Godless (US, 2017)

Rewriting rules

Two brilliant Netflix productions (the other’s Mudbound) within a month proves the worth of the subscription. If Mudbound should have been seen in the cinema, then Godless, as a series, belongs on television though it too would have looked great on the big screen. The Santa Fe locations are stunning and writer director Scott Frank produces some fantastic visuals. Frank has a long track record as a scriptwriter in Hollywood but only directed two feature films; he’s responsible for the whole eight hours (across seven episodes of varying length) of Godless.

While the Western pops up occasionally in feature films, the last I saw was the disappointing The Homesman (US-France, 2014), it remained a television staple in the latter years of the 20th century. I’m not sure how it’s fared since, though I thoroughly enjoyed HBO’s Deadwood (2004-06) – though I only saw season one. Godless, apparently, was marketed as a feminist Western, featuring a women-only town. One tweet pointed out that, despite this, women only had 38% of the dialogue in the first episode. I suspect the progressive claim was manufactured by the marketing department seeking a USP; though such Westerns aren’t unique – see The Ballad of Little Jo (1993). That’s not to say that women aren’t important, Michelle Dockery and Merritt Wever have great roles as outsiders who refused to be bowed. Their performances, indeed the cast are uniformly great, are excellent as are the protagonist, Jack O’Connell, and the antagonist, Jeff Daniels who has never been better.

In common with long form television, the narrative is fragmented with liberal flashbacks filling in the gaps. Dramatically this is valid and helps maintain the pace in a long narrative. There’s also time for diversions to puncture American myths, Mormons who massacre and blame the Indians for example; rewriting the Western, the genre that tells of the greatness of pioneers, is entirely appropriate as contemporary America implodes.

It is rare for me to be impatient for the next episode and I’ve resisted ‘binge watching’ (sounds unhealthy) but I saw Godless within 17 days and I recommend this article about the series’ greatness.

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Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (UK, 2017)

Bitter sweetness

A few weeks after watching ‘Glorious Grahame’ in her filmic prime (Crossfire) it was pleasing to see this bittersweet biopic of her final days in the unlikely company of a much younger Liverpudlian actor, Peter Turner. The film’s based on Turner’s memoir and has taken 30 years to reach the screen; it was worth waiting for Annette Bening to get to the appropriate age as her performance is outstanding. Apart from Julie Walters’ and Stephen Graham’s wigs, all the performances are good. I particularly warmed to Walters’ mum.

McGuigan, whose direction in Gangster No. 1 (2000) was outstanding, has been working in television for the last 10 years; such as in the BBC’s Sherlock Holmes. Television no longer necessarily means routine direction, due to budgets, as first HBO, and now Netflix, have brought cinema’s aesthetics to the small screen. However, McGuigan seems to have been consigned to routine work so it’s great to see his imaginative visual style again. The flashbacks of how Grahame and Turner met are seamlessly integrated to the film’s present in dreamy transitions which emphasises the power of memory. The scenes in California use a stylised, and beautiful, back projection harking back to the classical Hollywood films of Grahame’s earlier career.

Remembering Grahame is not the only throwback in the film; Jamie Bell gets the opportunity for some great dance moves.

Snowden (France-Germany-US, 2016)

Blessed are the truth tellers

At the start of Snowden, a biopic of the NSA whistleblower, I wondered whether there was any point in watching it as it was recreating scenes directly from Laura Poitras’ brilliant documentary Citizen4. However this film’s focus on a libertarian’s (he was a fan of Ayn Rand) slow realisation that the system he was part of is corrupt makes riveting viewing. Directed with restraint, by Oliver Stone (not something necessarily associated with him), and anchored by a convincing performance in the lead, Joseph Gordon Levitt, this film is a vital record of how we are sleepwalking into a surveillance society that even Orwell did not dream up. I say ‘vital’ because it acts as a warning by letting the general public know what’s being done by those in power.

But there’s a problem: Citizen4 enjoyed the high profile of winning an Oscar and although Snowden flopped at the box office, millions of people have likely seen it. Has anything changed? Snowden’s life has, he’s in de facto exile in Moscow. Whistleblowers often find their lives in ruins for doing the right thing something that is not a coincidence. Those in power do not want to be held to account. Stone’s early film, the brilliant Salvador (UK-US), showed the moral corruption of American intervention in other country’s politics but that didn’t change the way American governments behave. Snowden’s revelation of illegal mass surveillance, in the name of security, caused some embarrassment but it will still be going on. Brave are the people who do the right thing in the face of the general populace’s inertia, which is fed by the misinformation of mainstream media, and the damage it does to their lives.

MSM is often vilified by those on the right and left for its partial reporting. We are living in scary times where the right is cementing its power through propaganda, which is distinct from MSM’s partiality, disseminated through social media, newspapers like the Daily Mail and Fox News. The Overton Window, the political breadth defining what is acceptable to the mainstream, is palpably shifting to the right. The BBC included extreme right commentators Anne Coulter and Kassam Raheem in its broadcasts this week and they must have a subscription to Nigel Farage as he’s on television again tomorrow; the current leader of UKIP (now a spent political force) was on Question Time this week. The BBC claim these voices are offering ‘balance’ but I doubt we’ll hear any extreme left wing views to counter this, which shows that the centre has moved right. Indeed, and I’m trying to avoid thinking conspiracy, at least three times recently the BBC have misrepresented Jeremy Corbyn (who they probably define as ‘hard left’): yesterday they allowed Tory supporter Dylan Jones to ridicule him on the flagship Radio 4 Today.

This shift to the right, most obviously seen in America, is dangerous. My generation were brought up in the shadow of World War II and it was ridiculous to think anything like the Nazis could happen again but we are on that path. Snowden reminds us that we should do the right thing and not be scared of standing up to power in whatever form it takes.

Crossfire (US, 1947)

Glorious Grahame

I was prompted to watch Crossfire after seeing Mudbound because I thought it too dealt with the, at the time unacknowledged, PTSD of veterans. Though some of the vets in the film are obviously psychologically scarred by their experience, the social problem it’s dealing with is anti-semitism. Although the film is cast, at first, as a police investigation into a murder as soon as Robert Ryan appears it’s clear who’s guilty; I’m assuming this is true for audiences at the time too. Hence the film is more interested in motivation which, although clear to modern audiences as soon as Ryan says “Jew boy”, may not have been in 1947 (my assumption that racism is obvious today is probably too optimistic actually).

From the opening murder scene Dmytryk’s direction uses shadows expressively placing us directly in film noir territory, and there are some great compositions. It’s a talky film but the dynamism with which he frames the characters is gripping in itself. The great cast also is enough reason to watch; in addition to Ryan there’s Robert Mitchum and Gloria Grahame. Grahame, whose story is featured in the just-released Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (UK), plays her moll with typical bruised tenderness. Although she was typecast as a ‘tart with a heart’ there’s no doubt that her heart is, by necessity, hard. Another great performance is given by Paul Kelly (as The Man) who might be her husband. His slightly demented delivery is almost as disturbing as Ryan’s psychosis.

Noir for a dark world

These performances give the film a modern edge only ameliorated by George Montgomery’s slightly complacent detective; he even smokes a pipe. Montgomery does the character’s world weariness well but he’s too controlled. Mitchum breezes through the film with his usual commanding charm.

I saw the film on the Movies4Men channel; it was sub categorised as Military4Men. I’m not sure who the audience for this channel is (okay obviously men) but they will be better for watching Crossfire.

Mudbound (US, 2017)

Bound in pain

Mudbound is one of the best films of the year but you’ll be lucky (from a UK perspective) if you can see it in cinemas even though it was only released yesterday; it’s a ‘Netflix original’. I wish I could see it in the cinema if only for Rachel Morrison’s beautiful cinematography. I’m not just referring to the sunsets but also the mud-sodden fields where much of the action takes place. I’m not having a go at Netflix,  at least they supported a black, female director – Dee Rees – in making an uncompromising film about racial hatred in 1940s America.

With high quality television sets, high definition streaming and sound bars, watching films at home has never been better. I remember watching Tarkovsky’s Solaris (USSR 1972) on a black and white portable television, I still enjoyed it but… One thing we’re likely to never know, however, is how popular Mudbound is with audiences as Netflix doesn’t release figures. That’s commercially sensitive information allowing it to know what types of film to make so anyone with a Netflix subscription watch it! The film’s won festival awards and is being linked to the Oscars but ‘box office’ figures will forever be absent.

I struggled slightly at the start of the film to orientate myself as the film sprawls somewhat in setting up the backgrounds of the two families; I also struggled with the accents of the characters but I could have put on the subtitles. However, the early scenes are important and once the McAllans arrive in Mississippi the narrative grips. Part of my struggle may have been because a number of characters have their own voiceovers which made it uncertain who were the main protagonists. I’m indifferent to voiceovers usually, unless it’s film noir, as they seem to be a failure of cinematic narration; however in Mudbound they work superbly to offer a multiplicity of viewpoints.

All the performances are extraordinary from Carey Mulligan to Mary J. Blige, unrecognisable (she’s in the image above) without her make up. Rees’ direction is subtle: I particularly liked a shot on V.E. Day with Ronsel, a member of General Patton’s Black Panthers, with his German lover looking out of the window at the celebrations in the street. He’s in the background and, despite the joyous scene, it’s clear he’s unhappy because it means his relationship is now over. Rees is equally confident in the battle scenes conveying the visceral horror and fully setting up the relationship between two veterans when they return from war.

As a chunk of Southern Gothic melodrama, Mudbound delivers brilliantly and hopefully Netflix finds it worth while to finance more of Rees’ films.

 

Z (France-Algeria, 1969)

Doing the right thing

Z‘s one of those increasingly rare films that I’ve wanted to see for years. I first heard about it around 35 years ago and I’m sure my reaction to it then would have been different to now. Z follows the investigation into a politically motivated murder of an opposition senator in an unnamed country. Costa-Gavras is Greek but as Greece was controlled by a military junta at the time, he made the film in Algeria. Not that the country is meant to be Greece as one of the police chiefs says, we live in a democracy. Costa-Gavras’ film shows democracy is a sham in this place.

I imagine my twentysomething self would have been gripped by the juge‘s (Jean-Louis Trintignant) investigation as he doggedly resists pressure to arrive at the truth. Challenging ‘authoritative’ voices was the zeitgeist for the young, in particular, in the ’60s but now we are far less likely to believe the official story. Indeed, for some anything that doesn’t follow their ideological preference becomes lies. Trump didn’t create that trend, though he would probably take credit for it, but he is riding the wave of disinformation and propaganda. So now the film doesn’t seem as exciting as I would have (probably) felt if I’d seen in my twenties.

I’m not sure what I would have made of the way the film slides increasingly into farce after Z’s (Yves Montand) death. The serious tone gradually gives way to absurdity that, from 2017, seems perfectly valid. In fact, farce and satire are what constitutes much of political discourse today; a potentially dangerous situation.

Z is (unsurprisingly) also dated in its visual style. The then fashionable use of the telephoto lens is distracting but it remains, nevertheless, a film well worth seeing. Another retro aspect of seeing the film was the sound in Leeds Town Hall, where it was screened as part of the Leeds Film Festival. It’s a long time since I’ve experienced that mono echoey effect of old cinemas; a long way from the focused soundscape we here today.

Koyaanisqatsi (US, 1982)

Mind blowing, mind expanding eco cinema

The content of the images of this film, mostly shot in the ’70s, may have dated but its portrayal of human (capitalist?) stupidity is even more relevant as our planet is now kicking back at us for the way we have treated it. The screening I saw had a live accompaniment, of their new score for the film, by GoGo Penguin. It was a fantastic performance.

Godfrey Reggio’s (mostly) fast motion montage of city life – bookended by images of the Grand Canyon – is in the tradition of the city films of the 1920s, such as Berlin, Symphony of a City (Germany 1927). Graphic matches in the editing, for example fast motion clouds flowing over hills is cut to water flowing, link the images but the lack of a voiceover requires the audience to construct the narrative. Reggio’s purpose, however, is clear; shots of sausages being produced on a production line are followed by (fast motion) people flooding into a commuter station, tells you what you need to know about his opinion of modern life. Toward the end the frenetic pace accelerates and I felt like the astronaut in 2001: A Space Odyssey (UK, 1968) – see image above – as he enters a worm hole (or something).

The shots of factory workers operating robotically shows the dehumanising effect of the production line. Today their function will probably have been taken over by actual robots. On one level this is an improvement; on the other, it’s not: what jobs are there for the factory workers? The answer is low paid, ‘flexible’ (for the employer) hours contracts. Instead of using the savings created by using robots, in time and money, to better the life of humanity, wealth has percolated upwards to those who don’t need it. This madness, which won’t end well, is different to the madness of modern life portrayed in Koyaanisqatsi but, nevertheless, is incredibly stupid.

I’m a fan of GoGo Penguin, a jazz trio (piano, bass and drums), but was sceptical about what they could bring to a film that benefited enormously from Philip Glass’s hypnotic score. At first I found the live performance distracting as you have to concentrate on the images, remember what follows what to create the narrative, and so can’t ‘follow’ the music. However, I soon tuned in and was gobsmacked by the trio’s integration with the images; if they missed a cue it was only by tenths of a second. The crashes of cymbals as bombs exploded was truly visceral. Brilliant playing of a superb score.

35 years after the film’s release, which only happened thanks to the intervention of Francis Ford Coppola, we are surely at a watershed in terms of whether we are going to repair our planet in time. In America the disconnect between political leadership and the need for ecological change could hardly be greater. This week California experienced record temperatures for the time of year and winter is now two weeks shorter than it was one hundred years ago. One scene in Koyaanisqatsi shows dollar bills being counted and for many money is all that matters. For an increasing number that’s simply a matter of survival; for the rich… Well, I don’t know why they need more; do they?

The only thing I missed hearing in this screening was the Hopi Indian chants of ‘koyaanisqatsi’ (‘unbalanced life’) that occur, if I remember correctly, at the end. If life was unbalanced in the ’80s we’re now in a tail spin.