McCullin (UK, 2012)

War after war

War after war

McCullin is a biography of Don McCullin the photojournalist who is one of the greatest war photographers. What’s striking about his work is how it is infused with humanity despite the degradation shown in many of the images. He claims that’s he’s not a poet but the image above proves otherwise even though, as  he says, the woman in the door was happenstance. McCullin was in the place to get the decisive moment.

McCullin comments on his images, and himself, fairly dispassionately; clearly this ‘objective’ position allowed him to actually survive the experiences mentally intact. However, there’s no doubt, particularly when civilians were concerned, that he felt deeply about what he was witnessing. His account comes across as honest and in no way self-serving. Harold Evans, for many years his editor, has substantial input and he speaks about a pre-Murdoch dominated era of journalism where the story was what counted and not creating a suitable environment for advertisers.

Occasionally the editing doesn’t allow us to spend long enough looking at the stunning images, otherwise there’s little to criticise. McCullin ends by saying he’s going to spend the rest of his days photographing the British landscape, which is a bit of a relief. However, he apparently thought he was dying of heart disease when being interviewed and he’s since been to Syria; he’s a war junkie who’s shown us the truth about war. McCullin remembers, with incredulity, when the British government wouldn’t let him go to the Falklands. They clearly didn’t want the truth to get out.

Elysium (US, 2013)

Losing the plot

Losing the plot

Neil Blomkamp’s debut, District 9 (US-New Zealand, 2009), was critically lauded but I felt it was borderline racist (if I’m being charitable) and it lost the plot – see here. Like his first film, Elysium is SF and has a terrific premise: in the future the polluted Earth becomes a third world country whilst the rich, live off Earth on a satellite. As in District 9 this promise is destroyed by a dreadful script that manages to mangle a lot of talent (including Alice Braga, Jodie Foster and Diego Luna) into a macho, shoot ’em up mess. This is also despite a brilliant use of the world’s biggest dump (in Mexico) as a setting and a wonderful set up where the protagonist (a serviceable Matt Damon) works in a factory building robocops, which help keep the underclass in their place.

Maybe Blomkamp needs to hire a seasoned scriptwriter or have confidence in the strength of his ideas. There’s nothing wrong with blood ‘n’ bullets but it has to be in proportion if you want to make a serious point, which he obviously does. By the end I was screaming for the end; it won’t surprise you that good triumphs but the swelling soundtrack, as hospital ships lands on Earth to cure the underclass of their diseases, entirely negates the film’s premise in a swamp of syrup. With scarce resources only a few can ever be extremely rich and this will always be off the backs of the poor.

This is situation we are approaching explicitly in the UK where an economic recovery is lauded while many are sinking into poverty. The opening ten minutes of the film does show the shape of things to come if capitalism continues to rule.

I Saw the Devil (Akmareul boatda, South Korea, 2010)

Into the abyss

Into the abyss

Kim Jee-woon, director of A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) A Bittersweet Life (2005) and The Good, the Bad and the Weird (2008), has produced another stunning film. Stunning in both its direction, the acting and its content. It’s a revenge movie, a common trope it seems in Korean cinema (well Park Chan-wook excels in this), that mingles extreme imagery (females stripped, tortured and murdered) with beautiful composition and mise en scene. If that makes it seem that misogynist violence is aestheticised then that is accurate however, ultimately, the film uses the conventions of gorenography, or torture porn, to a morally devastating effect.

SPOILER ALERT: Lee Byung-hun plays a secret service agent whose fiancee is a victim of a serial killer, played by the brilliant Choi Min-sik (of Oldboy, 2003, fame) and seeks extra-judicial revenge. Despite the film’s 140 minute running length the killer is caught quickly and there’s one of those wonderful moments in a genre film where you have no idea where the film is going to go next. The killer is released only to be tracked and caught again, then released and so on… The dehumanising effect of revenge has been dealt with before but I doubt so successfully. Lee’s agent does save a number of potential victims as he chases down the killer but not before they’ve been put in peril and, no doubt, severely traumatised by the experience. The spectator’s complicity is highlighted in a Hitchockian manner: we wish to watch the film but that necessitates ‘people’ being placed in danger but, here, we cannot but wish the killer had been dealt with the moment he was caught. In other words, we are positioned not to want to watch the rest of the film.

I won’t give anything more away but the ending is truly devastating. For some reason (South) Korean cinema has slipped off my radar for a while but it’s definitely back on now. I can’t say I enjoyed watching this film, the brutality is visceral, and the violence-against-women trope disturbing, but the cumulative effect is extremely powerful in a positive sense. Apart from Kim’s dynamic direction, much is down to the performance of the protagonists: Choi’s charisma is cannily used as the killer who’s demented determination becomes almost admirable. In contrast Lee’s agent bottles up his emotions through most of the film making him appear to be the psychopath; but, then again, maybe he does become one.

A Blonde in Love (Lásky jedné plavovlásky, Czechoslovakia, 1966)

More than just a blond

More than just a blonde

This fascinating youth pic, from the Czech New Wave, both ‘universalises’ the teenage (or early-20s) experience and sets in squarely in its time. The time was just before the ‘Prague Spring’, but clearly government influence was already loosening, particularly with the relatively graphic nudity and the scene where the youth union meeting is satirised. Being a teenager yearning for a (sexual) relationship is the predominant narrative of youth pics and Czechoslovakia in the ’60s was no different. In fact, it was accentuated by the 16:1 ratio of women to men in the blonde’s (Andula) town, Zruc. To counteract the problem the local factory’s ‘social director’ persuades the army to move a garrison of men to the vicinity. However, they turn out to be middle aged reservists of little interest to Andula and her friends.

The troops’ arrival is one of many comic set pieces in the film. The girls, and the town, are full of hope until the balding men arrive who promptly march to their barracks singing a ridiculous song of blood and glory. Similarly in a dance hall three men bicker amongst themselves on how try of pick up the girls. They send a waiter with a bottle but it’s delivered to the wrong table. Writer-director Milos Forman’s observes all this affectionately, he is not mocking the small town travails of his characters.

As was much European cinema in the ’60s, the Czech New Wave was a ripple of the French nouvelle vague and the long conversations between characters reminded me of early Godard and there is a wonderful moment of Czech surrealism where a necktie is found around a tree when Andula walks through the wood for an assignation that never happens. The dancehall scene reminded me of the one in Billy Liar, shot three years earlier, emphasising how, in the sixties, youth culture was becoming internationalised.

Forman cast locals, mostly non actors, giving the film a realist edge that adds to the charm; it’s not surprising that Ken Loach often cites it as a favourite film. Its political edge is seen when the youth union meeting, of women, is asked to vote to be chaste. Only Andula, hiding at the back, doesn’t put up her hand in favour emphasising the conformism expected by the Establishment at the time. However, while she is something of a rebel, Andula is also a victim; she is betrayed by the smooth talking pianist. Their ‘love’ scene, with the recalcitrant blind, is funny. Overall the film is suffused with a melancholy tone; it entertains but doesn’t forget the pathos of young lust.

The Bourne Ultimatum (US, 2007)

Turning back on America?

Turning back on America?

The original Bourne trilogy was unusual in that it got better with each film. Paul Greengrass directed the last two in a style that epitomises, what David Bordwell calls, ‘intensified continuity’. While the visceral action sequences were certainly eye-catching, its take on America, in the post-9/11 era, was particularly critical. Although, as is common in Hollywood, the corruption of the NSA was explained by ‘bad apples’, who are last seen being arrested, the dramatisation of the anti-terrorism agency as morally corrupt still had resonance.

What’s even more striking, six years later, is actually how corrupt the American intelligence agencies are; courtesy of Edward Snowden. Was I surprised by his revelations? Not particularly, my Management Information Systems lecturer ‘wondered’ (in 1983) why so much money was being spent on voice recognition software and he didn’t believe it was for Siri. However, what is shocking is the apparent apathetic response, even in the ‘land of the free’, of the general public who seem happy to be monitored. Democracy is revealed to be a sham by its reliance on surveilling its own people to ‘protect’ us from those who would enslave us.

Back to the film: the brilliant set-piece, at Waterloo station, dramatises this real-time surveillance and has a real frisson as we see an American ordering the assassination of a British citizen on British soil during the London rush hour. A very special relationship.

Paul Greengrass, who made his name with documentaries, uses intensified continuity to actual do what it says on the tin: intensify. The rapid editing isn’t a way of disguising the paucity of image but a dramatic device to add urgency to the action. Careful graphic matches ensure we can follow action even at the helter-skelter pace. The fight sequence, in Tangier, is also brilliantly shot.

Matt Damon is perfect as the personality-less protagonist and David Strathairn brings as much moral turpitude to his role as he did rectitude to Goodnight and Good Luck (US, 2005). A fabulous thriller.

Georgy Girl (UK, 1966)

Not Georgy

Not Georgy

I’m planning to teach ‘sixties UK cinema this year so took the opportunity of watching Georgy Girl for ‘free’, via a PS3, as part of my Lovefilm subscription. I ended up shoving another 19 items onto my ‘watchlist’ including a number of tasty ‘world cinema’ offerings. As in music, we live in a time that offers a cornucopia of films and finding time to watch them all, and listen to the music, almost makes me yearn for the days of ‘drought’. In the 1970s there were three terrestrial television channels in the UK which meant there were three channels available. The system of ‘barring’ meant it was five years before films could be shown on television after it was released. There was a decent library of 16mm films for hire but that required specialist equipment.

So, no I’m not yearning for the ’70s. During that decade videocassette started the revolution in home entertainment that is now moving online; there’s little point in buying DVDs unless you’re going to study the film. This dip into the past was partly instigated by watching Georgy Girl as I remembered The Seekers’ theme tune being a hit at the time (I was four!). According the wikipedia, the film was too.

It was funded by Columbia Pictures who, along with other Hollywood studios, assumed that because London was ‘swinging’ it was also ‘where it’s at’ and money could be made appealing to young people. Robert Murphy (in Sixties British Cinema) names Georgy Girl as one of the few genuinely ‘swinging’ films, and the last in black and white, but it also starred James Mason which, presumably, appealed to an older audience who might have looked askance at the antics of the young people.

Lynn Redgrave plays the titular character, who’s supposedly over-weight and so not attractive, with great verve and she does embody a character who is capable of breaking stultifying tradition. She’s contrasted with her friend, the definitely good-time girl Meredith (Charlotte Rampling – above), who the film does, I think, condemn for her selfishness but Murphy’s also correct when he states: ‘her defiance of conventions of marriage and motherhood gives the film a shocking frisson’ (p. 143).

The film remains engaging, 47 years later, though the (obligatory?) ‘swinging’ scene of a young person running through the streets shouting (and stripping in this film’s case) in defiance of convention does look dated. Alan Bates, looking startlingly like Mel Gibson in his prime, performs the role of Jos with great conviction even when he is stripping off when running through the underground walkways.

Today’s release of the annual Social Trends survey, in the UK, shows how much more tolerant we are, as a nation, of difference. That, I think, is certainly a positive legacy of the 1960s.

Broadchurch (UK, 2013)

Police procedural and melodrama combine seamlessly

Police procedural and melodrama combine seamlessly

High end drama is enjoying a renaissance on television possibly fired by US series and/or the habit of binge-watching on DVD. Whatever the reason it’s good to see ambitious, strongly-cast, long-form drama creating what’s been called the ‘third golden age of television’. Broadchurch is particularly successful in its structure, over eight episodes, as it manages to engage audiences – who know the great reveal won’t be until the last programme – throughout with its ‘red herrings’. It does this by convincingly elaborating upon the suspects’ backstories and even the most unlikeable (Pauline Quirke’s Susan Wright) are humanised.

The serial deals with vigilantism, the role of the gutter press, the effect of grief and small town community dynamics amongst other things. Stand out amongst the performers are Olivia Colman and Jodie Whitaker, the fact they stand out amongst a superb ensemble cast is high praise. It’s good to see Vicky McClure too, who manages to be the hard-edged journalist with a heart.

I can’t be sure whether direction on television has become more cinematic, as I haven’t watched enough TV over the last 20 years, but I suspect it has. The regular cutaways to the churning ocean (Broadchurch is on the coast) was an apt, and beautiful, metaphor for the turmoil of the community. Despite the ‘bum’ note of giving credence to a ‘psychic’ this was a gripping and satisfying serial.

World on a Wire (Welt am Draht, West Germany, 1973)

Mirror images

Mirror images

I stumbled across this, Rainer Werner Fassbinder + SF, recently and was intrigued to see what the master of melodrama would do with the genre. Predictably, I guess, Fassbinder did what he normally did: use a highly stylised mise en scene to great effect. The two-part television production, Fassbinder made a number of TV films, was based on Daniel F Galouye’s novel, Simulacron-3 (1964); later remade as The Thirteenth Floor (Germany-US, 1999). I won’t give too much away of the intriguing narrative which, while it may not have inspired The Matrix, certainly was a precursor.

Sensibly Fassbinder eschewed SF iconography though, as this excellent essay points out, they shot some scenes in Paris shopping malls, places that looked futuristic in West Germany at the time. Instead Fassbinder ramps up his usual stylised mise en scene with elaborate set-ups, such as the one in the image above. He also uses telephoto zooms imaginatively to give the narrative world an unsettling quality. Mirrors are typically used in melodrama to signify issues of identity and so Fassbinder was clearly at home with much of the plot which focuses upon Fred Stiller’s (Klaus Lowitsch) attempt to find out the truth about the computer simulated world he is working on.  Lowitsch is one of many Fassbinder regulars and recognising the actors adds a surreal quality to the film as they are playing out of their usual genre.

I thoroughly enjoyed part one but the first hour of the second episode focused on a fairly unconvincing ‘chase Fred’ narrative; and the ending didn’t satisfy. However, Fassbinder wasn’t simply addressing melodramatic questions of identity, he was also making a political point about private interests influencing government policy. Forty years on issues of identity (privacy) in cyberspace, and the influence of business interests, are more relevant that ever. World on a Wire is certainly worth a watch by fans of SF and Fassbinder.

Jack Reacher (US, 2012)

Because I say so!

Because I say so!

It was happenstance, not choice, that led me to watch Jack Reacher, which is (was?) probably a Tom Cruise attempt to get a franchise going. Its $80m domestic gross probably wouldn’t have been enough but the $137m international take may make it a viable proposition. It was reported (here) that Paramount banked on $250m worldwide before a sequel would be green lighted so maybe it won’t happen; I hope it won’t not because it’s a bad film – it’s a passable thriller – but because of its execrable politics.

I haven’t read any of Lee Child’s novels but I guess the vigilante-justice element is true to the source material. Cruise, of course, plays the ‘good’ guy but is apparently so paranoid that he lives his life off the ‘grid’. He only owns one shirt, which we see him washing in a small sink. This is rather pathological, the only Americans that need to live off the ‘grid’ are, I think, whistleblowers. Reacher, of course, sees things that cops, and the eye candy lawyer (Rosamund Pike), don’t and gets to the truth of the matter. Pike is joined by Brit David Oyelowo who, in what’s become a tradition, takes the role of a bad guy. In 1930s Hollywood the upper class British accent signified class, now the Brits are hired to play villains. Though, in this case, the uber villain is played by Werner Herzog who does enliven the film with a portrayal of demented psychosis; learned, no doubt, whilst making Fitzcarraldo (West Germany-Peru, 1982).

Herzog’s The Zec makes one mistake too many, he tells Reacher that prison will be ‘cushy’; cue extra-judicial assassination before Reacher disappears  off ‘the grid’. He didn’t even have time for sex with Pike’s glamorous lawyer. Hopefully he’ll stay off the grid; is it too much to hope that the relative box office failure in North America is a result of disgust with the extra-judicial killings via drones? If so, why so popular elsewhere? Because that’s how the world expects Americans to act?