Sunday, 30 December 2012

The Year in Review: The Tramp's Top Ten Films of 2012

As the year that saw the Avengers finally Assemble, the Dark Knight Rise, the Sky Fall and Joseph Gordon-Levitt Loop comes to a close, it's time to look back at the best of this year's cinematic offerings. It may surprise you that, try as I might I didn't see every single film this year. I missed out on treats like Rust and Bone and The Raid, and have not yet gotten to see the Oscar-tipped Silver Linings Playbook. Similarly,  I've not seen Tarantino's latest, Django Unchained, which isn't due for release in the UK until next month. Accordingly, this will be a very subjective list of my personal favourite experiences at the cinema this year. Initially, I'd wanted to do a top five, but given that this year has furnished us with some of the most interesting and diverse offerings for some time, I'm going to present a special top ten of the year, which is in chronological, as opposed to preferential, order. Enjoy!

Michael Hazanavicius' tribute to silent cinema was released in most countries late last year, but it took me until January this year to see it, so I'm sticking it in this list. The Artist was simply one of the loveliest films I saw this year, with a fantastic conceit, lovingly executed with extraordinary craftsmanship. A tribute to the joy of film itself, The Artist was a wonderful way to start the year and offered one of the best cinema experiences I've ever had.

One of two releases by director David Cronenberg this year, Cosmopolis beats A Dangerous Method to the top ten as an often obtuse, inaccessible and frustrating work that is equally fascinating, dark and nihilistic. Robert Pattinson, best known for the risible Twilight Saga films, gives an enigmatic and engaging performance here, announcing himself, somewhat unexpectedly, as a serious and talented actor. The trailer proclaims Cosmopolis as the first film about the new millennium; I'm not sure about that, but it certainly gave me an experience like no other in 2012.

Speaking of unique experiences, Ron Fricke's dialogue-free, staggeringly beautiful documentary presented us with something that literally no other film came close to this year. Made over the course of five years, Samsara has some of the best cinematography I've ever seen in a film, let alone this year. If any film justifies the purchase of an HD television and Blu-ray player, it's this, but to fully appreciate it, it's essential to see it in a cinema.

William Friedkin, director of classics such as The Exorcist and The French Connection gave us one of this year's darkest and most twisted films in the shape of pitch-black comedy Killer Joe. The film told the story of a father and son (played by Thomas Haden Church and Emile Hirsch respectively) who hire a hitman, played by a top-form Matthew McConaughey, to kill Hirsch's estranged mother and collect on a life insurance policy. Killer Joe plays with the tropes of film noir and exhibits some of the most disturbing and nauseatingly comical scenes of violence this side of Blue Velvet, giving us one of the most absurd, unsettling and memorable climaxes of the year.

While we're on the subject of endings, Christopher Nolan's magnificent, bombastic and audacious trilogy capper marvellously concluded his seven-year long Batman saga. While lacking the narrative clarity of its predecessor, and proving more divisive amongst critics that both The Dark Knight and Batman Begins, The Dark Knight Rises was a fantastic third chapter and great movie in its own right, and finally broke the curse of the Terrible Superhero Threequel. For me, it was one of the most enjoyable, thrilling and satisfying movie events of the year.

Andrew Dominik's follow up to The Assasination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a sprawling epic, was a much smaller affair, in both historic and geographic scope. Garnering mixed reviews, for me Killing Them Softly proved to be one of the most interesting and ambitious crime films of the year, reminding me of the paranoid thrillers of the 1970s, and of the early work of Martin Scorsese. Tying the events of the film to the 2008 Obama / McCain US presidential election didn't work for some, but by the film's final, brutal last line, it damn sure worked for me.

With Looper, Rian Jonson gave us one of the best and most original science fiction outings for years, standing alongside Moon, District 9 and Inception as part of the recent resurgence of intelligent, popular sci fi for grown ups. Despite distracting prosthetics, Jospeph Gordon-Levitt gave a reliably nuanced and engaging performance of Joe, a hitman tasked with killing his future self. He and Bruce Willis, who played Gordon-Levitt's future counterpart, had great chemistry together, and in drawing on films such as Twelve Monkeys, The Terminator and Blade Runner, Johnson crafted a fully realised futurescape for his noir-inflected time travel story.   

Ah, Skyfall, let me count the ways. It's difficult to think of a Bond film that adheres to the formulas and cliches of the 007 franchise while somehow elevating them into a meditation on the series at fifty years old. A meditation with explosions, car chases, and a man in an electronically-sealed glass cage, of course. Skyfall, in the more-than-capable hands of Sam Mendes, was this year's best blockbuster, the best Craig iteration of Bond to date, and dare I say it, the best Bond film ever made (though my personal favourite remains On Her Majesty's Secret Service, your Goldfingers and You Only Live Twices be damned). After the disappointing Quantum of Solace, everything in Skyfall came together effortlessly. Welcome back to work, 007, we missed you.

In 2008, Paul Thomas Anderson gave us There Will Be Blood, a huge, menacing portrait of greed, obsession, and ambition. This year, he gave us The Master, which while lacking the scope of his last, was at least equally as menacing, and twice as unsettling. Jonny Greenwood returns too, providing one of the best scores of the year, perfectly complementing the tension between Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix, who, by the way, as a pair give not simply the best performances I saw this year, but amongst the best performances I've ever seen. While the film, with its lack of an eventful story, was not to everyone's tastes, its difficult to imagine a more finely crafted and expertly executed character study than The Master.

The last time I saw Mads Mikkelsen was in Casino Royale, weeping blood as he crossed wits and playing cards with Daniel Craig. Here, under the fine direction of Thomas Vinterberg, he finds himself in no more enviable circumstances, as Lucas, a nursery teacher wrongly accused of child molestation. Rather than the central premise being the question of whether or not he did it, Vinterberg makes it explicit that the warm, kind Lucas is most definitely innocent, and allows the story to play out as a sickening, unravelling nightmare as Lucas' friends and colleagues succumb to suspicion, hysteria, and ultimately violence. Very much a modern-day parallel to Arthur Miller's play The Crucible, The Hunt was one of the most intense cinematic experiences I've ever had, and one which I surely shared with the rest of the audience: throughout the film exhalations of discomfort were audible, stoked by the unbearable tension of the film. As an examination of hysteria, paranoia and people's capacity to reason themselves into madness, The Hunt is unparalleled.

So there we have it, my top ten films of the year. As I said, this was a personal list and I make no claims to this being a definitive 'Best of 2012' list. There were many other films I would have liked to have included, and so honourable mentions go to the cleverclogs Cabin in the Woods, the underrated Brave, the strange Beasts of the Southern Wild, the exhilarating Avengers Assemble, and the tender Untouchable. Happy New Year, and I'll see you all on the 1st January for a special Tramp Announcement!

Saturday, 22 December 2012

BFI Friday: In The Mood For Love

For the second BFI Friday, we're going to look at Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love at number 24 on the BFI list. Released in 2000, In the Mood for Love is one of the most recent entries into list. Telling the story of Li-Zhen and Chow, two married people who by chance strike up a friendship together, each realising that their respective spouses are having an affair. Gradually, the pair fall inextricably in love with each other, but circumstances and a misplaced sense of duty to their partners prevent them from consummating their feelings. Much like David Lean's classic tragi-romance Brief Encounter, the film is not so concerned with whether the pair will wind up together, but rather, in the almost imperceptible process of their falling in love. Moreover, it is about the way that passion, romance and infatuation don't always announce their arrival loudly - often, as In the Mood for Love has it, they sneak up on us unawares, and when we are at our most vulnerable. 

The cinematography by Christopher Doyle, Pung-Leung Kwan and Ping Bin Lee is full of warm, rich greens, yellows and reds, and, coupled with its uniformly beautiful compositions, gives the film the sense of being like a painting in motion. Complementing the visuals, the soundtrack, a mixture of Yumeji's Theme from the 1991 film Yumeji, and Aquellos Ojos Verdes sung by Nat King Cole, textures the production with romance, melancholy and quiet, understated passion. The locations are so few that as Li-Zhen and Chow become gradually more familiar with each other, we too become inescapably accustomed to their surroundings; their apartments, the courtyard and the restaurant they eat at become as much a part of their relationship, and by extension, our emotional connection with them.

The inevitability of their separation is foregrounded before Chow and Li-Zhen have even become friends, with the mise en scene constantly throwing up visual barriers between them, be they door frames, windows, or, in one beautifully composed shot, the frame itself, which blocks Chow from our view altogether. Crucially, neither Li-Zhen's husband nor Chow's wife ever directly feature in the film, and are only ever referred to as being away on business. Not only does this reinforce the narrative of adultery, but also, the alienation and loneliness that both Chow and Li-Zhen must endure. Furthermore, the scene in which they realise they are being cheated on does not involve a big reveal, or a dramatic confrontation. Rather, it is the culmination of a suspicion of infidelity confirmed by the discovery, through Chow, that the present her husband bought her when should have been away on business actually came from their small town. Later, Chow becomes an impromptu counsellor for Li-Zhen, allowing her to practise a confrontation with her husband on him. Of course, the real confrontation never comes; the catharsis that we, as witness to Li-Zhen and Chow's lives, yearn for, is withheld from us. In another scene, Chow makes a pass at Li-Zhen, outside their apartment building. She rejects his advances, but throughout the film they return to that spot, as if playing out the same moment over and over, trying to figure out some way to escape their predicament. At time it's frustratingly slow, even unsatisfying. But ultimately, In the Mood for Love is beautiful, deliberate and brutal in its emotional honesty. 

Friday, 7 December 2012

BFI Friday: Singin' in the Rain

All the way back in August, the British Film Institute, through Sight and Sound, published their new list of 50 top films. You may remember that after fifty years at the top, Citizen Kane gave way to Vertigo as the BFI's greatest film ever made. You may further remember that to mark the occasion, I wrote a retrospective review on Vertigo here. Given that I've only seen eighteen out of the top fifty films, it's high time that I made an effort to get through the lot. Accordingly, from today, every other week I'm going to write a review of every film on the list.

Since we've already seen top dog Vertigo, we're going to kick off BFI Friday in style, the all singing, all talking, all dancing classic, Singin' in the Rain at number 20. Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly's 1952 classic tells the story of Don Lockwood, a Hollywood stuntman-turned-actor making his way to the Big Time. Set in the late 1920s, the film's characters must negotiate the challenges posed by the close of the silent era and the dawn of sound. They do this of course, by singing and dancing through elaborate routines on lavish sets, all in gloriously rich, intense technicolour. Even in the non-musical sequences, the camera is almost always in motion, swishing and zooming around the actors, and giving the whole affair a lightness of touch. The film, in short, is an unparalleled joy to watch. Where last year's The Artist, functioning as an extended and rather lovely homage to Singin' in the Rain, used black and white to depict its silent-era setting, Singin' in the Rain's cinematographer Harold Rosson saturates the picture in colour, joining films like The Wizard of Oz (also by Rosson), A Matter of Life and Death, and Vertigo as the one of the most accomplished uses of colour in cinema. The reds are deep and rich, the blues are iridescent, and the yellows glow with warmth. The visuals, like a rich chocolate cake after a meal, are sweet, profoundly satisfying and simply full of life. For a film that is about sound, it looks unspeakably gorgeous.

All singin', all dancin', pure joy

That's not to say the music is secondary to visuals, mind. All of the song and dance routines are beautifully choreographed by star Kelly, with the film's title song providing unadulterated joy, wit and charm. Other standouts include Gotta Dance, the movie's most elaborate set piece, featuring the vampish Cyd Charisse, the tongue twisting Moses Supposes and the delightful Good Morning. I could describe in depth these sequences but really, there's nothing like watching them for yourself. There are so many movies that try for what Singin' achieves, but so often fall into the categories of saccharine, overcooked, or simply irritating. But here, there's something utterly infectious about the whole affair; just as Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves draws us into the tragic lives of its two main characters, or Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity invites us down a path to destruction, Singin' in the Rain perfectly lifts us up, unquestioning, into colour, music, and vibrancy. Few films, except perhaps for the aforementioned The Wizard of Oz, are capable of having such an effect. But more than that, it's a film that transcends genre; I defy anyone who says they don't like musicals not to enjoy Singin' in the Rain.

Who could resist a dance with Cyd Charisse?
The whole thing is deliriously entertaining, a gigantic sweet shop for the eyes and ears, but what elevates Singin' in the Rain further is the story and characters, who epitomising the allure of Hollywood, take us on a romantic, thrilling journey through the ups and downs of golden-era stardom. Kelly and the delightful Debbie Reynolds provide incredibly likeable leads, in a beautiful-people-doing-wonderful-things heightened reality. Jean Hagen plays Lina Lamont, a Monroe-esque dumb blonde character who turns out to have a cripplingly annoying voice when the movies become talkies. Deluded and manipulative, she convinces the studio to let her remain a star, while Reynolds' character dubs her voice over the top. Intriguingly, it was actually Hagen who dubbed her voice over for Reynolds during post production. For a film about film-making, this lends another delightful layer of subtext. And indeed, much of Singin' in the Rain is about the inherent falsity of cinema: voice over, the exaggerated performances in silent films, and the deliberately fake-looking sets all acknowledge the manufacturedness of big studio productions. And yet, out of that surface deception springs genuine, authentic emotion: it's difficult, for example, not to feel sorry for Lina when she gets her just desserts at the film's close, but you're rooting so much for Kelly and Debbie to make it through that it hardly matters. In fairness, there's never any real sense of peril: we all know where this is going, but that doesn't diminish the climax's sense of triumph or warmth one bit. Instead, Singin' in the Rain gives us Great Big Emotions, served up with astonishing technical skill and passion; a lovely, rich dessert of a movie that never slips into the saccharine. It's an overused phrase, but they really don't make pictures like this anymore. A sparkling, magnificent treat.

Friday, 2 November 2012

The Friday Tramp Review: Skyfall

Skyfall, directed by Sam Mendes, screenplay by John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, starring Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris.

On the fiftieth anniversary of Agent 007 on film, Bond 23 arrives like a thunderclap, with an effortless confidence, style and charm that has been absent from the series for years. Yes, Skyfall utterly erases the disappointment of 2008's Quantum of Solace, not only challenging Casino Royale for Daniel Craig's best outing to date as the eponymous spy, but also as one of the best instalments in the entire series. There is no question that along with Casino Royale, Skyfall is the best Bond film since the days of Connery, and in certain respects it is the most complex, emotionally satisfying and thrilling of the lot.

Where the emotional core in Casino Royale came from the relationship between Bond and Vesper, Skyfall not simply expands on the relationship between 007 and M: it uses their fraught alliance as the central plot mechanic. Indeed, Judi Dench's has always brought depth and ambiguity to the character: Goldeneye saw her bollock Bond for his recklessness and assure him that she was quite prepared to send him to his death, before warmly telling him to come back alive. In the otherwise risible Die Another Day (sharing more similarities than you might expect with Skyfall - more on that in a moment), Dench leaves Bond to rot in a North Korean prison until it's strategically sensible to reacquire him. In contrast, Quantum of Solace sees one character mistakes M for Bond's mother, with Bond quipping that 'she'd like to think' that she is. In Skyfall, she, well you'll have to see for yourself, but suffice to say M's responsibility for Bond hangs heavily over the entire film. After seven films Dench is second only to the original M, Bernard Lee, as the longest-serving actor in the role, giving a series-best performance here, and being given almost as much screen time as Craig himself. Several critics have already described her as the true Bond girl of the series, and it's not hard to see why. More to the point, Dench assures her position as by far the best of the three actors to have officially played Bond's boss. 

Judging the situation dispassionately: Judi Dench in a tough moment.
So what of those similarities with Die Another Day, roundly viewed as one of the lowest points for the franchise? As Skyfall is released on the fifty-year anniversary, so Brosnan's swansong, released ten years ago, fell on Bond's fortieth birthday. But where DAD, like a squawking teenager, insisted on reminding the audience it was the newest and bestest Bond film yet, featuring invisible cars and very visible CGI, and cramming scenes with embarrassing and obvious references to 007's better adventures, Skyfall looks back at the series with affection, wit and charm. There are probably more nods and homages in Skyfall than in DAD, but they never feel hackneyed or shoehorned in. Skyfall is aware of its heritage without being in thrall to it, reintroducing familiar tropes that were largely absent in Casino and Quantum, but doing so without feeling regressive. Moreover, the nods to other entries (I counted allusions to Goldfinger, You Only Live Twice, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Live and Let Die, The Man With the Golden Gun and Licence to Kill, and I suspect that there are more), rather than providing shallow, fan-boy pleasing distraction, actually help to augment the themes of the film: those of legacy, relevance and mortality. And it's here that Skyfall provides a wonderful counterpoint to the convention-breaking Casino Royale: where that film openly distanced itself from the other films, rebooting the franchise and jettisoning almost all the conventions and clichés of Bond, Skyfall rehabilitates the best parts of the classic series without jeopardising the good work done by Casino Royale. There is a conscious stylistic move away from the Bourne-esque trappings of Craig's previous films, which is entirely welcome. After all, how long could the grittiness have continued without becoming a cliché itself? Bourne managed three instalments before Legacy became a victim of its own formula, and so Mendes skirts that pitfall by changing things up with a sense of fun hitherto absent from Casino and Quantum. Much of Mendes' stylistic success comes from the stellar work by cinematographer Roger Deakins, who has collaborating both with Mendes and the Coen brothers numerous times. Deakins provides some of the best cinematography this side of The Dark Knight; shooting on digital he makes the scenes in Shanghai pulse with light and colour, with neon lights swirling behind silhouetted figures. Shadows hide killers who, stepping into the light, reveal cold, ice blue eyes, and in London, the reds and blues of the union flag, draped over half a dozen coffins in a row, have never been more vibrant.

Sometimes the old toys are the best.

Come to think of it, with Deakins, Mendes and John Logan, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade on scriptwriting duty, that's something else that Skyfall gives us: the sense of a large, incredibly skilled team in front of and behind the camera, working towards a singular end. Director Mendes has spoken of the influence The Dark Knight had on Skyfall, but to refer to another superhero mega-hit, this is the first entry into the series where it feels is as if, Avengers-like, Bond is playing as one part of a highly skilled and professional unit. Without question, we have the best supporting cast in a Bond flick yet, with the aforementioned Dench playing alongside a terrific Naomie Harris as field agent Eve, and Ralph Fiennes portraying meddling committee chairman Mallory with relish. Not to mention Ben Whishaw, who does a wonderful job as the new Q, brilliantly reimagined as a spotty twenty-something. And let's not forget the magnificent, malevolent and very naughty Javier Bardem as the villain, Silva. With his weird, Christopher Walken-esque blond locks and powerful, effeminate voice, Bardem creates a character with all of the idiosyncrasies of a classic Bond foe, while somehow making him consistent the film's heightened realism. Mads Mikkelsen impressed in Casino Royale as Le Chiffre, but in years to come Silva will be ranked amongst Auric Goldfinger and Blofeld as one of the most iconic adversaries Bond has faced. The supporting cast, along with the surprisingly simple plot, all work like clockwork, with none of the main characters ever feeling extraneous or unneeded, while at the same time giving them just enough development to feel like real people, rather than narrative cogs driving Bond's story. In that respect, Skyfall's lavish visuals are countered by an incredibly lean, focussed narrative that is all the more refreshing following the twisty-turny-selling-water-at-over-the-odds nonsense of Quantum of Solace.

When Casino Royale was released in 2006, a friend commented to me that it felt like the first Bond film to really feel like a good film in its own right. What Skyfall achieves may be greater even than that: to give us not only a terrific movie in its own right, in contention with The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises for this year's best blockbuster, but also, arguably the definitive Bond film. Those are big words, but Skyfall takes the best elements of the series while ditching its worst excesses. Moreover, instead of merely electing to thrill us (and, boy oh boy, thrill us it does), Skyfall actually has something meaningful to say about its characters and the rapidly-changing world they inhabit, tying those concerns into a surprisingly nuanced, honest and emotive reflection on the series itself as it turns fifty. Skyfall shows us not just that an old dog can learn new tricks, but that the old tricks still have the capacity to delight. Finally, on his third go around, Craig has finally, inarguably, wonderfully, grown fully into the role of 007. He gives us the confidence and comic timing of Sean, the one liners (minus the cheese) of Roger, the damaged menace of Timothy, and even a little of the schoolboy swagger of Pierce. But Craig does more than merely imitate his predecessors; his performance is studied, yes, but Craig has brought his own qualities to the fore, and gives one of his best performances in any film to date. I've often said that the only actor to truly embody, rather than merely play, Bond, was Connery, but from now on there will always be two Agents 007. Daniel Craig is James Bond, and I can't wait for him to return.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Disney's Buyout of LucasArts Probably Doesn't Matter, So Stop Worrying and Enjoy Your Lives

So, yesterday the internet set itself on fire with the news that Disney is buying out LucasArts for $4.05bn, and that with that buyout, more Star Wars feature films are promised. For many fans, the natural reaction has been to recoil in horror at the prospect of more series-ruining instalments, but my response has been far more indifferent. Why are people surprised by this? George Lucas is first and foremost a business man, and despite his numerous and unconvincing claims to the contrary, only really sees Star Wars as a money spinner. It's hardly shocking then, that when Disney comes along with an offer he can't refuse he doesn't turn it down. Moreover, this is completely in line with Disney's current business model of buying up smaller, successful genre studios so that they don't have to compete with them, namely, Pixar, Marvel Studios and now LucasArts. Despite Lucas' self-proclaimed creative monopoly on Star Wars, he is demonstrably tired of the franchise, and was, I think, reluctant to return to do the prequels. More recently, he's become more than a little petulant over calls to do episodes VII-IX. Combined with his readiness to hand over the expanded universe (games, comics, novels, etc) to others, it's hardly surprising that if the final trilogy were to happen, it wouldn't be George helming it.

What baffles me more, however, is the newly-awakened well of fanboy spluttering that has erupted at the mere mention of three more Star Wars films. Now, the prequels are amongst the worst films ever to have made it to cinemas; a mirthless, mechanical and nonsensical trudge through space politics, dated CGI and naked merchandising, nowhere better eviscerated than here. It's not entirely unsurprising then, that fans are, shall we say, cautious at the thought of more of the same, especially when the press release on this story that the decision to resurrect the franchise was an entirely commercial one. But what I want to know is, why does anyone care at all? Star Wars as a vital, continuing saga is dead. This is not news. Once, in the late 1970s and 80s, those films created a cinematic landscape that still influences filmmakers today. But the series itself is over. The prequels are testament to the fact that Star Wars' time has passed, just as other classics of the 1980s, like Indiana Jones, Jaws and Willow. No amount of new instalments will change that, but simultaneously, they can't affect the originals' significance, nor should they be allowed to affect our personal enjoyment of them. Yes, it's sad and often infuriating that our beloved films (tellingly, usually the ones we saw in childhood) are diluted with endless sequels and spinoffs, but come on, we're not talking about the Three Colours Trilogy here; this is Star Wars. It is, and always has been, a commercial franchise. More than that, do you really think three more films are going to have that much effect on the mountainous pile of comics, books, games, toys and spin-off TV series? Why does it even matter now? Star Wars as a franchise was turned into commercial pap a long time ago. The fight for Star Wars is over.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, why the assumption that a new trilogy will be terrible anyway? The best item in this story is that George will have only the barest input, staying on only as a 'creative consultant'. If Disney hire a good creative team (no guarantee, but not outside the realms of possibility), and they manage to focus on what made the originals so great in the first place, hell, even if they manage to knock out a half-coherent script, the result could be far from the disaster that everyone seems so keen to predict. Now, the odds are probably that the new films will be less than stellar, but there is absolutely no reason that they can't be good, commercialism or no commercialism. You think that last year's fantastic series reboot, X-Men: First Class, was born out of some sort artistic necessity? Or Batman Begins? Or Casino Royale? Of course they weren't - they were conceived purely as commercial ventures, designed to reinvigorate moribund franchises that still had a lot of dollar potential. The difference between those films and the prequel trilogy is that their respective studios also had the sense to hire creative teams that cared about what they were doing in addition to the box office. Admittedly, the X-Men and Batman reboots are exceptions in a marketplace saturated with sub-par sequels and remakes, but they remain as examples of otherwise dead franchises being successfully revived. Will this happen with Star Wars? It's impossible to say right now, but it's important to remember that the prospect of a new film remains far from certain: many films end up in development hell much further down the line than this. Moreover, any new instalment will never be able to match the magic of the originals, and nor should it try. And when it doesn't there's no point in getting upset about it.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

A Relic of the Cold War: Why Is Bond Still Popular?

When it comes out on Friday, Skyfall will be the twenty-third official entry into the James Bond series, the most successful and longest running film franchise of all time. Although the previous film, Quantum of Solace, was met with mixed reviews, popular affection for the series remains at an all time high. But, after fifty years of being on screen, what is it about Bond that makes the character, and the series, so enduring? Sure, there are the gadgets, the beautiful women and the wish fulfilment, and those are great for the mid-life crisis demographic, but there surely must be more to the success of a franchise that has endured for fifty years. Moreover, I'm curious as to why audiences have consistently tolerated a series that is often defined by outrageous and dated sexism, terrible puns and atrocious acting.

Indeed, many of the films throughout the series are notoriously risible: A View To A Kill, for example, features a 57 year-old Roger Moore performing such feats of derring do as slowly climbing down a ladder, riding around on obviously fake horses, and spending an evening with Grace Jones. Die Another Day, the final film starring Pierce Brosnan, is a smug, effects-laden shambles with all the charm and sophistication of a fourteen year-old boy screeching about his antics with alcopops and late night soft porn. Die Another Day seemingly buried the franchise for good until it was completely rebooted and rebourne (see what I did there), with Casino Royale. But even the more celebrated entries - Live and Let Die, for example, is teeming with truly offensive and, even for 1971, dated racial stereotypes - are often pretty ropey. The quintessential Bond flick, Goldfinger, features a bizarre plot involving irradiating US gold, a henchman with a deadly bowler hat, and a climax involving a squadron of impossibly sexy pilots. Don't get me wrong (racial and sexist attitudes notwithstanding), I love Goldfinger and I like Live and Let Die, but the point I'm making is that the Bond films - even the Craig ones - are daft, frequently offensive, and often feature plots that are incoherent to the point of shoddiness. Audiences know this - Bond has been lampooned countless times, and most people can cite at least one stupid line or scenario from the series - and yet the series has endured, with consistent popularity, for fifty years. Fifty years! That's longer than Star Wars, longer than Die Hard, longer than Indiana Jones. Hell, it's even longer than the interminable Simpsons, a once brilliant show that refuses to die despite everyone's acceptance that it has outstayed its welcome by about a decade.

If Bond is so silly, so shoddy, so damn offensive to vast swathes of its audience, then how has it thrived for so long? I think there are several demonstrable reasons for this, and for audiences' continued affection for the series. Here are three of the most important ones:

The Formula

You must be dreaming:
Honor Blackman as the quintessential, and best, Bond girl.
The Bond Formula is often cited as a failure of the series, when in fact it's one of its greatest strengths, both commercially, and, surprisingly, artistically. Beyond the usual serving of objectified women, fast cars, and cartoon villains, there is a rigid formula that almost every film sticks to. Even the Daniel Craig versions are no exception, demonstrating that they're not as distinct from the series as they first appear. The bloody gun barrel, the pre-title sequence, and the obligatory song are the most obvious formulaic components, but just as important are Bond's reporting to M, his initial foray into the field and return to MI6, before he goes back out for a massive action scene, a one on one fight with the henchman, and then the finale with the main villain. During this broad, five-act structure, Bond will usually encounter 1) A sexy female who later turns out to be working for either another intelligence agency or is on a mission of revenge; 2) A sexy female who initially works with him but ultimately betrays him, before being killed at about act four or five; 3) A barman or similar, merely so he can order a martini; 4) The henchman, who invariably has some sort of physical defect or attribute that makes him more than a physical match for Bond; 5) The villain. Usually he'll either spot the villain at a distance in the second act, or won't encounter him until after the halfway mark; 6) Q, who at around the second or third-act mark will kit him out and send him back out, with just the specific gadgets needed for his mission. More often than not, the most ridiculous or frivolous gadgets will be the last ones he uses, and will unexpectedly save Bond's life. Other tropes involve Bond 'going rogue', before being inexplicably reintegrated back in MI6, being watched remotely by M, Q and the Defence Minister in an epilogue as he gets it on with the girl from point number 1, and in the earlier films, greeting Moneypenny by caddishly tossing his hat on to a stand in M's office.

Not all of these elements appear in every Bond film, but all of them are integral to what makes up the basic Bond formula, and every instalment contains at least some of them. What makes the formula so important is that the best Bond films actively comment and react to it: In On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Bond tosses his hat to Moneypenny just as he marries Theresa, and in Casino Royale he snaps at the barman for asking how he wants his martini prepared. Without the formula to react against, much of the cleverness and pleasure of these films would be stripped away. Even in the most formulaic examples of the series, the fun is in the ways that audience expectations are played with, met or stretched. Goldfinger, which provided a great deal of the formula, uses audience expectation in its most famous scene: when Bond, strapped to a device with a laser beam between his legs, asks Goldfinger if he expects him to talk (which is what the audience has learned to expect from this type of scenario). The villain, half chortling, replies with the now famous line, 'No Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!' It's funny, unexpected and delivered with perfect timing from actor Gert Fröbe. The trick was repeated with different, but equal brilliance in Casino Royale, when Bond, captured by Le Chiffre, is tortured with nothing more than a wicker chair and a length of knotted rope. Le Chiffre explains that elaborate torture machines are unnecessary: only the simplest methods are required to cause someone more pain than they can bear. The reason that both of these examples work is because they subvert our expectations of the situation; like blues music, they play with the details of the structure whilst remaining within its broader strictures.


Much of Bond's appeal is rooted in its (very) heightened sense of reality, and the function of Bond himself is as an escapist avatar for the viewer. Of course, this raises all sorts of problems over assumptions about its audience: that they're exclusively male, heterosexual, and don't have a problem with neo-colonial world policing, to name a few. But there's little denying that the recurring tropes of tuxedos, bowler hats and mountain / volcano / space fortresses are just cool, or that gadgets like the submarine Lotus in The Spy Who Loved Me are intrinsically desirable toys. The Bond series is often attacked for being childish, but that criticism is inaccurate. Bond is undoubtedly juvenile, puerile even, but as a child I found most of the Bond films, with their convoluted plots, over-my-head innuendoes and dated special effects interminably boring. As an adult, I can appreciate them better for what they are: cinematic playgrounds for grown-ups. Even the Craig versions, for all their gritty and realistic trappings, are spaces for adults to imaginatively act out their fantasies. It's easy to dismiss this sort of thing as 'bubblegum for the eyes', but, in moderation at least, I think that Bond-esque escapism is an extremely important component of cinema. Christopher Nolan recognises the importance of fantasy in movies, citing the Bond series as one of his major influences, overtly alluding to the films in sequences throughout the terrific Inception, a film that engages directly with the notion of cinema as dreaming. The Bond films, all of them, are inherently silly. The worst ones are stupid, and push the escapist component too far, as in Moonraker, a film that tries and fails to mimic the success of Star Wars, or Die Another Day, a film with a car apparently on loan from the Predator franchise, not forgetting of course A View To A Kill, a film with a star apparently on loan from Age Concern. In contrast, the best entries tread the fine line between outrageous scenarios and characters, and a world grounded just enough in reality that we can live the adventure vicariously.

As if you don't want one.

It seems as if every iteration of Bond consciously distances itself from the last, none more so than the gritty, Bourne-inflected Craig versions, and it's difficult to overestimate the success of this strategy in keeping Bond feeling fresh. After 2002's ridiculous Die Another Day, audiences had grown weary of the constant barrage of innuendo, Brosnany smarm and over-use of gadgets. So when in 2006 Casino Royale completely rebooted the franchise, giving us an almost unrecognisable Bond, with - shock horror - blond hair and a believable, straightforward plot, the sense of surprise and refreshment was palpable. But while Craig's debut was bold and refreshing, it was merely the lastest example of a strategy that Eon - the studio responsible for all the official Bonds to date - has employed since the 1960s. For example, 1969's On Her Majesty's Secret Service, is a methodical,  relatively realistic and surprisingly violent film, in stark contrast to the previous entry, You Only Live Twice, which involved a giant volcano hideout, a huge spaceship that ate rockets, and unforgettably, Sean Connery disguising himself as Japanese. Moreover, it makes overt references to being a new beginning for the series, with the opening sequence holding back on revealing the new Bond, played by George Lazenby, before he ends the scene by quipping 'this never happened to the other fella'. And of course [SPOLIER ALERT!] having OHMSS end with the death of Bond's new wife, played with surprising depth and complexity by Diana Rigg, provides a shockingly downbeat ending to a film that gave us a sensitive, human Bond. When Lazenby left the series after only one film, Eon quickly rehired Connery for Diamonds Are Forever, a silly and forgettable entry, before the revivified Live and Let Die. With a new Bond in the shape of Roger Moore, producers Harry Saltzman and Albert Broccoli were able to change things up again, with a far more camp, self-parodic approach to the series. When that direction had run its course they were able to change tactics again, with a realistic, moody Bond in the shape of Timothy Dalton. Without a doubt, Saltzman and Broccoli had an uncanny ability to give their audience what they wanted, especially considering Lazenby's not-unreasonable belief that by 1969 the Bond series had become outdated and would soon lose favour with the public.

The shift from ultra-silly Moore to serious Dalton is essentially the same thing that happened in 2006 with Craig. On its release, Casino Royale really felt as if the film makers were admitting that Bond had become outdated and irrelevant. Craig's rebooted entry felt utterly distant from the other films; almost like it was part of a different franchise altogether. But have you noticed that feeling subside over the past six years? Casino Royale, while still a radical departure from the rest of the series, feels less like a disavowal of its predecessors, especially with Quantum of Solace showing signs of slipping back into familiar territory, and Skyfall introducing Bond mainstay Q whilst utilising the trope of a blond villain with Javier Bardem in a wig. (see also: Christopher Walken in A View To A Kill, Robert Shaw in From Russia With Love, Gert Fröbe in Goldfinger). By the time Craig leaves the series it's almost guaranteed that we'll all be groaning at the dreary grittiness that will have defined his tenure, and I'd bet all the gold in Fort Knox that the producers already have a vision of Bond, radically different from Craig, already lined up and ready to go once his run is over. Incidentally, if that vision doesn't involve either Michael Fassbender, Idris Elba, or a female actress (I wouldn't hazard a guess as to who could pull off a female Bond, mind. Oft-rumoured but never delivered, a female Bond would work terrifically as a subversion of the core trope of the series), Saltzman and Broccoli want their heads looking at.

The fact is, Bond gives us something that nothing else does. Given the way that it's constantly spoofed, parodied, critiqued and stolen from, it's astonishing (and not immediately apparent) that there is literally no film property like that of James Bond. No one character has lasted for so long in cinema history, with Bond films coming out on average 4.4 times a decade since the 1960s. And despite the glut of hyper-masculine action heroes from the late 1970s onwards, there isn't really another character that is comparable to Agent 007. It sounds mad, I know, but think about it for a second: who else is there? Indiana Jones is possibly the closest (after all, his dad is Sean Connery), with the globe trotting and the womanising, but Indy's films lack the intrigue, the gadgets and contemporary setting. Bourne is the obvious modern comparison, but even that franchise is a reaction against Bond, as opposed to an imitation or challenger to it. Batman, in many ways, is similar to Bond - the money, the secrecy, the gadgets - and to be sure, Nolan's Bat trilogy made many  references to Bond. But their worlds, stories and and character motivations are wildly different, not to mention the fact that Batman's history on film is far shakier and less consistent than Bond's. It makes me a little sad for the rest, but the fact is nobody has done it better, or, ahem, for longer, than Bond.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Happy endings only happen in the movies: 143 Reasons to Love Film

I've always loved films, and where many people can define periods of their life by the sort of music they were listening to at the time, my life is broken into films. Watching Ghostbusters instantly transports me to around the age of five, whereas The Jungle Book and Tron will forever be linked in my mind because they were both taped off the telly on the same video, circa 1989. Gremlins fills me with the same sense of giddy, naughty joy that it did when I was seven. Later, The Matrix defined my adolescence, and as philosophically simplistic as that film may seem now, it was in many ways an instrumental part of my formative years. High Fidelity has become a great friend when loneliness and heartache have set in, and despite never having watched it with them, It's a Wonderful Life reminds me of my grandparents. It's my birthday at the end of this month, so dear reader, I hope you'll forgive me whilst I indulge myself with a lengthy, sentimental and rambling list of some the reasons that I love films, in a format that I have stolen wholesale from here. Enjoy:

I love films because it just popped in there.

Because I'm fuzzy on the whole good / bad thing.

Because after nineteen films, the shark still looks fake.

Because Back to the Future: Part III ends on the day that I was born.

Because it can shoot the fleas off a dog's back at three hundred yards, and it's pointed straight at your head.

Because the original title of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly was The Two Magnificent Tramps. 

Because you're the son of a thousand whores.

Because this coffee is good, like my mother used to make it. Hot, and strong, and good.

Because you can talk, but can you play?

Because of Rocky.

Because Rocky IV is the most successful sports film ever made.

Because the training montage in Rocky Balboa elicited spontaneous unanimous applause from the cinema audience when I saw it with a friend.

Because Rocky III is the one of the funniest films I've ever seen, and openly laughing at it once got me in loads of trouble with someone.

Because when I slap you you'll take it and like it.

Because it's the stuff dreams are made of.

Because even Raymond Chandler didn't know who the killer was.

Because every one of you listening to my voice, tell the world, tell this to everybody where ever they are: watch the skies! Keep looking! Keep watching the skies!

Because It's Alive!

Because I hate being right all the time.

Because it wasn't the planes that did it. It was beauty killed the beast.

Because it's not the years, honey, it's the mileage.

Because it's too bad she won't live. But then again, who does?

Because she was giving me a look I could feel in my hip pocket.

Because Harry Callahan doesn't break cases, he smashes them.

Because of Harry Callahan's silhouette on the bridge.

Because of Indiana Jones' silhouette in the doorway of Marianne's bar.

Because of Batman's silhouette anywhere.

Because I'm Batman.

Because I'm Spiderman.

Because I believe in Harvey Dent.

Because the Joker won.

Because some days you just can't get rid of a bomb.

Because of smiling at the camera.

Because of John Williams.

Because of silence.

Because of chiaroscuro.

Because of the cuckoo clock.

Because of technicolour.

Because of Alfred Hitchcock.

Because of dream sequences.

Because of the Coen Brothers

Because this isn't 'Nam dude, this is bowling. There are rules.

Because it's y'know, for kids.

Because of Frank Capra.

Because only people of a certain disposition worry about dying alone at the age of twenty six. We were of that disposition.

Because no man is a failure who has friends.

Because I believe in America.

Because America isn't a country: it's a business. Now fucking pay me.

Because of a closing door.

Because ever since I can remember I've wanted to be a gangster.

Because we ran everything. We paid off cops, we paid off lawyers, we paid off judges. Everybody had their hands out. Everything was for the taking. And now it's all over. And that's the hardest part. Today everything is different, there's no action; I have to wait around like everyone else. Can't even get decent food. Right after I got here, I ordered some spaghetti with marinara sauce, and I got egg noodles and ketchup. I'm an average nobody; I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.

Because of Martin Scorsese.

Because of Steven Spielberg.

Because of Sergio Leone.

Because of John Carpenter.

Because of Richard Marquand.

Because Luke almost loses it.

Because of Irvin Kershner.

Because I know.

Because of George Lucas before he lost it.

Because of Howard Hawks.

Because of John Ford.

Because of David Lean.

Because they're coming to get you, Barbara.

Because of Hollywood in the 1970s.

Because of Warner Brothers studios in the 1930s and 40s.

Because of the Universal Horror cycle in the 1930s and 40s.

Because of James Whale.

Because of Boris Karloff.

Because of Bela Lugosi.

Because I never drink wine.

Because of Hammer studios.

Because Dracula is Dead and Well and Living in London.

Because I'm twelve, more or less.

Because of Sean Connery.

Because of George Lazenby.

Because Nobody Does it Better.

Because of Matt Damon.

Because of Paul Greengrass.

Because of Daniel Craig.

Because of Michael Fassbender.

Because of Bill Murray's smirk.

Because of Paul Newman's eyes.

Because of Lauren Bacall's voice.

Because of James Stewart's voice.

Because of Al Pacino's loud voice.

Because Robert De Niro doesn't need a loud voice.

Because of Jack Nicholson's mischief.

Because of James Cagney's delivery.

Because of Anne Bancroft's smoulder.

Because of Bruce Lee's discipline.

Because of Humphrey Bogart.

Because of Disney.

Because of the Disney renaissance.

Because of Ghibli.

Because of Pixar.

Because authority should derive from the consent of the governed, not from the threat of force.

Because of holding hands with no dialogue.

Because of 28 Weeks Later.

Because of Let the Right One In.

Because of The Secrets in their Eyes.

Because of The Artist.

Because of Changeling.

Because of Dumbo.

Because of pink elephants.

Because of Tron.

Because Tron still looks amazing.

Because of The Jungle Book.

Because of the bare necessities.

Because of Pete's Dragon.

Because of Raggedy Ann and Andy.

Because of The Land Before Time.

Because of trying never to hate a movie, even Paul WS Anderson ones.

Because I still hate Lord of the Rings out of all reasonable proportion.

Because if you don't like Back to The Future, you probably don't like films.

Because of the Bechdel Test.

Because of the Hays Code.

Because of Great American Cinema.

Because of British films.

Because of forgetting that you're reading subtitles.

Because it's worth paying to see re-releases even though I've got the DVD at home.

Because of a beautiful friendship.

Because of stuff that she likes.

Because I agree with the second part.

Because I'm on top of the world, ma!

Because the world is yours.

Because James Bond will return.

Because Optimus Prime will return.

Because of The End...?

Because life moves pretty fast.

Because of smuggling in Pick and Mix.

Because of Pearl & Dean.

Because of turning my phone off.

Because of the trailers.

Because of the BBFC certificate.

Because of the lights going down.

Because of the curtains going back.

Because of feeling weird when it's still daylight outside.

Because of going when I'm on holiday.

Because of going with people.

Because of going by myself.

Because being a Ghostbuster still seems like the coolest job in the world.

I could probably go on, but you get the idea.

Friday, 12 October 2012

The Friday Tramp Re-View: Alien 3

Alien3, directed by David Fincher, starring Sigourney Weaver, Charles Dance, Charles S. Dutton, Brian Glover, Paul McGann.

Ridley Scott’s baffling prequel to the Alien universe, Prometheus, was released to buy on DVD and Blu-ray this week, promising that ‘Questions will be answered’. Precisely which questions will be answered the trailer doesn’t say, but I’m assuming the promised alternate beginning and ending will explain why not a single character acts like a recognisable human being throughout the whole film. Perhaps there’s a deleted scene where they all smoke space crack at the beginning, or something. Anyway. The DVD’s not available to rent until December, and I’ll be damned if I’m shelling out fifteen quid just to find out why the big pale man drank the goop and then fell to bits. When it comes out to rent I’ll do a special post carefully and pedantically detailing just how broken the film is. So you can look forward to that.

In the spirit of unrealistic expectations dashed by disappointment, this week I’ll be reviewing the oft-derided-but-not-without-considerable-merit Alien3. Alien3 was David Fincher’s debut, a director known for visual flair and dark themes, showcased in more recent pictures such as Se7en, Fight Club and Zodiac. Of the four main Alien movies (not counting the Alien vs. Predator franchise, which happily seems to have died quietly in the corner), Alien3 is far and away the most controversial, plagued with studio interference, an unfinished script and most famously, an ambitious first-time director whose experience filming was so traumatic that twenty years later he still refuses to discuss the film in any detail. In contrast, Alien3 faced the uphill struggle of following Alien and Aliens, both classics in their own right. In the days before The Phantom Menace, Alien3 was second only to The Godfather Part III as the most disappointing follow-up to a successful and critically acclaimed franchise. 

Ripley contemplates her grim situation.
The thing is, Alien3 isn’t that actually that bad. It’s messy sure; the theatrical cut has some major plot holes, and its bleak setting, nihilistic script, and dearth of likeable characters are hard to swallow. Moreover, Hicks is killed off before the opening credits have rolled, and Newt, the little girl who Ripley fought so hard to save in Aliens, bites it by drowning in her own cryogenic fluid when the ship crashes on to Fiorna 161. Oh, and Ripley finds out that she’s got an alien queen inside her, she’s going to die in the most horrible way possible, and there’s nothing she can do about it. It’s fair to say, then that Alien3 takes everyone and everything you cared about in its predecessors and throws them into a big vat of concentrated acid in front of your eyes. But does this make for a bad horror film? I’m not so sure it does. Moreover, despite its reputation as somewhat of a disaster, I’ve yet to meet anyone in person who doesn’t like it. Perhaps it’s a generational thing – I was only six when the film hit cinemas, and so didn’t see it until much later, and thus without the attendant hype – but many of my peers don’t just like Alien3: it’s their favourite one. I wouldn’t go that far; for me Ridley Scott’s Alien will always be the best, with all its psychosexual horror and slasher-movie sensibilities. The brilliantly paced and remarkably tense Aliens is a close second, but Alien3, I think, easily stands alongside Scott and Cameron’s pieces as a different, yet equally valid interpretation of the series. There are several set pieces to rival Cameron’s, for example, the sequence where they try to flush out the creature with fire is indicative of Fincher’s future visual bravura, and the premise is a return to the claustrophobia that served Alien so well.   

Up close and personal with ol' bitey tongue.
The beginning of Alien3 is possibly the most shocking sequence of the whole film, because it literally throws out almost everyone that we cared about from Aliens. The shock of the opening scenes hangs like a dark cloud over the rest of the running time, and neither Ripley nor the audience ever fully recover. That the film never recovers from the beginning is one of the major problems people have with Alien3, but I think this criticism confuses the audience reaction with the film itself. Jarring as the opening sequence is, it appropriately sets the tone; gloomy, yes, but also introspective and ruthlessly nihilistic; in profound contrast to Aliens’ extrovert, ultra machismo. Alien3 takes that heroic macho-military fetishism and turns it on its head; setting events on an all-male double-Y chromosome prison. In this sense, the film returns to the spirit of Alien; a hostile invader who not only threatens the lives of the characters, but more importantly, attacks their masculinity. In Alien, this is realised with the cross-species rape of John Hurt’s Kane. In an inspired touch, in Alien3 it’s Ripley herself as much as the familiar xenomorph that threatens the stable masculinity of the colony on Fury 161, a theme that survived from the earliest drafts of the script. In that regard, Alien3 beats Aliens hands down: the insurmountable tension and efficient characterisation of Cameron’s entry notwithstanding, there really are no ideas in Aliens that are as risky or challenging as those in Alien3. From the first minute to the last, this feels like that the concluding chapter in the Alien saga (which is partly why Alien Resurrection feels more like a spin-off than a direct sequel), and it’s to the film’s credit that it doesn’t pull its punches with the relentless darkness it eschews.

Of course, many of the old criticisms still stand: the admirable darkness of the film often slips into gloominess, and despite the lengthy, sometimes interminable conversations between characters, it’s difficult to keep track of who’s who. Furthermore, none of them ever really express either the grubby, blue-collar humanity of Alien, or the efficient, pulpy, rough-and-tumble characterisation of Aliens. For the most part, we care little about the prisoners as the xenomorph offs them one by one. That said, Brian Glover’s performance as superintendent Andrews is a stand-out exercise in being an insufferable prick, and both Charles Dutton and Charles Dance portray their characters with nuance and believability, amidst a background of interchangeable faces that serve merely as alien fodder. Elsewhere, plot holes abound, and characters (I’m looking at you, Golic) seem to disappear with nary a mention as to their whereabouts or well being.

A rare moment of levity on set between star Weaver and Fincher.
Alien3’s strengths lie in its tone and mood, and in this respect, it’s arguably the best of the series. Cinematographer Alex Thomson does an incredible job of creating a look that is both distinctive and yet feels part of the same world as its forbears. Indeed, the technical aspects of the film often work together beautifully: the set design is magnificently baroque, and the score by Elliot Goldenthal is effective and visceral. Moreover, the look of the creature, in a constant state of evolution, is animalistic, deadly and different enough from previous incarnations to remain interesting, even if some of the later composite model shots of the alien shots look oddly computer generated. Parts of the film are strangely funny, but very effectively so; Andrews’ ball bouncing after the alien gets him; the running joke of Aaron ’85’s nickname, even Ripley’s weary line to the creature ‘you’ve been in my life so long, I can’t remember anything else’ plays as a caustic, darkly comic, even perversely erotic interpretation of her  inescapable relationship with the xenomorph.

Alien3 is a deeply flawed, but fascinating, entry into the series. Although almost universally hated on release, it’s aged well, especially in comparison to the silly Alien Resurrection and the unspeakably atrocious Alien Vs. Predator franchise. Moreover, compare it to equally hated missteps such as the aforementioned Star Wars and Godfather disasters and it's evident which movie time has been kinder to. Both of those films have had at least a decade to mature, and by and large, they’ve both just turned to so much cheap vinegar, becoming sourer with each passing year. Not so with Alien3: evidence of its troubled production pervades throughout, and it remains one of the most notorious examples of a nightmarish shoot. But despite these problems, Fincher’s entry gives us something fresh, original and different from the previous episodes. Alien3’s unrelenting darkness, beautifully crafted mood and subtle, dark humour fits perfectly with the last true film of the series. 

Friday, 5 October 2012

The Friday Tramp Review: Looper

Looper, directed by Rian Johnson, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Jeff Daniels, Emily Blunt.

Rian Johnson’s third feature, following his wonderful debut Brick, and 2008’s disappointing con-man fairytale The Brothers Bloom, is his largest, most ambitious to date, featuring a captivating central performance from Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Looper follows Joe, a hitman in 2044 whose job it is to assassinate undesirables sent back from thirty years in the future. He is the eponymous looper, enjoying handsome rewards and a lavish lifestyle with one catch: eventually he will meet, and be compelled to kill, his future self, played with an appropriate impatience by Bruce Willis. The reward is an early retirement, a big cash settlement and thirty years to contemplate the inevitable. The reason that the future gangsters don’t just send the ex-loopers back to someone else to kill them is never addressed, nor are the various plot holes that present themselves, but it matters little that the film doesn’t concern itself too closely with the minutiae of time travel movie paradoxes. Rather, Looper is at heart a character piece, with both JGL and Willis doing a fine job of bringing pathos and believability to a character who is often so morally reprehensible he makes Rick Deckard look like a boy scout. Granted, it’s a character piece with hoverbikes, retro-futuristic weaponry and one of the best-realised and believable futurescapes this side of Blade Runner, with shanty towns lining the streets as Joe and his pals pass by in their solar-powered sports cars, seemingly indifferent to the extreme poverty surrounding them.

The future looks none too bright for Joe
Indeed, Looper’s most effective scene is the tense discussion between young Joe and his future self in a 1950s-styled diner. When young Joe, effectively standing in for the audience, asks old Joe how the time loop works the older man just tells him he doesn’t want to waste time having to draw diagrams with straws. It’s not why they’re meeting, and it’s not why we as an audience are watching, either. Johnson seems acutely aware that films like Looper, with complex premises and plots, are often susceptible to those enemies of narrative economy: needless exposition and unnecessary voiceovers. The director plays with both these clichés, first by beginning Looper with a voiceover from JGL, only to drop it before bringing it back at the end; referring both to the conventions of film noir, and to the rightly-maligned voiceover narration that was hastily put together for Blade Runner’s original theatrical release. Second, the frequent expository discussions between characters are often interrupted mid-explanation, leaving us with just enough information to get through without ruining the film’s singular sense of momentum.

It’s that sense of momentum, built up in the first two acts, that keeps things compelling in the final third, where the action slows in favour of developing the relationship between young Joe and Sarah (spot the reference), played by the ever-reliable Emily Blunt. Another bugbear of big action cinema, the shoe-horned love interest, Sarah and Joe’s reluctant friendship gives us just enough decent characterisation and well-placed plot developments to maintain emotional interest, even if we all know where it’s going. Moreover, it’s in this section that old Joe goes into full Terminator-mode, going after a hit-list of children (yes, children), knowing that one of them will grow into the man who will murder his future wife. It’s one of Looper’s greatest strengths that it borrows so heavily from the sci-fi canon without ever feeling derivative. The casting of Willis is an obvious homage to Twelve Monkeys, and the final act plays almost identically to the early scenes in James Cameron’s seminal time-travel yarn. Just as he did with detective movie Brick, Johnson blends a mixture of the familiar to make something that feels new and refreshing, though it’s fair to say that despite its emotional depth, Looper lacks the intellectual complexity of many of the works to which it pays tribute. In addition, and without spoiling anything, the ending feels just a little too neat and tidy, and while there’s little point in picking apart plot holes in this sort of film, there do seem to be one or two that could have been tightened at the scripting stage.

What with Neill Blomkamp's District 9, Duncan Jones’ excellent Moon and Source Code, Chris Nolan’s Inception and now Johnson’s Looper, it seems that intelligent, single concept science fiction has surely returned to mainstream cinema. Where, for example, Jones’ recent triumphs felt like callbacks to the meditative sci-fi of the 1960s and 70s,  Johnson’s entry in the genre is in many ways a tribute to the science fiction of the 1980s; movies that blended big ideas with bigger action. Though undoubtedly a smart film, Looper doesn’t match up to Cameron or Ridley Scott’s best work, and at no point is it at as groundbreaking as either The Terminator or Blade Runner. Nor is it as audacious as Paul Verhoeven’s extravaganza of violence, Total Recall. But consider this year’s remake of that film, widely considered a bland, flat and pointless retread of Verhoeven's original. Then consider Johnson’s film. Flawed, yes, but full of personality and ambition, not to mention giving us another great turn from JGL, finally in a leading role after playing second fiddle to the DiCaprios and Bales of Blockbusterville. While lacking the intellectual heft of the films to which it aspires, Looper is still challenging, engaging, and one of the most satisfying sci-fi movies you’re likely to see this year. 

Friday, 28 September 2012

The Friday Tramp Review: Killing Them Softly

Killing Them Softly, directed by Andrew Dominik, starring Brad Pitt, Ray Liotta, James Gandolfini, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn.

The opening credits of Andrew Dominik’s second collaboration with Brad Pitt, with a grimy-looking man shuffling through a dark tunnel into harsh sunlight while a Barack Obama pre-presidential speech is interspersed with jarring, discordant music, is a sequence strongly reminiscent of the great paranoid crime thrillers of the 1970s (Hollywood’s most creative period outside of the 1930s). It’s a fantastic opening to a film that very quickly announces itself as an examination of the profound and fundamental rottenness that lies at the heart of both the criminal and legitimate economies of America, and one that owes a debt to previous studies of moral and financial corruption, such as Serpico and The French Connection. In his post-9/11, financial crisis-era crime thriller, Dominik consciously recalls the paranoia and cynicism of Vietnam-Nixon-era cinema, and both in form and in content there’s a clear debt to Scorsese’s early work. The film refers directly to Scorsese's Mean Streets, with the (slightly overused) juxtaposition of pop music and violence, use of tracking shots and stylistic framing, and emphasis on small time hoodlums scrabbling for a taste of power and wealth. Harvey Keitel’s character in Scorsese’s film provided a kind of moral resistance to a world otherwise devoid of integrity and ethics, and even in Taxi Driver De Niro’s Travis Bickle offered a perverted sense of morality against the overflowing decadence and misery on the streets of New York. But Killing Them Softly provides no such respite from the darkness, and in a film that that uses many conventions of the morality play, it’s a crucial irony that here, there is no absolutely no ethical centre. This is reflected in Dominik’s placing and presentation of character: even the menacing Jackie Cogan, in another charismatic turn from Pitt, couldn't really be described as the protagonist, only turning up in the second act, and gradually entering the spotlight as one by one he eliminates the other crooks.

Angel of Death: Brad Pitt as Jackie Cogan
Much has been made of the political broadcasts and news footage that play in the background of many scenes, and at times they feel superfluous; heavy-handed at worst, and at best, offering trite comparisons between the banking system, American politics, and the criminal underworld. But as the inevitable grip of violent retribution tightens around Frankie and Russell, the crooks who robbed a card game and left Ray Liotta’s Markie to take the blame, those comparisons begin to offer interesting new dimensions to the onscreen action. Cogan is brought in to kill Markie, knowing full well that although he had nothing to do with the robbery, someone must pay for the transgression. Much like Anton Chigurh in 2008’s No Country For Old Men, Cogan is figured as an angel of death, acting to restore the appearance of order. For him, right and wrong are irrelevant, balance is everything.  

It’s entirely appropriate then, that Pitt gets the final line in the film, giving us not simply a deliciously pithy, cynical summation of the rotten core of America, but one whose dark humour and rhythm is up there with the all-time great finishers that round off Goodfellas and John Huston’s beautifully nihilistic The Maltese Falcon. Adapted from George V. Higgins’ 1974 novel Cogan’s Trade, Dominik’s Killing Them Softly is a very talky film, swimming with Mamet-esque, expletive-ridden dialogue and efficient, engaging exposition. The violence, when it appears, is often short, nasty and brutish, save for one technically astonishing sequence involving traffic lights and extreme slow motion. The extreme stylishness of this scene is matched only by an odd feeling of it being at odds with the tough grittiness of the rest of the piece, and in several other places Dominik’s strong sense of style threatens to overwhelm the drama. In contrast, the simple robbery scene in the first act is fraught with tension, as the two amateur crooks fumble their way through the scene with a comically short sawn-off shotgun and two pairs of bright yellow marigolds, presumably to protect against fingerprint evidence. Indeed, this collision of humour and darkness is one of the film’s strengths, situating itself alongside this year’s Killer Joe, and even last year’s Drive, with its combination of heavy stylisation and brutal, explicit violence.

What he hasn't fucked in the last three days he's drunk:
James Gandolfini as washed-up hitman Mickey
There’s no doubt that Killing Them Softly is imperfect, with the political commentary sometimes coming off as clunky and unnecessary, and the film takes a few stylistic liberties too many. However, with a terrific performance from Pitt, a sensibility richly steeped in the traditions of American crime cinema, a corking, funny script and a sense of darkness and cynicism that sustains to the end, this is arguably the best crime drama of the year. Only time will tell if it can stand up along with its classic forbears, but regardless, this is cinema at its most pessimistic, satirical and vital.