Monthly Archives: January 2016

  • The Hateful Eight Quentin Tarantino (USA 2015)

    The Hateful Eight Quentin
    Tarantino (USA 2015) Samuel L Jackson

    viewed: Tyneside Cinema Newcastle; 9 Jan 2016; ticket: £8.75

    For all the boys in Raqaa

    As I watched the pretitle sequence I thought this was probably going to be a terrible movie. The pretitle sequence comprised a series of chocolate box shots of snowy landscapes. (The film industry reviewers love these shots and call them ‘breathtakingly beautiful’ etc; I am never won by this sort of easily shot stuff) Tarantino’s opening shot was a big wide snowscape; followed by another wide snow shot this time with birdies, then some more snowy shots leading finally to a close shot of a tree. All these pictures accompanied by formulaic baggy electronic chord music. This series of shots said nothing to me, communicating only a meandering unfocused directorial mind. OK, it’s only the beginning of the film. But perhaps beginnings are important: as in the end so in the beginning.

    This dull sequence finally resolves into the animated credit; then we see see another close up. It’s a shot of a wood carved somewhat tortured face of Christ. And I am thinking: woah! This looks like Lars von Trier territory. Tracking back from this wood carving of the crucified Christ we see the distant form of an approaching stagecoach which goes up and past the camera. This shot at least points to something: there are travellers abroad in this snowy land

    Lo! We have seen the emptiness filled out with an image of religion and journey.

    In retrospect (something Tarantino used to be good at) the opening had at least a coherence lacking in the remaining three hours.

    Tarantino has previously used Hollywood as a frame of reference taking ownership of its images and clichés with his own scenarios comprising of a violently perverse mixture of inversion satire homage and spoof. The intensity of his filmic imagination holding together a diversity of expressive devices. The problem with Hateful 8 is that it lacks intensity. And intensity is the glue that holds Tarantino together. Lacking intensity the Hateful 8 falls apart into its constituent parts, revealing Tarantino as a director out of control of his resources and unable to understand the forces he has set into play.

    One of his main resources is of course his players. In the Hateful 8 the acting can be described as a series of pantomime performances. This beanfest of camp theatricality might have expressive possibility if the parts were scripted with a greater stylistic flexibility and had the scenario and Tarantino’s direction been able to reconcile the stylised form of the acting with an intensity and pace. Filmed without flair Tarantino’s stage is crowded out with wannabe Dames and Villains, Dandini’s and Prince Charming’s. The Hateful 8 is mono dimensional and the film becomes a bad three hour panto in which all the players seem to tire of the flummery and mummery and wish it were all over. Even Samuel L Jackson cupping choc–o-no-nuts, seems to give up on the force fed scripted material which lacks substance credibility or tension. Samuel L Jacksons seems in the end a pitiful waste of a huge screen presence.

    The Hateful 8 comes complete with laboured running joke about the outside door; a joke which doesn’t even have a pay off line. Couldn’t they think of one? On the evidence of the script probably not.

    Tarantino’s sauce of inspiration in the Hateful Eight is no longer only Hollywood, but also Lars von Trier land. Hollywood myth is part of the setting of the film: it is Christmas. Cue Capra. There is a moment of classic Tarantino inverted Capra in the scene where a killing is accompanied by the playing of Silent Night, but otherwise for the most part it is as if Lars von Trier presides over this ‘otherland’ like a demonic magi casting ideas and notions into the forms of contemporary incubi and succubae.

    Lars von Trier’s engages with cinema as an act of exorcism, calling up and taking on his own and by extension our demons.

    The problem is that Tarantino doesn’t seem to understand von Trier at any level deeper than visual affect. As if in homage to Bergman, you just stick a chess board on set and think that does it. The Hateful 8 seems to replicate von Trier’s sadistic relationships with women. Although von Trier’s tough on-set relationships with his female leads is well documented, his films’ messages often place the female lead at the centre of complex social relations, using the vulnerability of the female to point up the corruption in society. The hanging of Bjork’s Selma represents a sort of uncompromising moral victory for her. Tarantino’s hanging of Daisy Domergue is simply another desperate gratuitous step in winding up a bankrupt script with a series of pointless excesses.

    Tarantino’s excess is guided by the same compass as modern warfare: the imperative is to get to the end with everyone dead. Death is power. The Hateful 8 is is driven by a script which will be enjoyed by the boys in Raqqa, who will download the movie with rapture and joy that there is an American who also shows the way. Well I guess Guantanamo and Abu Graib are now part of the circuitry that in which movies and reality amplify one another.

    Tarantino used to be a dab hand at script writing. The Hateful 8’s script is terrible. The words Tarantino puts into his players mouths (I did think some may have been written by Jackson who has made so many films with Tarantino that he must know what’s expected) are leaden repetitive slow paced and lacking incision. The words demand an arch delivery that calls up a faux theatricality of delivery. The dialogue in Von Trier’s Dogville had some of the same qualities as that of the Hateful 8 but he demanded of his actors a studied intensified delivery. Dogville was underpinned by Trier’s vision of the social and moral bankruptcy of America and its race relations. Von Trier’s scripting was crafted so that these concerns gradually surfaced through the movie, to finally take on a moral primacy. Tarantino’s script is crude, exploits the racial, black and white tensions to try, unsuccessfully to energise the deadness of the material.

    In structuring the Hateful 8, Tarantino is only a poor imitation of what was a masterful element of his films. Where successful he edits his films as broken temporal sequences that shift time back and forth in the time line of the movie creating both inventive tension and dramatic surprise. The Hateful Eight breaks up the temporal sequence in a heavy handed clumsy manner by showing us the start of the story as the penultimate sequence. It adds nothing to the film and the only tension it creates is in the dismay of the audience who realise they are going to have to sit through another 20 minutes whilst Tarantino tells us what we already know.

    This is Tarantino’s ninth movie, I think. He says he is only going to make 10 films. On the basis of this 9 is enough. He’s run out of road.

    Adrin Neatrour

  • The Revenant Alejandro Inarritu (USA 2015)

    The Revenant Alejandro
    Inarritu (USA 2015) Leonado Di Caprio;
    Tom Harvey

    Viewed Empire Cinema Newcastle upon Tyne, 19 Jan 2016;
    ticket: £3.75

    No twists in the tale

    The Revenant is a trial by ordeal movie, depending on your state of mind it’s a toss up whose ordeal it is: Di Caprio’s or the audience’s. (At 2 ½ hours it is a long movie) In some ways Revenant is reminiscent of films like Deliverance, though delivered with the punch of 21st century SFX.

    Inarritu’s script is driven by a revenge motif and intercut not only with the contemporary inevitable, scape shots; but also with some Terrence Malick style soapy philosophy and magical realism that leavens the otherwise relentless grunting physicality. Inarritu’s style is immersive game driven scenario captured by long slow moving camera shots.

    Inarritu’s scenario is pretty much a straight foreword forced march: no time line shenanagans. He starts at ‘a’ and makes his way without deviation to ‘b’. The script lacks wit, or any unexpected or dramatic twists. the USP is all in the SFX, which accompany us on our ordealistic journey. Of these the bear mauling, the event that determines and governs the nature of Glass’ ordeal is a striking and emphatically successful sequence of SFX. On the movie’s end roller there were credits for five different SFX companies, so the producers presumably used different companies for different kinds of effects: landscape, personal injury (arrows through the neck stuff) and the animal movement simulation.

    The bear attack is a significant coup de cinematographie, but the events that it consequently triggers become more predictable and risk ‘effect fatigue’. We just go from one ordeal to another, ending with a reprise of a sequence used in Benedikt Erlingsson’s ‘Of horses and men (2014 Iceland)’ where a guy trapped in a blizzard slits open the belly of a horse, disembowels it and takes refuge in the hollow of the cadaver. An old trick apparently.

    This succession of ordeal episodes is broken by land\snowscape shots. It seems impossible these days for directors to make a film without a nod to nature: Tarantino’s Hateful Eight comes painfully to mind. Innaritu’s edit allows his camera to spend much interstitial time gazing at scapes as if they might mean something.

    Revenant’s ordeal sequentiation is also broken by flashbacks and sections of Terrence Malick style ‘magical realism.’ These of course do say something; confirming the power of relationships and the mystical faith conferred both by them and by religion and belief (however vague). Glass, as he lies perhaps believing he is dying, seeking the will to live, sees an image of a bird emerge from the breast of his murdered dead wife, as if to say: she will in spirit be with him as his guide. These sort of images are accompanied by bland iterations of middle America folk philosophy guised up as the sayings of Glass’ dead Pawnee wife: “…the wind cannot defeat a tree with strong roots.”

    With its continual wiseacring the subtext of the plot is an affirmation of Middle American values: family, overcoming, male honour.

    The film, is politically correct showing the savage uncivilised behaviour of the white man towards the natives; though there have been some cited objections by native peoples to the depiction of the Pawnee and Arikara peoples.

    But Inarritu I think did miss a point in the final shot of the film when the Arikara pursuers on horse back file past Glass, who is all done in, lying on his back on the snowy river bank. Glass is spared death presumably because he rescued Powaqa the chief’s daughter. But there is an otherness to native people, an uncorrupted otherness, that Inarritu compromises as the horse party cross his line of sight. At this point Glass looks up at them. None of the Indians look at him but Powaqa returns his look. And this return of look seems like a moment of bad faith in the film, a dereliction of the pride of people whose land has been violated. This moment summarises the Revenant: it is a sell out. Adrin Neatrour

  • The Big Short Adam McKay ( USA 2015)

    The Big Short Adam McKay ( USA 2015) Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Brad Pitt viewed Empire Cinema, Newcastle; 26 Jan 2016; ticket: £3.75

    History written by the winners – as usual

    So in the Big Short it is the geeks who inherit the earth, or at least a few billions of dollars of its return to value.

    “ A few outsiders saw what was happening…” (part of the introductory voice over to the film) and these few outsiders are our protagonists, kind of re-caste old testament prophets who worship mammon rather than God.

    The Big Short comes flaunting quotes from one of the founts of American folk wisdom Mark Twain. But the characteristic feature of Twain’s folk wisdom was his capacity to depreciate himself, and the Big Short shies away from this. Lacking either self awareness self depreciation or actual irony (relating to outcomes for the protagonists) the Big Short, on its own terms is an immoral rather than a moral film.

    The movie is ostensibly a polemic against the US capitalism and world economic system that allowed (allows) avarice greed and criminal fraud to take over and drive the financial services and banking industries. But in the Big Short this aspec of Capitalism is mainly the background to a heroic all American story of the individual beating the odds, of the smart guy syndrome, of the little man who wins, breaks the bank. Of course the American dream, as depicted in movies such as Vidor’s the Crowd, is defined through the legend of the smart guy, the little man who beats the system and gets seriously rich. Whereas in Vidor’s story the viewer is put on immediate notice that the movie is to be critique of American capitalist ideology; in the Big Short, McKay puts the viewer on notice that the story will in fact endorse American ideology: not only is it possible for the little guy to win, but also to win period without a down-side to the process. To win at any cost, without cost.

    That’s the Big Short story, beating the system. Basically the system is always corrupt, loaded against the little man, so we need carefully constructed myth to re-generate our faith in the system. McKay’s film is a sort of oxymoron, a contradiction within its own terms. It purports to be a critique of a capitalist system that is catastrophically corrupt, but in fact endorses the system by its narrative strategy of linkage of the small smart guys winning. And the American value system is about winning: ‘Human nature is the same everywhere; it deifies success, it has nothing but scorn for defeat.’ (Mark Twain)

    The Big Short, is long on its use of capitalism as background scenery but short on the self awareness or cost (psychic, psychological) to the eventual winners. Equally corrupted as the institutions they bet against, the Big Short’s protagonists are not able to see their actual positions either within the developing bond situation of the script or within the myth of themselves that McKay’s film creates. The Big Short features a strong suit of explanatory quips spoken straight to camera by the players; but these ‘out of promary frame’ interpolations are used to utter one liners that display the knowing awareness by the speakers of the situation. These ‘out of frame ‘moments are not used to show awareness by the speakers that they are part of what is happening in the film. As they address camera, they are part of the process of their own mythologization. Out of frame material is restricted to the superficial subcutaneous layer of egotistic awareness. It doesn’t penetrate into deceit that comprises the body of the film: the bad faith of the protagonists.

    One character, the short seller, Mark Baum, affects to carry both a level of personal tragedy (relating to the cost of capitalism) and conscience about the cataclysmic effect on ordinary people that the melt down of the bond market will cause. But there is a element in the scripting that taints his scruples with tokenism. The script never gives time enough to probe his understanding of the forces that caused his brother’s suicide. And his scruples are never sufficient to inhibit the drive to make a lotta money, the ultimate vindication of the culture which defines and controls the expectations of his team of hedge fund brokers.

    MaKay’s script lacks a moral core, and likewise is hostage to style rather than substance. This makes it a highly marketable product cinematically, but its techniques of music video and comic demonstrations undermine any claims it might make to being a real attempt at examination of the 2007/8 financial melt down.

    Paying attention: the use of music vid rapid imagery shift, giving audience micro shots of relevant contiguous period material drawn from wherever, reinforces the perception that we, they them, are all part of a culture that cannot pay attention to what is happening. The media are complicit in a process in which nothing can hold our attention for more than a few seconds. There is no reflection no analysis because we are imprisoned in an ever accelerating circuitry of stimulae which change and move on quicker than we can think. The Big Short seems to adapt this style without irony or awareness.

    The comic expositions, the sequences explaining some technical aspects of the crisis were also woeful. The lady in the bath and the chef in the kitchen, sported a comic style apparently intent on a simplified elucidation of the problems ( a technique used before but I can’t remember where, perhaps it was in play about Enron debacle, or perhaps a book). But these demonstrations seemed to be film fodder, designed to entertain without explaining clearly what they were about: long on swear words, short on graspable meaning.

    McKay’s the Big Short seemed to fit well with Oscar Wilde’s quip about hypocrisy: Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue. The Big Short’s hypocrisy is also very satisfied with itself, even if at moments a little tortured. Adrin Neatrour

  • Assassin Hou-Hsiao-Hsien (HK- China 2015)

    Assassin Hou-Hsiao-Hsien
    (HK- China 2015) Shu Qi; Chang Chen

    Viewed: 2 Feb 2016 Tyneside Cinema Newcastle; ticket £8.75

    Smoke and mirrors

    Hou’s movie at first seemed like an unfocused fairy tale, but later as I thought about it, it was more like a realisation of an I Ching hexagram or series of hexagrams. The idea of making a film that aspires to an expression of the chance fall of the yarrow stalks seems in tune with Hou’s sensibilities.

    And Assassin with its use of landscape in a manner imaged and described in the I Ching hexagrams, is visually suggestive and receptive to the gaze of the viewer. Landscapes of course are flavour of the month in the movie business, nobody is making films these days without showing the depth of their alignment with nature by boring us with long pretentious camera shots, gazings at ‘scapes.’

    Hou however coming from the left field tradition of Chinese landscape symbolism, makes these shots work in a way that neither Tarantino nor Inarritu can even approach. The shots call up states of mind, resonating with the underlying contemplative nature of his film and the symbolic relations suggested.

    Of course the idea that the I Ching hexagrams shape sections of Hou’s movie is probably my own projection, but nevertheless hexagrams aside, there is a strong Chinese lore relating landscape to awareness insight and inspiration, and Hou draws on this in folding scapes into Assassin.

    Just for the hell of it I looked up one hexagram of mountain over lake, and was informed as follows:

    Mountain over Lake. At the foot of the mountain, the lake The image of decrease. The superior man controls his anger and restrains his instincts.

    Coincidence or not the above description carries something of the motif underlying the narrative shaping the film’s form.

    I haven’t seen many of Hou’s films: Good Man Good Woman, Daughter of the Nile spring to mind. From what I have seen Hou’s films work through elliptical relations between people. He is not interested in the soap opera style of crude motivational matrixes that comprise most of Hollywood and Europe’s current scripting output. Understatement and ambiguities lie at the heart of his scenarios. But I think Assassin as an attempt to transpose this sensibility of relations on to fairy tale like or mythic form, doesn’t work. Whether I Ching or fairy/myth story the forces put in play are archetypes, and the states of mind that interest Hou and seem endemic in his scripting, are not archetypal, and don’t sit comfortably with the film’s main characters. His characters, the eponymous Assassin and her quarry never escape a certain woodenness in the expressions of their roles, a mechanicality that contradicts the relational ambiguities that are part of the script.

    It doesn’t actually matter that, to my understanding, the details of the script were ungraspable. It matter’s more that Shu Qi’s ‘good assassin’ character never expresses any clarity of intention in relation to her actions. She utters reasons for her behaviour but they remain at the level of utterances, she fails to deliver any suggestion of an internality, a drive at the heart of her role. This I suspect is not her doing but the script and Hou’s doing. As if he wanted to replace projected internalisation with externalisations of acting and shooting style. For instance Shu Qi as actress is simply asked to revert to that old film acting stand-by of: ‘staring out’ with severe intent, eyes hard and unblinking at crucial moments in the film. This is an old directorial resort: keep the audience on the surface of the eye and dupe them in thinking the shot has meaning. But the repetition of this look incurs decreasing returns, and finally reduces to a meaningless cliché.

    Aside from the landscape shots which have power in respect of suggesting underlying forces, Hou with his story looks to the shooting style, décor make up and shot set up as a means to work in the suggestion of some deeper level of sensability at work in the scenario. So we have long beautiful if sometimes tendentious tracking shots through diaphanous drapes, gorgeous red shots, wonderful cozzies, fabuolous haircuts, reflections, scenes with a bewhiskerd necromancer who looks like an escapee from Lord of the Rings. But none of these types of shots do anything more than extend the surface of the movie. And the surface of this movie compared to other of Hou’s films I have seen is a mechanical tread through his fairy tale like material. Lacking Hou’s attention to emotionally ambiguous relations, it is a film that fails deliver anything more than vacuous spectacle which is of course grist to the mill of the movie industry.

    The film’s style seems a deliberate effort to compensate for the script’s weakness. Hou does not understand how to marshal integrate or summon forces he sets into play. Like an old magician Hou resorts to smoke and mirrors to disguise the contradictions that he cannot reconcile in his material; and smoke and mirrors is not a hexagram.

    Adrin Neatrour

  • Amy: the girl behind the name Asif Kapadia (UK 2015) Janis: Little Girl Blue Amy Berg (USA 2015)

    Amy: the girl behind the name Asif Kapadia (UK 2015) Janis: Little Girl
    Blue Amy Berg (USA 2015)

    Beware films bearing colons: in their titles.

    Film is one means of probing a truth content of a subject matter. Although documentary and drama framed movies (and there are hybrid types of doc/dramas) are different approaches are there particular characteristic features that distinguish them from each other?

    Watching Amy and Janis, two feature docs, made me think about the differences between drama and doc as film expression. Documentaries seem to be a particular type of film expression that lays claim to the actual. But documentary films in relation to: subject matter, contents, structure and even form are often substantially the same as drama. So, what of a film like Kapadia’s Amy whose content comprises only of actual documented footage and archive material without any externalities of input such as voice over or extranuous music. You might think that produced in this form using only originary primary material that Amy’s expressive content makes it completely distinct from any drama based production.

    However it might be possible to make a film, that used only actual material originating as documentary or archive recordings, whose purpose was to produce an intentional fabrication. You might call such a film a piece of propaganda (Riefenstahl’s work for Hitler) or perhaps a fabricated documentary and the latter type of production would almost certainly borrow heavily from dramatic form to fabricate its story, and to that extent would present many of the markers of a drama in making its claim to present truth content.

    In relation to Kapadia’s ‘Amy: the girl behind the name’, this is the sort of claim that has been made by some of her family.

    The overwhelming pressure on film makers from distributors producers commissioners is to have a strong story line. Narrative is king. So both drama and documentary types of film have to conform. To find the line through the material that best delivers a story. To disregard elements that don’t fit the story, to draw out their characters in those expressive clips that clearly define their role in the story. This pressure is most strongly exerted on contemporary documentary makers, looking for theatrical release, whose editing of originatory material now has to comply with the rules of dramatic form.

    Both Amy and Janis conform to the pre-packaged populist narrative of the tragedy of the flawed female performer. The message that female emotional frailty combined with isolation and inability to cope with the ravaging demands made by the image of success, lead on to recourse to drink drugs and death. Both films in their different ways package this story and present it as the primary truth content without too much complication or digression.

    The music of Janis and Amy is folded into the warp of both films. Music which is intense and personal, expressive of states of mind embedded in the films, but not necessarily definitive of either singers’ life.

    It is perhaps in the expectations of the audience, rather than form, that documentary and dramatic material may be significantly different. Audiences for films presented as docs are more concerned with the truth content of the material. Audiences for drama, more concerned with dramatic effect.

    Dramatic productions are subject I think to different criteria of appraisal by their audiences. In dramatic performances, actors are appraised for their bodies, their physiques, their voices, the delivery of their lines (sincere, authentic) and their mimicking abilities. In dramatic scripts the audience is happy to accept a large measure of dramatic license in the film scenario. Dramas are understood as fabrications. For the audience the issue is whether at some level the drama can be understood as sincere and authentic.

    In a film presented as a documentary, the audience attends the material with a different subjectivity. In docs the makers and contributors are judged almost exclusively for their honesty. In the documentary film the audience to some extent play a forensic role, almost a type of jury, examining the film looking for signs confirming the veracity, the relatedness, the frankness, the repleteness and moral stature of interviewees and material as it is presented

    Amy comprises an overwhelming intimacy. The film consists of home movie footage, archive and selfie material: a door, an opening into Amy’s life. It presents as intrusion: like looking through someone’s diary or going through their room. The mood created is one of privileged access to the private sphere, a construed invasion of privacy. The film, reinforced with Amy’s self referential songs defines the mood of its expressive material shaping it into a tragedy, that entwined emotionally with her music, tells the story of the inevitable rise decline and death of Amy Whitehouse.

    Berg’s ‘Janis…’ also makes use of archive and personal footage. At the core of the film’s narrative drive are the songs, interpreted and reinformed by extensive use made of interviews with those who knew and worked with her. The songs speak for themselves: the emotional authenticity of the story of ‘Janis’. But the interviews seem to me less satisfactory. They all conform to the expected image of Janis, and come across as perspectives of the past seen through the filter of the present. A present where the hot issues of the past, its conflicts and antagonisms, have all comfortably melded. The interviews seem to reconstruct an idealised version of Janis that seems at odds with an actual Janis, a demanding out of control hurricane of life.

    Both Amy and Janis are formulaic but each offers a quite difference experience of subjectivity to the viewer. Amy asks the viewer to conspire with the film makers conceit that their film allows them to understand the music by allowing them into the domain of the private. Janis, keeps the viewer on the outside of the material, asking them to understand the music by believing the word of a number of interviewees talking many years after the events they are remembering. Adrin Neatrour