Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Project Tyneside: West of Memphis, Django Unchained, McCullin, Zero Dark Thirty

With four more films notched up on the proverbial bedpost, it's time for another update on Project Tyneside. This batch was as unusual as it was varied, featuring two documentaries, the new Tarantino film, and an Oscar-nominated picture that's sure to become one of the most controversial of the year. Let's get to it!

Sunday 20th January, 14:55 West of Memphis
Amy Berg's meticulous documentary on the Memphis Three is one of the most frightening and disturbing accounts of a miscarriage of justice I have seen. Berg's film follows the story of Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols and Jessie Misskelley, three teenagers who were convicted of the brutal murders of three eight year-old boys in 1993 in West Memphis, Arkansas. Baldwin, Echols and Misskelley maintained their innocence throughout their trials and subsequent incarcerations. West of Memphis is not the first documentary on the Memphis Three, but rather, builds on and refers to the numerous other films about the case, such as the Paradise Lost documentaries. What Berg's film offers is a painstaking presentation of the case's particulars, only to retread them over and over with increasing rigour and scepticism. What initially is presented as a strong verdict of guilty quickly becomes a saga of police incompetence, investigative negligence, unreliable witnesses and a disregard for forensic evidence and the advice of properly qualified experts. While Berg's film, co-written with Billy McMillin, has a clear agenda - that the Memphis 3 were innocent, pointing towards one of the boys' step-fathers as the real killer - West of Memphis presents an incredibly strong case for that perspective. A persuasively-constructed, haunting, and vital documentary.

Monday 21st January, 14:35 Django Unchained
I've already reviewed Quentin Tarantino's latest here, but for those of you that have yet to see the film, Django Unchained is one of the year's most provocative, and arguably, best films of the year. Very much a companion piece to Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained tells the story of Django, a slave freed by Dr King Schultz, on his quest to save his wife and exact bloody revenge on her masters. Reigning in the self-indulgence that badly hampered Death Proof, Django is amongst Tarantino's best, using the tropes and motifs of the Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s and 70s to craft a wildly entertaining, occasionally grand, and thrilling adventure.

Wednesday 30th January, 21:00 McCullin
The second of two documentaries on this round of Project Tyneside, David and Jacqui Morris' documentary on photo-journalist Don McCullin, best known for his technically astonishing and often disturbing war photography. The Morris siblings do a tremendous job of teasing out the internal conflicts of a man whose job it was to document the absolute worst of human misery and atrocity, with one of the great ironies of McCullin's life suggested when he describes his early successes at The Observer newspaper. He explains that this was the moment that he realised that he could escape his violent home of London's deprived Finsbury Park, only to find himself in the poorest and most violent places in the world. Structurally, the film is conventional, sticking to a linear narrative of talking heads and stills from McCullin's portfolio, but this lessens neither the remarkable - and terrible - images presented, nor the impact of the anecdotes and commentaries that accompany them. Fascinating, disturbing, at times even sickening, McCullin is a terrific portrait of an astonishing career, and for the merit of the photographer's work alone, this deserves to be seen.


Thursday 31st January, 14:05 Zero Dark Thirty
In what has already become one of the most controversial films of the year, Kathryn Bigelow's follow up to her brilliant The Hurt Locker is a superbly well-crafted, intelligent and complex thriller, with an excellent central performance from Jessica Chastain as CIA agent Maya. Having gone in aware of criticisms that Zero Dark Thirty endorses torture or implies that torture led to the killing of Osama Bin Laden, I was wary of the early scenes that depict waterboarding and other forms of interrogation. But although there's room for debate here, I came down on the side that Bigelow shows torture - albeit relentlessly from the torturer's point of view - without telling us what to think of it. Rather, the film is more concerned with what effect these interrogations have on investigator Maya, as we witness her develop from a reluctant, cautious rookie in 2003, to an obsessive and tenacious operative determined to capture her quarry. This, for me, is the key to Zero Dark Thirty, and equal credit goes to Chastain and Bigelow for crafting a nuanced, compelling bildungsroman, particularly given that there are no grandstanding scenes for Chastain to chew scenery, as one might expect if Michael Mann and Al Pacino had made the film. There are conflicts with colleagues, yes, but there is no courtroom scene, no rhetorical battle to win that suddenly changes the tide of events; just a gradual development of story and character that leads to the discovery of America's most vilified boogeyman. The climax of that discovery - the scene where a crack team secretly infiltrate Bin Laden's occupants and kill (some of) its occupants, is done with a skill that manages to be thrilling and tense without feeling exploitative. And what of the comedown after that climax? Bigelow saves her most poignant moment for last, hinting at a post Bin-Laden identity crisis that befalls both her main character, and by extension, the country that she represents.

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