Favourite Movies: Alphaville

  
“Machines generated new problems. Problems the human mind couldn’t solve.”

In the first part of an ongoing series about why Jean Luc Godard is a genius, this is about one of the most stunning and engrossing movies I have ever seen. Alphaville. A science fiction film without special effects. Set in a dystopian world that looks identical to Paris and takes us on a visual tour around some of the cities early 1960’s modernist architecture. A movie that is also part Chandler, part film noir, part Orwellian nightmare with a dash of Louis Ferdinand Celine and Jorge Luis Borges.

We meet the leading man Lemmy Caution, who looks like he’s walked out of every Bogart movie you’ve ever seen. He has a look of steely determination. It’s the classic 1960’s movie archetype of a man with purpose. When accosted by a beautiful woman (a level three seductress no less), she’s not given so much as a first glance let alone a second. This is a man with a job to do and he’s intent on doing it. You got this in the early Sean Connery Bond films before the role was ultimately softened and Bond was made to atleast exchange a glib or flirty one liner with the woman. Here, it is the textbook Gregory Peck determined scowl and an assertive “Clear off.” Also on another note writing a hard-boiled character like this also produces stronger women characters within the story as a result, as the women have to be actually y’know relevent and play a part in driving the story forward rather than just eye-candy for the leading man or there to engage in a bit flirty banter or provide a shoulder to cry on, such is the case in most modern movies.

I digress. This is is such a fantastically shot movie and the strength of Godard is in the confidence he has in his actors and the rare ability to just put the camera down and fix a scene where there isn’t actually a lot happening. Few directors can do this. The best recent example of such quality directing would be Steve McQueen in Hunger when he sets a camera on Fassbender and the priest for twenty minutes and lets the dialogue unfurl. There’s no reliance on providing constant stimulation to the viewer and changing frame every two seconds to maintain engagement. Having the confidence to do this is rare and not only does Godard have faith in his actors, he trusts his viewer. As a result, his movies play out to their conclusion with pretty much all violence and nudity left to the imagination – and the end result is actually all the more satisfying for it.

It’s the simplicity of the movie though which provides the most satisfaction. Taking a familiar concept such as the hardboiled detective story and then setting it against an innate threat which is actually probably more pertinent in the current day and age than it was in the sixties. The nacent threat is a technocratic society where lives are controlled by machines and the people are systematically conditioned in semantics (see:  modern PR, marketing, media or as it’s sometimes known, propaganda).

One of my favourite concepts:  The bible prevalent in every hotel room scene, in what is a lovely twist is actually a reguarly updated dictionary where words are removed and made obsolete whilst more appropriate words are freshly added. This builds on one of the most frightening parts of the movie: In attempting to control the limits of thought, the manipulation of language is perhaps the most foundational tool of all, for an individual can only think in the vocabulary available to them. In colonial societies the effect of this has been devastating. By suppressing language you suppress culture and identity. I have wrote about this previously, Alphaville takes this concept to its extreme.

In what is an inverse allusion to Camus’ The Outsider, the idea is to create a logical society free from emotion. This is actually very much pertinent to the kind of secular and self-defined rationalist society desired by many atheists and humanists these days. In reducing everything to scientific lines, we’re left with a Christian society sans God, ran on terrifying technocratic lines for big business and profit. Although the great tragedy is that no-one will actually know what money is for, as we got rid of all abstractions: poetry, art, music along with irrelevant distractions like kindess, affection, love, friendship in the process. Fortunately, as the movie helpfully explains, there is no reason to ask “why” we should or should not have such things, just say “because.”

The villain of the piece: the machine if you wish to rationalise, is actually a light and a fan with an eery low pitched croak. If you wish to be more abstract and upto date, you can imagine it’s the eyestalk of a French speaking Dalek. However, to look at this rationally or abstractly actually does a disservice to what manages to be massively unnerving. Presenting   a quasi-ominiponent menace controlling everyones thoughts and aspirations in a fashion that everyone can strongly relate to makes it horrific and a brilliant piece of film-making. Tremendously done.

Advertisements

In the Heart of the Sea. Review.

One of my favourite – and one of the most beautiful – books I’ve ever read is Leviathon, or the Whale by Philip Hoare. It’s a stunning portrait of the authors obsession with these mastadons of the sea. Whales possess something of a mysterious aura, perhaps more so than any other creature of the deep. Mesmerising and intelligent, the book enshrines the terrible beauty of man’s relationship with the whale. The depth of the writing justifies the mystique which we hold the leviathan.

I was pleased to see ‘In the Heart of the Sea.’ An enchanting dramatisation of the story that inspired or perhaps preempted Moby Dick. Whilst I didn’t think the movie lent itself well to the 3D format and wasn’t without its flaws, I was still perhaps a little disappointed to see such a low turnout for such a movie. 

‘In the Heart of the Sea’ tells an enormous story, one that can most certainly be described as an epic. From director Ron Howard, whose previous work includes Apollo 13 about a group of men stuck in a capsule in outer space, this movie is bigger. There is a massive performance from Chris Hemsworth. Engaging and engrossing, embodying everything we expect of the archetypal mythic hero. There are also a number of other standout performances including that of Benjamin Walker who I thought had good chemistry with Hemsworth.

Perhaps in trying to tell such a story in two hours, some of the suspense and tension is lost. Ironically, the role of the white whale is perhaps the least satisfying aspect of the movie – becoming an inconvenience and distraction from some terrific human drama being played out between Hemsworth and Walker. The inevitable shipwreck at the behest of the whale within the scope of the movie is almost superfluous. The ship could have ran aground or been hit by a meteor, the whale is a minor detail. Jaws this is not. On some level this is a disappointment, as the role of the leviathon in such a movie should be to enhance the tension and drama to truly Odyssean levels. I think the movie also suffers from the backdrop of the story being narrated through a world weary Brendan Gleason to Ben Whishaw’s (who is ostensibly in every movie this year) Melville, who in turn is taking pointers for Moby Dick. Whishaw in particular does nothing to enhance or move the story forward. His performance is particularly flat in a movie which ultimately relies on the fine acting driving it. 

Without this Treasure Island-esque narration – which let’s be real is a writing cop-out and/or a director not having confidence in the story he’s telling – and rather, had Howard invested the screen-minutes between Gleason (who I usually like) and the woeful Whishaw in building the tension on the ship towards the encounter with the leviathon, whilst utilising the  tremendous acting talent at his disposal, this movie would truly have been an epic – in the cinematic sense – for the ages, rather than one that tries to do a little too much in two hours.

I’d associated Hemsworth with the Marvel: Thor abomination. With Thor of course being retconned as an alien rather than a Norse God, so the retarded American Bible Belt wouldn’t be offended by the notion of other deities. He really is a talent though, hopefully they’ll put him in a few more serious films to showcase his abilities.

Unforgiven

A prostitute is disfigured by a cowboy after laughing at the size of his manhood. The local sheriff is perceived as being lenient on the assailant after he demands only that the local brothel-owner is reimbursed for his ‘lost investment.’ The prostitutes collate their capital and offer it as a reward to whoever murders the assailant and his cohort. 

Will Munny is a retired assassin and windower living on a failing remote pig-farm with his two young children. He’s approached by a boastful young gunslinger which leads him to set off in search of the reward…

Unforgiven is a spectacular treatise on the American Western, capitalism, law, feminism, justice, youth, folly, growing old and the value of human life.

There are enormous moral questions raised throughout the film. The role of the prostitutes in events extends far beyond patriarchal ownership. It leads us to look at the nature of modern capitalism where the employee is reduced to a functioning asset of the employer with an effective shelf-life, with the state having a protective interest only as far as capital is concerned. Rather, the person is not protected by the state, capital and investment is. 

The ultimate question in the fashion of Peckinpah’s love of world weary loners is to display the aging reformed gunslinger, who aspires to do the right thing in such a world of nihilism and brutality that we must question if there is such thing as decency, a moral life beyond an abstract ideal and whether such things are even possible? The tawdry implications of such questions are not limited to the periodic Western.

There are no easy answers.

The Highest Grossing Box-Office Movies Ever.

There has been a lot of hype and speculation about how the new Star Wars movie will perform at the box-office. What records will it smash? Will it be the biggest of all time?

Frankly I doubt it. However, we can ascertain a few things from the highest grossing box-office movies of all time.

Avatar was terrible. The success of it was down to innovation in 3D. People love 3D, it’s tremendous. Any successful box-office movie has to be 3D and must in turn serve to enhance the 3D spectacle.

Looking further down the list, we see people also like to watch dinosaurs, ships and Leonardo Di Caprio drowning.

There’s some tedious Marvel superhero stuff, Harry Potter and Frozen.

If I wanted to write a box-office smash, I would write a story about a young woman who has magical powers – which she is intensely frightened of – travelling onboard a ship with her pet dwarf. She meets an enchanting rogue who seeks to find his father who has absconded to Iceland, which is where the ship is headed. In the meantime, a deranged Leonardo Di Caprio has created a race of dinosaurs upon the ship which rapidly spiral out of control after being injected with growth hormone (probably stolen from the lab of Tony Stark or some shit). He seeks to take them to the new world. In the interim, he uses his dinosaurs to take control of the ship. The young woman is saved from a velociraptor, although badly injured after her dwarf nobly sacrifices its gender neutral self and with some help from the rogue. After moving her to safety, the rogue seeks to fight the dinosaurs who are slaughtering everyone onboard armed only with a pump action shotgun which he has been hiding. The Remington pump is symbolic of his dark, morally ambivalent past. A fight ultimately breaks out between the rogue and Leonardo Di Caprio and Leonardo Di Caprio ends up drowning. However the rogue is mortally wounded in the process. He seeks out the young woman to bid his farewell, then dies. The tragedy of this causes the young woman to unleash her power which destroys the dinosaurs and the ship, but saves civilisation from being overrun with baby Tyrannosaurus Rex’s.

This is human drama.

The Revenant

The Revenant is an upcoming 2016 Western from director Alejandro González Iñárritu. We can see from the trailer which features some exquisite cinematography, the almost always tremendous Tom Hardy, Leonardo Di Caprio being savaged by a bear and most crucially a soundtrack by Ryuichi Sakamoto that this is the best movie of next year and will win many awards. 

2015 has been a great year for cinema, all because of Mad Max: Fury Road, which is the greatest movie of all time. It features an inspiring soundtrack, although it could’ve been better if Ryuichi Sakamoto had composed it. It also includes the most unsurpassed chase sequences in the history of film and a flame-thrower wielding guitarist riding a mobile death concert. 

I am hoping for a year of innovative film-making to try and reach the bar of cinematic creativity set by movies like Mad Max. The Revenant looks to be a good start. 

C3Po Must Die

Some thoughts from the Force Awakens screening: 

Daisy Ridley is exceptionally strong. She is the standout performer and she salvages some of the overacting from others through the strength of her own performance. She’s extremely engaging. It’s no exaggeration to say she is by far the best thing about this movie and the only cause for optimism going forward. The only thing you’ll really remember down the line about this movie is how awesome Daisy Ridley’s character is. Maybes her and Chewbacca shooting people and blowing things up too. A tremendous talent.

C3P0 is irritating. He just ruined the emotional impact of Han meeting Leia again. He should be decapitated, the irritating bastard. Seriously, he is the worst character going. After all the heat that Jar Jar Binks gets, they persist with this? For the sake of moviegoers, I sincerely hope they get rid of him before the next movie by having him fall into a blender off-screen. Sadly having Kylo Ren or any of the main villains murder him, would have an adverse effect and only aid their popularity. He is that loathsome. He doesn’t even serve any purpose. He’s a translator, great. The new main protagonist can speak alien languages and talk to the metal beeping ball, so he’s an irrelevant piece of shit.

Not that the other droids don’t continue to be an irritant, atleast the beeping ball served some functional purpose in the context of the plot, now that purpose has been served, please move on. 

Another thing that irritated me was how much Poe the pilot overacts at the beginning. They could have left him dead, rather than leave it basically unexplained how he’s still alive and somehow swiftly got off the planet without anyone noticing which niggles me more than it probably should.

The CGI for Maz and Stoke/Snoke/Spoke was overkill. I prefer real people or even puppets, I don’t like to feel like I’m watching an uninteractive video game. I liked Domhnall Gleeson’s character, as an understated villain. He actually has a lot of promise and I personally thought was probably more effective than Kylo Ren. 

Kylo Ren is effectively a cross between a polished up Anakin on steroids and a low rent Alan Rickman from Harry Potter. There’s massive development required for the character going forward in order to build him up as someone who will hold interest and be a sound adversary over the course of three movies. An emotionally unsound foe who has already been bested by the main protagonist in the final battle of the movie doesn’t carry much hope. In hindsight they should have had the fledgling Rey struggle against him far more and have her be somewhat overpowered, or threatened. I say that even as someone who loved the sequence where she gets the lightsabre. In the context of a trilogy though, try imagining the original Star Wars movies if Luke had been an untrained farm boy with potential beating the much more experienced and ‘powerful’ Darth Vader senseless in the first movie. Where do you go with that? Darth Vader certainly wouldn’t have been seen as a persistent, engaging threat. We already know unless something happens to give Kylo Ren the upperhand, Rey already has his number and is a more powerful jedi, without any training. If you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want spoilers, don’t read this last paragraph.

The movie is still a distinct improvement on the last three prequels. Where it ranks with the originals is difficult to say. It’s a tour de force in its own right and Daisy Ridley deserves huge recognition. It’s a welcome return to simpler story-telling and escape from the overbearing, convoluted nonsense of the prequels which was bizarrely coupled with a confusion over whether Star Wars was for children or adults. Of course, Lucas ultimately concluded Star Wars was for eight year olds, because eight year olds are really drawn in by ridiculous political machinations. Not to mention the abundance of characters no-one gave a shit about. JJ Abrams and Disney atleast deserve credit for not being drawn into Lucas’ later films’ awful formula.

I had serious concerns about killing off Han. Some of this was alleviated by a reasonably passable handing of the baton to John Boyega, who gave a sound account of himself. Nonetheless, I still have concerns going forward. I am interested to see the development of Rey and where they’re going with her character, however. She is the saving grace. Although you’re still left with the over-arching sense that the Star Wars universe now basically centres on an incestuous family feud.

For an order such as the Jedi who are supposed to be the magical upholders of peace and happiness in the universe, we’re kind of getting to the point where we’re all thinking, you know, this Skywalker dynasty are a lot more hassle than they’re worth and the universe would’ve been better off if they’d never existed. Although it transpires incestuous family feuds are the hot cinema theme of this winter. They did the same with the James Bond movies too, where it turned out all the bad shit in the world, terrorist attacks, massive death tolls was just a conspiracy being driven by his step-brother with a major grudge. I don’t know how much capital is in having huge cinematic heroes as people the universe could really do without, like an inverse It’s a Wonderful Life, but hey.

Enmity and Compatibility: Revisiting The Godfather

Although it was not my intention to do so, this article is the bastard twin of the piece from last evening.

This takes a look at the relationships from The Godfather. The scene following ‘the night of the long knives’ where Michael settles the scores, Kay’s realisation and look of horror in the closing moments as she realises your man isn’t the man she was with at the beginning of the movie is vastly underrated.

Kay’s part in Michael’s transformation, and her role in the Godfather series is also vastly underrated. Most don’t appreciate how her character underpins Michael’s legacy.

We see from the introduction of the two characters in the wedding scene, where Michael is fairly unremarkable, even appearing amiable and genuine where one can assume he does have a genuine level of affection for her up until the double-murder in the restaurant which is Michael’s unwitting realisation of his true nature and identity. (It’s actually also somewhat notable that where Michael seemingly lacks self-awareness, Vito is all-of-the-time acutely aware of Michael’s true nature. Vito doesn’t want Michael to be involved in the family business and hoped he would become a senator. This has nothing to do with Michael not possessing a disposition or character entirely conducive to the family business. As Michael unwittingly scolds Kay without any sense of irony for her naivety when she tells him senators don’t have people killed. Also in the families dubious links with political figures which are mentioned on a number of occasions)

The scene in Sicily where Michael is ‘thunderstruck’ and dumbfounded by the beautiful local girl are essential within the crux of the transformation. Apollonia shadows his own Sicillian mother, who is quintessentially quiet and clement in not involving herself in her husbands affairs throughout the first two movies, until her own death. Similarly, Apollonia in personality plays a quiet, unassuming and passive role in the background as we see when they are visited by the Sicillian don. She has no interest in involving herself in her man’s affairs. Her virtuousness is in being a loving homely wife.

His reaction to seeing Kay upon his return couldn’t be more different. Kay at this point represents Michael’s idealised image of the woman he thinks he should be with as an Italian-American immigrant living the American dream. As a person, this lack of realisation and acceptance towards his own his true-identity, and his relationship with Kay which borders on using her to preserve his self-styled image as a family-man, and man of good-conscience is probably his ultimate pitfall and actually also the thing which ultimately most contrasts him from own father who for his own failings within his business is loved, respected and admired as a human-being, as through his wife he can acutely put distance between his family and his family. Although the waters may appear muddy at times, there is a clear distinction and his wife plays a pivotal role in this through her passive disinterest in the affairs of his business. For Michael, there is no such distinction, because Kay is not a woman of the same inclination, disposition or nature as his mother or Apollonia. Aswell it must be said, we see this in his murder of Carlo where the lines between the interest of his two families are deeply and irrevocably blurred beyond retrieval leading in towards Kay’s realisation in the closing moments.

On top of this in terms of relationships: his father actually quite obviously values and appreciates his wife. Michael can’t, because after Apollonia and his return to America he is simply lying to himself, about who and what kind of man he is, what his values are, and what he represents. Cinema at its finest.

Ambiguity and Compatibility: Reinventing the Tedious RomCom

The Tao of Steve plays with the premise of the RomCom. We’re all familiar with the tedium of handsome boy meets attractive girl. Nothing remarkable happens. Girl falls in love. The end.

Dex is a lothario. He is also overweight, lazy, unambitious, uninspiring. He’s certainly not looking for love. Dex is not entirely without qualities though. Dex has an impressive array of philosophical knowledge. He has also developed a profound theory for attracting women, which he calls the Tao of Steve. The premise of which can be distilled as follows: 1) be desireless. Here he quotes the Buddah. He reflects on Steve McQueen. One of a number of Steve’s who give clepe to his theory. Steve McQueen is the archetypical. Steve Austin, Steve McGarrett. The man who is not overwhelmed by his desires. A man of purpose. Of course this is not purely a characteristic of people called Steve. James Bond is a ‘Steve,’ he propagates. He is dedicated or perhaps devoted to his cause or craft. Perhaps his craft is his cause, who knows. A woman however doesn’t come in the way of this kind of single-mindedness. The focus is always on the job at hand.

The second, 2) be excellent. Dex’s excellence derives from his capacity for quoting Kierkergaard, so we presume. An ability or resounding quality. One’s usefulness, or perhaps primary cause which ties in with point one.

Thirdly, 3) be gone. The antithesis of the hapless and needy. This is the man who is accomplished, and focused on his own life and cause. There is a certain visceral selfish quality about this however. A man who is determined by his own self-amusement. Naturally in the movie, Dex meets his match and breaks his own rules. There is allusions made to Don Giovanni: a man who seduced thousands of women because he was afraid to be loved by one. Whether he gets his woman in the end, we can’t really say. An interesting premise and take on romantic attraction. The movie ends ambiguously. Does Dex have the capacity for change? That is also left unresolved.

In ‘The Lobster’ we meet a stoic, paunchy Colin Farrell in a dystopian future for the Tinder/OkCupid generation. Filmed on the stunning West Coast of Ireland, our man has just had his wife leave him. Quite a disaster in a society where not being married carries perilous consequences. As we learn when we meet his brother who has been transformed into a dog. Our man Colin has forty-five days to meet a new love from a hotel’s pool of inmates, lest he be turned into an animal of his choosing.

David (Farrell) is stripped of his clothing, and given new ones. As he’s given a new pair of shoes, we find there’s no ‘half sizes.’ It is a swipe left or right moment. Everyone is expected to fit neatly into a box, or face the consequences.

The inmates are something of a motley crew. David befriends Mr Limp (Ben Whishaw) and Mr Lisp (John C. Reilly). As the days quickly elapse, relationships form based on perception of compatibility. All relationships and the concept of compatibility in the movie are thus defined by an impediment or handicap. A perception of mutual suffering. After being unable to meet someone with a limp, Mr Limp feigns nosebleeds to be compatible with a lady who suffers this very encumbrance. David meanwhile endeavours to attract the cruel huntress Heartless Woman. He feigns being emotionally cauterised. His bluff is destroyed when he cries after she kicks his brother to death signifying the death of compatibility. This is the end of their relationship. The end of the first act. We shift from the darkly absurdist Ballardian, Wes Anderson modus vivendi into the realms of Huxley’s Brave New World.

For, in the second, David escapes into the woods where he meets a group of loners led by Spectre heroine Lea Seydoux. In the wilderness, there is a prohibition on romantic entanglement lest they face brutal consequences. Polarisation.  Naturally, it is here David falls for the short-sighted girl played by the stunning Rachel Weisz. David hunts rabbits for her, they invent their own sign language. Their relationship however goes sour when short-sighted girl becomes no-sight girl. David looks set to walk away as their compatibility through mutual suffering ends. David however vows to blind himself in order to regain their connection. It is here the screen goes black.

Spectre

I went to the cinema today to watch Spectre, and overall I liked it. It’s probably the best story since The Spy Who Loved Me and easily the best of the post Cold War era. Whilst I liked Casino Royale which was a fairly conventional yet entertaining action film, and better than Skyfall which is a really good film in its own right, yet didn’t entirely sit with me as being a ‘James Bond film.’

Spectre benefits from being the first Bond story post Cold War to be underpinned by a background threat. In this instance it’s mass surveillance following your every move – Orwell’s worst nightmare indeed – and private contractors operating in the background whose motives may well be less than benevolent. This is what drives the audience and it was a classic Fleming motif to engage his readers through their fears. Although not entirely one that he’s created as it’s prevalent in many spy thrillers through the Bolshevik revolution, the German threat or the red scare of the 1950’s and sixties. Fleming may well be the best practitioner of it.

Christopher Waltz who I actually like is disappointingly underwhelming. Whilst he has a delightfully sinister undertone. Part of this is down to his lack of physical stature and presence, which is what you expect of the real Bond villains. Whilst there is a torture scene which pushes the boundaries. You never entirely feel worried for Bond or his safety. I still maintain that the best cinematic Bond villain is the drug lord Sanchez from License to Kill who is Bond’s mental and physical equal. You genuinely feel he’s malicious, ruthless and Bond’s life is in genuine danger.

However there is a nice turn from former wrestler-come-actor Dave Bautista providing the muscle. Again however, he is let down by the writers portraying him as a completely one-dimensional thug. All brawn and no brain we’re left to presume as he doesn’t utter a single word. You’re natural inclination that despite his bigger stature our man Bond is always going to outwit him.

The ‘Bond girls’ don’t really benefit from much in the way of character development either. Which actually does a disservice to Daniel Craig’s Bond. I’ve always personally wanted to write a character who is quite wiry with some of the edge of Ali McGraw in The Getaway. After fifty odd years, you know Bond is going to get the woman anyway. I’d want to write a female character who can take him or leave him. It’d make the dynamic abit more interesting and fresh. Still you can’t have everything.

Perhaps as a result of the previous failings, the pace however does move along quite nicely. It’s a good performance by Craig. There’s some nice nods to the old films pulled off with aplomb. By which I mean, they’re not overbearing and suffocating like that Pierce Brosnan farce with the Madonna soundtrack. It’s really enjoyable overall. I’d probably go see it again. You can’t really ask more than that. In the fashion of shit Roger Moore puns from the 70’s, it was better than I ex-spectred.