Monday, November 25, 2013

The Counsellor: A Nihilistic Motion Novel.

Ridley Scott's The Counsellor is one of his bravest films, a bleak look into the crime underworld without any moral filter. Is it a great film? No, but it's daring in ways that many Hollywood movies aren't. We finally get Cormac McCarthy's first original screenplay, if you can even call it that, onto the big screen and it plays out more like a novel than a film. The movie doesn't so much focus on plot as much as it does on story. What's the story? Well it's complex, but at the end of the day it is basically your generic movie criminal characters in way over their way, except here they all get what's coming to them, whether they are protagonists or not. No matter how pretty or likeable they are, they're gonna get it, and they're gonna get it rough. The Counsellor does not flinch away from the true brutality of the underworld. There is a harrowing scene involving a DVD, which portrays no on screen violence that will make audiences stomach churn.

Where the movie falls short is McCarthy's screenplay, which doesn't do the audience any favours in helping them follow any form of narrative. The dialogue is too cryptic and winding for the viewer to fathom while being entertained at the same time. Might make sense on paper, but not on the big screen. The plot doesn't really begin until an unfortunate bike ride. This little mess helps propel the film and forces it's characters to act. Until this moment there is a tedious and complex build up, which is only satisfactory because of Bardem's charming charisma. I enjoyed all of the performances for the most part, but spewing out McCarthy's long-winded dialogue didn't help them. Cameron Diaz was ice cold as Malkina and looked great, reminding me of Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction (1994), but seemed to be confused speaking the words, coming off like a Beverly Hills bimbo attempting to read Shakespeare, or in this case Dr. Seuss. 

This movie has been blasted on all fronts, and a many of it's criticisms may be correct, but I admire it's boldness and Scott's and the actors' willingness to take a chance. In conclusion, I found The Counsellor  to be a very interesting movie, a dark morality play that takes a risk in conveying audiences the stark reality of the cartel business. 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Gravity: Believe the Hype.

First things first, if you havn't already seen Alfonso Cuaron's space epic, Gravity, it is mandatory that you experience it in its intended format at the IMAX in 3D. And that's exactly what it is, an experience. So many movies nowadays are sensationalised in the media, seems like almost every opening weekend produces a "masterpiece" and so many of these movies fall short of their critical acclaim. Gravity isn't one of those movies. The ecstatic critical praise and box office success completely coincide with the actual film. I honestly believe it is a landmark in cinema history. Whether a fan of the movie or not no one can deny it's cinematic achievement. Personally, I've never seen anything like it before and I came to this conclusion in the opening 12 minutes. We thought the potential of 3D was penetrated perfectly with Avatar, but Gravity is on a whole other level here. The real question is how is anybody ever going to top it?

The plot is basic, but the special effects are complex. It stars Sandra Bullock as Dr Ryan Stone and George Clooney as Matt Kowalski, two astronauts on a routine mission, working on the Hubble Space Telescope. Due to the technical accomplishments of this film we might as well include ourselves in the cast. We float side to side and upside down with them while the enormous scope of the earth engulfs  the background. "Terrifyingly beautiful" Dr Stone describes the breathtaking view at some stage and we can empathise with her. The vast landscape of space is overwhelming and it has never been visualised on such a large scale as this. You might not want to watch this if you are hungover or you might go ahead and give yourself an anxiety attack.

After having our mind blown in the first scene, Steven Price's brooding score washes over the theatre and the thrilling rollercoaster ride begins as debris comes darting at high speed towards our protagonists and their ship. The next 78 minutes is a paramount of almost unbearable suspense and tension. Bullock is the centre of our attention during this ordeal. At times our point of view transcends to her point of view as the camera, without a cut mind you, enters her space helmet so we can see the vast destruction through her eyes. We follow her as she attempts to survive by any means necessary, trying to grab onto anything to keep her from been pushed into outer space. We are hurdled around in zero gravity with her and I found myself constantly twisting and turning my head in order to keep up, dodging debris along the way.

As pure cinema goes, Gravity clearly excels because of its filmmaking technique and groundbreaking special effects. The film's themes might not be as cryptic as say Kubrick's 2001, they are universal and will relate to viewers on a more general level. It's a spiritual film and deals with human endurance. We learn that Ryan is haunted by the death of her daughter and goes through life merely existing. Kowalski on the other hand, finds hope and promise in the good and bad. He acts as Ryan's guardian angel in a way. Ryan's struggle through this tremendous turmoil in space slowly becomes not just the fight for survival, but the fight to truly live again.

Some say the conclusion of Gravity may be cheesy or unrealistic, but by this stage we are so invested into this experience and filled with awe that any other conclusion would be incredibly cynical. Gravity nods its head to the Sci-Fi genre, but this is no Star Wars. It is the Jaws of the 21st century because it touches on one of mankind's primal fears. In 1975 it was the ocean and what lies below, in 2013 its deep space. We are all afraid of the unknown and there is so much we don't know about the universe. In terms of a Hollywood production, Gravity has given us the closest glimpse of the horror and beauty of it.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Before Midnight: Let's Walk & Talk.

I have never seen Richard Linklater's first two installments of his romantic trilogy. Even though I admire the director's other work, particularly the cult, coming of age Dazed and Confused (1993), it seemed a tall order to get me to see a romantic drama. However, Before Midnight is far from romantic even if it wants to be. It is a realistic and rational look at a longterm relationship between two middle aged characters. It's also funnier than most romantic comedies without trying to.

I can understand why most, especially men, wouldn't want to see this even if they had a gun to their head, but if you take it for what it is and are willing to just go with it you might be pleasantly surprised. If you choose not to go with the flow you will hate it as it would appear incredibly tedious. We get scenes that go on for twenty minutes with one camera, two people, walking and talking. The talking is great and is what propels the film, while the performances enhance it. Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy and Linklater, clearly well acquainted from the previous Before flicks, share the writing credits and they'd have to. It is genuinely impressive to see these two actors carry out a dialogue rally for twenty minutes without a break. 

Although a Texas native, it is evident that Linklater is world travelled and possesses a universal outlook. You can see the influences from French New Wave filmmakers such as Jean Luc Godard and Eric Rohmer, who also took the theme of love and beat it around, released it from its imprisonment within the Hollywood narrative formula in order to question and philosophise it. Shot on location in Greece, the foundation of western philosophy, we witness the couple discuss their past, future and present while incorporating debate on the social and cultural history of men and women. They are not naive chislers anymore, they are sober and uncertain about the huge gamble to spend the rest of their lives together. 

Before Midnight is a film about people, about their aspirations and anxieties. It's about wanting to get everything out of life, but unfortunately the time given to us cannot accommodate it all. The running time of Before Midnight is 109 minutes. Try to fit it in.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Big Bad Wolves: Push it to the Limit

The Israeli thriller, Big Bad Wolves, really pushes the bar. Not in terms of on screen violence, but in regards to taking a huge leap in the balance of humour and horror, and in my opinion they landed it. This movie isn't for everyone, but the more audiences it connects with the greater its accomplishment will become. Living in the nauseating era of political correctness I'd like to see Hollywood try to recycle this delicious dark nugget with Will Smith.

The plot involves a suspected child murderer, a ruthless cop, who plays by his own rules and an unsettling father of one of the murdered girls. Our allegiance is bounced off each one of these characters as the plot unfolds. The casting of the suspected child murderer is excellent as we feel both empathy and apathy for him at various times by his face alone. The audience is genuinely in a state of conflict in their attempt to figure out if he committed these heinous acts or not.

Following some humorous and coincidental circumstances, the three men end up in a basement in the middle of nowhere within an Arab region. An interrogation pursues for the majority of the movies with plot twists and turns Nostradamus couldn't predict. Apart from the flawless plot, which constantly keeps you on your toes, the real achievement lies in directors Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado's orchestration of the film's audience. Essentially, this is a movie about a suspected sadistic child rapist and murderer and the torture and intimidation carried out on him. So why do we laugh? The subject matter contains the most depraved and horrifying acts in society, yet at certain moments we have a good old laugh. 

An example of this awkward transcendence between shock and laughter comes in a scene where the father describes to the suspected killer, the disgusting, graphic details of the torture taken out on his deceased girl. His little tale is disrupted by humorous back and forth banter between himself and the cop. The audience is snapped directly out from disgust to a chuckle, albeit at times a nervous chuckle, possibly one of guilt. 

Another example arises during an intense torture scene. The suspect is about to have his toenail ripped off with a pair of pliers, musical score is to the max, viewers on the edge of their seats squirming when suddenly the phone rings. It's the father's mother berating him with maternal questions. We let out a sigh of relief, but Big Bad Wolves means business. It does not shy away from the violence, it simply uses comedy to prolong it. 

There is Jewish humour sprawled all over this flick, specifically between family. Sort of like if Eli Roth made an episode of Seinfeld or if Wes Craven and Woody Allen had a baby. It also contains subtle, but very affective political and religious satire between Jews and Muslims in Israel. There are similarities between Big Bad Wolves and Bong Joon-ho's masterpiece Memories of Murder (2003) in terms of deploying unpretentious social commentary within the story and the fusion of humour with serious subject matter.

Big Bad Wolves is possibly the year's best movie and without a doubt it's most daring in terms of theme and content. It aspires to the true originality of storytelling that Hollywood once delivered during the movie brat era of the 1970s, unapologetic, unafraid and knocking down the doors of political correctness. It would appear that the torch has been passed.

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Conjuring: The Exorcism of Docile Audiences

In recent years movie-goers have been possessed by shoddy horror films, more specifically that of the sub-genre of the supernatural movies. James Wan's The Conjuring is the liberating exorcism of these demonic, mundane, pieces of trash from our consciousness as it delivers us with something fresh from an old batch. It is a movie that will evoke all your childhood fears and let them resurface for a chilling two hours. The Conjuring is a great movie going experience and I contend it's the best Hollywood produced supernatural-thriller of the past twenty years and arguably since its grandaddy-The Exorcist (1973).

Director, James Wan (Saw, Death Sentence), has been working up to this his entire career and he has finally achieved it by throwing the sadism and gore out the window and beginning fresh with traditional horror storytelling. In no way am I condemning the gore of the new breed of splat-pack horror directors, that stuff is great. However, I do believe that audiences have become savvy to the blood and guts today just as they did for the supernatural at the turn of the century...or so we thought.

There have been a few commercial gems along the way, most notably the Paranormal Activity franchise. However, in cinematic terms it is far inferior to The Conjuring. With Paranormal Activity you have a film made with homemade footage and unknown actors to convey a more realistic environment, sort of like the reality television we are fed every day. Might be entertaining for a minute, but at the end of the day it is disposable trash. The series delivered on the "jump" scares, but without any true cinematic skill or illusion. It all seems to easy and in a way aren't they kind of cheating? On the other hand, we have The Conjuring, with well known stars in a stylised Hollywood setting convincing the audience of the horror that they are witnessing. In my eyes that is far more impressive.

The Conjuring is based on true events that occurred at an old farmhouse in Harrisville, Rhode Island in 1971. Carolyn and Roger Perron (Lili Taylor & Ron Livingston) have moved from New Jersey with their five daughters. As the family begin to settle in, the suspicion, tension and suspense slowly builds up. The first major scare comes in a scene where Christine (Joey King) is awoken by her feet being pulled in bed. She wakes up startled and becomes terrified when she realises that it wasn't her sister Nancy (Hayley McFarland), who is seen fast asleep. Christine suddenly reaches the conclusion that we have known all along, that there is another presence within the house and it is very real. This is the best piece of acting in the film, her transcendence from regular life into the world of the unknown. Her body language and facial expressions are excellent.

The first time we actually see the demonic spirit in the physical is above a wardrobe in one of the girl's rooms. We know it is coming, but the way Wan delivers its presence still has us out of our seats. It is at this time in which the Perron family seek help from the practical and confident Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson & Vera Farmiga), he a demonologist and her a clairvoyant. In order to save the Perron's they must investigate the house and give proof in order to have the Vatican abide an exorcism. This investigation eases up the suspense somewhat because now the family have support, but the history of the house that is uncovered is disturbing enough to keep the audience unsettled. The first half of the movie conjure up (shut up) great tension and suspense, but the last twenty minutes is a pure adrenaline rush in order to save this family. We get a storm, a creepy doll on the loose, a nod to Hitchcock's The Birds (1963), gunshots, and all the while delivered at a perfected pace. It was exhilarating to watch amongst a full theatre with people jumping, screaming, laughing and on the edge of their seats. There are few energetic horror experiences like it in recent years.

Wan doesn't bring anything new to the supernatural genre except for his perfected technique. The direction and camera movement here show a master at work. It is pure cinema where the camera gives us all we need to know, it creeps around the house up creaky stairs and down into pitch black basements, which helps create a heightened degree of suspense. I'm pretty sure I even jumped at the fucking thunder and lightening in this movie. The production design, costume and cinematography portray a great 1970s look. More then being a flawless horror movie in narrative and impeccable technique, The Conjuring has shown us something a lot more important. It has proven that we, the audience, are still capable of been scared and entertained through traditional cinematic attributes such as a strong story, great acting, depth in character, atmosphere and suspense. This is the real accomplishment of The Conjuring. 


*See it in a packed theatre.
*Preferably with a girl because she won't want to spend the night alone after.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Frances Ha: Stuck Between Stations

I sunk my fucking face into my palms during the first few minutes of Noam Baumbach's new black and white feature, Frances Ha. I thought I was in store for a 90 minute chick-buddy-indie flick, but as soon as Frances' best friend/roommate, Sophie (Mickey Sumner), moves out, I let out a sigh of relief. From then on the film focuses on Frances (Greta Gerwig), a social leper with too much pride to admit her failures.

This movie contains no plot, but this is done intentionally. It jumps from scene to scene in Frances' life, a girl in her late twenties, stuck between the liberation of college and the responsibility of adult life. Her story is portrayed in the way we all see this period of life ; segments of nights out, domestic disputes, all the little anecdotes we tell our friends. This is not a precise narrative with a specific aim, its a portrayal of day to day life.

Because I'm at the same period of my life as Frances, I could relate to Frances' story, but the film need not rely on that. The style is that of a Bohemian Woody Allen with obvious nods to the French New Wave. One negative aspect, which even the lead star Gerwig questioned was the fact that, although the film looks great with its black and white format and attempts to sell itself as a Manhattan (1979), the reality is that it was shot digitally. This confession makes the aesthetic null and void, its just a digital copy and isn't exactly what it says on the tin.

There are genuine funny scenes here, mainly delivered through great conversation dialogue with perfect timing. The prime example of this lies in the scene where one of Frances male roommates has brought back a girl from the night before. Frances and her other male roommate join them at the breakfast table and the four of them just waffle on, speaking over each other in a realistic manner. It's like watching a tennis rally with the ball boy taking a swing now and again.

The soundtrack is upbeat with songs from David Bowie, Harry Nilsson and Hot Chocolate, even though Frances' world constantly disintegrates in front of her as all her friends advance in life she remains trapped financially, socially and motivationally. The  film's ending is positive, but not compromising in the way that the character Frances actually does compromise with adult life. Her dreams of becoming a professional dancer are trampled on and she must settle as a dance choreographer. However, she discovers that this job actually makes her happy and content. It would appear that she has advanced onto adulthood. Life doesn't necessarily work out the way you wish and that brings an element of surprise.

Again, there is an obvious homage to Woody Allen's New York in style and character. Frances is neurotic and socially awkward. She is does not follow the general conventions in which the majority do. She surrounds herself with hipsters in Brooklyn, which I thought would make me cringe, but they are funny and true in character. This film had the strong potential of coming off as a pretentious rip off, but the procrastination and indecisive nature of Frances makes it relatable to many.

Friday, February 22, 2013

South Africa's Great White Light.

Oscar Pistorius was granted bail today in Pretoria. Under the condition of his release he must pay one million rand, hand over guns, passport, prosthetic legs, pogo sticks and any other instruments of transport or violence. He has also been instructed to go to bed with a night light on in case the darkness causes Mr Pistorius to panic. Pistorius' defence claimed that the terrifying Nickelodeon series Are You Afraid of the Dark? sparked Oscar's phobia of dark rooms and was an undeniable factor that set him off. 

Furthermore, a petition has been put forward to the South African government in order to place mandatory night lights throughout the country in the hope that an incident like this will never occur again. Never before has South Africa had such an infiltration of white light come in and push out the darkness of the country. 

In relation to Are You Afraid of the Dark?, the defence has argued that this is not the first time fictional violence has influenced a shooting. "Sandy Hook shooter, Adam Lanza was clearly influenced by Kindergarden Cop" contended Barry Roux, Mr Pistorius' lawyer. The prosecution actually agreed with the Roux's accusation of film and television have had a definite affect on Pistorius. However, they focused this argument on Pistorius' account of what happened that fateful night, labelling it under the genre of comedy and claiming that Mr Pistorius has a very creative imagination.

There has been an overwhelming support for the Olympic medalist as fellow paraplegic athletes have hopped to his aid, along with school children, who's homework has been eaten by their dogs. Pistorius said he is relieved with the court's decision and is going to spend the weekend relaxing with his family, while watching his all time favourite actor O.J. Simpson in a Naked Gun marathon. 

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Banality of Reality

Today I woke up, relieved myself in the bathroom, looked at my ugly mug in the mirror, washed every inch of my body in the shower before scrambling my eggs. You want to see that? I don't blame you. Also, sang a little jingle, which resembled the sound of a cat getting ravaged by a giraffe. You like my crooning? Hell I can understand that. If it were sensationalised you might take a peek though since people across the world do so every night when they groove into that spot on their couch and click POWER. 80% of our creative soul has been compromised through the genre of reality television. We've allowed the birth of the antichrist and it comes to us in the chameleon like face of grease ball guidos, botoxed housewives/socialites and one-dimensional smiling characters. 

Television shows with no creative merit have charmed us through sensationalism and buffoonery. We are all guiltier than Simpson, Casey Anthony and Nasty Nick. We've watched with a glazed look as the devil squirted out spawns such as Jersey Whore, Come and Defile with me, My Super Greed Material Fiend and Ireland's got Flatulence. The sensationalised wool of banality has been pulled over our eyes!

Real life is bland enough without turning on the television and revising the sheer excitement of going to the bathroom or waiting for the fucking toast to pop. If it isn't the supposed "edginess" of fornication within a sea of fake tan and hair products, then its nauseating spectacle of talentless cretins pouring out their emotions in a cringing fashion. If we aren't watching an Oompa Loompa looking creature throwing tampons at her roommate or washed up brown-nosing, has-been sucking ass (metaphorically speaking of course, I'm not too proud to say I wouldn't watch that) then, heck!, that's just not good television. 

This sad state of affairs brings democracy into question. Should we be subjected to this excess of banal trash week in and week out? For now unfortunately yes, but it makes baby Jesus cry, and by God if he saw this act of crumbling civilisation now, he'd be spinning on his cross faster than the Wheel of Fortune.

True originality and creativity, which help evolve our brains are being overlooked for reality television. In Ireland, The Rubberbandits are the only true original creativity to be produced in this country since Father Ted. The Roman Empire fell due to the apex of self indulgence, what's more self indulgent than watching ourselves eat, sleep and shit.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty: Oh yeah, torture me!

Kathryn Bigelow has a wide-on for war-time. She portrays the mechanical complexities of modern day warfare better than anyone else, unfortunately so much so that it kind of becomes harder to enjoy. She conveys a very realistic look into the process of capturing Osama Bin Laden and since we all know the outcome, she still possesses the power to make us look on in suspense. However, as tense as Zero Dark Thirty can get, we aren't taken on an un-predictable journey. We know the outcome too well because we just dealt with it last year constantly on the news. It is interesting to see the process they had to go through in order to find him, but thats all we really get. Ben Affleck's Argo, another true political thriller this year, gave us more. The fact that the operation in Argo occurred in 1979 helps because it isn't tattooed in the common consciousness. Also, it is simply more fun and energetic than this movie, we care more for its humanistic characters. 

What we are dealing with in Zero Dark Thirty is dramatised news coverage and it feels like it. And it works well, but isn't it just more fun to be told a story than to be given fact after fact. The force that holds are attention is Jessica Chastain's performance as CIA agent Maya. Her intrigue and dedication to finding Bin Laden strengthens throughout the movie. It begins as a procedural duty for her, but soon becomes a personal vendetta due to losing friends by the hands of terrorists. Like her, we become frustrated with the formalities and slow reaction by the operation's leaders.

The opening of the movie is the torture routine carried out by CIA officer Dan (Jason Clarke). He subjects a prisoner to waterboarding, beatings and humiliation. In the most excruciating torture sequence he places the prisoner in a small box. As horrible as it is, we understand Dan's motive for doing so. What is hard to understand is why he places a dog collar around the prisoner's neck and walks him like a dog. Is it just to de-humanise him? Wouldn't the little box be enough Dan? Does it help objectively or is this a power rush for him? Dan appears to be a nice, normal fellow, which interestingly raises the question; Who wants this job? Can one switch on and off that work mentality just like that? (my thumb just rubbed off my middle finger).

Bigelow has brought this notion of questionable professions up before with her last movie The Hurt Locker (2009). That followed a bomb disposal team on their missions in Iraq, this time round we follow CIA agents interrogating and torturing affiliates of al-Quada. She seems to be attracted and intrigued by these mortal jobs, and appears to argue that the torture can be excused because of the bravery and patriotism of her protagonists. 

Bigelow has proved to be an expert in the war-thriller genre, but from a complex newsworthy perspective. It will be interesting to see what she tackles next. The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty have catapulted Bigelow into one of Hollywood's most respected directors' list. I still feel that these two films are not in the same league as her cult classic Strange Days (1995), but who's gonna listen. 

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Django Unchained, a fairytale of slavery.

In my last post about Sergio Leone, I discussed the theory of his whole oeuvre of work being fairytales, with titles such as Once Upon a Time in the West/America. In Quentin Tarantino's latest film, Django Unchained,  that is exactly what we get; a fairytale. Naturally, this doesn't fall into the good old wholesome Disney fairytale, but nonetheless it does possess all the characteristics and traits of a fairytale, and the characters even allude to the fact that their journey does share resemblance to the old German folklore of Brynhildr. The motive of the hero within that legend and our hero, Django (Jamie Foxx), is to rescue and free his love from the depths of hell, more or less. We have seen it a hundred times before, maybe not in Tarantino's style, but we are stepping on familiar territory here.

Returning back to these fairytale characteristics I spoke of. The opening scene begins in a deep, dark forest "somewhere in Texas", kind of like "in a land far far away" type scenario and already we are dropped into a common staple in the fairytale motif. We are not dropped in there all alone though, by our side is the eccentric Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). In all fairytales, there's an overlooking presence, a guardian angel if you will, that we the audience and our protagonist (Django) can place our complete confidence upon. Schultz is that presence. Tarantino has mentioned before that Samuel L. Jackson and Waltz are the only two that don't just say his dialogue, but sing it and that is exactly what Waltz does here. He is one of today's finest actors, but not in the style of a Daniel Day Lewis or Robert De Niro method acting. Waltz's acting style is more modest and polite. Just like with Col. Hans Landa, King Schultz has a way with words and pronunciation that wash over the audience allowing them to feel that they are in good hands.

However, from a subtextual point of view, who exactly is Dr. King Schultz? That he is a guardian angel from a fairytale perspective is certainly already imposed, but allowing to brush away that notion for a moment, we may propose the theory that Schultz is in fact us, the 21st century audience. We are not all too familiar with slavery besides from the few historical bullet-points. All we really know is that it was bad and not to say the N-Word; end of story. We live in a completely different world far away from the antebellum south of 1858. Schultz is also not from this culture, being German and all. We see the atrocities of slavery through his eyes and it is shocking. Django is used to this treatment and way of life because he was born into it and knows no better. This is a whole new experience and incomprehension for Schultz/audience. 

However, before we reach the heart of slavery in Mississippi, our protagonists Django and Schultz begin their relationship by King releasing Django from the chain-gang and teaching him the ways of a bounty hunter. This answers the question of "who is Schultz?" with a different outcome as we may recognise him as a father figure for Django. He teaches him to read, feeds him, dresses him and gives him his humanity. He admits to Django that he has never given anyone their freedom before and feels responsible for him. Since Tarantino himself had no solid father figure, can we interpret this as a childhood fantasy for the director? At the end of the day these are theories, but when it comes down to the basics it is evidently clear that Schultz is the teacher and Django is the student during that cold winter in the bounty hunting business. 

However, after Django proves himself as a valid and talented gunslinger it is time for the two to travel to Mississippi to rescue Django's wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from the Francophile and infantile, Calvin Candie (Leo Di Caprio). They masquerade as buyers and experts in the vicious sport of mandingo fighting. We soon begin to see Django become the teacher as we delve deeper into the sadistic conditions of slavery. He invites us and Schultz into his world and we are exposed to the brutal realities of the slave trade. I suppose this is where I should discuss controversy surrounding the violence and language of the film. In my view the display of violence is completely sensationalised by the media and this isn't to say that is easy to watch, but there has been a lot worse. I admit that the idea is placed in our minds during dreaded scenes such as the mandingo fighting and the dog attack, but Tarantino sets it up, we finish it in our heads. There is the cathartic shoot out scenes, which are drenched in blood, however, I believe this to be aesthetically wonderful. If this is what critics are wailing about then they aren't watching enough movies. At the end of the day people in the audience are going to have different thresholds when it comes to viewing violence, but when you are dealing with a Tarantino flick and slavery I think its pretty safe to assume that this ain't no fucking High School Musical (2006).

 Slavery is the unabashedly central theme that will have audiences debating. The discussion of controversy was desensitised best by the director himself, claiming that this movie is just the flavour or talk of the month and that something new will come along that everybody will deem reprehensible.
I don't see Tarantino's ambition to portray American slavery as taboo, what he did that was audacious was to portray the hierarchy amongst black males e.g. the Uncle Tom, the slaver, the field nigger. We can see hierarchy like this reflected within the black community in America today and that was a ballsy decision on his part, but he seemed to make it work. The word "nigger" is thrown around constantly throughout the film and people have spoke out about it. Spike Lee, who I see as a talented director gave his two cents for what it's worth, claiming that this movie is disrespectful to his ancestors (without actually seeing it mind you). This is coming from a man, who a few years back called Sam Jackson a "house nigger" and confesses that he uses the word himself? Give me a four fingered Kit-Kat now. You want the tension of racism to continue within America, then go to a Knicks game with Lee and bash whites, Jews and Clint Eastwood.

Anyway, I digress. Back to the nice fairytale. So if Schultz in essence is us, the modern day audience, who or what does Django represent? Reminiscing to the idea of fairytale and folklore, surely Django is portrayed as this mythological superhero for black people during that period. This superhero idea came to me when Schultz and Django are in search for the Brittle Brothers at Big Daddy's (Don Johnson) plantation in Tennessee. After an emotional flashback of Broomhilda taking a whipping from the brothers, Django confronts them in this masterfully cathartic scene of revenge and retribution. While he shoots and whips the brothers, the slave onlookers gaze in awe, kids mouths drop as if they are watching Superman. We can picture the story been told throughout the south by slaves like a game of Chinese Whispers, giving them a sense of hope. In the reality of the story though, Django is only a man that would go to hell and back for his wife, but simplicities have always influenced greater causes. Rosa Parks wasn't trying to change things in any social manner, she just wanted to sit at the front of the bus and her persistence led to the Civil Rights Movement.

As the mission continues through Mississippi towards Candyland, we enter the gates of hell where Broomhilda is trapped. Her owner is Calvin Candie, an ignorant bourgeois, who clings onto his theories of phrenology in order to justify slavery. This is the first time in a very long time that Di Caprio hasn't played a leading man, he is in the mode of character actor here and his first time playing an antagonist too. Sam Jackson plays his accomplice as the O.G. of Uncle Toms, Stephen. Stephen is much smarter than Candie, older and wiser, but just as malicious. Possibly even more so as he betrays his own people and considers himself to be white. From the moment Django first sets foot on Candyland, Stephen sees him as a threat, jealousy arises and he lies in wait for just one slip up. Rest assured there is when he notices eye contact between Django and Broomhilda. After a terrifying ordeal after a dinner, our heros and Broomhilda are free to leave, due to a purchase of $12,000 for Django's wife. 

It would appear they are free, but images of a slave being ripped apart by dogs haunt Schultz as the transaction is underway. He cannot comprehend this heinous culture and realises that by purchasing Broomhilda he is partaking. As Beethoven wafts over the room he is sickened by the entire event and must leave the room. Soon after he humiliates Candie by bringing it to his attention that the author Alexandre Duma, who Candie admires, is in fact from African descent. Candie returns the embarrassment by attempting to get Schultz to shake his hand to close Broomhilda's deal. To our satisfaction Schultz doesn't oblige. Thus, resulting in one of the bloodiest shoot outs in cinema history. Although we recognise Django as the hero within the boundaries of the spaghetti western and black folklore, Dr. King Schultz is the real hero in terms of fighting slavery by not giving into Calvin Candie.

Django Unchained is not flawless by any means, it's predecessor Inglorious Basterds (2009) stretched much closer to that feat with its three dimensional characters, moments of genuine suspense and it's solid, yet complex plot. Note the climax duel between Django and Stephen within this movie. Now we understand that Stephen is no real threat at this stage, but I thought the dialogue could have stretched out longer and been more potent. Django's most obvious loss are the hands of the late editor Sally Menke, who was Tarantino's greatest collaborator. It is only after her unfortunate passing that we can come to terms with how good she really was and clearly how essential she was to QT's process. Also, it was a mistake for Tarantino to put himself in the movie. He is a character himself in real life so during a scene of genuine hopelessness we do not want to see his mug in the shot as it removes the sense of impending doom.
All that been said, this is great entertainment that sets out exactly what it was aiming for. It's a genuine spaghetti western, from the high speed, zooming close-ups to the blood splatter to the beautiful photography of landscape done by Robert Richardson. Since his debut Quentin Tarantino's work has evolved, but from the same heart of Resevoir Dogs (1992). A true American storyteller, who juggles both the mainstream Hollywood system and the independent circle in his hands with perfect balance. If he is not the greatest living director, he is the luckiest. He has lived his life in celluloid, discussing cinema for kicks rather than profit, taking the past and remixing it to produce his own future.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Great Directors: Sergio Leone

The godfather of the spaghetti western is not only a treasure to Italian cinema, but iconic in world cinema. The old west of Hollywood was turned on its head in the mid 1960s when Leone found the new face of the west. Clint Eastwood became the new John Wayne. He was more mysterious and even spoke less than the Duke, however, it wasn't only the new face that changed the west, it was Leone's entire universe. It was the vast landscape of the southwest and Mexico (actually shot in southern Spain), the ultra-violence, anti-heroism and surrealism that transformed the west, enhanced by Leone's technical skill and style as a filmmaker i.e. extreme long-shots, extreme close-ups.

All these aspects gave birth to a more ruthless, dramatised and operatic west. Leone followed the lives of bandits and bounty hunters rather than the sheriff and townspeople. The wholesomeness of 1950s westerns, reflected by American society was threatened and ambushed by the Italians. Leone's nihilistic expression occupied the American silver screen before Sam Pekinpah's Wild Bunch (1969) and the new wave of Hollywood that reflected the United States occupation in Vietnam.

Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Franco Nero were the anti-hero, outsiders before Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Midnight Cowboy (1969) and The Godfather (1972). Leone's villains killed without hesitation or feeling, they were immoral compared to past western antagonists. They would steal, murder, bribe, torture and rape in this unforgiving west.

For all its depravity, Leone somehow made it all very poetic and this boils down to his style and vision. He made the west his canvas to paint with breathtaking landscapes, weathered faces with character and blood. An intrinsic factor that helped make Leone's films so epic and fuelled with tension was the music, composed by Ennio Morricone. This partnership was even more essential than Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Hermann. Frankly, Leone's work wouldn't be discussed today without the input of Morricone, it was that important. It's arguably the greatest collaboration in cinema history and without a doubt Morricone is the greatest film composer of all time. When this music fused with these rich scenes tension arose to the point of ecstasy. This improved with each try in the Dollars trilogy from A Fistful of Dollars (1964) to the opus of the Mexican standoff in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966).

After the chauvinistic ambiance of the Dollars Trilogy, Leone conveyed the west to the audience through the eyes of a woman. His new face of the west was Claudia Cardinale, a much prettier face than Clint's. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) is Leone's most poignant portrayal of the west. He also got to work with one of his idols, Henry Fonda. He transformed America's white knight and blue eyed angel into his most despicable western villain. Something I would to see a contemporary filmmaker to do with Tom Hanks.

Once again Morricone's score compliments Leone's images, especially with Claudia Cardinale's theme, encouraging audiences to empathise with her. In my opinion she is the most beautiful and empathetic woman ever within the history of the genre. 

Leone also took his directing style to the next level on this picture. It is so directed, if that makes any sense. It runs so smooth and flawlessly, should be taught in film school for any upcoming directors. The  extreme long-shots and close-ups are unparalleled here. You can see the thickness of make-up on Charles Bronson's face for God's sake and such depth he shoots close ups of minor character's face's, so  much detail you could memorise the lines and wrinkles of these weathered men. 

After tackling the west and reinventing it with his operatic sensibilities, Leone began preparing for his most ambitious project yet, Once Upon a Time in America (1984). This film is one of cinemas biggest tragedies in terms of it's U.S. release. The original 227 minute version was seen by the rest of the world and considered a masterpiece by most. It is a luxurious, operatic, gangster tale. There is no doubt that you must be prepared to sit and concentrate for nearly four hours, but Leone makes it easy. The American studios obviously didn't have the patience that most of us adults possess and were distracted easliy. In a condescending manner, they assumed audiences weren't capable of concentrating for that amount of time or couldn't follow non-linear storytelling. So in order to make what they understood a non-sequiter narrative, they edited and chopped it down 90 minutes into what can only be described as the world's longest trailer ever. Portraying non-sensical clips in a linear fashion, which places characters in places we've never seen and scenes containing characters we've never been introduced to. It was a complete disgrace to the film, Sergio Leone and to their profession.

However, back to the original Once Upon a Time in America (1984), an unflinching epic tale of childhood poverty, rise through crime, friendship, betrayal and violence that spans over a period of fifty years in New York. What Sergio Leone did in essentially was migrate the wild west to the lower east side of Manhattan, a new landscape for bandits to roam and raise hell. This time round we are placed into the crime underworld on New York alongside Jewish ghetto youths. 

Leone goes into more depth with these characters than he has done previously. These are possibly the most ruthless and immoral gangsters ever depicted in cinema, but he delves into their childhood and we see how they saw the world living in poverty. They steal, rape, murder without any real moral consciousness. We don't necessarily empathise with them, but by witnessing their living conditions we understand their motives. In an incredibly touching scene we see one of the child gang members, Patsy, ready to exchange a cupcake for sex with the neighbourhood whore. While he awaits outside her apartment his hunger gets the better of him and he eats the cake. It's sad because he is poor and starving, but also relieving for the audience because he is just a kid and by choosing candy over sex, we acknowledge that. It gives us hope that there is some innocence left among these children.

Sex is a recurring theme in this movie and we see it through the distorted and unhealthy viewpoint of the gangsters. Robert De Niro's character is the most depraved and desperate out of all of them. He possesses an unhealthy appetite for sex, committing two acts of rape during the movie, we guess there's probably more. One occurs during a robbery and the victim actually enjoys it. The second is more disturbing as it is with the girl he loves, Deborah. He takes her out for a romantic dinner, they lie on the beach, talk until dawn and he figures since he has done all this, he deserves to have sex with her. The scene is long and difficult to watch as he awkwardly ravages her. Then we remember that this man is our protagonist. 

I contend that Leone doesn't intend for audiences to identify with a protagonist or antagonist, but is simply displaying a tale that occurs over a lifetime. There is no sugar-coating or white washing the brutality or true nature of these men, it is a document of their behaviour. This certainly stands as Leone's most complex movie due to it's characters and also it's storytelling. We begin in the 1930s, fast forward to 1967, rewind to 1920, back to 1967 where from here we learn the remainder of the story through flashbacks. Oh yeah, Back to the Future was released a year later in 1985. By the end we don't know whether it all really happened. Was it a nightmare or a hallucination from an opium high?

I'd feel comfortable in knowing it was a dream, because De Niro's character goes through the most nightmarish predicament since James Stewart in Vertigo (1958). De Niro living through thirty five years of guilt believing his betrayal killed his friends only to discover that he was the one who was betrayed. I'd also like to point out the movie's title "Once Upon a Time...." the staple phrase in folklore or fairytales. Leone's films have always lived in a surrealist hyperreality of excess and violence, proposing the notion that possibly his entire oeuvre is a dreamlike fairytale. 

Friday, January 4, 2013

20 Best Albums of 2012

20) Rustie: Essential Mix

  • Rustie really came to the surface this year allowing his music to cross boundaries from dubstep to grime to hip-hop. Others have done it before him, but none sound this alive. Can't wait to hear his collaboration with Danny Brown in 2013.

19) Chromatics: Kill for Love

  • Kill for Love is irregularly long for this kind of album, it is drawn out like a disco full of nerds sitting in the corner. Actually it's the perfect soundtrack for that.

18) Big K.R.I.T.: 4Eva N a Day

  • K.R.I.T. is a very isolated rapper, rarely has features and his subject matter is never extravagant. The track Red Eye depicts the strain his career has on his relationship with his girlfriend. "I can't be what you want me to be/you shooting too high cuz you ain't aiming at me" he argues before unabashedly promising "but if you willing to try, then I'm willing to leap/outta the window of pain and fall in love with your feet". Insomnia has K.R.I.T. lying awake in bed, unable to sleep because of sexual desires for a girl claiming "you help me sleep". Then there is the epic closer The Alarm, reminding black males not to fall into the trap of materialism (seems to be his biggest theme). This isn't a perfect mixtape, but those three songs are definite highlights. Not a party record, my personal and should be listened to by yourself, preferably before bed.

17) Rick Ross: Rich Forever

  • Trust Rick Rozay to make a mixtape that sounds like a million bucks, completely obliterating the chaos and raw sound that constitutes a tattered mixtape. Luxurious and powerful production with features by Diddy for crying out loud. It's his best yet and it's not even an actual album. Rick Ross gets a lot of criticism and I admit that some aspects I would join the bandwagon, however even though he raps about a completely false lifestyle and the topic is a constant hyperreality obsession with drugs and money, he has the flow and production team to back it up.

16) Beach House: Bloom

15) Jessie Ware: Devotion

  • This is a smooth and soulful pop record, down-tempo and does exactly what it says on the tin. No wild gimmicks, its this type of record in the traditional sense. Jessie Ware has the album the way she has seemed to have wanted with no tampering of image manipulation.

14) Purity Ring: Shrines

  • This album just has undeniable, thriving energy with belching beats that can't help but put a smile on your face.

13) Schoolboy Q: Habits and Contradictions

  • I love the samples on this album, especially for There He Go!, which takes Menomena's Wet and Rusting, which reminded me that I even had that album. Schoolboy Q is part of Kendrick Lamar's crew, but certainly doesn't look like a fucking "black hippie" There is a harrowing line on Sacrilegious, an album opener if there ever was one. In response for cleansing himself of his sins he claims "but I done did some things I don't think I could ever wash away". Jesus!

12) Cloud Nothings: Attack on Memory

  • It's nice to hear an indie band not acting like a bunch of fucking puss-cake hippies, it gets tiresome and gay. Cloud Nothings screamed their lungs off, but in a coherent and accessible manner. They weren't French crooning their way through it, they dropped their balls and went all out. Nirvana would be proud.

11) Miguel: Kaleidoscope Dream

  • This fella right here must eat pussy and I commend him on it. Fair fucks to him for writing this material in 2012 and have men and women tapping their feet to it Where Frank Ocean offers more complex songwriting, Miguel keeps it basic, even though they do share the same vulnerable attributes. Realistically most RnB males these days are vulnerable except The-Dream or The Weeknd. Miguel pulls it off though because his songs aren't the recyclable hits that vomit themselves on dancefloors every month. Adorn is a giddy love hit that could be loved now or 1963. Candles in the Sun is a "we are the world" type song that is genuine and moving. Pussy is Mine is an example of vulnerability among men, who need a girl just so they can stand out. 

10) Grimes: Visions

9) EL-P: Cancer for Cure

  • EL-P still holds that futuristic sounding production, obviously still obsessed with Blade Runner. However this is probably his most easy listening album yet. You listening to this type of record when you are walking down the street and hate everything and everyone around you. It is cathartic for your bad moods. The aggressive ambiance matches his fascination with the toughness of New York. Also the track Hail No contains the best rap line of 2012 courtesy of Danny Brown: "I'm Rick Flair/with thick hair/yelling out wooohh, getting head in the director's chair".

8) Kendrick Lamar: good kid, m.A.A.d city

  • It was Kendrick Lamar's year, from a mainstream perspective anyway. He released this concept album, which is a very good one indeed. However, some have compared it to Illmatic...that's just blasphemy. Even if with time, this becomes a classic, people were comparing the two straight away. Kendrick is obviously very talented and has is own style, but his lyrical technique is just not in Nas' league. Standouts include Backseat Freestyle, m.A.A.d city, Swimming Pools and Sing About Me, I'm Dying from Thirst. After my first listen to this album one thing came to mind...Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets (1973). Kendrick reminded me so much of the main character Charile, played by Harvey Keitel. This young man, who is living among killers, thieves, the gangster lifestyle and he is torn between God, religion and the contradictory street life. That was the main aspect I took from this album.

7) Burial: Kindred EP

  • Burial a.k.a. William Bevan is quite a shy fellow, only unhooded in 2008 because of pressure from the press after been nominated for the Mercury Prize. His music certainly reflects loneliness and isolation. The only traces of human activity are sampled singing voices that sound like ghosts haunting the track. It's a soundtrack to the night in the city, but when everyone is long gone and your only friends are the streetlights.

6) Action Bronson: Blue Chips

  • This mixtape is a complete mess, chaos reigns when Action Bronson decided leave his kitchen in Flushing, Queens to take a trip to producer Party Supplies in Williamsbourg, Brooklyn. Bronson makes a dozen slip ups during his verses, but continues anyway, and Party Supplies samples are bizarre, you can even hear him turn the volume up and down on the Mac while recording. All these drastic mistakes are what make Blue Chips so charming, its like a behind the scenes album. Most interesting album of the year.

5) Nas: Life is Good

  • I was privileged to have been living in New York when Nas released this, walking around the boroughs, taking subways, sipping cappucinos in Little Italy. I remember downloading it on my day off and just began walking. Perfect soundtrack for it. Nas has had hit and misses since the landmark Illmatic in 1994, but he always been on point with his rhyming technique. Former enemy Jay Z became bigger than God since their feud, however Nas has matured in subject matter, whereas Jay Z really is talking about the same stuff. Nas and MC's like Raekwon and Ghostface seem proud of their veteran status and age. Jay Z is trying to act in his twenties and sometimes, not always, but sometimes it is extremely embarrassing. Like his verse on 2010's Monster. On Life is Good Nas talks about personal issues such as his daughter reaching those curious teenage years and his divorce with Kelis. Then he proves how relevant he is as a great storyteller and lyricist on tracks such as Loco-Motive, Nasty, The Black Bond. Also, uses former classic producers such as Large Professor for luscious tracks such as Stay. It is a cinematic album that is appropriate material for an MC his age. Jigga take note.

4) Japandroids: Celebration Rock

  • The title really says it all. Celebration Rock is a power-house of a rock record that sound like it's fighting for its life, they are willing to die for this. Their video for The House That Heaven Built exhibits this the best.

3) Killer Mike: R.A.P. Music

  • Killer Mike has probably been Hip-Hop's most political MC since Eminem at the dawn of the millenium. I still think his That's Life in 2006 is his best attack on...well everybody. Teaming up with EL-P for production was so right. One producer for an entire album, if they click, can become a classic e.g. Dr. Dre & Eminem, RZA & GZA/Raekwon, Pharrell and Clipse. And these two clicked, fused and exploded. EL-P's futuristic, trunk rattling beats and Mike's booming voice create a nihilistic, political, southern classic. Killer Mike is conspiracy paranoid, but his conviction makes you adhere to his beliefs. Reagan is an outstanding blast at not only the Reagan Era, but also his generation for thinking money will give them equal status in American society. For Mike, rap is his religion and the way he raps on this thing you can see he means business.

2) John Talabot: fIN

  • John Talabot from Barcelona, similar to Burial, traps vocals within his instrumentals. However, these tracks sound more upbeat, exotic and world travelled. Depends on your mood, but Talabot's taste is more expansive. This can be listened to in a club, or in a more personal setting. Whereas Burial, the fuck, forces you to listen to his music just on earphones, preferably in the dark while you sob. fIN is also one of the most easiest listening house albums ever.

1) Frank Ocean: Channel Orange

  • Being homosexual sells apparently. Now I don't know if Ocean is actually all about the cock or not, but regardless Channel Orange is going to be seen as an RnB classic. However, I would find it extremely cunning if Ocean and his PR team decided to pull off this gay angle, fair deuce to them if something along those lines occurred because that was a major factor in this album's commercial success. None of it would take away the fact that this is a great album, but I would be impressed from a business standpoint. With this album, you have so much variety ranging from neo-soul and electro-funk to psychedelic and is heavily influenced by Stevie Wonder. Ocean's subject matter is complex and takes some hard listening such as the epic sprawl of Pyramids. He explores the heartbreak and confusion of unrequited love (yeah...with a guy), luxury and drug abuse, but also has great triumphant tracks such as Lost and Monks. It really is a universal record that challenges RnB even while its transcending now more than it has in years.