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.

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.

Hidden Figures (US, 2016)

Amazing women

I mentioned in the posting about Moonlight that the Academy’s guilt about last year’s blatant disrespect toward films focusing on African Americans has been addressed this year. Hidden Figures, and that must be the best pun in any film title from last year, uncovers (based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s book) the role of African American women in NASA’s 1960s space programme. When I heard of the film I was gobsmacked that black, females had such an important role and I hadn’t heard of it. Then I woke up and remembered how discriminatory the ‘60s were.

The film’s to be celebrated in telling a great story, in a similar way to United Kingdom, uncovering historic challenges to racism that had been erased from mainstream history. The women’s fight is superbly told, easing much detail fluidly into a dynamic narrative; very Hollywood. Also Hollywood is its ‘based on a true story’ looseness with the facts. For example, the first black NASA supervisor attained the position in 1948 not the early ‘60s of the film. The ‘based on a true story’ statement during the credits is, as always, a warning we are not watching history. I’m relaxed about such ‘distortions’ as they don’t obscure an essential truth about the dual-struggle, as women and as part of an ethnic minority, these women experienced. However, although wonderfully dramatic, (spoiler ahead) the scene were the Al Harrison, essentially in charge of space travel calculations, smashes a ‘coloreds only’ toilet sign in disgust is apparently fictional. So what’s the purpose of that scene?

Hollywood has a tradition of filtering black emancipation narratives, such as Mississippi Burning (US, 1988), through a white perspective and although this film is resolutely from the women’s points of view, primarily Taraji P Henson’s Katherine G Johnson, the Harrison character offers a point of identity for those in the audience who cannot allow themselves simply to root for the women. The fact that he is charismatically played by Kevin Costner adds heft to white dispensed justice. Kirsten Dunst’s character, unremittingly polite and racist throughout, is also given a redeeming coda; as is the superbly cast Jim Parsons (of The Big Bang Theory). In the latter cases it could be argued that they represent how previously racist individuals, when they come into contact with African-Americans, learn the error of their ways.

The film occupies similar territory to The Help (US-India-UAE, 2011), which was filtered through a white protagonist, though that film was making the point that oppressed minorities need the help of majority members in their fight for justice. I’ve just noticed a viral video of straight men holding hands, in the Netherlands, as a statement against homophobia; a powerful way of marginalising hatred.

Hidden Figures, in the centrality of the black women, and the fact the story is true, is so powerful in its condemnation of racism that I’ll forgive the narrative transgression involving Harrison. It’s interesting that it was distributed via Fox 2000, the Hollywood major studio’s more ‘indie’ distributor. Clearly executives didn’t have a lot of faith in the film’s commercial prospects; I wonder if its $150m plus take in North America alone will alter their thinking about minority stories?

Enemy of the State (US, 1998)

They ARE all around us

They ARE all around us

I really enjoyed this film when it came out and have used it in the classroom. I wondered how it stood up given the Edward Snowden revelations about how our online and telephonic presences are surveilled and the answer is ‘very well’. That’s because it’s a superbly scripted (David Marconi), shot (Daniel Mindel), directed (Tony Scott) and performed thriller. The cast is stellar and Will Smith’s malleable charm works well against Gene Hackman’s flinty cynic. I was gripped and it’s telling that the spooks could penetrate our lives fully at the end of the 20th century and appalling to know what they are doing now see Citizenfour.

The Matrix (US, 1999)

They needed gun

They needed guns

The Matrix was a landmark special effects film; I still remember my awe when Trinity (above left) leapt in the air and froze as the camera tracked around her. Bullet time had arrived just before the turn of the century and CGI started its rule of Hollywood. The Matrix was more than a special effects extravaganza though, its subversive plot was seamlessly integrated with the digital wizardry and the knowingness of the action sequences justified their hyperbole.

I hadn’t seen the film for a number of years but it has stood up well. It was the Wachowski Brother’s second feature (after the superb Bound, US, 1998) and they integrated their cinephilia superbly into the mise en scene. The noir narrative is fully complimented by the set design. They haven’t managed much since unfortunately.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (US, 1931)

Interesting transformation

Interesting transformation

Apparently the AQA exam board in the UK claimed that their selection of 19th century novels (which students have to study for GCSE) all had good film versions. Teachers know that for many youngsters (and oldsters) 19th century lit teaching needs the extra help provided by visuals that bring to life the often torpid prose. Like the insistence that pupils be assessed on Shakespeare, this is class-based elitism that intends to ensure ‘culture’ remains the provence of the upper middle classes. There’s no reason why youngsters shouldn’t be introduced to the 19th century literature, or Shakespeare, but to insist they are assessed upon for their final grade is farcical. So how does this Dr. Jekyll stack up? Risibly I’m afraid though there is much to like in the film.

The performance style of early 1930s Hollywood; the pronunciation of Jekyll as Je-kill; the slightly ridiculous incarnation of Hyde; the aristocratic milieux so loved by Hollywood at the time… I could go on… are all off-putting. There’s nothing in the film that will help lower ability kids get their heads around Stevenson’s great novella.

However, as a pre-Code movie, starring the excellent Frederic March, with some adventurous camerawork from director Rouben Mamoulian, there’s enough to keep the cinephile interested. The transformation scenes are an absolute triumph; apparently March’s face was heavily made up in blue and then a blue filter was removed as March gurned into the monster. It still looks great. In order to set this up, so the character is looking directly into the camera, the opening shot is an ambitious, and rare, subjective shot including seeng March in a mirror. Technically brilliant at the time and now.

There are virtually no women in Stevenson’s novella (homosexuality repressed?) but Hollywood needs the ‘love interest’ and its provided by the ‘tinsel town’ trope of virgin (Rose Hobart) and whore (Miriam Hopkins). The pre-Code nature is evident when Hopkins’ Ivy tries to seduce Jekyll; she’s clearly naked and it’s so obvious what she’s after even my Year 10 knew. Despite its inauthenticity, this works to enhance Stevenson’s themes as the protagonist’s need for sex, his father-in-law won’t let him marry for eight months, serves as his motivation to become Hyde. Less successful is the moment when Hyde seems to be a black man; typical of the racism of the time (and now in ‘Trump’s America’).

However, as a film it will only confirm to youngsters that black and white movies have nothing for them and it will serve only to further alienate them from the text they are struggling to study. But then that’s the Establishment’s purpose isn’t it.

American Gangster (US-UK, 2007)

Mean streets

Mean streets

It was fortuitous that I caught up with American Gangster only a week after watching The French Connection as it covers some of the same time and territory. Indeed, the latter’s protagonists are name checked and the overhead railway of the car chase makes two appearances. Clearly scriptwriter Steve Zaillian is paying homage to the earlier classic and American Gangster doesn’t do too badly in comparison. Like much of the early ’70s ‘New Hollywood’ there’s a political angle, though safely ‘buried’ in the past, regarding the racism and corruption of NYPD. The mean streets of New York, where Denzil Washington’s Frank Lucas (the film’s based on a true story) imports heroin direct from Vietnam, look shabby despite Ridley Scott’s predilection for sumptuous images. If overlong, at two and a half hours, the climax is suitably satisfying, referencing another early ’70s classic, The Godfather (1972), by inter-cutting events with the protagonist in church; there’s  also shades of another cracking film of the era, Serpico (1973), with Russell Crowe taking the incorruptible cop role that Al Pacino inhabited.

Certainly the film pays homage to the ’70s, and you have to work to keep up with the narrative exposition too, but stands on its own as an intelligent high budget, star driven Hollywood (through Scott Free Prods) vehicle. Despite a budget of $100m, the film probably just about scraped into profit with its $267m worldwide gross; a testament to Washington and Crowe’s star power.

Women are mostly absent but that’s gangster films for you and the cliche-ridden broken marriage of Crowe’s Richie Roberts probably didn’t need to be so prominent; then again, women would have been even more absent if it wasn’t. The narrative device (presumably true too) that leads Roberts to realise the black Lucas was Mr Big (his ethnicity, in the racism of the times, meant he escaped suspicion) is brilliant.