Category: American Independents

Da 5 Bloods (US 2020)

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Taking the knee

Spike Lee  is one of the most interesting film directors working today not only because he brings an African-American perspective to the world but also he doesn’t let convention stifle his message; he’s always been a Brechtian filmmaker. BlacKkKlansman even saw Lee getting Oscar recognition (not that I believe it is an arbiter of what’s good just a signifier of what’s acceptable in the mainstream) and there’s a great line in Da 5 Bloods about the Klansman in the Oval Office. Lee doesn’t pull punches and even if he sometimes goes ‘over the top’ it’s always in a good cause. But what to say about this film which feature four vets returning to Vietnam apparently to bury a lost comrade?

By the end I hated it; it was like watching Tarantino’s Django Unchained where the brilliant representation of racism is curdled by the stupidity of the final scenes. It’s not just Da 5 Bloods ends badly but it’s totally misconceived; Kermode hits the mark:

What is less certain is the rather more awkward Three Kings-style adventure into which Da 5 Bloods mutates, as our antiheroes get chased, shot at and blown up in the jungles of modern-day Vietnam, selling their souls for gold like the fortune hunters in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

That said, he quite liked the film but the mis-steps, for me, overwhelmed all that’s good. It’s not as if mixing Sierra Madre into the politics of the Vietnam War couldn’t have worked but it is ineptly done. It’s a failure at the level of the script which was written by Lee and Kevin Willmott based on an original script by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo; I surmise that whatever the merits of the original it doesn’t work with what Lee and Willmott introduced. Too much of what we see is risible: the land mines; Paul’s (Delroy Lindo) madness; Otis’ (Clark Peters) discovery. It’s not as if any of the narrative threads are impossible just they are not integrated comfortably into the whole.

There is much to like in the 155 minute running time: Newton Thomas Sigel’s brilliant cinematography that captures the beauty of Vietnam and, in the flashback scenes, uses 16mm to give the feel of documentary footage from the time. Lee throws in numerous references to Apocalypse Now!, the helicopters in the sun and The Ride of the Valkyries in particular, and uses footage from Civil Rights police violence and numerous black voices including Mohammed Ali and Martin Luther King Jr. All these work brilliantly but I was so alienated by the film from the time they find the gold that I had to force myself to keep watching. It’s available on Netflix.

The Lighthouse (Canada-US 2019)

Robert Pattison and Willem Dafoe when they first arrive on the island

The Lighthouse has received rave reviews and a smaller number of groans and dismissals. I can understand that, but I find myself somewhere in the middle. The film’s strength is its about technical virtuosity and I certainly applaud the cinematography, the set design, the sound design, the effects work and the central performances. It’s worth going to see the film for these achievements alone. Unfortunately, I don’t think the script works quite as well. It’s not so much the ‘content’ of the script but more the choice of structure and the pacing and the handling of genre elements. It’s a clever and learned script, but I did find it tedious at times.

The film is written and directed by Robert Eggers. His brother Max had the original idea for a film inspired by ‘The Light-House’, a two page ‘fragment’ and the last thing written by Edgar Allen Poe in 1849. The Eggers’ script moves away from Poe and in its use of language and the history of myths and legends told by sailors and coastal peoples it evokes Herman Melville. The narrative is set in the 1890s on the New England coast (though it was shot on the South-West tip of Nova Scotia near Yarmouth). Two lighthouse keepers arrive on an island to replace a pair who leave on the same tender. The new men are the experienced Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and the younger new ‘wickie’ Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson). The younger man is given all the menial (and dirty, heavy) jobs. Wake concentrates on the lamp at the top of the tower.

The two men speak little and Winslow tries to avoid drinking alcohol as the rulebook decrees. Wake drinks every evening and eventually Winslow gives in and the two men relax a little. But the work and the weather and the isolation prey on Winslow who begins to have nightmares and strange experiences around the island. On the night before the pair are due to be relieved, a violent storm blows in and the men get very drunk. No boat arrives and the terrifying waves and winds lash the island. There are even darker times ahead.

The narrow frame emphasises the confines of the lighthouse and its staff quarters

All of this is delivered on screen in images composed for the 1.19:1 aspect ratio sometimes termed ‘Movietone’ but also used in German and British cinema at the end of the 1920s and early 1930s during the transition to sound on film. To complement the format, Eggers and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke chose to shoot on film using filmstock and lenses which recreated the look of the 1920s/30s. However, they also chose to manipulate the images using stronger artificial lights than would have been available  at that time. All of this seemingly made the actual shooting process quite difficult for the actors. According to Robert Pattinson in the Sight&Sound special on the film (February 2020), he and Willem Defoe were often very close together to fit in the narrow frame. Certainly at the beginning of the film the qualities of the image are very noticeable as the lighthouse and the ship bringing the new ‘wickies’ gradually appear in the fog. Some of the early compositions making striking use of the vertical axis, peering up at the lighthouse and then placing the characters at the top of the screen. Gradually, however, I found myself getting used to the shape and texture of the images. The only noticeable difference from watching an Academy Ratio print was that the masking curtains in the Cubby Broccoli cinema at the National Media Museum didn’t close to the edge of the frame – presumably there is only a selectable position for Academy from the projection box?

The visual qualities of the image and the sound design (the wind, rain, the foghorn, the steam engine) are terrific. The problems come, partly I think because there are too many allusions to other films, paintings and literary narratives. This in turn suggests a wide range of genres, defined by iconography and generic characters as well as visual/aural style. IMDB suggests ‘Drama’ and ‘Fantasy’. Graham Fuller in Sight&Sound suggests a “gothic maritime horror film depicting a psychosexual power struggle”. He also, tellingly, suggests the film is “less a text than a trove [of visual and literary influences].”

Dafoe lit as the gnarled Wake

If we take Fuller’s analysis as a starting point, we might argue that there is a core genre repertoire here which comprises a specific location (the North Atlantic or more specifically the North East seaboard of the US/Canada), a specific period (in this case the late 19th century) and specific characters (sailors, whalers, lighthouse keepers and others whose lives depend on the sea) and environmental factors (sea, wind, rain, fog). By extending one or more of these elemental categories we can soon find a whole range of films and other narratives. We can then merge this repertoire with the ‘psychosexual power struggle’ – the drama of two men locked into a destructive relationship. Eggers’ narrative does provide us with a kind of ‘key’ to the narrative when ‘Winslow’ reveals that he has changed his name because he fled another job in Canada, feeling ‘guilty’ for something he did. On this basis, the horror elements in the film could be manifestations of his breakdown exacerbated by the behaviour of Wake. The iconography of his nightmares could conceivably be drawn from his own experiences, if he had heard the tales or read the stories. But as the audience we have seen and read much more. For example, Winslow seems to be terrorised by a gull. It’s impossible not to think of Hitchcock and the birds of Bodega Bay as well as the birds of Greek mythology. The other images that may be nightmares offer similar kinds of references. I’m making this reading in retrospect. During the screening I reached a point where I began to lose interest and I’m not sure why. I can only think that I became overwhelmed by the ‘trove’ of references and lost my way through the narrative.

Fuller’s account of references includes Michael Powell’s 1935 ‘quota quickie’ The Phantom Light, a comedy thriller about murder and sabotage at a remote Welsh lighthouse which I watched a couple of years ago. It’s not a great film but it’s entertaining and I might go back and watch it again. Powell is a good example of a filmmaker who was ultimately a successful ‘artist’ because he made films for himself and for audiences – large audiences who respected wit and intelligence. Eggers is an artist who seems to make films for himself and a much smaller audience. If you are part of that audience you may enjoy the film’s narrative as much as the technical virtuosity and the performances.

The Irishman (US 2019)

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The way they were

As I’ve been complaining that Netflix don’t give enough exposure in cinemas to their films I felt obliged to go and see The Irishman. ‘Obliged’ doesn’t suggest enthusiasm, the lack of which is partly explained by the 209 minute commitment but I was also wary of the film being compared to Goodfellas (US, 1990), which I didn’t like. My fears were well founded, though I do find myself way outside the critical consensus on this one. The first half an hour was so bad I considered leaving but it improved in the middle when political interference by the mafia became the film’s subject. I forced myself to finish the film when the social context disappeared toward the end.

I’m exaggerating, it’s not a terrible film: how could it be with a great cast at the top of their form? It’s particularly good to see Al Pacino, whose appearances have been infrequent recently, playing union boss Jimmy Hoffa. He dials down his sometimes over-the-top schtick to give nuance to a larger-than-life character. When Heat (US, 1995) was released it was hyped as the first time Pacino and De Niro shared a scene. They do so again, De Niro plays Frank Sheeran (the Irishman) who became Hoffa’s minder; this time they are in pyjamas. It’s a knowing touch that scriptwriter Steve Zaillian and director Scorsese (they also collaborated on the vastly superior Gangs of New York, US-Italy, 2003) bring to the film which gives it a valedictory feel. I wonder whether some of the lauding of the film is because it harks back to the (so-called) glory days of Hollywood where brilliantly produced and thought-provoking movies were made. It’s unlikely that the major studios would produce anything like this these days: $150m for a non-franchise film?! The opening shot reminded me of the dolly at the start of Mean Streets (US, 1973) with a pop song high in the mix; this was the director’s breakthrough film. It’s bravura filmmaking but also, because of its association with a movie from 50 years ago, old-fashioned. Scorsese’s association with the gangster film (Casino, US-France, 1995, was also better than this), as well as the lead actors, Pesci came out of retirement to appear, all give it an end of the road feel.

I didn’t like Goodfellas because I felt the film actually thought the psychopaths it portrayed were good fellas. That tendency is not so pronounced in The Irishman but it is still an issue when we are clearly meant to feel sorry for Sheeran at the film’s end. If I cannot care about a character then I have difficulty engaging in a film; by care, I don’t necessarily mean ‘like’. Why are we supposed to sympathise with a heartless relic?

The $150m has been well spent. In an interview in the current issue of Sight & Sound, costume designer Sandy Powell states that De Niro had 102 costumes, there are 160 speaking parts and 7000 extras. The film does look great. It’s a tribute to Scorsese and his crew that these vast forces, in a narrative that crosses five decades, cohere across the three and a half hours duration. However, it is Scorsese’s direction that disappointed me most. It was too workaday (shot-reverse/shot prevailed) and one high angle shot used to establish location (on the way to Hoffa’s final meeting) is used three times within a few minutes that, for me, simply emphasised how long everything was taking. There was none of the ‘operatic’ grandeur of Gangs of New York; though Bradshaw uses the term in his review.

The marginalisation of women is also an issue for me, but I’m not blaming the film for that as it is a result of the world being portrayed. That the marvellous Anna Paquin gets only six words of dialogue is worth remarking upon, especially as she is used as the film’s moral compass. However, that is the point, because women did not get a say in this world, violence ensued. It would be good if Scorsese, in his twilight years, revisited Alice Doesn’t Live Here Any More (US. 1974).

The Report (US 2019)

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Bening and Driver as Feinstein and Jones

Writer-director Scott Z Burns succeeds in The Report where he failed as scriptwriter of The Laundromat (US, 2019), directed by Steven Soderbergh, in presenting complex material in an engaging and dramatic fashion. The Laundromatfloundered, despite Soderbergh throwing tricksy set-ups at the viewer and a stellar cast, because the attempt to tell the story of the Panama Papers through an ordinary person didn’t work. The Report tells of the investigation into the CIA’s use of torture in the ‘war on terror’ through the chief investigator, the dogged Dan Jones (the suitably taciturn Adam Driver), and this gives the film a central pillar at the heart of the narrative. It also benefits from a great performance from Annette Bening as Dianne Feinstein, the chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, who has to negotiate between Jones’ determination to get the report published and Washington political machinations.

Both films are vital contributions to democracy as they attempt to inform the general public about corruption which is something corporate media, in general, fails to do. In the UK, where the BBC used to have a reputation for robust reporting, public service broadcasting fails to convey the complexity of these issues and the malfeasance of our ruling classes (the BBC recently edited out the laughter greeting Boris Johnson’s statement that truth in politics is important thus saving the man from ridicule). Complexity does not sit well in the 24-hour news cycle (actually the cycle is much shorter these days) and much of the press in the UK is like Fox News in America: propaganda outlets for the powerful. Complexity is not easy for mainstream films either and I doubt The Report will pull up trees at the box office even though it deserves to. It’s not dissimilar to All the President’s Men (US 1976) which dramatised the investigation into Watergate; the establishing shot of the brutalist concrete of the building Jones works in references the earlier film. It’s a damning sign of the times that Pakula’s ’70s film won Oscars and, despite the fact The Report is better, the new film’s shelf life in cinemas is likely to be short.

The inevitable wordiness is leavened, if that’s the right word, by re-enactments of the torture led by two contractors who convinced the CIA, post-9/11, that they had the ‘sauce’ which would get to the truth in interrogation. I was gobsmacked to learn they received $80m for their troubles. As soon as, in panic and desperation, they were given carte blanche to torture, the institutional momentum ensured they could not be stopped as no one in positions of authority wanted to admit they were wrong to go down that route in the first place. There is some wicked humour in scenes where one of the contractors states that they now know the victim of waterboarding is lying; Feinstein remarks that if one man was waterboarded 183 times, why didn’t they realise the technique doesn’t work?

The film is very good on the realpolitick that meant Obama, who’d portrayed himself as non-partisan when campaigning for the presidency, wanted to suppress the report; the references to drone strikes is also a useful corrective to that president’s saintly image (surely a result of his charm and the contrast with his successor). Zero Dark Thirty is given a justifiable poke as Bigelow’s film shamelessly lied about torture being instrumental in Bin Laden’s assassination.

Driver carries the film brilliantly. As the obstructions increasingly make it difficult for him to finish the report he slowly reaches (almost) boiling point in outrage that the truth is something that should be hidden from the people. It’s a vital film for the 21st century.

The Florida Project (US 2017)

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Bobby (Dafoe) meets his match

Sean Baker (he co-wrote and directed) manages to get sensational performances from the ‘little rascals’ who live in motels adjacent to Disney World; the title of the film was Disney’s original name for his theme park. The adults are excellent too even though they are mostly inexperienced; Baker apparently found Bria Vinaite on Instagram. Willem Dafoe, as the exasperated and paternalistic caretaker, integrates his performance with the rest of the cast perfectly. While the film isn’t only about performance, this ‘slice of life’ of a Florida underclass has a somewhat fragmentary narrative; not that that is necessarily a bad thing but some of slices are a bit thin. Key to its success, is the (apparent) authenticity of life on the margins. The motels are garish in appearance, they are trying to compete with the sickly sweetness of Disney World, and rundown on the inside.

Brooklynn Prince plays 6-year-old Moonee who is a ‘wild child’, like her mum (Vinaite), who wreaks havoc in the area. At one point, when giving a guided tour to a new arrival, she says, “We’re not allowed in here so let’s go in.” She then proceeds to cut the power. On one level she is appalling but, then again, she’s only six so cannot be held responsible for her upbringing. That’s Halley’s responsibility but their relationship is more like mischievous teenage girls. Halley hustles a living and relies upon Dafoe’s Bobby to help her out; not that she ever shows any gratitude. In some ways she is a monster, her treatment of an estranged friend for example, but Baker never demonises her; these are people on the edge who graft for what they can get. Vinaite captures the stubborn self-absorption of a child-woman perfectly; I remember trying to teach similar characters, it bordered on the impossible.

What’s lacking in the film, and that’s not its fault as it wasn’t its purpose, is social context. Bobby’s boss gives an inkling about the way the poor are treated when, on his occasional visits, he rules to roost with contempt. The caretaker’s deference shows he’s standing on eggshells so as not to offend the man with power. In addition, the virtuoso shot at the end makes it clear that Baker is making a social comment. However, as is the nature of ‘slices of life’, the power structures that lead to lives being restricted in poverty, are mostly ignored.

On the other hand, it is better that such lives are dramatised (as in Leave No Trace) than not at all and Baker is clearly a talent to watch. His mise en scène perfectly captures the candy floss environs of lives that could be bitter but are generally shown to be full of fun.

Literary critics and the cinema

A US poster – the film opens a fortnight later in the UK

It’s a while since I had a rant about film criticism. One of my bugbears is about literary critics and the way they approach cinema. In today’s Guardian Saturday Review there is a short piece by John Mullan focusing on the upcoming release of the film The Goldfinch, an adaptation of the 2013 third novel by Donna Tartt. I should state from the outset that I haven’t seen the film yet or read the book and that I have no beef with John Mullan when he writes about novels. What concerns me here is the aim behind the editorial decision to publish this piece three weeks before the film opens.

Literary adaptation is perhaps the main focus of the cultural clash between literary critics and cinephiles/film scholars. I quite understand that for many people who are readers as well as moviegoers they will often make their own judgements about whether they prefer the novel of the film, if they want to experience both and if they would prefer to experience one before the other. The problem is that in British culture the novel is seen by the arts establishment as of superior cultural value to the film. Films are often judged on their ‘fidelity’ to the source material. What this means isn’t always clear. It is generally accepted that a film can’t include all the narrative information in a long novel, even in a very long film. Fidelity then may be about retaining the ‘spirit’ of the novel, however that might be defined, or retaining the central ideas and incidents of the novel’s narrative. What is generally lacking in criticism of the film adaptation is any extensive understanding about how filmic rather than literary narratives work and how ‘film language’ (for want of a better term) is utilised to tell stories. Films and novels are different narrative forms. The novel is not necessarily superior just because it is ‘original’. Even if the adaptation draws on the literary narrative, it is also likely to draw on several other sources of meaning (for example, stars, genres, visual styles, music etc.).

Mullan begins his essay by noting that it is surprising that this is the first of Tartt’s novels to make it to the big screen. He helpfully tells us that Warner Bros. did option Tartt’s first novel The Secret History in 1992 but that for various reasons the planned production didn’t happen. Mullan also expresses surprise that The Goldfinch is the Tartt novel that did make it onto the screen and in doing so he begins to explore some of those familiar assumptions about literary adaptations. His piece is given a subhead which asks “Can the film of Donna Tartt’s Pullitzer prize-winner bring to life a novel that divided the critics?”. The novel is very long and there aren’t as many characters as in a Dickens novel so how will the filmmaker cope with creating a sustained narrative drive? IMDb gives a very long list of characters so I’m not sure what this means. Mullan describes aspects of the plot and the literary narrative (i.e. he gives us some of the events and how they are narrated). I would call these insights ‘spoilers’ – I will now have to try and forget what I’ve learned in order to come to the film without too many expectations.

My major problem though is that John Mullan tells us about Donna Tartt’s literary style and how ‘cinematic’ it is – the writing is full of visual detail and some scenes are played out as in slow-motion. He then tells us that any [film] director should relish re-creating certain key scenes and that they will have to make an audience understand the magnetism of the work of art which is the obsession of the central character (the novel is able to make us share the passion that the character has for this work of art).

Mullan does tell us that the director who finally made this film version of The Goldfinch is John Crowley, “who was responsible for the adaptation of Colm Tóbín’s dauntingly inward novel Brooklyn“. I’ve seen Brooklyn and liked it, but not having read the novel, I wasn’t concerned by its ‘dauntingly inward’ qualities. I’m not sure I even know what that phrase means. Looking back at my post on Brooklyn, I see that I suggested “this is a film about casting, costumes and locations”. In other words I honed in on the filmic qualities of the film rather than the narrative structure. I also noted that the script was actually an adaptation by Nick Hornby, a well-known novelist turned successful screenwriter. Since I hadn’t read the original novel I didn’t offer a comparison of the narratives, but if I had wanted to do that, Hornby’s role would have been important.

What is strange about John Mullan’s essay is that he doesn’t mention who wrote the screenplay for this adaptation of The Goldfinch. In his final sentence he asks “will they [the filmmakers] be able to resist the sentimentality that Tartt resolutely avoids? I would bet not”. This seems like a jibe at film compared to literature. IMDb lists the screenwriter on the film as Peter Straughan, an experienced writer for film and TV who has previously adapted two best-selling novels, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) and The Snowman (2017), both for the same director, Thomas Alfredson. My take on these was that the first was a very successful film and the second was something of a disaster. However, this distinction is suspect since I was a big fan of Jo Nesbø’s 2007 novel The Snowman but I haven’t read the le Carré novel (and I don’t necessarily always enjoy his work for various reasons). My point here is that I don’t think Mullan has any right to say that Crowley ‘must’ do this or ‘should’ do that with the adaptation and that the film’s success or failure will in any case be just as much about Straughan’s script as Crowley’s direction (and the cast and cinematography by the great Roger Deakins, the music, editing, art direction, costumes etc.).

So what was the purpose of putting Mullan’s essay into the Review at this point? If it was just a piece of promotion, an image and a caption would have sufficed. It seems to me to set up readers of the Review with a given ‘position’ from which to see the film which is based on certain assumptions about literary adaptations. It may turn out to be a film which works well or works badly but surely audiences want to be able to approach it with an open mind – or if they have read the book, their own ideas about what they are looking for in an adaptation. I have no problem with John Mullan discussing the film from his perspective after he has seen it and when it has been seen by paying audiences. He may well have some interesting points to make. In the past, before the Guardian changed the format of its Saturday Review, this did sometimes happen. Such pieces didn’t always work but at least they reflected on the film. I realise that the Review is about books rather than film and that this has become more evident since the change of format, but please Guardian editors, don’t treat literary adaptations in this way.