Wednesday, 30 January 2013
HBO are pretty good at war-themed miniseries. With something as good as Band of Brothers on your CV, anything to do with war you produce will instantly get my attention. Seriously, if you take anything away from this pointless wall of words, it shouldn;t be whether to watch Generation Kill or not but that you need to go and watch Band of Brothers right now. It's honestly the best thing I've ever seen produced for TV. It's essentially Saving Private Ryan but ten hours long and with the benefit of an even more experienced Steven Spielberg at the helm.
Putting BoB aside, which is something nobody should do, like ever, we'll move onto the main feature. Generation Kill is a seven part miniseries produced about the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003, following the Marine Corps' 1st Recon Battalion (and their embedded reporter from Rolling Stone magazine). The series is based on the book of the same name, written by the aforementioned reporter Evan Wright. If anything though, the series isn't about him and instead focusses on the men he accompanied. The main characters are the guys whose vehicle he's assigned to, and one or two of their superiors. "Reporter" or "Rolling Stone" as he's called (I don't think you ever hear his actual name after episode one) is pretty much just a minor character who turns up every now and then to ask questions about things that the audience might need explaining.
It's the character of the marines where GK takes a much different approach than BoB. In BoB, there are soldiers who are bad at their jobs; they're incompetent or distracted or buckle under pressure, but it's shown to be not their fault and played almost for sympathy. In Generation Kill, those who are incompetent become the hate figures. Everybody fucks up once or twice. It's war, it happens. But when superior officers are repeatedly panicking and endangering not only their soldiers but innocent civilians then real animosity flares up between audience and character as well as between the onscreen personas.
That's the kicker of the whole series really. The "hajjis" or whatever racist term the soldiers want to call enemy combatants that episode aren't the people who come off worst, it's the US military. Constant mess ups that lead to, at best, animosity between the invading troops and locals or at worst mass graves full of those locals gradually sap away the enthusiasm about the war from most of the soldiers, whether they'll admit it or not. The invisible spectre of "war crimes" hovers over the battalion like a badly camouflaged elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about.
Kind of like Zero Dark Thirty, Generation Kill is largely understated. There isn't a grand battle sequence every episode and I'm fairly certain that the number of bodies at the end without guns in their hands significantly outnumber those that did. The frustration at some of the soldiers at not getting the highlights reel of action they were promised in training echoes the sentiments expressed by soldiers from the previous Gulf War portrayed in Jarhead. The frustration mixed in with the revelation that the people they kill often aren't dangerous, added to by their superiors lack of compassion for the fallen, makes for a fractured and realistic vision of the strange effects war can have on the psyche of those not prepared for it.
The Iraq war was different from a lot of the USA's previous military operations and Generation Kill paints a nuanced and grounded portrayal of the effects that an unconventional conflict can have on a bunch of men trained to kill but not to deal with the realities of it.
But seriously, go watch Band of Brothers. Right now. Then maybe check out Generation Kill afterwards.
Monday, 28 January 2013
The week continues with CIA Glorification Motion Picture Feature #2 (the first being ZDT, kinda) aka Argo. That's unfair really, I just liked the idea of the Oscars being some CIA propaganda machine.
As the poster above so helpfully mentions, Argo is Ben Affleck's directorial follow up to The Town, which is one of my favourite crime movies of recent years. I don't know what happened to Ben Affleck after Good Will Hunting (which he co-wrote) but apart from Dogma in '99 he was pretty much in shit films at worst and mediocre ones at best. Then someone had the bright idea of putting him behind the camera and, what do you know? He's great at it. Whoever told Affleck to go into acting rather than directing back in the mid nineties needs some sort of time-travel delivered slap in the face.
Argo is a spy thriller set during the Iranian revolution of 79-81. Iran's ruling Shah has been other-thrown and the US has taken him in. Naturally, this got on the nerves of the revolutionary Iranians and they storm the US embassy in Tehran taking everyone inside hostage. Unbeknownst to the hostage takers though, six staff escaped and managed to find sanctuary with the Canadian ambassador. To get them out, Ben Affleck's CIA character (he still insists on being in his films, ugh) hatches a plan revolving around a fake sci-fi movie all ready to shoot in Iran. He flies in, picks them up, pretends they're part of his space-opera-making team, flies out again. Simple. As describe by one character it is the "best bad idea we have. By far".
So it's a film about making a film only it's not. It sounds complicated and like it could be some meta-satire of the film making industry but it's not. It's a very straightforward, well crafted thriller full of appropriate tension. I can't put it down to Affleck having to stick to historical accuracy or if it's his deft hand learning when to ease off the gas, but the temptation to go all out with action sequences is resisted. There aren't any massive gun battles and most of the violence is psychological. Of the actual violence that you do see, it's all justified. Much like ZDT, Argo is quite a balanced take on a conflict. The opening titles give a fair assessment of why the Iranian people are justifiably angry. It would have been easy to make out them to just be scary foreigners, especially considering the modern US's stance on Iran. Adding to that, one of the people who protects the group would have been the one who fell into the category of untrustworthy native in an Argo made by a lot of people other than Affleck.
There are a couple of plot points that are signposted a little too heavy handedly (you will absolutely know in advance who causes one of the fuck-ups in the escape) and there is the trademark irrelevant subplot. In The Town it was the romance with the bank clerk, without whom the film wouldn't lose anything, and in Argo its Ben Affleck's home life. It's got no relevance to the plot or any of the character's development really, but it's not so prominent that it takes anything away from the rest of the film at all.
I haven't yet seen Afflecks directorial début in Gone Baby Gone, but with Argo, The Town and Good Will Hunting it's clear that he was born to be behind the camera. Argo's probably the best so far and hopefully a sign that things will only get better for this actor-come-director.
Sunday, 27 January 2013
The movie of the book deemed "unfilmable" by many. Life of Pi tells the story of a young man, Pi, who becomes lost at sea after a shipwreck involving a shipment of zoo animals. His only companion, a ferocious Bengal tiger. It's a story about determination and finding both yourself and God.
In one sense it's a film that deals a lot with religion, but in a nuanced and sweeping touch. It's not about Christianity, or Islam or Hinduism. It's about a man's personal connection with his own version of a higher power. Pi and his less than friendly companion go through a lot and without each other or a connection to something bigger, they would most likely not come through it as one.
Life of Pi is very much a film you feel as well as watch, so it's hard to describe in exact terms. Even if you don't buy into the message of the film though, it is objective to say that the film is visually breathtaking. It's remarkable what director Ang Lee can manage to do with a small boat, a vast ocean and a smattering of wildlife. It takes him literally only those three things and he creates the most beautiful looking film I've seen probably since Enter the Void. Some of the shots of what pi encounters at night, and the shots of the sinking ship, will most definitely stick with me for a long time.
Saturday, 26 January 2013
I still maintain that one of the places you can find true beauty is in that of honest sadness. I'm not talking "boo hoo I did shit on an exam" or "I can't afford all the things I want", I mean proper, balls-to-the-wall, unapologetic despair. Fortunately, as you'd probably guess from the title, Les Misérables has got me covered on my despair quota for this month.
To get this bit out of the way: yes, it's a musical. And yes, I espouse my hate for musicals at more opportunities than it is welcome. But this, this is different. For one, a major factor in why I hate musicals is because the singing always feels so soulless and detached from the rest of the film but this isn't an issue here. Taking the gutsy move to have all performances done live on set (most musicals have the tracks recorded in studios months before the actors even meet on set) director Tom Hooper grants the songs the emotional impact they deserve. Trusting actors to perform, well, while they're performing allows for a whole new dimension of freedom on set; they don;t just have to stick with the track they laid down months ago. Secondly, pretty much the entire film is done "in song". Taking that move eliminates the weird jarring sensation that annoys me so much when people go from spoken dialogue to singing in most musicals. If you're gonna sing, go total immersion and don't let up. It's so much better for it, and the lines that are simply spoken carry so much extra weight.
The standard of the singing is immense and a testament to this method of film-making. There's been a lot of buzz around Anne Hathaway's rendition of Fantine's 'I Dreamed a Dream', and it's completely deserved. Her angry and melancholic version encapsulates the film in a nutshell and will the defining moment of the production for a long time to come. Hathaway's passionate and emotionally driven performance blows out of the water whatever technical showboating rendition that mad Scottish woman could come out with.
Hathaway stands out, but that's no slight on the rest of the cast. Everyone involved, including the fantastic Hugh Jackman and Russel Crowe as Jean val Jean and Inspector Jalvert respectively, knocks it out of the park. Another standout moment that's received notably less press but really stuck with me was Samantha Barks' version of Éponine's 'On My Own'. Fuckin' brilliant.
You really do the gauntlet of sadness with this film. Off the top of my head you've got: throwing away your life to save your families', the shame of becoming a vagrant thief, shame of selling yourself out jsut to support your family, being dehumanised into a piece of meat, physical mutilation*, unrequited love, guilt over not owning up to your own mistakes even if it's to protect others, fear of discovery, discovering that the work you've devoted your life to was an amoral cause, misguided youth being snuffed out amid a just crusade and countless others. So yeah, pretty sad, but beautifully so.
I can't recommend it enough. Even if you're a miserable bastard like myself who thinks they hate musicals, it'll get ya. I find it hard to believe there's been an eye that paid attention through the whole thing that stayed dry.
*I'll always give massive respect to anyone whose willing to physically change their body a great deal for a role especially if it's actually on screen. Hathaway cutting her hair off is to be commended just as much as Natalie Portman having her hair completely shaved in V For Vendetta, a scene I hold up to justify my choice of favourite actress.
Friday, 25 January 2013
Okay, so after watching Django I've decided I'm getting award season fever so I'm gonna blast through as many Best Picture nominations as I can (it's a travesty that Django wasn't in there) just so I can be properly outraged when something shit wins as it always does at the Oscars.
Anyway... Zero Dark Thirty (and its fantastic poster, above). A film about the hunt for and capture of Osama bin Laden could have gone two ways. It could have gone the "bang bang shoot our way through Afghanistan until we realise we should be looking in Pakistan then blast our way through there too" or it could have gone the way it did and be more of a Law and Order style police procedural with the "police" being the CIA. It's all the better for it really, especially considering an "Ooh-rah let's shoot us some terrists"flick would have been exactly the propaganda I was glad ZDT never really became.
With much more focus on drama and procedure, ZDT isn't the action film that you might think you're getting from the first trailer (not to mention the fact that you only see half of Jessica Chastain's face and the back of her head for a second in it, but sexism in marketing films is another discussion for another day)*. There is, obviously, a quite action packed set piece towards the end (you can probably guess what that involves if you've watched a news programme in the past two years) but it's not indicative of the rest of the film. The majority of screentime centres around Jessica Chastain's Maya and her obsessive ten year journey to be the one who is responsible for finding public enemy number one. Spanning ten years and two continents means that there isn't really much room for any of the rest of the cast to make much of an impression. This is pretty much the Jessica Chastain Show, and she runs it well. As you would hope, you get quite a lot of character development over a decade. Maya runs through a multitude of grey areas morally and emotionally through her career and they take their toll. From the tentative and wary person she is in her first "enhanced" interrogation to the very Carrie-from-Homeland type character she becomes. The mission consumes her and becomes her entire life, delivering a very poignant scene at the very end of the film.
The events at the beginning of the movie that mold her into a harder person have been pretty controversial themselves. Featuring depictions of detainees being waterboardied, put into stress positions, locked in boxes and beaten, the film's stance regarding torture has been varied. Some interpret it as a condemnation of the CIA and wider US Govt. treatment of detainees, and other see it as a message saying that torture is a necessary evil. I was very fearful of being fed some bullshit propaganda message about how the treatment was justified but I don't think I got that. the impression I took from it was that this was simply what happened, and we're left to make our own judgement about it. One criticism I'd level on that note though is how much of a point is made of the Obama administration's clamp down on torture/enhanced interrogation. The CIA staff make it sound as if his office actually made it all stop completely and immediately, when it's pretty clear that did not and has not happened.
I'm very glad that Kathryn Bigelow (director) didn't gloss over the details of the final raid on the compound to paint SEAL Team 6 as unfaultable American heroes**. The raid does mess up where it did in real life, there are casualties that could have been avoided and certain practices (e.g. shooting stationary bodies "just to make sure") that aren't exactly considered respectful happen but overall it seems like a fair and accurate representation. Something I might take issue with is that it's never said out loud that the raid isn't exactly legal for the US to be carrying out on Pakistani soil. It's alluded to, but never spoken in such words. That could've been made clearer.
*Seriously, don't take any of the adverts or trailers you'll see for this as representative of the film you'll get. They either ignore the main character completely or make it look like Black Hawk Down 2.
*Well, I mean I have nothing but respect for the soldiers themselves, they were just doing their jobs. I mean with regards to the mission and the nature of how it was orchestrated.
** I know, I know. I'm a prat.
Thursday, 24 January 2013
Tarantino's been banging on in the film press these past few months about how he thinks directors only get worse once they're "old". Well, consider yourself very much still middle aged Mr Quentin because Django Unchained is not to be missed.
His last film, Inglorious Basterds was often called a spaghetti western in every way but location and time. Having enjoyed that he's obviously taken that interest in spaghetti westerns a little further and given us Django, although of course it couldn't be that straightforward and we get was the director himself has dubbed a "southern". It's an important distinction though. With slavery at the heart of the film it had to be in the south and it had to be pre civil war, so it's markedly different from a lot of the classic westerns in that respect.
Don't get me wrong though, this is a film about slavery but it's not your standard middle-class white guilt fare like Dances with Wolves or something. This shit is Tarantino through and through, and that means it's about expressions of power rather than expressions of regret. Django is very much a revenge fantasy made manifest with everything that entails. Django (Jamie Foxx) is a slave who's been recruited and freed by a German bounty hunter, Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), who's offered his freedom in return for his help hunting down some particular targets. Upon hearing of Django's forced separation from his wife, Schultz offers his help in tracking her down and rescuing her. That means rescuing from her newest master, the notoriously sadistic Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
It's these three that make the film. Foxx is perfect as the freed slave going from a defeated man who'd had the only good thing in his life stripped from him to an unstoppable force of nature. The man exudes confidence and power; when Django kicks a door open, you know shit's about to go down. Similarly, Waltz delivers yet again for Tarantino. Following his ridiculously good performance as Col. Hans Landa in Inglorious, he's much the same in that Schultz is a smooth wordsmith and charismatic talker, only this time he's not a sadistic nazi but one of the good guys. This time you won't feel a little uncomfortable for really liking him. As for DiCaprio, this is just another nail in the coffin that was my stupid opinion of him. Thanks to films like The Beach and Romeo + Juliet I was sure he was a poor actor, then I saw Catch Me if You Can and figured he got lucky, then I saw Inception, then I saw The Departed and now I've seen Django Unchained and now I think he's one of the best on the scene these days. One particular scene in Django is one for the portfolio, where in an energetic rant the actor actually slashed his hand open by accident but just went with it because it fit the scene perfectly. the guy literally mutilated himself on the job and incorporated it into the scene. The man is fantastic.
That trio does make the film the great piece of work it is, but they don't do it alone. It's by far Tarantino's most mature film yet, but not at the expense of his personal style. Most Tarantino films to date have been flashy, visually and musically exciting films with a bit of a pulpy core in terms of emotion. The trademark flash and shock are still there. Hell, there's so much of the signature bright scarlet blood that one gun fight ends with the walls almost entirely painted with the entrails of the unlucky whiteboys who encountered Django. The humour that goes off on tangents hasn't gone anywhere either. Not to spoil it too much but there's a near enough ten minute sequence devoted to pointing out just how much the local KKK chapter might as well have walked off the Blazing Saddles set. But the devotion and determination of Django to get his wife back runs deeper than most emotional threads in Tarantino films. You could argue about Kill Bill's revenge idea, but you'd be wrong, that's just more of the pulpy flash again.
And that's not even mentioning the amount of hatred and disgust that should rightfully be generated in anyone's heart for Samuel L Jackson's Steven.
A great cast and exciting script lend itself perfectly to Taratino's vision of a
Saturday, 19 January 2013
Very French. Rust and Bone sells itself as "a love story that begins when two worlds fall apart" in its trailer. I wouldn't say it's necessarily spot on, but it's pretty much what you get. One world falls apart, and another simply goes along the steady yet self-destructive path it has been on for quite a while.
To sell the plot would require spoilers, so I'll keep it very vague. Matthias Schoenaerts' Ali arrives with no job, no money and nothing to do except stay with his sister some time after splitting with the mother of his son, whom he has in tow. While struggling to get back on his feet and struggling to deal with having his young son's care entrusted to only him, he meets Marion Cotillard's Stéphanie and the two go on a journey of loss, recovery and anger. The film feels very French in that it touches on the elements left behind after the French New Wave movement in cinema. The plot doesn't follow hollywood conventions so much as some things just happen. It's more of a slice of life from these people rather than a nice neat story all tied up with a bow. The conclusion ends up a little too neat for the after the preceding hour and fifty minutes, but how we get there is more important than the destination.
Schoenaerts gives a fantastic performance as the seemingly oblivious Ali, a man who pretends not to notice a lot of things he does wrong in an effort to justify them. His bouts of violence throughout the film and his reactions to them betray his façade and reveal a man who who revels in his masculinity but suffers from a lot of insecurities he's unwilling to voice.
But it's Cotillard who steals the show. After a string of successful Hollywood roles, Rust and Bone marked her return to her native French cinema. She has a way of expressing complex and deep seated emotion through the most minute movements in her face and body language. Without going into spoiler territory, her performance as the troubled Stéphanie who is plagued with loss is remarkable. With moments of pure despair counterbalanced with those of elation she's a force to be reckoned with. It's refreshing to see her perform with such skill after most recently seeing her in The Dark Knight Rises, which while a great film wasn't great because of the performances and her stint as Miranda was nothing special.
Often sold as a "realistic" time travel movie, Primer is a film that asks what would happen if some time travel was discovered not by some mad scientists or by a spaceship travelling through some wormhole or some idiots and a hot-tub, but rather some regular guys.
Two scientific engineers, the kinds that work in offices not futuristic labs, are running some projects in their garage into some project that would reduce the weight of objects when they find that their invention has an unintended function: it can allow for time travel. Explained through some rather impressive but grounded sounding science the machines function in a similar way but create some ridiculously complexes consequences littered with paradoxes, alternative timelines and other wibbly wobbly timey stuff. Essentially, the machines function so that you can turn it on, then go about your life for a bit, then when you choose to get in the machine, you'll come out at the point when you turned it on.
The machines for the film have been designed mostly to fit into the crazily small budget (just $7000), but the restrictions really do give the film the realistic edge. They can only go backwards, and only to a point where the machine existed and was turned on, so there's no future travel and nobody's going back to the stone age. With those possibilities removed it focusses the film like a laser onto what really drives the production: the idea of what would happen if some normal, fallible people discovered such a potent power.
Moving through a number of alternate timelines (I think I counted six, but there's probably more that went over my head) the picture of what's actually going on and what's been "fixed" blurs immensely towards the end of the film as emotions take over and the initial focus of the travelling falls into the background. The confusion only adds to the effect though. I mean, would any of us really have any idea what we were doing if we went back in time, even only a few hours or days? The potential to do some serious damage is everywhere, and the temptation to just go back again and compund the damage is all too easy.
I'm not going to claim I completely understood what happened at the end of Primer because to put it bluntly I just didn't. I do know that I enjoyed my confusion though.
In November 2001, the body of Dr Andrew Bagby was discovered in a parking lot at a US national park. He had been shot five time: in the face, the back of the head, the chest and the buttocks. An ex-girlfriend, Shirley Turner, who had been harassing him since their break up had lured him to the remote spot and murdered him.
Shortly after her arrest and release on bail, she fled to her hometown, and the place she met Andrew, in Newfoundland, Canada. During the early stages of the extradition process, in which Andrew's parents tried desperately to get Turner returned to the US for trial, Turner announced that she was pregnant with her victim's child and set in motion this documentary.
Kurt Kuenne was a friend of Andrews since they met in school, and he was determined that even if his son had to grow up in the arms of his killer, he was going to know how great of a person his dad was. Kuenne set off on an inspirational road trip across the US and bits of Canada. He met everyone he could find that Andrew had influenced in his packed 28 years. From coast to coast Kuenne visits people from throughout the different stages of Andrews life: his close family, extended family, people from school, people from university and medschool and the people he worked with, both colleagues and patients. It paints a moving tribute of a man that would have been a rolemodel to fathers everywhere and is a monument to the positive influence he had on so many lives.
The film is more than a tribute though, it functions as a critical investigative documentary. Much criticism, laid out by Andrew's parents mostly, is made of the justice systems in the US and Canada, as well as the relations between the two. The film was made as the case was on-going as well, and there is a change in mood at one point that comes straight out of left field and will punch you right in the emotions as you shift from tribute to crime-documentary.
Dear Zachary takes the audience on a distressing emotional rollercoaster where the highs only feel like consolation prizes, the angers are burning and the depressing depths are as deep as they are hard hitting. Honestly if you don't feel some degree of either crushing sadness or real anger after watching the film I'm convinced you're just broken inside.
The film does inspire in some ways though. There are some incredibly strong people on show here. Andrew's parents are such good and resilient people that it reminds us that, although there are some real monstrous people out there, there are also some very good people. It's a terrible shame that a child from such good parents had his life cut so short.
Tuesday, 8 January 2013
Tarantino's contribution to throwback double-feature Grindhouse, Death Proof is pretty widely regarded as his weakest effort to date. But with a back catalogue that kicks off Reservoir Dogs, goes through Pulp Fiction and ends up with the recent smash that is his
Death Proof needs to be taken in context to be appreciated. Otherwise, it'll either leave you with a bad taste in your mouth or just straight up confused. Death Proof is part of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez's joint project Grindhouse: an attempt to produce a nostalgic recreation of the experience of a double feature at a "grindhouse" movie theatre where the name of the game was pulpy, exploitation B movies. And an exploitation movie is what you get.
Seen on its own, Death Proof comes as an extended cut compared to the version from the double feature (the standalone version clocking in at 114 minutes, and the full Grindhouse spectacle, two films and gag trailers included, comes in at only 191). It's pretty clear where most of the extra content goes; the film's pretty explicitly in two parts. In terms of traditional plot/narrative, notions of which should probably have been left at the door, there's a 50 minute introduction followed by an hour and a bit of plot with protagonists and whatnot. You might feel a little robbed when the gears shift up from one to the other, but that'll be assuaged by the appearance of the much more interesting cast who attempt to turn the tables on Kurt Russell's psychopath killer and his "deathproof" murder vehicle.
Starring centre stage, once the film gets in gear at least, is Zoë Bell playing herself: a kiwi stuntwoman with a loose grasp on the difference between fun and danger. Admittedly, playing a version of yourself can't be too hard, but she is the bouncy hero that the story calls for, and plays off the rest of her cast (Tracey Thoms, Rosario Dawson and Mary Elizabeth Winstead) extremely well.
Not exactly Oscar-bait, Death Proof is a lot of fun and delivers exactly what it sets out to and nothing more. Pulpy and trashy, the climax ends the film brilliantly. Traditional films would have another 10 minutes epiloguing the aftermath, but really you don't want or need it at all here.
★★★★✰ Would be exploited again.
Sunday, 6 January 2013
Alec Baldwin, in one of his most memorable if fleeting roles, is the harbinger of desolation made mortal. Turning up to the Premiere Property office he unleashes one of the finest performances in his filography for the entire seven minutes he's in the film. Trading on David Mamet's delightfully vulgar and expletive laden dialogue he instils the fear of god and the fear of poverty into the four men and lets them tear each other apart. The name of the game is simply survival; with 50% of the workforce about to be cut tensions peak and allegiances wane. Baldwin's dialogue is infectious and the entire cast rips itself to pieces with an expletive to line ratio closer to 1 than I've seen in a long time.
Aside from Baldwin's ephemeral appearance, Al Pacino and Jack Lemmon take centre stage. The former being the current star of the sales team and making full well everyone knows it. The latter, a fallen star who can't catch a break and is willing to weasel his way back to the top any way he can. The stark contrast between a man on his A game and one who's only one or two vertebrae away from being completely spineless makes for compelling viewing that shouldn't be missed by any fans of dialogue driven films. You won't get any action set pieces, but you will get the word "Fuck" 138 times in 100 minutes.
For reference, here's Baldwin's captivating, complete contribution to the film: