15 November 2012

SKYFALL (Dir. Sam Mendes, 2012, UK/US) - Ruins of an Empire

Silva (Bardem) toys with Bond (Craig).
James Bond exists in his own unreal universe of preposterous dynamism. Such unrealness cannot compete with the recent demands for realness from a spy franchise which for a time looked outdated when going up against its nearest rivals such as The Bourne films. Skyfall is perhaps the Bond film many of us have been anticipating since its the closest that a director has come to elevating formulaic conventions into the realms of capable mainstream cinema. Both Casino Royale and The Quantum of Solace were recognisably bombastic in their over eager attempts to reinvent the Bond formula. What Skyfall does, especially for the first two acts, is replicate the genre tendencies of the thriller and noir film but does so against a prescient socio-political landscape. Whereas previous Bond films have been greatly concerned with sustaining an illusion of Empire and nationhood, Skyfall refuses to repeat such illusionary politics. Instead, we get a more engaged offering and unflattering depiction of the British secret service and James Bond living in what Silva (Bardem) refers to as ‘the ruins of an empire’. The death of Empire is anchored symbolically in the death of M since Judi Dench's stoicism is modelled on a combination of The Queen and Churchill. In the film, the threat to Western power and capitalism comes unsurprisingly from China and technology. Not only is Bond depicted as a fragile, ineffectual and aging spy, but the first hour tears down the mythology of Bond and substitutes immortality with an unglamourous consolidation of a man who is simply a cog in an unforgiving system. Bardem’s Silva who appears superficially as a revenge filled narrative device is metaphorically Bin Laden; trained by Western intelligence only to resent his expendable status and thus transforming into an invisible agent of ideological chaos. Even more fascinating is that Silva can be viewed as a mirror image of Bond; little separates the two of them and this makes their contest altogether more complicated than the traditional conflicts we expect from a Bond film. 

Silva may want revenge but his transfigurement as a result of M’s betrayal is a costly one for the British establishment as the blowback which they encounter is difficult to defend against without blurring certain moral and political boundaries. Some would say it is sacred territory to venture into the history of James Bond as it invalidates his enigmatic personality. Part of me would agree with such an argument of nostalgia yet by foregrounding his past and by locating the final conflict within a familial context humanises Bond so an ordinariness shines through. It is an ordinariness that is paper thin though and thankfully lasts for only the denouement. Skyfall is certainly the best looking Bond film in a long while and the visually noirish cinematography of Roger Deakins is transparent throughout. In many ways, this is Deakins film. What interested me the most was the contradictory politics at play at the heart of the film. Although it is a progressive Bond film since it critiques Empire, the film’s reflexive ending reclaims a regressiveness that characterised many of the classic Bond films. It is a film that contests an open battle between progressive and regressive ideologies yet at the end by reinstating familiarity, Bond recognises that its endurance as a cultural entity remains with being repetitive and different as a genre. Moody, dynamic and ideological - this is a Bond film with a pulsating heartbeat. It will be a hard act to follow for the next director who signs up for Bond as Mendes may have delivered one of the finest outings to date.

10 November 2012

ARGO (Dir. Ben Affleck, 2012, US) - Cowboys and Indians

Ben Affleck as CIA agent Tony Mendez.

Argo opens with a glib lesson in shoddy Hollywood political objectivity, attempting to tell us that the geopolitical situation of Iran during the American Embassy hostage siege had its demonic seeds in the history of American interventionism. It is one of the few moments in the entire film that we witness a fleeting, if not grudging, attempt at political introspection. Ben Affleck’s latest directorial venture removes him from the geographical comforts of Boston but does political necessarily indicate a growing up in Hollywood cinema? It certainly has been the case with previous liberally inclined film stars turned directors such as Robert Redford and George Clooney. This growing up from traditional Hollywood film genres to more obscure, difficult and problematic material seems to mark some kind of a painfully superficial transition from an isolationist view of American life to broader transnational politics. Yet the sanitised liberal intentions including the serious subject matter, political context, 1970s period, extended conversation sequences and mixing of visual styles merely propagates a view that the ideological construction of such materials is what makes Argo a historically accurate representation of what is a true story. The problem that many of these so-called Hollywood political thrillers face is that by suppressing accurate and fair political content and context, those doing the re-presenting, namely Americans, engineer a historically biased discourse framed against current anti-Iranian sentiments that are regularly propagated by much of the benign mainstream media. No filmmaker has an obligation to be objective but surely every filmmaker has an obligation to be responsible in the way they represent a nation that is already undergoing a steady process of demonization by the western media. 

Argo fails on a number of political accounts, misrepresenting Iran and the Islamic revolution through a distant gaze that refuses to give the Iranian people an authentic or credible voice and instead disembodies them so their rage merges with familiar news imagery of state repression, executions, fanaticism and religious ideology. The Islamic revolution was a populist one and had widespread support amongst ordinary Iranians yet in the film, Khomeini and the new establishment are viewed with suspicion, derision and contempt by the American liberal gaze. Additionally, the refusal to fully explain the context of the Iran hostage crisis and what the Americans were actually doing in the Embassy smacks of selective amnesia. The mere suggestion of the Americans acting as spies in the Embassy is ridiculed and quickly rendered obsolete. However, by having the Iranians adopt this point of view makes them appear doubly paranoid and simply chasing a blood lust. In Rambo: First Blood Part II, John Rambo’s rescuing of POWs from a communist prison camp not only resurrected the spectre of the Vietnam War but his total annihilation of the landscape and its people saw a fictional re-enactment of having won a war America had lost. Such fantasy wish fulfilment resurfaces in Argo. The covert rescue operation mounted with the approval of Jimmy Carter in 1980 resulted in failure, resulting in the deaths of eight Americans and one Iranian. A film like Argo helps to conceal such political failures of the past, reconstituting American history and its humanist people working for the most morally deplorable of institutions (The CIA) as triumphalist, heroic and somewhat more liberal than those pesky gun totting incomprehensible Iranians. 

Even more worrying are the final titles, juxtaposing real photos of the event against stills taken from the film so that any questions to do with the truth, reality and authenticity are rendered almost invisible to the ordinary spectator. One leaves the cinema with the message that this is an accurate representation of a true story and categorically stating that Americans and the West are the good guys. But are we really?

9 October 2012

Reception Studies: BLADE RUNNER (1982, Ridley Scott, US)

The following is the first piece of research I have completed for the MA Screen Studies. It is a study of the way Blade Runner was received by film critics and reviewers in 1982. The reception study was carried out by focusing primarily on the Film Review Annual which gathers together the major reviews of prominent films released each year.
Reception Studies - Blade Runner

22 September 2012

KILLING THEM SOFTLY (Dir. Andrew Dominik, 2012, US) – ‘America’s not a country, it’s a business…’

Brad Pitt as enforcer/hit-man 'Jackie Cogan'
'And to all those who have wondered if America's beacon still burns as bright – tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from our the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope...'         
- President Obama's acceptance speech, 2008
Killing Them Softly revels in the cynicism of its central character of Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), a hit man who stalks the noir lit streets of an urban American society suffering from a monstrous moral and economic decadence. It’s not a fantastical decadence but one rooted in a stark contemporary reality in which the terms recession and capitalism have led to a social crisis of confidence. The absence of morality is nothing new to the crime genre but here it seems to be absolute in the way Jackie views his role of the hit man nothing more than a professional service. With Jackie, all that exists is the job. He has no external life to speak of and trades in death. He also occupies a universe of unsavoury characters that collectively represent a dispiriting American underbelly often found in some of the more nightmarish visions of America from 1970s cinema. The fact that we find no difference between the amorality of Jackie from his victims is what makes the film's representation of American society so powerfully dark. We have no one to root for in the film and in many ways we become observers rather than traditional participators. Such an observational and at times detached spectatorial position underlines the way director Andrew Dominik chooses to foreground ideological concepts over more visceral conventions associated with the genre. 

Most of the film hinges on extended conversation sequences while in the background we hear America's transition from Republicanism to Liberalism (punctuated with speeches delivered by Bush and Obama) as a nothing more than historical spectacle, stressing the continuing empty promises made by politicians. In many ways, Jackie is a twisted metaphor for the contemporary entrepreneur and although he deals in death his violent preoccupations are a pale reflection of successive American leaders. However, what separates Jackie from someone like President Obama is the refusal to use hypocrisy as a form of persuasion. For Jackie, his profession as both an enforcer and hit man is devoid of such traditional forms of political hypocrisy; instead he deals in a reality based on choices and ultimatums, thus avoiding any potential personal guilt. In fact, Jackie is unique in the pantheon of cinematic enforcers/hit-men since existentialism is traded in for an ideological bent. Such ideological musings transforms Jackie into a vicious political metonym and repressed voice for disillusionment with the establishment that stretches back to the 1970s. 

Just as The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford offers a revisionist dissemination of the western genre, Killing Them Softly also undermines audience expectations associated with the crime film genre. The plot is perfunctory and offers little variation in what we have seen before in the American crime film. Two desperate criminals hold up a card game run by the mob, resulting in the entrance of enforcer Jackie Cogan who takes on the job of resolving the crime. The film is adapted from a 1974 novel ‘Cogan’s Trade’ by George V. Higgins who also wrote The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Dominik updates the story to 2008 but such prescient political and economic parallels exist between the two eras that I doubt if the film really loses any of the 1970’s context. The Friends of Eddie Coyle, directed by Peter Yates, features one of Mitchum’s greatest performances as an ageing small time criminal who becomes an unlikely police informant. The patina of romanticism often found in some of the more celebrated American crime films is largely absent from the writing of Higgins. Dominik appears to remain faithful to Higgin’s unglamourous depiction of the criminal underworld by opting for a neo noir aesthetic echoing the dirty, bleached out look that defined films such as Taxi Driver, The Outfit and Thief. Absent also is the traditional face of the crime boss who oversees the hierarchical power structure. Such a choice means that the action stays firmly rooted in the urban milieu of peripheral low life characters typically marginalised in crime or gangster films. 

The film isn’t wholly devoid of action, with a stand out assassination sequence involving hypnotic slow motion, shattered glass, shell casings travelling through rain and the sounds of Kelly Lester’s ‘Love Letters’. Perhaps the defining moments of the entire film is the final scene between Jackie and the ‘middleman’ (Richard Jenkins). Staged in a bar and brilliantly juxtaposed to a television set broadcasting the acceptance speech of the newly elected President Obama, Jackie’s cynical diatribe on the state of America as defunct, individualistic and pathologically obsessed with money may seem somewhat polemical and unexpected for a crime film but its power comes from watching A list film star Brad Pitt deliver such words, and all with an eloquence and clarity. With Assassination of Jesse James and last year’s Tree of Life, Brad Pitt certainly doesn’t need to convince the sceptics of his growing capacity as a fantastic actor and Killing Them Softly offers yet another brilliantly charismatic performance, if not, his best to date. As Jackie Cogan, Pitt is scary, charming and deeply pessimistic, modelling his washed out grungy appearance on a decrepit Elvis. 

This is an angry and prescient piece of cinema that could in time be considered a masterful addition to the American crime oeuvre. One of the films of the year for sure.

19 September 2012

PREMIUM RUSH (Dir. David Koepp, 2012, US) - From A to Z [spoilers ahead!]

Rising star: Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Premium Rush is a fast paced action thriller that takes place on the summer streets of new York city. Film critic and academic David Bordwell has praised the film as one of the best mainstream narrative films of the year since it succeeds in achieving its cinematic goals in just eighty minutes of screen time. The film is set in the hyperkinetic world of bike couriers who dash around the city while incurring the wrath of most New Yorkers. The central character of Wilee (JGL) lives on his bike, defining his daily existence in the anonymous mass of New York. Bordwell does have a point - this is a film that doesn't waste any shots (offering an object lesson in narrative economy) yet still functions in a roughly identifiable genre(s). The plot involves the delivery of a package by Wilee into the hands of the Chinese mob but of course the relative straightforwardness of such a task is complicated by the obstacle in the form of a corrupt police detective who we gradually discover is not only a gambling addict but somewhat psychotic. The backstory involving a young Chinese student working three jobs so she can pay the Chinese mob to allow her son to immigrate to New York seemed a little heavy handed but director David Koepp never lets the plot supersede the devilishly clever narrative structure, fragmentation of time and visceral camerawork. Given the very nature of bike couriers in a city this was probably a logistically tricky film to shoot but I suspect much of it involves visual effects that are seamlessly integrated to sustain the conceit. The corrupt cop who doesn't seem to get a break invokes the fatalist psychology of noir films and such a genre element inevitably creeps into the film's construction. 

However, it is neither noir or the thriller elements that define this film. Rather it is more primitive narrative concepts. This is a film that returns to the earliest narrative form in American cinema, the chase film. It's easy to underrate the simplicity and leanness of the chase narrative since it has been integrated into the action genre as just another face of high concept filmmaking. By having the narrative events unfold in real time not only sustains dramatic tension but helps to continually foreground the chase through the streets of New York as the primary focal point for the spectator. Had this film been made in the studio era then surely the bikes and the city streets would have been horses and the wild west. Interestingly the western was one of the first film genres to integrate the chase narrative into their repertoire of elements so in many ways although the western remains dormant, many of its traditions particularly it's storytelling methods have been re-appropriated into popular Hollywood genres. In terms of narrative structure, the film jumps back and forth through a timeline that demands we adjust and re-adjust our perceptions of traditional narrative cinema such as a linear time frame with clearly signposted narrative markers related to a film's story and plot. Although the film does have its flaws in terms of poor characterisation, uneven dialogue and somewhat hackneyed ethnic representations, filmmaker David Koepp doesn't seem particularly interested in the wider ideological implications and chooses to maintain a sharper eye on narrative possibilities. What this means is that any traditional narrative interruptions are minimal thus producing a film that never stops breathing. 

1 September 2012

THE EXPENDABLES 2 (Dir. Simon West, US, 2012) - Hard Body Ideologies

Veterans of the action film genre.
It is disappointing to hear that The Expendables 2 is likely to make less money at the box office than the first film. Could this be that the first film appealed to audiences as nothing more than a novelty, bringing together old school action heroes for a nostalgically hungry cinema audience disillusioned by the afterthoughts of yet more Twilight induced films. Nonetheless, Stallone and Lionsgate were wise in green-lighting a second film since it offers yet more juvenile violence and retro action schisms. Another wise decision was to pass over the directorial reigns to Simon West, a filmmaker who is a competent director of the action genre. Although the first film left audiences wanting for more, this second instalment builds on such a promise by adding new faces to the mix. Stallone and Schwarzenegger defined the hard body action image of the 1980s and both are busy at work making films that refuse to chase the habitually under challenged teen demographic. One of the most common ways of labelling a film like The Expendables is by maintaining a critical distance, snobbishly relegating such action entertainment to the satisfyingly innocuous category of filmic trash. I even find myself guilty of such a cinematically treasonous act yet the designation of a so-called trashiness limits the ways in which we could potentially interpret or read such a film. Perhaps such an argument could be applied to a good measure of low culture, not just action films. Action films extend from the chase narrative that was one of the earliest cinema of attractions for audiences. In turn the chase narrative was appropriated by numerous genres especially the western. The Expendables has been marketed as men on mission film but in many ways it could just easily be deemed an action western. Had the film been an outright western then the critical reception may have been markedly different since the western genre has attracted greater credibility unlike the action genre that continues to be in a perpetual mode of cryo-stasis. 

It’s not surprising that a mainstream film critic such as the ever-safe Peter Bradshaw awards The Avengers film four stars whereas The Expendables gets just two. This choice may be personal but in fact it has to do with the inflated higher cultural capital of Whedon and Marvel. Yet again the demarcation between low and high culture is a matter of critical taste tied to zeitgeist concerns. If Stallone’s lazy reputation as a filmmaker has been cultivated by a prejudiced critical consensus then the recent mixed critical response to The Expendables 2 has their origin in a similar critical disposition of obtuse categorisation. When it comes to the action genre, critics generally tend to steer away from ideological discussion preferring to condemn or celebrate action films on the level of originality demonstrated by the set pieces. If Stallone’s action films from the 1980s and the hard body image manifested Reaganite ideology then surely there needs to be a continuation of such contextualised ideological readings? Unfortunately, ideological discussions are somewhat eclipsed by arguments to do with nostalgic, retro inspired filmmaking. If nostalgia has replaced ideology when it comes to the recent films of Stallone then perhaps this also has to do with the way in which democratic American governments offer limited contextual political landscapes when compared to the regressive, reactionary and often fascist overtones cultivated by Republican governments. After all, Stallone’s hard body image was forged and repeatedly hijacked by era of right wing Republican political dogma articulated by film star leaders such as Ronald Reagan. A superficial ideological reading of The Expendables rubbishes claims of nostalgic postmodern reflexivity. Although such notions are readily evident, a superficial ideological reading posits the way such action films are perhaps deliberately rendered apolitical since this would mean having to invalidate the low and high culture debate. 

The Expendables are a band of mercenaries who seem to be available to hire on the global market. This makes them a capitalist commodity operating in a vacuum of geopolitical immunity. As a group they don’t seem affiliated with any particular government but their relationship with the CIA could be regarded as a hegemonic extension of the way America fights wars by proxy today. While Stallone as Barney is coerced by the CIA he also harbours wider reservations of the way his men are seen as cogs in a much bigger military machine. Such mistrust over the CIA and establishments in general echoes John Rambo who questions his position in the system and ultimately rebels (certainly in the first film) to become a survivalist of pity, pain and detachment. John Rambo seemed to get progressively less angry in the films (although he returned with a vengeance in the fourth film) but he viewed his role as mechanical rather than political. Although it would be difficult to label Rambo as anti establishment especially given the jingoism on display in the second film, his marginalised status (made emphatically clear by the motif of having him walk away at the end of each film like a mythical warrior and also recalling Ethan Edward’s actions at the end of The Searchers) resurrects the cowboy loner myth. Barney is essentially a ghostly mirror image of Rambo but in this instance old age presents us with a reflexive postmodern hero who is aware of his fading stardom. Perhaps the most significant departure in terms of male heroism is that the men in The Expendables lack the social and political indignation of having been betrayed by those at the top shown in action films such as First Blood & Predator. The dissipation of anger may reflect old age and their respective status as veterans. Such apolitical politics also supports the argument that contemporary cinema is largely devoid of ideological engagement having reached a point of irreversible creative exhaustion. However, ultimately this is a deeply reflexive postmodern action film that lives and breathes the memories of populist action films such as Rambo First Blood Part 2. Ironically, the once muscular hard body of Stallone is nothing more than a rubbery elasticated one that exists purely to pleasure us falsely with dreams of our own immortality. Here's a mainstream summer film that won't make you leave the cinema feeling short changed; it simply delivers on what it promises.

15 August 2012

THE BOURNE LEGACY (Dir. Tony Gilroy, 2012, US) - Criss Cross

Jeremy Renner as Aaron Cross
Sometimes, well most of the times these days, I end up being very cynical about Hollywood franchises. When I heard that Universal were adamant to keep the Bourne franchise alive with a film without both Damon and Greengrass part of me couldn't help lambaste Hollywood for its seemingly endless lack of originality. I was very sceptical about The Bourne Legacy, a film written and directed by Tony Gilroy and starring Jeremy Renner in the lead role of CIA operative Aaron Cross. The Bourne films have been important for the reputation of another global franchise - James Bond. What the Bourne films did for the espionage genre was the injection of a much needed realism in terms of both style and ideology. The representation of politics in a post cold war era in terms of the spy film meant a level of self parody but the Bourne films were some of the first post millennial films to offer a more gritty and credible look at the changing face of geopolitical espionage. The Bourne Identity, the first in the series, is an effective and surprisingly elegant spy thriller which established Jason Bourne as a new age realistic anti hero. The follow up, The Bourne Supremacy, is arguably the finest of the bunch and saw the directorial involvement of Paul Greengrass who brought a greater degree of realism to the action sequences. Given the critical and commercial success of Supremacy, Universal seemed to hand over the franchise to Damon and Greengrass who would go on to collaborate on the disastrous Green Zone project. James Bond responded with a reinvention of its formula, adopting much of the new (old) realism pioneered by the Bourne films and offering us a new three dimensional Bond in the shape of hard case Daniel Craig. The third and supposed final film in the franchise, The Bourne Ultimatum, was universally well received and with some critics declaring it the best. Ultimatum seems the weakest and this is largely because the film is overly derivative of Supremacy and offers in my opinion an unsatisfactory conclusion since the final revelation is predictable. Nevertheless, Ultimatum is still a superior spy thriller. 

So what of The Bourne Legacy? The narrative is set within the same time frame of Jason Bourne's excursion to New York in which he infiltrates the CIA. The focus this time is on Aaron Cross, another CIA operative who ends up being betrayed in order to minimise the political fallout from the Jason Bourne scandal. Cross is the latest covert CIA operation; a lab experiment enhancing both his strength and intelligence. The plot is somewhat of a regurgitation of the Bourne films and offers few surprises in the way Cross attempts to regain his identity. What makes Legacy such a worthy follow up is the way Gilroy chooses to maintain political intrigue with a genuinely exciting handling of the action set pieces. Strangely enough, Legacy felt more like a traditional thriller than the other Bourne films and although this may seem like one of the conventional aspects of the film, it gives the narrative a tautness. One of the best and politically prescient sequences takes place near the beginning. A remote controlled drone is used to carry out a strike against two of the CIA operatives; one of them is killed while Cross manages to escape. It might be the first ever death by drone representation in a Hollywood film. With so many deaths on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border over the years, the use of drone technology to commit atrocities underlines an ugly detachment from the crime and the cowardly ability to never see the people, just a target. Even more chilling is the notion that by removing the human element from target assassinations, the crime becomes altogether more unreal, thus eliminating any contemplations of guilt. The thriller and action genre derive from the chase film or narrative which emerged in the early days of film and Legacy at its most simplistic is an extended geopolitical chase film with an ending non to similar to the previous Bourne films. Both Renner and Weisz are well cast and offer solid performances but their pairing lacks a certain chemistry which was present between Damon and Potente in the first film. Edward Norton shows up as a scheming CIA suit with plenty of hackneyed political dialogue that we have heard so many times before. Legacy is a well crafted spy/action thriller but for me it lacks the sustained ideological engagement to put it in the category of Gilroy's debut Michael Clayton. 

10 August 2012

EVEN THE RAIN (Dir. Iciar Bollain, 2010, Spain/Mexico/France) - Exploiters

The exploited meets the exploiter?
Even The Rain is easily one of the best films I have seen this year. It is a film that merges two concepts: politics and cinema into a very powerful narrative about oppression, history, privatisation and most directly class struggle. Written by Paul Laverty, a regular Ken Loach collaborator of social realist cinema, and directed by Spaniard Iciar Bollain, Even The Rain sees a Spanish film crew arrive in Bolivia to shoot a revisionist historical film about Columbus and his experiences with the indigenous people of the Americas. The crew is led by director Sebastian (Gael Garcia Bernal) and producer Costa (Luis Tosar) who have a vision of making an epic on an inexpensive budget in a country where labour is cheap. As they film, external political events begin to take over the shooting schedule and soon film making is interrupted by protests over the state's control of water and multinational privatisation. The protest inevitably turns to a violent struggle and a state of emergency is declared, bringing an end to Sebastian's dream of completing the film. The protest is led by Daniel, who has been cast in the film as leader of the Indians. Daniel's involvement in the war over water jeopardises the shoot and endangers his life but it also brings to light the middle class unconcern's of the film crew especially Costa. Costa is a producer who only cares for the film project yet he is the one who seems to change the most. Initially Costa is humiliated by Daniel for his indifference to the plight of the Bolivian indigenous underclass and their struggle for the most elemental of human rights. Costa does come to the aid of Daniel at the end and while this is a literally eye opening experience, a wider point is made about the expiation of middle class guilt. One of the strongest elements of the film is the dramatic parallel between the past and present forms of class exploitation. It is a parallel underlining a continuity in terms of hegemonic oppression. By keeping political details of the Bolivian water war in the background, the film avoids falling into the trap of overly politicising such an important social issue. Additionally, many of the characters especially Daniel are humanised so that their voice feels authentic and credible. The final meeting between Costa and Daniel is undoubtedly the most sentimental. Such emotional expressiveness seems necessary given the way class as a barrier becomes invisible, uniting two very different people against one common enemy: corporate multinational greed. As Costa leaves Bolivia never to return, he opens the gift given to him by Daniel for saving his daughter's life. It is a bottle of water. Although no one can truly claim to own water, many have and yet we forget that water belongs to us all but is denied to many. It is a point made with startling political clarity as is the rest of this great film.   

9 August 2012

ISHAQZAADE / LOVE REBELS (Dir. Habib Faisal, 2012, India) - Star Crossed Lovers

A loose updating of Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet.
Its too early to say whether or not Habib Faisal is a solid mainstream filmmaker but on the basis of the two films he has directed to date including Do Dooni Char & Ishaqzaade, he has certainly tried to take on the conventions of mainstream Indian cinema and give audiences something a little different. Ishaqzaade is a Yash Raj production and was expectedly well marketed, performing surprisingly well at the Indian box office. The slate of Yash Raj films released over the last two years have been somewhat disappointing and while they have branched out into different genres, the quality of scripts has been uneven. Habib Faisal was a scriptwriter before becoming a director and he continues to write for Yash Raj projects. Ishaqzaade is also written by Habib Faisal and that seems unusual in the context of mainstream Indian cinema since most films use a script typically credited to an array of writers. Ishaqzaade can be interpreted as a contemporary updating of Romeo and Juliet and the story of the star crossed lovers who are fated by their warring families remains largely intact. Given the current sorry state of mainstream Indian cinema, Ishaqzaade is a film that has a lot going for it including an energetic style, vibrant locations, solid performances and an ending that makes good on its promise of fatalism. With Do Dooni Chaar, Habib Faisal dealt with the day to day problems faced by the middle class of India and such an interest in social themes is evident again in Ishaqzaade but in the shape of religion. The story of Romeo & Juliet is given a topical variation by bringing into play communal politics, pitting two political families (The Chauhans & the Qureshis) against each other. In the midst of such intense hatred that goes back generations is the twisted love story of youngsters Parma Chauhan (Arjun Kapoor) and Zoya Qureshi (Parineeti Chopra). In many ways, the characterisation of Parma and Zoya are stereotypical and are familiar enough to us from other romantic films but the religious divisions transforms the characters into potent political symbols of sectarian strife visible in some parts of India. The great compromise when it comes to mainstream Indian cinema is the inclusion of song and dance sequences. In his first film, Habib Faisal succeeds in bypassing such a tradition and although he tries he hardest to keep songs to a minimal in Ishaqzaade, the ones he does use are both insignificant to the narrative and unmemorable. Had he been able to eliminate song and dance sequence altogether, the film might have been stronger for it but then this would have inevitably changed the type of film being made from mainstream to art film. 

Thankfully the narrative of the film doesn't suffer from the film of two halves syndrome plaguing so many Indian films of late - this means the first half is light hearted whereas the second half is dominated by heartache; I guess its the perfect emotional mix for the masala film genre. An interesting departure is the way the intermission is used. Many films use the intermission as a crossroads in terms of narrative and romantic films in particular use the intermission to convey a predictable dilemma facing the main protagonist - usually related to having fallen in love. Habib Faisal departs from such formulaic hyperbole by using the intermission to frame Parma's successful plan to marry Zoya and have intercourse with her, thus giving his family the edge in the election race. It is a bold and inventive use of the intermission and takes the material into an unfamiliar territory. The discovery of Parma and Zoya's secret marriage which was carried out by Parma as a way of exacting revenge on Zoya for her humiliation at college at first creates more hatred between the two families. However, once the families realise that their political reputation and domination could come to an end, they come together to eliminate Parma and Zoya. Such an alliance demonstrates a wider point about religious divisions and political power and the way the two interconnect and depend on one another in today's India. Rather than embrace Parma and Zoya's secular marriage, the families reactionary stance reveals a reactionary ideological perspective that promotes a culture of intolerance. What Parma and Zoya's union represents is the progressive face of middle class India in which the youth will have a decisive role to play in the erosion of such traditional and repressive values. Ultimately, Parma and Zoya's marriage poses a threat to the political power structure which is in place and it is political interests that must be protected, even at the expense of a premature youthful liberalism. 

Similarly like recent films such as Ishqiya and Omkara, the city is nowhere to be seen and director Habib Faisal opts for a rural 'lawless' geographical landscape of old colleges, brothels, over sized family mansions and depilated railway carriages. It is a rustic terrain that seems fitting for the ancient rivalry that exists between the two families. Zoya is a feisty and spirited female character who seems trapped in such an overly male dominated world. When she tells her brothers that she has dreams of becoming a politician like her father they laugh, mocking her enthusiasm as foolishness. It is only when she is disgraced by Parma does Zoya realise that the value of honour is sadly more important than her happiness or even existence. Such a reactionary response from the two families yet again taps into the feudalistic mentality still prevalent in rural India. Yet it is a feudalism that wins votes and appeals to the traditional sentiments of the electoral. The film also seems to deconstruct the male arrogance of a youthful figure like Parma who is transformed from vicious, hot headed demagogue into a symbol of religious tolerance - any romantic notions of heroism are nowhere to be seen, replaced by an aberrant banditry. The turning point for Parma is the death of his mother who is executed by his uncle who heads the Chauhan family. From thereon Parma promises to uphold his mother's dying wish, to protect Zoya. Interestingly, the matriarchal figure yet again resurfaces in relation to the actions of the fallen male hero and this aspect seems to invoke the conventions of traditional Indian cinema from the 1950s onwards. 

In terms of the ending, the film opts for a bloody shoot out which results in Parma and Zoya taking their own lives, thus adhering to the fatalism of Shakespeare's classic tale. In fact, it feels more like an ending inspired by films such as Thelma & Louise and Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid in which the main protagonists have no means of escape other than self destruction. In the case of Parma and Zoya, their rebelliousness threatens the norms of the feudal, sectarian world so they must be eliminated for the status quo to prevail. Ishaqzaade is a deceptive work, posing sophisticated and pertinent ideological arguments that are smuggled into the fabric of what appears to be a pedestrian boy meets girl love story. So perhaps we can conclude by saying in the words of Martin Scorsese that Habib Faisal is a director as smuggler, working in personal themes and social preoccupations into the fabric of his films. It seems like a perfectly sound argument why the mainstream can in fact be a perfect arena for testing out more unconventional ideas on a wide audience in the most deceptive of manners.

8 August 2012

BERNIE (Dir. Richard Linklater, 2011, US) - Mr. Nice Guy [Spoilers Ahead]

Jack Black as Bernie Tiede.
Its amazing what a moustache can do for an actor. Comic actor Jack Black has such a moustache in the latest film from director Richard Linklater. The moustache in question makes mortician Bernie Tiede appear deceptively ordinary; it also transforms Jack Black the comedian into a serious actor. Nonetheless, the moustache is also creepy and fits into the similarly terrifying mundanity of Carthage, a typical small town America, which seems occupied solely by an ageing population. It's as if young people don't exist in Bernie's world. Carthage is situated in the Midwest of America, manifesting a beguiling ordinariness and inhabited by people who believe in a conservative morality as epitomised by Bernie's unnerving friendliness to everyone he meets. Religion in the form of the local church seems to be a binding element in the way community functions. The film opens with members of the town offering us a flattering portrait of Bernie as a saint of Carthage, setting up the notion of subjectivity. Remarkably the film is based on a true story and Linklater involves the town members, interviewing them as if a documentary crew are continually present. Its hard to figure out if the town members are actors or the actual people, thus blurring the line between reality and fiction. If the memories of Bernie are subjective and unreliable, then this becomes a film about a town's collective perceptions and their attempts to hold on to an image of kindness cultivated over time. Bernie, a harmless, over eager and portly man in his late 30s, becomes romantically involved with Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), a rich old widow, who is categorically loathed by the town for her outright meanness. At first Bernie offers support when Marjorie's husband passes away but his affections soon turn to a companionship. It is not long before Marjorie becomes parasitically dependent on Bernie for all facets of her life including her savings. Marjorie's control over Bernie becomes obsessive and one day Bernie shoots Marjorie in the back, hiding her body in a deep freeze then sustaining the illusion that she is still alive. Linklater constructs such an innocent, generous and deeply likable portrait of Bernie that when it comes to his arrest and conviction, as an audience we share the town's feelings that Bernie's actions should be measured against the way he tried to rejuvenate the town of Carthage and its people. Everything including the murder is underlined by a dark comical tone that runs throughout the film's episodic narrative so we are never quite sure if Linklater is mocking the world of Carthage or celebrating its distinctiveness. When Bernie is found guilty by the jury and sentenced to life imprisonment, one feels like an injustice has been committed. Yet the facts are clear - Bernie did kill Marjorie, and although it may have not been pre-mediated, the law has to be enforced and this means Bernie being made into a criminal. Linklater ends on a reflexive note with images of the real Bernie in prison, finishing with a brilliant final shot of Jack Black the actor talking to the real Bernie in prison; it's a moment of real innocence. 

4 August 2012

SLACKER (Dir. Richard Linklater, 1991, US) - Lost in Austin

The opening titles with Linklater
Director Richard Linklater’s 1991 breakthrough feature Slacker is arguably one of his most philosophical and radical works. Shot on a low budget in his home town of Austin, Texas, the film dispenses with plot entirely and embraces an orchestrated randomness as we are introduced to a series of colourful Austin inhabitants. Brilliantly scripted by Linklater, the screenplay contains some memorable and very complex ideological dialogue that is representative of the various slackers that we meet - individuals who have taken a decision to openly reject conformist capitalist society while advocating a cool form of dissent as a favourable lifestyle. The film opens with director Linklater getting of a coach and taking a taxi cab in which he relates a lengthy ramble on the choices people make and the existence of alternate realities. Linklater’s dialogue seems both improvised and seemingly random but it is a stream of consciousness that ebbs and flows to establish an infectious tone as we are taken in by each character’s vivid narratives. The term slacker is synonymous with youth, laziness and potheads but here it means something radical. A slacker in Linklater’s world is someone who seems socially and politically autonomous in their criticisms of the dominant capitalist systems. In a way, such an analogy summarises the position of Linklater as a filmmaker since he has alternated between independent and mainstream cinema yet managing to hold on to authorial interests/concerns. A rebelliousness marks the work of Linklater and many of his protagonists are marginal Americans, living an existence characterised by a slackerdom philosophy. One can see how influential a film like Slacker was on later American indies such as Clerks but it is a film that also draws on the work of Godard, American Graffiti and cult film Repo Man. What I admire most about Linklater is his capacity to make films on his terms - this has resulted in highly original films such as Dazed & Confused, Before Sunrise, A Scanner Darkly and Bernie. Additionally, by remaining in Austin to build the infrastructure for future filmmakers Linklater has retained artistic integrity and also his coolness, making him a director that many aspire to emulate. As for Slacker, it is an achingly beautiful film that captures a certain youth zeitgeist and does so with remarkable cinematic rhythms.

29 July 2012

MATINEE (Dir. Joe Dante, 1993, US) - Cold War Creature Comforts

The A Bomb
Joe Dante is by far the most mischievous of the filmmakers spawned by exploitation maestro Roger Corman. Unlike his contemporaries Dante has made fewer films. His oeuvre is characterised by a darkly satirical edge and his nightmarish representations of American suburbia have run contrary to the mainstream. Consider the way he smuggles a creepiness about Reagan's America into a populist film like Gremlins but all with a sense of anarchic fun. Dante's mischief did him no favours with the studios so it was lucky directors turned producers like Spielberg shared such zany and cartoonish tendencies. Both Gremlins and Innerspace were backed by Spielberg and Amblin. Dante's finest satire is his 1993 film Matinee and it is a terrific genre film that deals with three of my favourite cinematic themes; childhood, politics and cinema. The backdrop is the cold war era and the Cuban missile crisis. As tension between America and Russia escalates, a small town in Key West Florida anticipates the arrival of B movie horror director Lawrence Woolsey (a riff on Hitchcock and played by John Goodman) with his latest shlock flick Mant (a man who is exposed to radiation and an ant). A young boy Gene, whose father is part of the US navy assigned to defend American waters, is a lover of cinema especially bad horror movies. Gene prefers his movies to girls and when Woolsey comes to town Gene confesses an unhealthy love of the horror genre. Dante juxtaposes the imminent threat of the atom bomb to the way cinema offers fictional solutions and escapist diversions; it's a potent satirical combination since Woolsey's horror creation Mant is an anxious manifestation of nuclear radiation. Woolsey makes no excuses for the way he exploits and benefits from the pervasive climate of cold war anxiety, producing films that are hyperbolic and demented. The local cinema, owned by a neurotic manager, has only one screen and caters to mostly the adolescent school kids who converge on the screening of Mant turning the auditorium into a controlled chaos. Woolsey's plans of self promotion involves placing buzzers under seats, using his own state of the art Rumble-rama and getting the town's delinquent to don a rubbery Mant suit. In case you’re wondering, yes, all three succeed in convincing an observant cinema chain owner to invest in Woolsey’s taste for theatrics. Dante’s nostalgic depiction of cinema going is one to be savoured as it is the cinema theatre that becomes a microcosm of the town's various social, political and personal dilemmas. The ending is also powerfully self reflexive demonstrating with great fun the way audiences can be duped so easily by the most seductive of illusions. Also watch out for the terrific cameo by director John Sayles.

28 July 2012

DEVIL'S DOORWAY (Dir. Anthony Mann, 1950, US) - No Man's Land

Deep Focus Cinematography by John Alton.
Devil’s Doorway is one of the first western’s Anthony Mann directed. It’s also one of his least seen works and perhaps one of his greatest westerns. Closer in tone to The Furies and Winchester ’73, Devil’s Doorway is revisionist before the term came in to use in the early 1960s. Devil’s Doorway deals with race, exploring the slow genocide of Native American people and the stealing of their land. Released in 1950, the film was way ahead of its time and offers one of the earliest sympathetic representations of the indigenous people of America; the Indians. Robert Taylor plays Lance Poole, a highly decorated Indian who fought at Gettysburg. Poole returns to the land of his ancestors that he owns and realises that a new homesteading law is due to be passed. The new law states that no Indian can own land and it is not long before Poole faces a bitter and violent struggle to protect his livelihood and what remains of his people’s legacy. Mann approaches the material like a film noir and much of the action is shot using deep focus camerawork, oblique angles and chiaroscuro lighting. Much of the film’s stunning visual look can be attributed to ace cinematography John Alton who offers some unforgettable black and white imagery. A western like The Searchers deals with racial prejudices in a much more subtle way but Mann refuses to hide behind allegory, tackling race head on in an era of Hollywood cinema that rarely dealt with such controversial subject matter. A minor criticism is that Robert Taylor had to ‘brown up’ for the role of Poole yet he still manages to deliver a memorable performance. Equally brilliant is the ending, which is uncompromisingly stark and poignant. Devil’s Doorway certainly belongs in the company of Mann’s most celebrated westerns but the film’s relative obscurity is somewhat of a mystery. 

26 July 2012

NASEEM / MORNING BREEZE (Dir. Saeed Akhtar Mirza, 1995, India) - The Past Precedes the Present

The opening title caption.
Saeed Akhtar Mirza retired from filmmaking in 1995 with Naseem. It was an unexpected departure for a filmmaker who had been a key player in the parallel cinema movement. Was it creative exhaustion or disillusionment with wider social and political dimensions that led to Mirza’s departure? Mirza says he felt like he had nothing else left to say and Naseem was made as an epitaph to his career as a director. The body of work he did produce during the 70s 80s and 90s articulated the concerns of the Muslim experience with films such as Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro (1989), a film which I have written about at length in a previous post. Mirza’s representations of Muslims living in India in a period of intense communalism were rare and distinctive in their depiction of underclass reality. Perhaps then it came as a surprise to see Mirza return to filmmaking in 2009 with Ek Tho Chance. However, the film still remains unreleased in both India and abroad, illustrating the potential problems with taking a hiatus from the film industry in a time of changing audience tastes. Naseem is one of Mirza’s most personal films and thankfully the film has finally been restored and released on DVD as part of a slew of NDFC films. Naseem is the name of a young Muslim girl who spends most of her time listening to the contemplative and poetic stories recalled by her ailing grandfather (played by lyricist and poet Kaifi Azmi in a rare screen role). Events are set in 1992, slowly leading up to the demolition of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya. The film has no real plot to speak except the external turmoil of the rioting which creates a deeply unsettling mood throughout. The narrative unfolds largely through the eyes of the Muslim girl Naseem with much of the action focused on her interactions at school and at home with her friends and family. The grandfather remains on his bed throughout the film, observing and commenting on the world around him. His presence is a symbolic one, representing not only the past but offering an example of a Muslim who has experienced the trauma of partition yet who has also witnessed a time when co existence was the norm. Such norms are tested by the rioting that the family witnesses on television, fearing for their lives and feeling increasingly isolated because of their faith. When Mushtaq, the oldest of the family, brings home a friend, a debate ensues about what the proper reaction should be from the Muslim community. Mushtaq’s friend Zafar (Kay Kay Menon in one of his first roles) is a symbolic contrast to the grandfather, representing the future and the emerging radicalisation of Muslim youth. When Zafar says Muslims are being butchered on the streets, the grandfather sceptically replies that it is not Muslims but the poor who are in fact being murdered. Such wisdom can do little to ease the outrage of the rioting which continues unabated. A constant threat emerges to Naseem as her movements become restricted due to her brother’s feeling that they could be attacked. The final sequence is by far the most moving with Mirza staging the death of the old Muslim secularist patriarch (the grandfather) to the nationalist demolition of the Babri Mosque. In many ways, Mirza positions the demolition of the Babri Mosque as a turning point in the history of new India, signalling the erosion of co existence, the intensification of communalism and an age of uncertainty for Muslims who live in India; it is a powerful political statement. There is no doubting that Naseem is a rare film and belongs alongside a film like Garam Hawa in its realistic and complex depiction of the Muslim family. 

25 July 2012

SHANGHAI (Dir. Dibakar Banerjee, 2012, India) - State of a Nation

Abhay Deol - one of the best actors of his generation.
Indian filmmaker Dibakar Banerjee’s latest film Shanghai is a brave attempt at the political thriller genre. The film adapts the 1967 novel Z by Greek writer Vassilis Vassilikos, which was made into a film in 1969 by Costas Gavras, and updates the material to contemporary India. Weaving together the lives of four key characters, the narrative focuses on the murder of an outspoken social activist and charismatic leader Dr. Ahmadi. The murder of Ahmadi by the major political party, which is running for election, brings together filmmaker (specialising in porn films) Joginder (Emraan Hashmi) who was present at the time of Ahmadi’s murder, Ahmadi’s staunch supporter Shalini (Kalki Koechlin) and Krishnan (Abhay Deol), an emerging civil servant. The murder of Ahmadi, which takes place as a spectacle before the eyes of his supporters, results in the current government implementing an enquiry headed up by Krishnan into the Ahmadi’s killing. It is only later that Krishnan discovers that the enquiry was set up primarily by the current government as a way of covering up the crime since it involves the Chief Minister. Joginder and Shalini’s amateurish investigation lifts the lid on a quagmire of corrupt politics with the main political party, the IBP, using its members to intimidate and kill Ahmadi while attempting to cover up the truth. Ahmadi’s concerns seem real enough, arguing that the government’s longing to steal land that belongs to the oppressed underclass of India so that it can be used for an expensive infrastructure project is very much about corporate expansionism. Ideologically, Ahmadi’s outspoken political position makes him a target and the silencing of his voice is familiar signs of a government that cannot offer protection to those who speak out against prevailing economic and social interests. Director Banerjee succeeds in capturing the nexus of power relations that intersects amongst the people of a city in a state of unease and on the edge of self-destruction. For me the weak link in the film is Kalki Koechlin who plays Shalini. Her character seems underwritten and the role she plays in the narrative should have been more critical and dynamic. Additionally, Kalki is miscast in the role of Shalini unlike Emraan Hashmi who is effectively creepy as an unsavoury amateur filmmaker. When Shalini and Joginder finally present their audio and visual evidence to the enquiry it falls upon Krishnan to take action. At first Krishnan is coerced into accepting that the enquiry set up to deal with the murder of Ahmadi be closed due to lack of evidence. Krishnan is trying to forge himself a political career, which is expedited by the backing of the Chief Minister who appoints him as an adviser to the government. Banerjee dares to debate a very important issue in India today, that of development, and the price the oppressed have to pay so that the ruling elite can continue to rule unequivocally and with a frightening impunity. Shanghai is certainly his most ambitious film to date and what makes it one of the best Indian films of the year are the closing moments in which the juxtaposition between development and dissent coalesce into a terrifying reality.

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (Dir. Christopher Nolan, 2012, US) - Death by Exile [Spoilers Ahead]

Bane vs Batman
Nolan is no visionary and the final instalment in his Batman trilogy confirms what many already knew - that Nolan is an intelligent and accomplished storyteller. With his three Batman films, Nolan has learnt to master the essential art of ‘raising the stakes’ - a classical narrative feature that characterises many of the best mainstream blockbusters. The Dark Knight Rises is a zeitgeist film, a trend proven by the first two films, and although the affects of 9-11 have disappeared from much of American cinema, the comic book film genre has continued to use the 9-11 hangover and the threat of terrorism as a suitable social and political context. The Dark Knight Rises references a plethora of recent political events such as the Occupy Wall Street movement, the Arab Spring, the greed of banks and the financial crisis as window dressing for a fantastical comic book struggle. If Batman Begins was an intimate blockbuster and The Dark Knight a treatise on the hero myth then The Dark Knight Rises is an epic. An ambitious film like Inception certainly proved Nolan’s desire to elevate storytelling to an epic and global scale. The Dark Knight Rises emulates such epic ambitions by constructing a decadent comic book universe in which cataclysmic events are juxtaposed to one another with a conviction unheard of in a seemingly juvenile genre. This final film makes a dramatic leap of eight years, locating the action in a peacetime Gotham. A virtual recluse Bruce Wayne lives alone in his mansion, wallowing in self pity and still coming to terms with the loss of Rachel. Bruce Wayne appears now as a Kane like figure and his deteriorating physical condition makes him a vulnerable and flawed anti-hero. In many ways, this damaged Bruce Wayne is the one we were expecting since it is such vulnerability that transforms him into such a tragic figure. The first half of the film is very much about the mythology of Batman and what his presence means to the people of Gotham. This is continually reiterated by Alfred and Bruce Wayne’s conversations, debating the value of myth and attempting to renegotiate new parameters for heroism in an age of austerity. Inevitably, Bruce Wayne’s mortality is another point of interest that films explores which is intertwined with yet more conventional tragic qualities such as sacrifice, redemption and most importantly the fear of failing. As an alter ego Batman is a glorified vigilante; an angry young man who just happens to be a ridiculously wealthy millionaire. Yet such a contradiction is fought out in the way he uses his wealth to combat social inequalities and ultimately eradicate crime from Gotham. 

In The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce Wayne has become a shadow of loneliness and his last connection to reality is Alfred, his faithful butler. Interestingly, the new Gotham in which crime has been eradicated as a result of Commissioner Gordon’s terminal lie reflects a new era as symbolised in the real life election of President Obama. It is a Gotham of relative stability yet beneath the austere surface is a corrupt and familiarly unequal society controlled by a wealthy elite - in other words, nothing has changed in terms of power and class since Obama came to office. Nolan has surprisingly downplayed the different social and political references made by the trilogy and this latest film continues such a preoccupation. If this new film takes place against Obama’s term in office then the it is not unexpected to find Bane’s first targeted attack against the stock exchange, a widespread symbol of social discontent and a site of economic corruption. Such an attack against the very financial structures that have created a seemingly perpetual age of austerity and global recession may in fact be justified given the way bankers have betrayed the trust of the people. Such prescient moments underline the film’s zeitgeist aspirations, framing the revolutionary actions of Bane and his army as both sincere and realistic. However, Bane’s revolutionary stance is rubbished by the presence of Selina Kyle who by teaming up with Batman bridges a necessary social and economic divide that separates Bruce Wayne from Gotham’s dispossessed. By holding Gotham to ransom with a nuclear bomb, Bane’s status of an ex communicated mercenary and former member of the League of Shadows changes to that of a terrorist. It is this threat posed by terrorism that ultimately unites the rich and poor of Gotham, acting as a social leveller and finally demanding that Selina Kyle surrender her ideological baggage for the greater good of the city. Perhaps then both Batman and his associates are in fact conservative agents of closure, restoring order by facing up to Bane’s terror and dismissing the more rational ideological musings of Bane as ancient demagoguery. Whereas the Joker in The Dark Knight was interpreted by some critics as a pale reflection of Osama Bin Laden and with Batman standing in for George Bush, The Dark Knight Rises locates the power struggle to the potent iconographic setting of New York, thus making clear parallels with 9-11 and exploiting audience memories of past events. Of course, films which subscribe to the dominant point of view, which encompasses the majority of Hollywood films, are not to be discussed in such political terms because they are in fact entertainment for the masses. As Nolan has said, he only sets out to tell a good story not offer any kind of social or political commentary. Fair enough but such a feeble position sounds a little cowardly given the way the film taps into current anxieties. 

The refusal to negotiate with terrorists is an echo from the Bush doctrine and yet by placing such rhetoric within the context of the new administration suggests a natural continuation of attitudes to the Arab as the demonic Other. Given that Bruce Wayne was trained by the League of Shadows, his battle with Bane is in fact a battle with himself. Nevertheless, by locating the myth of Talia al Ghul in an unnamed country, most likely India, and with the comic book telling us she and her father are of Arabian descent, makes the threat posed by the Other an altogether conventional, if not xenophobic, one. However, the trilogy seem to downplay the Arabian lineage in fear of yet again labelling the Middle East as fanatics who dream of bringing about the end of western civilisation. Of course, the great conundrum in all of this is that The League of Shadows led by Ra’s al-Ghul trains Bruce Wayne to become a formidable warrior. The Dark Knight Rises really comes alive in the third act, something which many recent blockbusters have failed to get right, and weaves together numerous narrative situations to create an ambitious conclusion to a hero’s quest started in Batman Begins. What makes Nolan’s conclusion audacious is the way he leaves the final moments open to interpretation. He does so by drawing on the ending of his most recent film Inception and by throwing in the wish fulfilment of Alfred, closure becomes a complicated affair. It is a film richer in terms of social/political subtext and scope, and equals the emotional resonance generated by the first two films. However, the score by Hans Zimmer is not as good as the first two films and the absence of collaborator James Newton Howard is telling in many respects. The two greatest assets of the film are Bale’s understated performance as Wayne/Batman (by far his best of the three films) and the magnificently noirish cinematography of Wally Pfister. Is it a masterpiece? No. Is it a visionary work? No. Is it a great mainstream blockbuster? Yes. And for that alone Nolan should be praised.     

10 July 2012

KILLER JOE (Dir. William Friedkin, 2011, US) – Family Values

William Friedkin’s adaptation of Tracy Lett’s 1993 play ‘Killer Joe’ gives us things which a lot of American films tend to avoid these days; sex and violence. I’m not sure if Friedkin ever ventured into the territory of fantasy or the child’s point of view yet most of his contemporaries including Martin Scorsese have done so. Does that mean Friedkin’s oeuvre in terms of serious, adult content (not in the pornographic sense) has remained more consistent over the years than his contemporaries? From his latest film Killer Joe it certainly feels as though it has. The last time I witnessed audience members exiting a film screening was last year’s Tree of Life. Whereas the reason for audience polarisation with Malick’s transcendental work was largely religious or theological, Killer Joe was good old fashioned revulsion – oh shit, I can’t handle this! Or this is surely in bad taste. I guess the sex and violence in Killer Joe is in bad taste but of course, that’s the real point of the film – an attempt to gauge audience opinion on the way taste has become an indicator of the way we lead our lives. It is easy to read the duplicitous, amoral killer played devilishly by Matthew McConaughey as a collective projection of sin. The white trailer trash family that hires Killer Joe to murder their mother so that they can claim the insurance payout is an aberration of the American dream – a grotesque and perverted statement on family values. In terms of genre, Killer Joe could be categorised as a neo noir but the unsettling mood created by Joe’s violent temperament also invokes the horror film. Joe maybe a monster but he is a monster who seems to be conjured up the deepest anxieties of the family and his mysterious persona adds to the argument of his unworldly presence. The noirish accents are familiar enough to us including the act of betrayal, the doomed male protagonist, the femme fatale and a crushing fatalism but it is the sexual corruption of the youngest member of the family, the affable Dottie (Juno Temple) that gives the film a discernibly nasty edge. Friedkin finds it difficult to shake off the theatrical nature of this piece yet with the final sequence in the trailer he delivers a memorable, if not repugnant, dinner table sequence involving one of the most innovative uses of fried chicken ever seen in an American film. Killer Joe certainly suggests that Friedkin is still a provocative filmmaker.

30 June 2012

THE PATSY (Dir. Jerry Lewis, 1964, US) - Comical Histrionics

Jerry Lewis as Stanley Belt.
Jerry Lewis was postmodern before the term came to dominate the discourse of modern comedy. BBC2 had a good habit of regularly screening Jerry Lewis classics but it would usually be in the afternoon so naturally one got the impression that this was disposable and escapist comedy churned out by the Hollywood studios on a constant basis. I did recognise the hilarity of Jerry Lewis as a comedian, much of it non verbal and slapstick led, but it’s only recently that I have started to revisit much of his work. Oddly enough I thought I would have remembered The Patsy but watching it again made me realise how my youthful viewings of Jerry Lewis have all merged into a YouTube like mash up. The two I do remember most vividly is The Nutty Professor and The Ladies Man – largely because one was remade by Eddie Murphy and the latter for that extraordinary transparent set. The Patsy which Jerry Lewis co-wrote and directed in 1964 is one of his most accomplished films. It is a studio film but Jerry Lewis plays with this very notion by offering what is a satirical look at the artifice of cinema such as stardom, the illusionary nature of the culture industry and filmmaking. The narrative is quite simple. A group of money hungry showbiz types have their livelihoods threatened when a star that they rely upon dies. They concoct a plan to find a replacement. The patsy they settle upon is a neurotic bell boy Stanley Belt. Stanley is a man child, a shy and bumbling fool who is manipulated by the creative types and manufactured to become the next big thing – a star. Nothing goes according to plan and they soon discover that Stanley is a walking disaster. However, when they abandon Stanley he finally proves his worth by appearing on the Ed Sullivan show delivering a star making performance. And just as we think a star has been born, Jerry Lewis pulls the rug from under us by breaking the fourth wall, addressing the audience and showing to us the crew and set. The film ends with Jerry Lewis and the love interest literally walking off the film set with the crew and heading for lunch. The Patsy is a sophisticated work that operates on a number of levels but I feel it is one of those films which can be easily overlooked and dismissed as simply a good comedy. One of the more obvious points about the film is its postmodern status positioning it as a work of innovation that was unique for the 1960s and American film comedies. A key moment in terms of postmodern discourse occurs with a terrific intertextual gag with actor/star George Raft who appears as a reflection in a dressing mirror being used by Stanley/Lewis as he tries on a jacket as part of his new star look. Such postmodern attitudes are reflected in the ending which strips away the illusion of film but also undercuts the very idea that we are going to be given a happy ending so in effect closure is interrupted by mischief – a key trait of the slapstick comedian. The Patsy was released in an era in which success of bands like The Beatles illustrated the way our fixation with the culture industry and celebrities was emerging as a potentially unhealthy aspiration. The way in which the creative showbiz types attempt to manufacture stardom from virtually nothing is strangely prescient today given the way new stars are replicated and sold on an image rather than a talent. Such manufactured and artificial stardom can be seen in its extreme form in grotesque reality TV shows like The X Factor. Another easily seen and often discussed dimension of Jerry Lewis is his destructive nature as a slapstick comic. Wherever Stanley goes or meets, chaos ensues. His histrionics cannot be contained and this comes largely from Laurel & Hardy especially the slow burn antics of Stan Laurel whose childish innocence produces a wave of physical destruction. A similar vein of anarchy exists in the hysterical mannerisms of Jerry Lewis. This is best exemplified in the classic sequence in which Stanley goes for singing lessons and ends up destroying the prized antiques of the singing teacher. Perhaps what is most influential today is the way in which Jerry Lewis was one of the first filmmakers to represent the nerd as a transformative figure and thus celebrate his idiosyncrasies as something affirmative. A strong fairy tale aspect in terms of narrative runs throughout many of his most popular comedies – both this and The Nutty Professor sees the nerd/geek/misfit transform into a supercool icon of male sexuality. Aside from the points I have outlined, what really impresses the most about Jerry Lewis is his capacity to star, write and direct many of his films. The nearest parallel in American cinema would be both Keaton and Chaplin. However, unlike the work of Chaplin and most recently Keaton, which has been reappraised, the films of Jerry Lewis are still gathering momentum in terms of critical stature. The Patsy is one of the great American comedies of the 1960s. 

27 June 2012

OSLO, AUGUST 31ST (Dir. Joachim Trier, 2011, Norway)

Disllusioned Youth.
Oslo, 31 August is an exceptional film by emerging Norwegian director Joachim Trier. It is a character study of a recovering drug addict Anders who reflects on his life so far by visiting some of the friends he has known over the years. Anders also has a job interview which ends in self hate, paranoia and guilt. This seems to be the tipping point and leads to a transient mini odyssey through the streets of Oslo. Anders lack of direction as he navigates his way through his life offers what is an understated commentary on a lost youth generation who seem to be well educated, middle class but symptomatically disillusioned. On his odyssey, Anders pauses to take a breather in a coffee shop. In what is one of the best sequences, Trier turns Anders into a human surveillance machine with conversations around him becoming magnified to reveal a familiar humdrum and prosaic banter that reinforces his discontent. Before his job interview, Anders visits one of his closest friends who we discover has settled down into a conformist ‘normal’ life as a father. Their conversations trigger painful memories for Anders who realises his drug addiction has led him to wasting the best years of his life. The boring normality of his friend’s new life also reminds Anders of the contempt he harbours for mainstream Norwegian society is actually justified. Such cynicism of human behaviour is later reinforced when Anders goes to a dinner party hosted by an ex girlfriend and yet again witnesses the grotesque and superficial niceties of the middle class. Additionally, he seems lost in the urban milieu which he inhabits but at the same time revels in his status as a rebel by exploiting his edginess. This is a film about faith and death; two of the most significant themes in the work of Ingmar Bergman whose influence can be detected throughout the narrative. This is a complex and intelligent work; one of the films of the year.

19 June 2012

JAWS (Dir. Steven Spielberg, 1975, US) - Shark Tale

Jaws shaped much of my early experiences with mainstream American cinema. I remember watching the film religiously on a VHS copy recorded off air. Later I upgraded to a widescreen VHS version, which reminded me of how much I loathed the terms ‘pan and scan’. I guess certain films become attached to certain memories and the obvious problem with nostalgia is that emotions are inevitably hijacked, as is the case with Spielberg’s expertly directed Jaws. It does look magnificent on a new print and Bill Butler and Michael Chapman’s cinematography is stunning. Nowadays so much of the mise enscene can be easily manipulated in the postproduction process. Although Spielberg has kept up with changes in film technology, he is still one of the few filmmakers who continues to shoot on film. Yes, the sunsets are real in Jaws; they are not a CG construct. Jaws is a film that appeared before the consolidation of the term blockbuster but inadvertently gave birth to such aphenomenon. Back in the 1970s, Spielberg and co were simply setting out to make a good film. Unfortunately this is not the case today with so many filmmakers proclaiming before they have even shoot a single frame that they are settingout to make a contemporary blockbuster. How ridiculous and absurd do they sound? Of course, Jaws is very much a companion piece to Spielberg’s earlier cat and mouse thriller Duel, one of the great directorial debuts. However, the difference in terms of genre was clear. Unlike Duel’s clear grasp of the action/thriller conventions, Jaws saw Spielberg take on the most maligned of Hollywood film genres – the horror film. Those who prefer not to see Jaws as a horror film but as a film by Steven Spielberg seem to overlook how indebted the film is to the idioms of horror. I guess what makes Jaws much more than a film by Spielberg is the contribution of the talented cast and crew including most notably JohnWilliams as composer, Robert Shaw as Quint, Verna Fields as editor and a terrific script by Carl Gottlieb. Another noteworthy aspect of Jaws is the economy on display; both in terms of editing and narrative storytelling. Utilising a classical Hollywood narrative, the film is structured brilliantly and succeeds in developing the characters but also offering some terrifically executed set pieces. Like all great movie monsters the killer shark could stand in for endless anxieties, fears and allegorical interpretations from the political (Vietnam) to the personal (masculinity in crisis). Jaws is undoubtedly aclassic 1970s American (Hollywood) film and still remains one of Spielberg’s best loved and accomplished films.

8 June 2012

PAAN SINGH TOMAR (Dir. Tigmanshu Dhulia, 2010, India) - From Hero to Bandit

Irfan Khan as Paan Singh Tomar.
Although director Tigmanshu Dhulia has emerged as a key voice in the mainstream of Indian cinema, his last three films including Paan Singh Tomar were NOT released theatrically in the UK. Such a sorry state of affairs echoes real and immediate concerns to do with the way in which distribution is so narrow. Indian distributors based in the UK continue to select films on their commercial appeal rather than cinematic merits, which has led to many of the best Indian films never making it to cinema screens. Star power continues to be the defining criteria that distributors use to select Indian films. This has led to mediocre and pretty terrible films being exhibited in UK cinema screens - namely those starring Akshay Kumar. Shagird, Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster and Paan Singh Tomar are impressive genre films yet none of them feature an A list bankable star, thus their commerical prospects have suffered notably in foreign territories such as the UK. Thankfully, Paan Singh Tomar has been a sleeper hit in India. The film opened to a strong critical response with many praising Irfan Khan’s performance. Director Tigmanshu Dhulia has slowly worked his way up through the film industry. He started as a casting director on Bandit Queen then worked as a scriptwriter on Dil Se. His career as a film director took off with his debut Haasil in 2003, followed by Charas in 2004. It is only recently that Dhulia has become more prolific and with this increase in output, he has proved himself to be a formidable genre director with real range. Dhulia’s most recent film is a historical biopic, retracing the varied life of a forgotten national athlete and hero Paan Singh Tomar, played brilliantly by Irfan Khan. (Strangely enough Paan Singh Tomar was made in 2010 before both Shagird and Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster but suffered from a delayed release). Paan Singh’s trials are related to a journalist, triggering a series of flashbacks that cover his most famous exploits including his radical transformation from national hero to feared bandit. 

The first half deals with Paan Singh’s time in the Indian army and his rise to fame as a medal winning steeple chase runner. Although Paan Singh is encouraged to become an athlete, his participation in many of the races points to a disinterest from the Indian government in supporting athletics as a worthwhile cause. The second half offers a radically different narrative with Paan Singh involved in a dispute over land, leading to violent conflict within the family. At first Paan Singh attempts to resolve the conflict by involving the local police but he is confronted with incompetence and corruption, ridiculing his status as a national hero. When his family is attacked, Paan Singh retaliates by attacking the despotic thugs who control the land and crops. It is not long before Paan Singh becomes an outlaw, forced to go on the run with his group of bandits. Dhulia’s experience of working on Bandit Queen is quite telling in these sequences and arguably the narrative develops into a full blown modern tragedy. What really holds all of this together is the towering performance by Irfan Khan who delivers a moving study of Paan Singh. Interestingly, Dhulia also worked as a casting director on Asif Kapadia's The Warrior, which also starred Irfan Khan, and he also employs the rural outlands of India, in this case the Chambal Valley, as a perfect aesthetic backdrop for the eventual marginalisation of Paan Singh and his bandits. This is close to perfect as grown up mainstream Indian cinema and is certainly one of the more memorable Indian films of the year.

2 June 2012

PROMETHEUS (Dir. Ridley Scott, 2012, US) - Tales of the Future

The origins of the Alien films.

‘Science fiction films are not about science. They are about disaster, which is one of the oldest subjects of art. Thus, the science fiction film is concerned with the aesthetics of destruction.’  - Imagination of Disaster, Susan Sontag (1994)

If science fiction and the horror film are genres continually maligned by critics then the current critical reception to Ridley Scott’s Prometheus should be looked upon cautiously. Prometheus sees Ridley Scott return to the science fiction genre since Blade Runner. Both Alien and Blade Runner are considered to be classics of the science fiction genre and thus expectations for Prometheus have been extraordinarily high. Intertwined with the hype from an expensive and sophisticated marketing campaign, Prometheus is another summer tent pole film that has suffered from a franchise heritage especially given the shadow cast by the first three Alien films. Unlike Alien, which successfully blends science fiction and horror, Prometheus is far removed from such a hybrid particularly the slasher sub genre. In many ways, Prometheus is a science fiction that follows in the existential footsteps of Scott’s Blade Runner, posing a plethora of metaphysical questions. As a visual spectacle, Prometheus doesn’t disappoint and deploys visual effects to produce a classical dystopian reality in which corporate power is represented as a familiar site of hegemonic corruption whereas the workers are monstrously expendable. Such a conflict between the most intelligent and physical member of the crew (Ripley) and the Weyland corporation thankfully remains intact. Writer Susan Sontag says that, ‘Science fiction films are one of the purest forms of spectacle; that is, we are rarely inside anyone’s feelings. We are merely spectators; we watch.’ Such an observation underlines the different spectator positions we take up when watching genre films. In the case of science fiction, we first judge the film on the world it offers us and how plausible or imaginative such a world is when compared to our own reality. Undoubtedly, if we see Prometheus as foremost a spectacle then on such initial criteria, the film succeeds in offering moments of awe and wonder. Just like the musical in which we lose ourselves in the escapist nature of song and dance, science fiction offers us similar gratifications by predicting future worlds in which science and technology dominate. Ridley Scott has been careful not to saturate and dilute the construction of the world on LV-223 with CGI. In fact, Scott’s decision to embrace physical sets constructed in the traditional cinematic sense offers greater visual credibility while maintaining the roots of the early Alien films. Although it is probably best not to compare Prometheus to Alien, given the way they depart from one another, they are still linked by the same universe and the same set of conventions. Prometheus is part of a much bigger franchise about the Alien creature that by the fourth film the franchise had developed its own set of genre conventions such as gender tropes, ideological debates and narrative situations. Such a firm genre context means Prometheus has to adhere to the traditions, rules and conventions of the Alien film genre, thus to expect the film to depart radically from an established formula would have been unlikely. However, this is the exact problem of genre films - anything too radical, too unexpected can result in audiences openly rejecting innovation or reinvention as a betrayal of the origins. Additionally, a franchise or saga brings with it the added problems of a fan base. The Internet and regular conventions have not only made fans more influential than ever before but the studios actively seek out their approval in a bid to build trust and credibility. 

Noomi Rapace as Elizabeth Shaw - a mirror image of Ripley?

In essence, the four key ingredients or staples of the Alien films have been gender politics in the shape of Ripley as a female heroine, the duplicitous android, the insidious corporation and of course, the alien creature or monster. Prometheus reworks all four of these key ingredients. Firstly, the presence of a strong willed female heroine, who in the case of the first film can clearly be interpreted as the final girl, is re imagined in the character of scientist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace). Similarly, like Ripley, Shaw’s attempts to question corporate ethics are met with open resistance by the corporation, which predictably resorts to violence. However, a difference between Ripley and Shaw is perhaps the issue of class. Shaw appears to be well educated and commands a superior intellectual position than the rest of the crew members. Unlike Ripley who gradually emerges as the unlikeliest of hero’s, it is clear from the outset of Prometheus that Shaw’s intelligence reflects the way gender representations have evolved in line with changes in society since the 1970s and the first Alien film. Secondly, Ripley’s distrust of the corporation was repeatedly manifested in her conflict with the android. In Alien, the android, which remains a secret from the outset, is pathological and has been programmed by the corporation to protect the alien creatures. In Prometheus, the android re-emerges this time as more of a central figure in the shape of David 8 (Michael Fassbender), a chilling creation. David who slowly questions his own mortality and emotional capacity is indicative of science fiction’s on going fascinations with artificial intelligence. Thirdly, when Alien was released in 1979, corporate power had emerged as a popular 1970s ideological current in mainstream American cinema. Since 1979, corporations have become even more powerful and so the representation of Weyland Industries as a singular corporation in the film logically reflects current anxieties. Weyland’s desire for immortality echoes the empathetic plea of Roy Batty in Blade Runner who is searching for more time and inevitably the chance to live forever. The eternal quest for immortality crosses over into the territory of traditional horror literature, suggesting Prometheus also blends science fiction with horror. The fourth and final ingredient and on which the Alien films is largely hinged is the presence of the alien creature/monster. Giger’s monstrous and nightmarish creation is one of modern cinema’s most enduring and iconic monsters – an alien creature that is ruthlessly determined in its own self-preservation. Although we don’t get to see the alien creature in its most recognisable cinematic form until the final frames, the film does offer us a fascinating origins story in which the aliens are regarded as weapons of mass destruction, as a military tool. This is in keeping with the rest of the films that continually saw Weyland corporation trying to protect the creature so they could use it as a weapon. 

Fassbender as David, a duplicitous android.

So, in terms of conventions, Prometheus repeats the familiar but does so by offering us some noteworthy ideological variations. Prometheus is largely successful as an intelligent science fiction film but it does have some flaws. The first half is far superior to the second; the final third of the film scrambles to establish multiple narrative strands and inadvertently reveals a studio bound cynicism to do with commercial prospects for a sequel. The script is populated with too many characters and so repeatedly falls back on stereotyping. Additionally, the score by German composer Marc Streitenfeld, a regular Scott collaborator, is somewhat underwhelming when compared to the memorable contribution of previous composers such as Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner and Elliot Goldenthal. Another element, which is just as significant as the four I have outlined, is that of body horror which was first established in Alien (1979). The fear of alien impregnation would develop over the Alien films into one of the most politically charged areas for debates to do with gender politics. The human body being taken over by an unknown hostile force is a thematic shared by science fiction and horror. It is an image of destruction, and that of disaster, which Susan Sontag argues defines the best science fiction films. If this is the case, then the science of Prometheus is eclipsed in the film’s finale by images of destruction, thus returning to the allure of the spectacle that makes science fiction cinema such an a sensory one for the spectator.