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.

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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.

 

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.

It Follows (US, 2014)

It following

Horror is a genre that has the capacity to regularly renew itself, maybe because its defining character – the monster – is able to adapt easily to changing times. The writer-director, David Robert Mitchell, returns us to the monster without reason (Andrew Tudor’s ‘paranoid horror’), teenage sex and the suburban setting of the seminal Halloween (US, 1976). Like Michael the monsters of It Follows are unrelenting, however Mitchell doesn’t even try to offer an explanation about what’s happening (in interviews he happily accepts differing interpretations – https://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/feb/21/it-follows-teen-horror-movie).

The protagonist Jay (Maika Monroe) ‘contracts’ a follower after having (first time?) sex with her boyfriend. He explains, after he’s drugged her and tied her, in her underwear, to a chair in a deserted multi-storey car park, that he’s not going to hurt but had to do it to pass on the curse from himself. Jay, too, will have to have sex with someone to avoid being killed by the followers. Very Ringu (Japan, 1999), and very effective dramatically.

Although it may seem to follow the reactionary trope of punishing young women who have sex, it also draws on the satirical Cherry Falls (US, 2000) in which only virgins were killed (that film floundered into reactionary politics by blaming the mother). The only way to survive is to have sex which is true from the perspective of the species.

Mitchell portrays teenage angst (here definitely justified!) beautifully and adults are barely evident, dramatising the solipsism of youngsters who are at a loss at what to do. The thrills and shocks are well paced and we do get to care for the characters which makes the suspense work. Unlike in many teen horrors old gits like me do not care whether they youngsters are eviscerated because their characters are undeveloped.

One of the most unsettling aspects of the film is the ‘confused’ production design; it mashes different eras, superbly explained here.

The Big Short (US, 2015)

You couldn’t make it up

Michael Lewis’ book The Big Short brilliantly explained how the financial system went tits up because of bankers’ fraudulent behaviour. I was sceptical as to whether a film could do the same especially when it needs to get a return on its $28m budget. It managed a $70m return at the North American box office and that’s an indicator that they’d made an entertaining movie; it’s also pleasing to report that it’s fully in keeping with Lewis’ book and makes no bones about the failure of capitalism.

So great credit to Brad Pitt’s Plan B company for producing it and the talent, Christian Bale, Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling – as well as Pitt – who appeared in it and made the film marketable. Unlike Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013, which was more interested in physical rather than financial debauchery, The Big Short focuses on the financial machinations of the few who realised that the system would crash because the mortgages it was built on were shit. McKay throws as many techniques he can think of to make it interesting (too fast to see editing, direct speech to camera) to keep our attention through the financial details and he, most of the time, succeeds. It’s also funny because in reality the behaviour of bankers was farcical except of course the outcome was tragic for the many ordinary folk who lost their jobs and homes.

The ending is particularly good: it offers a ‘happy ever after’ where everyone learned their lessons and the miscreants went to jail; this, of course, is appended with an ‘as if’. The real ending is that the poor and migrants are being blamed for the ‘master of the universe’s’ faults and we are highly likely about to suffer another crash, except this time there’s no ammunition in central banks’ armoury (interest rates can’t get any lower). And what will the taxpayer think about bailing out the banks again? Head for the hills bankers!

mother! (US, 2017)

Anything for Him

Blimey!

Maybe I should leave my response to mother! at that.

There’s a lot of merit in being bludgeoned by a film; you know you’re alive. And I’ve no problem with a film that, at its ending, makes you think: “WTF?”. At least I’m thinking.

I like to think I’m pretty cine literate, and fairly literate generally, though religion isn’t my thing so I tend to miss those references. The LA Times insists the film is a religious allegory and it’s an intriguing argument. When I checked out imdb I saw all the characters are archetypes, (Mother, Man, Woman, Cupbearer, Damsel etc.) except for Javier Bardem’s poet (Him); in the film itself the characters are nameless but I can see how the archetypes suggest a religious reading. The title, however, doesn’t capitalise the ‘m’ of mother so that’s confusing.

There are spoilers ahead but it’s possible, such is the brilliance of the film, that spoilers are irrelevant. The film is a visceral experience both visually and through the Dolby 7.1 soundtrack. I’d assumed the latter was new, as I hadn’t noticed their credit before, but the system has been used since 2010 and is ubiquitous in mainstream cinema. I mention it because I think there are more sound close ups in this movie than I’ve ever heard. It’s centred on Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) who’s clearly mentally unstable, like a Poe hero whose senses are hyper thus motivating the intensely detailed soundscape

The horror genre fits the film closest; Lawrence reminded me, in more ways than one, of Deneuve in Repulsion (UK 1965) as she listens to the walls of her home. There are a few frights as characters appear from ‘nowhere’ and make Mother jump. Toward the end, hundreds of characters appear from nowhere in a sensory onslaught that leaves the house, or is it the world?, a battle zone.

The way Aronofsky, Lawrence’s partner, shoots her is like the Dardenne brothers’ shoot the eponymous Rosetta (France-Belgium, 1999) (apparently he uses the same style in The Wrestler, US-France, 2008) with the camera tight on, following her obsessively. It is through Mother’s consciousness we experience the events.

I mention the relationship between the lead and director because it’s an unavoidable issue with this film. The central narrative tension is between Mother, who isn’t literally a mother at the start, and Him, a great poet who has writer’s block. She’s a generation younger than him (mirroring in age Aronofsky and Lawrence), hangs on his every word, and is a ‘domestic goddess’. She does everything for him; when serving dinner he insists on helping and then changes his mind. Some men’s lazy dependence on women is satirised.

Clearly Mother’s devotion is not reciprocated. It is hardly domestic bliss but when Man (Ed Harris) and Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) turn up the cliché ‘all hell starts to break loose’ is entirely accurate. Even I understood the Abel-Cain reference when one of their sons kills the other.

What’s great about the first section of the film is the allegorical nature of the narrative is rooted in believable interactions. Pfeiffer is particularly good a being a guest ‘from hell’ but manages to make her behaviour seem almost reasonable. Even the funeral party manages to appear possible but after the poet manages to produce another masterpiece, it took him nine months, then the wheels come off and the film enters a phantasmagoric realm.

At the party celebrating Him’s new masterpiece, Lawrence looks like a Greek goddess; he calls her a ‘goddess’ and her dress is classical in style. This seems key to me: Mother is his muse and gives him everything. Lawrence may be Aronofsky’s muse but he’s made many cracking films before so he is obviously not reliant upon her. It’s clear (I think) that he is making a film about creativity which may be on the level the LA Times suggests: Him is God and Mother is Earth. It could also be about the more ‘mundane’ level of art.

At this level it shows the artist to be entirely self-centred and our sympathies are certainly with his muse. The idea that great art requires great sacrifice is dramatized but it is the muse that suffers for his art. Although the muse embodies inspiration, it actually exists within the artists so splitting her from him doesn’t make sense: if she suffers, he suffers.

I am in danger of entangling myself in a film that may refuse to be unwound. That’s okay as it’s one of the most original films I’ve seen which is enough reason to see it even if, like many, you think it’s crap.

Deepwater Horizon (Hong Kong-US, 2016)

Disaster movies as reality

During the early 1970s there was a cycle of disaster movies including the Irwin Allen produced The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974). In the 21st century disaster movies have moved into reality with Grenfell Tower and Deepwater Horizon reconfigures The Poseidon Adventure. The ’70s films relied on big budgets, all star casts and state of the art special effects for their appeal; Deepwater Horizon was modestly budgeted at $110m with a B-list cast (Wahlberg, Russell, Malkovich and Hudson – who were all great) and superb CGI; however, most importantly, its focus is on the human cost of corporate corruption rather than spectacle.

Mark Wahlberg’s Everyman persona fits his Mike Williams perfectly. We’re introduced to him as a doting family man and if, at first, this might seem padding, getting audiences impatient for the spectacle, its payoff is the ending were we see him suffering PTSD. Unusually for a mainstream film about heroics, rather than just focusing on the physical damage, the psychological cost is not ignored. I wasn’t expecting to shed tears watching a disaster movie.

It’s a pity the film didn’t do well at the (US at least) box office because it has an important message about how capitalism encourages profit above anything else. Malkovich, in villain mode as a BP executive, is suitably slimy and cowardly but also utterly believable. Peter Berg’s direction is skilful and the CGI, for once in my eyes, unimpeachable. The scriptwriters, Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand, do a great job of making the technical details digestible and the scene where an oil covered sea bird wreaks havoc the control room of a ship succinctly summarises the ecological consequences of the oil spill.

Deepwater Horizon must have been one of the best films released last year.