The Revenant (US-Hong Kong-Taiwan, 2015)

Trying to do decent

It was probably my year in purdah that meant I missed seeing this brilliant film in the cinema. 2016: the year of Brexit, Trump and Lacey not watching movies. Well, in the grand scale my problem was a ‘hill of beans’ but I am sorry I didn’t see this on the big screen.

There’s little point in trying to define what is the essence of cinema as it refers to many things. In the current issue of Sight & Sound Nick James talks about how the visual aspect is crucial whilst, even today with the increase of ‘quality television’, the script remains paramount on the domestic screen. I’m inclined to agree especially if editing is included.

Ironically in Iñárritu’s previous film Birdman there – apparently – was no editing and he does have a predilection for the long take; see Y tu mama tambien. He combines the fluid Steadicam movement with virtuoso editing (Stephen Mirrone) in the battle scene at the start of the film. After a killing we follow the killer until they, soon, too are dead and then we ‘catch a ride’ with his killer and so on. This is one of the most devastating battle scenes I’ve seen as it emphasises the high chances of death in war. In most film’s battle sequences we focus on the protagonist who, for obvious reasons, is highly likely to survive.

Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography, suitably grim winter mise en scene, is brilliant and, if I can forgive Tom Hardy’s mumble, the performances convey the blunt machismo that was probably necessary to survive beyond the frontier. The chameleon Domhnall Gleeson deserves a special mention as the decent Captain who strives to do the right thing.

Selma (UK-US, 2014)

On the march

I’ve written about two high profile African-American films recently (Moonlight and Hidden Figures) both of which featured in this year’s Oscars. This was based on merit, however the Academy Awards don’t necessarily deal in merit as the literally scandalous neglect of Selma last year emphasised; it did receive a Best Picture nomination but David Oyelowo’s performance was widely thought to be worthy of at least a Best Actor nomination. I was delighted to catch up with this film that revealed a key moment in recent American history that had been ‘hidden’ from me.

While the events, in 1965, at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, are enshrined in Civil Rights history it is a strength of commercial cinema that it can both inform, and remind, millions of people about key moments. I was certainly ignorant and so was enlightened having watching the film and experienced exasperated rage at the ridiculous and violent racism perpetrated against the protestors who simply wanted to be able to exercise their right to vote. Racism is not just in history, unfortunately, as the racist right returns to the fray; Marine Le Pen may be been resoundingly defeated in France but she still got 35% of the vote and in the UK the Conservative party is morphing into UKIP.

Oyelowo’s performance as Martin Luther King is the lynchpin of the film’s success. Entirely convincing as the non violent leader in both his actions and his words. Although director Ava DuVernay (Yes! A high profile African-American female director) had to rewrite King’s speeches for copyright reasons, I still found Oyelowo’s delivery stirring. He was excellent also in A United Kingdom (Czech Republic-UK-US, 2016) that similarly unearthed an anti-racist narrative.

I don’t know about the development history of the film; British scriptwriter Paul Webb had been touting the script for some time. Cloud 8 films is the lead producer, set up by Christian Colson who used to work at Celador, who also produced. Celador made Slumdog Millionaire. Cloud 8 has (assuming Wikipedia is up to date and accurate) a ‘first look’ deal with Pathe, who also produced. Brad Pitt’s Plan B and Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Films represent American involvement. Winfrey appears as Annie Lee Cooper who punched Sheriff Jim Clark in Selma. Winfrey’s obviously a high profile black ‘player’ in the industry and it’s good to see Pitt using his power to get important films made; Plan B was also involved in 12 Years a Slave.

Presumably getting American finance was difficult and British actors Tom Wilkinson and Tim Roth (not forgetting Oyelowo) take on the major roles of President Johnson and Governor Wallace (both excellent). If making money is really the prime driver of Hollywood we should expect more African-American films especially given the success of Hidden Figures. Whilst the Fast and Furious franchise has been immensely successful in transcending the white hegemonic audience, very few films are following. Maybe racial politics trumps money.

London Road (UK, 2015)

Unbelievable

Verbatim dialogue, taken from interviews with people who lived on London Road during the capture and conviction of a serial killer in Ipswich during 2005, set to music? It shouldn’t work. Documentary realism mixed with that most stylised of genres, the musical: the characters do burst into song in the street! I’m aghast at the brilliance of the concept and the superb execution it receives in this Rufus Norris directed film; Norris had directed the original National Theatre production (he also directed Broken). It’s mostly the original cast with a few added, including Tom Hardy and Olivia Colman. They are uniformly brilliant particularly Kate Fleetwood, who did a marvellous Lady Macbeth in the Chichester Theatre production, as one of the surviving prostitutes who had turned London Road into a ‘red light’ district.

Adam Cork’s music is crucial to the project’s success. To my untutored ear it mixes musical conventions with minimalist techniques that allows sentences to be repeated more as refrain than a chorus; Alecky Blythe wrote the script, based on the interviews. The lines are delivered, presumably, in the way they were originally spoken. The accent is an obvious way words are personalised but the pitch too, particularly when taken out of context (I’m assuming the interviews were edited), give an unusual construction to the lines that emphasises the musicality of speech. The effect is to heighten the every day banality of speech to, along with the repetition, give it emphasis; you listen more to what these people have to say.

The focus on the street’s residents showed them to be victims, in their own minds at least, from the social problems of living in a ‘red light’ district and then from press intrusion. In the film’s finale, a street party celebrating the killer’s –who’d lived at number 79 – guilty verdict, Fleetwood’s wraith-like figure walks along the street, unseen by the neighbours, reminding us who the victims actually were.

The central character, as far as there is one, is played by the ever-sympathetic Olivia Colman so it comes as a shock when she states that she wishes she could shake the killer’s hand and thank him for getting rid of the prostitutes. Whilst this does make it clear how miserable life can be made soliciting prostitutes, and by kerb crawlers, it also speaks of a severe lack of empathy. I guess the problem was a failure of the public services to sort out the problem but then our public servants’ jobs are ever more challenging and under-resourced the long, failing ‘austerity economics’ goes on.

Le Quattro Volte (Italy-Germany-Switzerland, 2010)

The goats have it

Michelangelo Frammartino’s unusual film appears to offer four slices of life in a rural backwater of southern Italy (Calabria). Not a lot happens here but the film is entrancing in surprising ways. There’s no intelligible dialogue (nothing is subtitled), the dominant sound on the soundtrack is the bleating of goats (I’d had enough of that by the end; we do hear the ambient sounds of the town. The central character, if the definition serves, is the goat herder who is obviously, from the start, going to die soon. It’s not only the fact he’s very old but he coughs a lot; a sure signifier of death. That’s hardly a spoiler because what happens is not important, what matters is simply that it happens.

Cinematically it’s interesting as Frammartino often places his camera in a position simply to observe events mostly disallowing the director’s privilege of putting it anywhere he likes. There are, for example, very few close ups (this is one way of avoiding the problem of performance when using an amateur cast). One  position allows us to see the goats’ pen and the herder’s home in the background. During the Easter parade, which marches past this position, we witness farcical happenings that belong more in a black comedy than a low-key representation of routine. This startling clash works but I’m not sure why.

Frammartino is recording the end of tradition as the herder’s successors work in different ways. I wonder about the representation of the Easter parade; is it meant to be laughable or is that my perspective colouring what happens?

There is one dramatic moment, the brilliant cut from the herder’s coffin’s incarceration to the birth of a goat was as visceral a scene I have watched recently. I am slightly concerned that we were meant to think the herder had been reincarnated in goat: ridiculous or more skewed humour?

The film’s short (88 minutes) but that was long enough.

The Handmaiden (Ah-ga-ssi, S.Korea, 2016)

Sensual thriller

It’s great that The Handmaiden has been an arthouse hit as the sector has been getting increasingly desperate over the last few years. Exhibitors’ tame policies, exemplified by Picturehouse’s ‘discover Tuesdays’ (in Bradford at least) where we get one chance to see often interesting films: yer buggered if your busy on Tuesday! Maybe Carlton’s online streaming service, where its films are released the same time as in cinemas, are encouraging stay-at-homers. It’s easy to see why The Handmaiden has done good business: Sarah Waters has fanbase, as does director Park Chan-wook, and there’s the promise of lots of sex.

I enjoyed Waters’ novel, Fingersmith (2002), which may be why I felt slightly distanced from the narrative in the film until… (no spoilers). However, even when I wasn’t fully engaged, Park’s luscious mise en scene was captivating. He (Park adapted the novel with  Jeong Seo-kyeong) transfers the story to 1930s Korea when it was a Japanese colony so in addition to the theme of class, the film deals with ethnicity.

The sex is explicit and it’s to your taste whether you found it exploitative; the women’s bodies are well bared. I thought it was not because the sexual relationship between the characters was entirely germane to the narrative’s development. Discovering the delights, and beauty, of the female body, from a lesbian perspective, is under-represented in mainstream cinema and Park’s film subtlely emphasises this.

I saw what Picturehouse marketed as the ‘director’s cut’; 167 minutes to the standard release’s 143 minutes. I’m not sure what was added but chose it on the basis that an extra 20 minutes, for a two and a half hour film, wasn’t going to kill me. However, in the credits it was called an ‘extended edition’. Director’s cuts are usually the version without the producer’s or distributor’s interference, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here. Puzzling. I didn’t find the running time long; it felt shorter than the dire The Ghost in the Shell (2017).

Park’s one of the most interesting filmmakers around and I will watch The Handmaiden again.

Ghost in the Shell (Japan-UK, 1995) and (US-India-China-Japan-Hong Kong-UK-New Zealand-Canada-Australia, 2017)

What am I?

It was great to be able to see the original on the big screen. Apart from the ability to see the awesome detail of the cityscape more clearly, it was Kawai Kenji’s score that had significantly more impact when compared to TV viewing. As I understand it, Ghost in the Shell was a prestige (expensive) production that attempted to rekindle the west’s (relative) enthusiasm for anime that had flared with Akira (Japan, 1988); hence Manga Entertainment’s UK involvement in the production (it’s now owned by Lionsgate). Whilst Studio Ghibli’s productions continued to have a fanbase in the west, there was a gap in the market for a more action orientated film (presumably for fanboys). Whilst anime remains a minority enthusiasm this side of the globe, anyone who saw The Matrix (US, 1999) was seeing the fruits of Ghost’s impact on the Wachowski brothers.

Ghost in the Shell continues to be influential in 2017 not only because of its visuals but in its portrayal of a society where the division between humans and technology is becoming extremely blurred. It wouldn’t have been surprising if this aspect of the film had dated because of the rapid pace of technological development over the last 20 years. However, if anything, it’s even more telling now because although we are not yet able, as humans, to exist online, many people don’t feel they are whole unless they are on the network. Young people, in particular, are wedded to mobile social media. The division between AI and humans, a topic that is ever more relevant as the Internet of Things invades our homes, is central to the film’s concerns.

I can’t, however, say I entirely understand the film; and its brilliant sequel Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (Japan, 2004) is even more opaque. Philosophy is difficult but it isn’t so much the ideas Ghost that perplex, rather what is going on for some of the time. Whilst the complexity may be wilful it can also be read as being about an increasingly incomprehensible world where actual news may be ‘fake news’; for example the fact that Britain and America are complicit in atrocities in Yemen is barely reported. In the UK we voted to leave the EU for reasons not based on truth (and there are many arguments why the EU is not fit for purpose) but on lies. However, Brian Ruh’s detailed plot summary in Stray Dog of Anime: The Films of Mamoru Oshii confirms that the narrative is entirely coherent.

Although there is plenty of narrative drive in the film, it is a three-minute montage of cityscape that is most mesmerising. Colin Marshall offers some interesting analysis of this sequence (here); he explains that the emphasis on the space of the city is linked to cyberspace and shows how the boundaries between the real world and virtual reality is blurring; I’ve yet to look as his other videos. What Marshall doesn’t mention is Kusanagi is present in some of the montage, on her own , in parts of the montage giving us, I think, a sense of her loneliness.

You can see what I am

The first buzz I heard about the American remake was that the film offered another example of Hollywood ‘whitewashing’: Caucasian actors taking the role of minority ethnic characters; as for example in Doctor Strange (US, 2016) and Aloha (US, 2015). In this case it was the casting of Scarlett Johansson as Major Kusanagi. The charge is potent, the white dominance of executive positions in the film industry guarantees a monocular view of what audiences want: BAME, not to mention female characters, won’t appeal to a wide audience’ goes the ‘logic’ despite the evidence to the contrary – see Hidden Figures and Moonlight. See also: ‘Screenplay analysis shows that even in films with strong female leads, the number of lines by men far outweighs those by women’. However, the charge is weak in this case. Japanese anime conventionally doesn’t necessarily draw its characters as Japanese; the one obvious Japanese character in the original, Arimaki, is play by Kitano Takeshi in remake. There’s also a plot point that emphasises Kusanagi’s ethnicity.

Although I’d liked the trailer I was doubtful whether Ghost in the Shell would benefit from the Hollywood treatment and so it proved. Ironically, given the original’s purpose was to appeal to western audiences, the necessity to appeal to a very wide audience to justify the $100m+ budget drains the narrative of its fascination. The philosophy is barely present and the ending is ridiculous. The producers are looking to produce an ‘origin story’ to make the Major, as she is known in the film, as a new superhero. Fortunately poor box office returns suggest this won’t happen.

As noted above, Hollywood has already remade the original in The Matrix that managed to weld gung-ho action to philosophical questions. 1995’s Ghost in the Shell, though, through its eerie beauty and embrace of the human/AI interface, is the film for the 21st century.

PS Cineworld managed to leave us in the dark at the end: excellent. However, the masking was incorrect; this site suggests the problems endemic.

Get Out (US, 2017)

‘They really don’t get it, do they?’

Blumhouse has a reputation for low budget horror productions, such as the very successful Paranormal Activity (2009-15) and The Purge (2013-) series. Get Out has beaten them and parlayed a $5m budget into, to date, $184m worldwide box office. In order to attain such numbers it’s clearly broken out of its teen core audience and shows what can be done when genre pleasures, this is a good horror film, are woven into the zeitgeist. Jordan Peele, the writer-director, has made a film that is about race in the 21st century.

Black British actor, Daniel Kaluuya, takes the lead as Chris who’s going to meet the parents of his white, preppy, girlfriend Rose Armitage, played by Allison Williams. He asks if they know he’s black and she tells him her parents aren’t racist. Chris is obviously not entirely reassured by the blasé statement because he knows that even if they aren’t racist it doesn’t mean that they won’t treat him in a racist way so embedded, particularly in the American psyche, is the politics of slavery.

The end credits state the film’s shot in Alabama, however this location (to my eyes at least) is not obvious in the film. At first I thought this was a missed trick, evoking the Deep South would immediately trigger associations of slavery, however I realised that Peele didn’t want to make a point about the racism of Old America, he was showing racism now anywhere in middle class America.

Peele leads us into the horror with great skill. The Prologue shows a black man being attacked on a suburban street; when he states before the attack that the suburbs are scary he means for a black person. After this the build-up is slow, with enough hints (particularly from Catherine Keener’s mum) that beneath the wealthy, liberal surface there lurks something not right. Allison’s dad points to a cellar, that resonant setting for horror, and states it’s sealed off because of black mould. Chris’s discomfort increases as the wealthy white and their black servants surround him; when he tries to connect with a ‘brother’ he finds incomprehension.

Spoiler alerts:
Peele takes us on a tour of references including Invasion of the Body Snatchers (US, 1956), The Stepford Wives (US, 1975 and 2004) and, in the clinical and opulent mise en scene of Armitage house, Kubrick’s The Shining (UK, 1980). These references avoid being derivative because they’re used to make a statement about contemporary racial politics, particularly the #Blacklivesmatter campaign in America. In a fantastic climax it appears the police have arrived to save Chris. He puts up his hands, his white girlfriend is lying on the floor crying for help… Peele knows most in the audience would realise that there is good chance, in those circumstances in reality, that the police would summarily execute Chris.

One false note for me was LilRey Howery’s Rod, Chris’s ‘comic turn’ mate, whose bumbling detracts from the drama too much. As a horror film it has enough gore at the climax to satisfy most and not too much to detract for the squeamish.

I imagine that the film is popular with minority ethnic audiences and demonstrates, like the never-ending Fast and Furious franchise (2009-), that producers daring enough not to  assume ‘white’ is the default setting can be a profitable route. The film garnered a bit of controversy in America when Samuel L. Jackson questioned the casting of a British actor rather than a ‘brother’. Kaluuya’s considered response, in Vanity Fair, suggested he is a brother because he is an ‘outsider’:

“When I’m around black people I’m made to feel ‘other’ because I’m dark-skinned,” he explained. “I’ve had to wrestle with that, with people going ‘You’re too black.’ Then I come to America and they say, ‘You’re not black enough.’ I go to Uganda, I can’t speak the language. In India, I’m black. In the black community, I’m dark-skinned. In America, I’m British. Bro!”

Get Me Out is about outsiders and how some poeple use liberal attitudes as a badge of their own character and not as an ideological position to fight for equality. Although not quite directly related to  this, an altercation on CNN between a white Trump supporting pundit and three African American voices shows how the default setting of debate is the white setting – click here.

PS Infuriatingly the lights were turned on before the film had finished. What’s a few seconds to gather yourself after an excellent film matter?! Cineworld watch out.