shot.

To the broken tranquility when Ennio Morricone’s music introduces the approaching doom.

It’s clear that Tarantino is in pure command of melding all these scattered elements into something special.

The opening chapter ‘Once Upon a Nazi-occupied France’ opens to ideallic greener-than-green vistas of French cow-country and the film sets the expectation of a fairytale that encourages us to leave grounded reality at the door. ‘The Green Leaves of Summer’ was most famously used to open The Alamo (1960) a John Wayne western that famously took historical liberties with the 1836 account of outnumbered American’s defending against thousands of Mexican aggressors. This ties into the later pivotal war story of Frederich Zoller as well as the film’s later history bending directions. When Ennio Morricone’s ‘La Condanna’ (from 1966 Spaghetti Western The Big Gundown) enters to warn of approaching evil, it seamlessly merges, with Morricone’s sampling of Beethoven’s ‘Fur Elise’, both Western and German insignias.

“Landa is the best character I’ve written and maybe the best I ever will write” - Quentin Tarantino

It’s a masterclass of a scene. Tarantino’s penchant for dialogue is too often the forefront of any conversation and yet his mastery of silences and expressions are seldom the focus; The look on the farmer’s face as the Nazi vehicles approach, the look between his daughters’s before they’re asked to leave the farmhouse. The scene is a mystery to anyone watching for the first time, it’s a polite enough exchange between two strangers and yet the atmosphere is the feeling of someone’s worst nightmare, of that day they feared could come. The niceties slip soon enough as Landa enters into a monologue explaining why Jews are despised such as rats are, a preposterous point so levelled in its delivery that the delusional ideology sounds madly reasonable and evident why it could be used to justify a hateful doctrine. Of the film’s 153 minute runtime the opening segment is an excruciating twenty-one minutes and serves as a nerve shredding intro to the story’s main villain (Landa) and protagonist (Shosanna). It’s the first of multiple nail-biting set-pieces and interrogations used to introduce and reveal characters, building to the final chapter under Shosanna’s Parisian Cinema.

At the heart of Basterds is a Nazi Propaganda film - Nations Pride - directed by the real-life Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebells about the exploits of fictional war hero Frederich Zoller. It’s an onslaught of a film that shows hundreds of American soldiers maimed by a single Nazi sniper. The theatre full of the Nazi Party is electrified, Hitler himself is in fits of joyful bloodlust, and then the tables are turned as hundreds of Nazis are gunned down and burnt to death in the climax. The bloodlust is now on us as we enjoy the carnage, the violent catharsis of it all, the escapist ecstasy of a more satisfying end to the war. The fantasy of revenge is as much a fantasy as living in a world where violence doesn’t provide solutions and the meta-effect of the film speaks to the viewer and asks, ‘it feels good doesn’t it?’ The narrative of Inglourious Basterds itself is a propaganda film, how Tarantino showcases Lt Aldo Raine’s exploits are no different from how Goebells showcases Zoller’s. It's not even a far push to assume upon returning to America that Aldo would be greeted with a post-war career similar to that of Frederich Zoller and do wonders for US Military recruitment and morale. A Russian doll effect even takes shape when considering that Shosanna hijacks Goebell’s film and inserts her own message, making Inglourious Basterds a Jewish propaganda film inside a Nazi propaganda film inside an American propaganda film.

“It seems to me that television is exactly like a gun. Your enjoyment of it is determined by which end of it you're on.” - Alfred Hitchcock

It's clear how the film takes a levelled look at the Nazi soldiers throughout; it has fun making them look, obvious absurd racial beliefs included, pompous and egotistical but never less than deadly. Frederich Zoller would be easy to depict as a tunnel visioned political social climber who boasts of his kill count that’s hooked the attention of Goebells, yet he’s painted as a love sick puppy dog barking up the wrong tree during his pursuit of Shosanna. He’s even introduced as a budding cinephile to Shosanna, who could not be less interested in a man in a Nazi uniform, a factor he pig-headidly fails to comprehend and one that ends up being both their undoings. The narrative almost entirely rests on this monstrous oversight of hubris. Zoller is killed by Shosanna because his affection for her blinded him from the questionable moral weight of his uniform. Shosanna is killed by Zoller because for a single moment she pities him and for the first time sees a man through his uniform. While the film does a great job of providing cathartic turns showing totalitarian extremist figures as jokes (this is sometimes the only way to wound Evil) it acknowledges the danger of losing sight, even for a second the severity of their threat. If it weren't for his uniform the audience would be cheering Frederich to 'get-the-girl' like any other cinematic romance!

Whereas Inglourious Basterd’s opening chapter went down as a notable masterclass even by the film’s own detractors, it as a whole divided critics. Upon release the film was often maligned for being a retread of Tarantino’s previous two ‘lighter’ releases (Kill Bill and Death Proof), this time using the WWII backdrop as a poor excuse to inflict a third dose of violent retribution. The verdict was out if whether Basterds as a return to form but even the more favorable critics often summed it up as a revenge fantasy narrative. Looking at the film this simply is to undermine the way it explores other complex themes.

With Tarantino’s subsequent films - Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight - we can see Basterds clearer than we could ten years ago. The preoccupations of his racially charged westerns are built upon the foundations set here as they explore our relationship with history through genre-cinema, the necessity of violence, and how certain types of violence find their place on and off of the screen.

Django Unchained followed a freed slave on the path to retrieving his wife from her cruel plantation owner. The film offers many pleasures in seeing the downtrodden rise up but Django’s nobel quest for his wife was only possible if he became more dangerous and single minded than the white captors. White blood will spill and if black blood has to as well then so be it, as he is owed what is his. It’s a cinematic fantasy, like Basterds, in that the world can be made right by an individual (or individuals) who enforce their right more heavily than those enforcing against them.

The Hateful Eight, Tarantino’s second western, explores the issue of systematic justice verses vigilantism explored in his first.

“The man who pulls the lever that breaks your neck will be a dispassionate man. And that dispassion is the very essence of justice. For justice delivered without dispassion is always in danger of not being justice" - Oswaldo Mobray (The Hateful Eight)

The fact that the above quote is delivered by character Oswaldo Mobray, an outlaw posing as a court official, doesn’t make it any less true. The world is built up of intricate laws and systems that allowed the unimaginable horror of the Holocaust, the same can be said of slavery and of most injustice still felt today. Inglourious Basterds is revelling in the power of cinema here, of noting the power of the image as propaganda but also of its power to give us the feeling of balance that real life so rarely gives us. In reality the system fails us, the wrong person goes to prison, the guilty enjoy freedom, the rich make bail, Hitler doesn’t face tribunal but takes his own life. Cinema has the power to provide a feeling of closure, no matter how ethereal.

Released within the same decade as 9/11, Basterds naturally attracted comparisons to ongoing current events with a central plot involving US Soldiers undergoing a suicide bombing mission. The Iraq war was still ongoing along with critical humanitarian debates regarding torture as a tool to prevent greater threat to life. Here we're presented with a garish depiction of American warfare, one which uses sheer brutality to extract information. American suicide bombers isn’t the only way the film plays it on the other foot, either; In fact if the above is pure coincidence then there are other examples where Basterds used a European mirror to reflect US history. The fact that Hitler is killed in a theatre box by surprise gunfire reminds of President Lincoln’s Assassination by the hands of John Wilkes Booth in 1865. Then there’s the obvious subtextual reading of King Kong (1933) by Major Hellstrom during the film's now infamous 'La Louisiana Tavern' sequence in which the SS Major smuggly acknowledges the film's story as a metaphor for the enslavement of Africans in America. A sly reference that remind the viewer that no matter how much mileage the Nazis have given cinema for villany, that America pre-dated the Jewish Holocaust with not only one but two of their own if you also add in the genocide of Native Americans. Tarantino even applies the classic stereotypically racist southern-hillbilly profile to Pitt’s Lt Aldo Raine, turning the idea on its head as Raine, unnerving as he is, hates what the Nazi Party believe in and is proud to fight them.

When I first saw Inglourious Basterds it was clear that Tarantino was operating on a new level and this was also the summation of everything made before it. It was razor sharp, focussed, and confident in a way that surpassed his other films; a stranglehold with moments of ecstatic delight. I was reminded that this was a 'come back' vehicle and yet it's remarkable only a third is spoken in English, Brad Pitt its only notable star and is essentially a supporting role, and it references European history and pre-war cinema without ego or condescension. Of its 153minutes the plot only emerges somewhat over an hour in and its action (finale not including) is sparse. What other director could or would make their biggest commercial hit out of such material? This was anarchic filmmaking reminding that there are rules to cinema that are optional to follow and yet the ghosts of cinema's forefathers such as Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubtich, and Alfred Hitchcock, among others, are felt in every frame reminding of cinema's oldest tricks and formalities. How Tarantino juggles the artificial pleasures of cinema while maintaining high drama will always, for me, be his greatest skill.

Viewed today in preparation to write this piece, the film seems more important and impressive than ever. In the last four years the World has become more extreme and yet never so muddied as Presidents are replaced by reality stars, celebrities are replaced by influencers, and as the screens of our attention are getting smaller and smaller the more we're being controlled by them. In a time where everyone is plugged into their own private reality that can be controlled by totalitarian extremists, with its own version of historic events and focus on wartime propaganda, Inglourious Basterds appears all the more prescient when viewed during the ‘fake news’ of today.

Much emphasis has been put on the film's escapist fantasy fulfilment. Today the film's fantasy seems more important and relevant than ever; A victory for the film and a sad fact for Planet Earth. Unlike the survivors of one of Lt Aldo Raine's ambushes, those who seek to oppress and control the masses bare no discernible mark to warn of, don't wear a uniform to speak of, and like history has taught us, hide in plain sight until it's too late. To wish life was that easy truly is a fantasy.

Tuesday, 9 July 2019

Midsommar (Ari Aster, 2019)

Writer/director Ari Aster was already headlong into production with his follow-up to the smash hit Hereditary before he even knew of the film's critical and commercial success. With a foot less firmly in the horror genre this time around but with a more assured footing nonetheless, his second feature film is a more confident piece and certainly a more confounding one.

The film begins in the dark snowscape of an American cityscape and ends in the sun drenched fields of Sweden (shot in Hungary for budgetary reasons); we follow Dani (Florence Pugh), a young woman who has lost her family, seemingly through escalated mental health issues, and has been invited by her boyfriend to join him and his friends to a once in a lifetime opportunity. This invitation is to join a Swedish festival that occurs every ninety years during Swedish summer solstice. With grief still fresh and her relationship on the rocks it doesn't take long to realise it may have been the worst decision she could have made, or was it?

The set-up, as it appears written, is almost eye-roll inducing in regards to Horror genre traits. You can almost hear the words DON'T LOOK NOW and THE WICKER man as you read the synopsis and yet there is little by way of pedestrianism when it comes to execution here. The plot rests heavily on that the male pack that came from America (they were invited by their Swedish university pal) are all anthropology students undergoing their PHD thesis. This not only acts as the reason they embark on such a unique trip but why they stay there as events turn increasingly sour. The average horror troupe would have bolted for the fence as soon as public suicides occur and strange sexual practices are shared yet this lot feel like they're found gold dust. 

The nine day festival is observed in a measured stance, letting the rituals and customs play out with an anthropological lens. The tension is held and left simmering but never allowing to boil over; there were times when it felt like the wind was changing (like so many modern horrors) and a higher gear was entering to obliterate any atmosphere earned for shock effects, but it is left painstakingly unshaken in its slow cooker approach. The tantric nature of this, along with the setting never venturing into sunset, is extremly disorinentating and the need to see Midsommar big in a dark screening room cannot be pushed enough. The light becomes oppressive, confusing, unescapable and a character in itself. The village itself by production designer Henrik Svensson is masterful and a character in itself too; Aster's almost fetishistic desire to live in his scenes for uncomfortable stretches and his penchant for wide angles and single roaming shots, navigate you around the fields and barns giving a profound sense of space even as time is completely lost.

This is the first film I've seen of Florence Pugh and the film rests on her shattered performance. I can see why she has so quickly been considered a powerhouse performer for such a young actor. Like Hereditary this is also a film with grief at its centre, and arguably the film's painful mournful opening twenty minutes is the closest it gets to pure primal terror before the plot is thrown into motion. Pugh shows the battle ranging inside her through her face alone as she tries to keep a lid on her private despair and to benefit the group on their trip. Which brings us to the point that Ari Aster has described his film as a break up film, written while he was still in the emotional turmoil of a split. The film questions why we do what we do in times of need, what we cling to or reject, the options there for someone (albeit a modern western individual) who is trying to harness grief. The film's finale, which won't be spoiled, feels like a logical conclusion and one that could be deemed by Dani as an ending, a fairytale ending, like Dorothy clicking her heels together to get back to Kansas in The Wizard of Oz

Midsommar is so impressively packed with ideas and imagery so daring for an American 'horror' feature that it's a monumental achievement in how it unsettles and never settles again. It has more in common with Lars Von Triers 'Women in trouble' films such as Dogville or Manderlay than of traditional horror fare and is a truly exciting addition to the recent resurgence the genre is having in the US. Never has a film so dark shone so brightly. 

Saturday, 9 January 2016

The Hateful Eight (2015, Quentin Tarantino)

With Quentin Tarantino's 8th feature, his third December holiday US release following Jackie Brown and Django Unchained, a bunch of strangers linked by a murky past are forced to spend the night together as they are snowed into a remote cabin. They must get along to survive the night but of course that surely isn't possible. It's starting to look a lot like Christmas, you could say.

Set an unconfirmed number of years after The American Civil War, a stagecoach carrying a lawman with a deadly bounty by his side travels dangerously through a Wyoming blizzard. John "The Hangman" Ruth (Kurt Russell) is desperately trying to deliver his bounty alive to the town of Red Rock; his reputable nature stems from his belief that a dead or alive bounty should be tried in court and hung so that's exactly what he wants for serial killer Daisy Domergue (a ferociously feral Jennifer Jason Leigh). The stagecoach has to stop on two occasions for two stranded men who seek solace from the storm: Ruth is a cynical and paranoid man in his situation but trusts fellow bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) as they have met once before during the war, and he is reluctantly forced to trust ex-Confederate gang-leader Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) due to his claims that he is also on his way to Red Rock as the town's new Sheriff. To make matters worse for Ruth, who was already expecting an attempt on his life to free Domergue, they are forced to make an overnight stop at a remote cabin that harbours four more strangers whose reasons for being there are dubious at best.

The set-up 'sounds' simple enough and many have already made the points of comparison to Tarantino's debut Reservoir Dogs, which is a superficial and uninformed comparison. This is the director simply doing what he does best and has done multiple times, on this occasion arguably never better. Tarantino's films have always worked best when his vibrant characters are forced to confront each other, revealing each others' true selves using digressively verbose exchanges that contain hidden meanings and motives, and here this is pushed to the utmost extremes.

So why is this any different from what has already been achieved already? For a start The Hateful Eight is drenched in a historic subtext that is so racially charged and angry the story feels weaponised even before the stakes have been set or a single bullet fired. With allegiances being forged inside the cabin based on dividing north and south politics, the refuge spot becomes a chessboard of racially charged tension that shows how the outcome of The Civil War hasn't brought the country very far and from a spectator's POV 150 years on, still not far enough. The ex-confederate soldier of Mannix stands in arms next to the elderly Confederate General (Bruce Dern) who spouts vitriol towards "Nigger" Major Warren as they had fought battles from opposing sides when the now bounty hunter was once a Union Soldier. Trust bonds John Ruth to fellow lawman Major Warren, while the other three strangers - a slimy Englishman (Tim Roth) claiming to be the new hangman of Red Rock, a Mexican named Bob (Demián Bichir) who claims he's looking after the cabin while its owner is visiting her mother, and a cowboy (Michael Madsen) who claims to be passing through to also visit his mother. Like us, John Ruth trusts none of these stories and as the tension mounts like a gun being slowly cocked, the war ground becomes policially divided.

The direction utilised by Tarantino shows a new level of command; the way he frames and blocks his shots showing details in the foreground and background managing to fit copious amounts of details into his 2.76:1 frame, often in long unbroken takes. The sense of space and texture of the cabin is rich and immersive thanks to the 70mm photography. I was lucky enough to see the extended roadshow version of the film which was projected on 70mm and it felt like the snow flakes dancing in the air were coming off of the screen at times. Ennio Morricone who has not managed to shed his link with the western genre despite an expansive and eclectic career delivers an original score that taps into the horror elements and produces music more akin to his work with Italian giallo directors of the 1970s. This is hardly surprising due to the Giallo movement largely involving brutal renderings of Agatha Christie-like mysteries to which The Hateful Eight bares more than a few similarities to. 

In a career that boasts some of the most iconic partnering with Tarantino, Samuel L Jackson is so memorable here, even in a room of such eccentrics and within a film of such beautiful imagery. It's the devilish grin and the piercing look in Major Warren's eyes that stays with you. He's the most cerebral characters in the film and he outsmarts various others using tall tales to get the reactions he needs, one in particular is told in such shocking vividity I've still not come to terms with how I feel about it. 

There are problems and contradictions in The Hateful Eight as there are in all of Tarantino's films and I desperately need to see this film again to fully digest it. Often with his films, initial dislikes to transpire as the same reasons why I like them in the long run and this one will surely be the greatest challenge. Despite the already much noted brutality of the film by the media, there is a note of hope amidst the cynicism; this hope is contained in the film's final moments as the power for change in the human heart emerges and creates the strongest end to any of Tarantino's films in over a decade. It is a moment of warm humanity and though Tarantino is always attacked for using homage, caricature, and cartoon-like violence in his films over the use of realism to address subjects, that severe moments of humanity in his work are easily overlooked; whether that be a trickle of blood that comes down Daisy Demergue's forehead as she looks up in tight close-up little wounded and vulnerable. Or the linchpin to The Hateful Eight - a much celebrated letter that Major Warren carries with him, a personal letter from Abraham Lincoln acknowledging his war efforts. At two points in the film another character reads said letter and at both times this letter produces, if only for a second, an ethereal bubble over the threat of violence sustained throughout. It's in moments like this that the film soars. 

The Hateful Eight is as subversive and uncompromising as Tarantino has ever been and certainly his most technically impressive. It's equally confounding as it is inspired and may well be his least enjoyable feature thus far; this isn't meant as a negative but rather suitably twisted praise for such a twisted film that doesn't at any point wants you to feel good about its slowly unfolding events and tests you every step of the way. Two viewings may be required to fully digest this monstrously severe western that has more blood lineage with the horror genre. 

With a story boldly (others may argue tactlessly) addressing the hypocrisy, lies, and delusions used to cover up a country's past crimes that are still very much alive today as parallels to current political events are all too noticable. The story and the characters in The Hateful Eight are metophorically and literally built on a lie.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Crimson Peak (2015, Guillermo Del Toro)

There is a forewarning, if one must view it such a way, from central character Edith Cushing about her unpublished novel not being a ghost story but rather a story with ghosts in it. It feels like a knowing side-glance to the audience to prepare themselves for a certain type of horror film; one which is drenched in sadness, loss, and longing and relies on the tortured adult souls on display to be explored through the metaphor of ghosts i.e. the past, a metaphor again brought to attention. For anyone knowingly walking into Guillermo Del Toro's new film, they shouldn't be surprised by his approach here for it covers similar ground to his Spanish Civil War-set ghost story The Devil's Backbone (2001) and offers similar thrills and pains, whether they be physical or emotional, and feels part of a lineage concluding said film and the sensational Pan's Labyrinth (2006).

Crimson Peak follows the story of Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) who after meeting and falling for the charming industrial inventor Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) is taken to be married and to live with her new husband and neglectful sister-in-law Lucille (Jessica Chastain) in their rotting family home in England. Edith probably wouldn't have left New York if it wasn't for the mysterious death of her father, which after the untimely death of her mother when she was a little girl has left her alone without family. The headstrong young would-be Mary Shelley is disarmed as the film follows her gradually being dominated by the two headed dragon of Thomas and Lucille who harbour a grave secret that is revealed gradually throughout the story.

Crimson Peak is as visually stunning as anything you're bound to see this year; every frame saturating the film's palette lifting the colour as if from the screen and for a film so cloaked in death it is also so alive, so vitalised by the joy of just being. The family mansion of Lucille and Thomas Sharpe is so magnificent yet a building that aches with pain and seems to cry and howl endlessly as a character quite rightfully unto itself. The candles held by Edith as she wonders through her new home, her yellow hair juxtaposed against the cold moonlight and the crimson mass of the resident ghosts. This is eye-popping cinema in a similar vein to the technicolor films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and reminds how rare it is to be visually stimulated in such a way by an American studio film in recent times.

This vitality comes from the ever passionate Guillermo Del Toro - a filmmaker who shoots with his heart firmly on the lens. His childlike fondness for the wonders of cinema is one that is utterly endearing however I found this affectionate naivety being lost on this particular story. Whereas before I have accepted this storyteller and have admitted to being lost, in awe, and needing a guide out of Pan's Labyrinth, I found myself almost immediately aware of how to exit Crimson Peak's maze.

Much as the film's characters are shackled to the past in pure gothic fashion, so is Crimson Peak by design; this is a film that in many ways echoes the studio films of the 1940s, which is at times a joy to see a filmmaker creating such a stirring picture of the past but one that verges on homage to the point of disruption. The story beats of Hitchcock outings Rebecca, Shadow of a Doubt, Notorious, and Psycho come with pleasure much like the other gothic reference points that come in abundance, but by the end it's doubtful how much Crimson Peak offers to this lineage.

I admire and am still in awe of Crimson Peak by the sheer nature of its design, its tenderness regarding a sub-genre of horror rarely explored anymore, of its bravery and exuberance to showcasing emotion in every frame helped through by Fernando Velázquez's sweeping score and Dan Lausten's baroque cinematography, yet I'm unable to shake off the feeling that something has been lost in the mix here. I was expecting Del Toro to hit me in the gut or to pull at my heart strings like he has managed in the past (even his Hellboy films evoke an emotional response) but this never came. Crimson Peak is a great throwback to classical horror (classical in the literal sense) and there is pleasure to be had in that but for all the film's success in recreating this strand of cinema it winds up being a present that should be viewed and not touched where the temptation to tear it open and enjoy it is all too overwhelming.

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Foxcatcher (2014, Bennett Miller)

Hulking bodies and broken psyches drive Foxcatcher, Bennett Miller's fourth film and fourth based on a true event.  This is an unrelenting American horror story in which misplaced longings build to unbearable levels, giving way to upmost tragedy.

Combining the cold blooded nature of the killings centred upon in 2005's Capote and the sporting world of his last film - Moneyball -  Foxcatcher tells the torturous relationship between self-appointed wrestling coach John DuPont and the talented Schultz brothers who he came to manage. Manage, not by talent but through sheer wealth and an illogical determination to mend his once great but now flailing country to make it prosperous and proud once again. 

DuPont means to do so by training a team of talented young wrestlers to compete and win the 1988 Seoul Olympics. This team would be headed by star player Mark Shultz who won Olympic gold in '84 who after had been thrown on the junk pile. Shultz, played here by Channing Tatum, is a towering neanderthal like man with a pronounced lower jaw, hunched shoulders, and hanging arms. There's a big heart to match his other large muscles here but he's a broken childlike man looking for a place in the world. Introduced by making ends meat, Mark attends schools to motivate youngsters with his accomplishments, being paid small cash to do so, then returning to his grim lodgings to eat packeted noodles -  hardly the food of champions. One day, like a scene out of some classic noir, he receives a mysterious phone call beckoning him to the DuPont residence where he's offered his place in team Foxcatcher. Coaxed by the words of patriotism by John DuPont in person, Mark inevitably succumbs. 

Unlike his younger brother, David Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) isn't as impressed and decides to decline despite the teaming of the two brothers being what DuPont really desires. It's here that the brother's nomadic upbringing comes into the picture as from an ever moving broken home, David has settled with a family and has used this to overcome his childhood while Mark is still living it, remaining tortured by its lack of parental figures and roots. This also reveals the gravitational pull of DuPont's influence on Mark as he's week, looking for a purpose and love beyond his brother.

Steve Carell is almost unrecognisable as John DuPont and against the golden boy wrestler he's the antithesis of a man built for such a sport: he's meagre and bird like in appearance, as if his bones would shatter like glass. He speaks in broken sentences that only hint at the broken man behind the words. It's a remarkable performance, like an amalgamation of Travis Bickle and The Simpsons' Mr. Burns, and like Tatum is a performance largely built around physical idiosyncrasies that would be too easy to fall into caricature but feel truly lived in by these actors.

It's mostly in the silence of the film that Bennett and his actors allow for the story to develop. Take for instance the first time we see the Schultz brothers training together, which is also the first time they share the screen; it's one of the film's opening scenes and in it Ruffalo and Tatum convey such a wide spectrum of emotions that you realise early on you're in the company of a team of filmmakers at the top of their game.

Too call Foxcatcher a film about wrestling would be accurate as long as you were referring to the wrestling of demons throughout. Ultimately this is what E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman's screenplay boils down to - an exploration of the collateral damage from such demons with the innocent suffering the largest casualties. DuPont's choice of wrestling in the first place is odd given his naturally fragile demeanour and being the future of an elite American dynasty, as his mother (a wheelchair-bound Vanessa Redgrave) refers to the sport as below her son in one of many examples her looking upon her only offspring in a mixed look of icy bafflement and disappointment. This venture into the world of wresting makes sense when looking at it as a defying gesture to a controlling matriarch, however the homosexual subtext that the film has garnered thus far seems misplaced. While it's true there are moments of uncomfortable master/slave like power shifts between John and Mark (Hitchcock's Marnie came to mind several times) this is a film, I believe, that explores DuPont's venture as one seeking intimacy of any kind and not the sexual variety. By using the same means that destroyed his childhood, DuPont uses wealth to get what he wants and buys players for his games instead of developing any kind of interpersonal skills and relationships. From a man who found out at the age of 16 that his best friend had been paid all along for his services, this tragically maladjusted millionaire uses the sport as a means to be close to others, whether that be on the mat individually or part of a team. The most striking example showing DuPont administering the same parental behaviour that corrupted him in the first place is best shown comparing two scenes that lodge in the memory. The first is a beautifully shot sequence in which John releases his mother's horses from their stables soon after her passing; a moment of simple subtext as a son lets go of his emotional baggage except we soon learn that letting go for John is impossible as he's cursed to being consumed by it instead. The second scene contain a simple framing of Mark as he's visited by brother David in his outhouse located on Foxcatcher Farm; Mark is framed in his doorway -  a stable door in which the top section is opened so he can converse with his brother, his hulking top half sticking out indeed like that of a horse. Kept on the farm like the other wrestlers, DuPont merely collects people like his mother's precious horses and like the many antiques of the main house. Kept for their function and aesthetic purpose but stored either at a distance or on display. His view of human companionship beyond this purpose is alien to him.

Foxcatcher appears overly loose and meandering at times and on reflection could be argued to needing tighting - however this is also the film's key to power as the taunting and misdirection almost cancels out the suspension (though never the tension) before hitting a deathblow. Unlike those in Foxcatcher Farm who failed to notice the warning signs, we the audience have foresight into the tragedy unfolding before our eyes and  the signposted deterioration of DuPont as he grows increasingly detached and erratic. His love of guns becomes unruly and his day-to-day demeanour more subdued perhaps by his cocktail of drugs along with his eroding psyche.

Like his Capote, Bennett Miller has a real knack for creating an atmosphere of dread and manages to give his films a quality in which you're taken back to these moments, no matter how mundane or painful they are, there's a sheen to his biopics and yet they're beautifully balanced with the candid. Foxcatcher sees Bennett go three for three in his feature films so far and while it's a draining and bleak venture this time,  it's becoming somewhat of a joy to see this filmmaker's take on seismic moments of American history, even as each subject appears more esoteric than the last.