Full Metal Jacket

One part parable about the US Army creating a new generation of Charles Whitmans and Lee Harvey Oswalds, one part Vietnam action set-piece. The parable is fine, but something felt amiss during the second act, something I couldn’t quite pin down. And then it struck me. This didn’t look like a Vietnam movie. Stanley Kubrick’s stab at the genre clearly hadn’t been filmed in South East Asia. Rather, it looked like it had been filmed on a damp industrial estate in Western Europe (Beckton Gas Works, as it turns out). Nobody expects the opulence of Apocalypse Now from every depiction of the war, but at the very least, every movie has to convince as to its environment. The shoot’s failure to do so inhibits any hope of viewer immersion. Furthermore, the way the script treats the soldiers is equally unconvincing; they behave like morons when faced with a crack-sniper. Not idiotic in a way that suggests the extreme mental pressure of their situation, but in a way that suggests flimsy writing.

At the top this pyramid is Kubrick. His slow pans, deliberate pacing and calculated direction are not a natural fit for action or war-filmmaking. It’s all too pristine, too careful. And I’m sure one day his relish of the psychologically twisted will stimulate an emotional response that goes beyond mere recognition of his method. Just not today.

B

Whiplash

I have a problem with the aggressive monochrome colour-grading Whiplash employs. It flattens out image contrast, needlessly distracting attention from the content it paints over, and for about 20 or 30 minutes that was a quite a big quibble. But as the minutes ticked on, that quibble got smaller, and smaller, and smaller, until it was pulverised by an unannounced thrill-ride, and a supporting actor unleashed. J.K. Simmons creates the most outstanding monster as jazz-tutoring orchestra conductor Terence Fletcher. The character’s psychological barbarism shocks and thrills because of Simmons’ poise, his bottomless voice, his aura of hurricane-like inevitability. You never know what he’s going to throw next, be it at the body or the mind. Together with an edit that never lets up, this completely dangerous adversary realises a brutal script about how far a mentor should push his students to achieve greatness. For the plot’s uses, that mentor could be teaching swimming, painting, yodelling, on the face of it anything. So the chosen drumming could be no more than a story-device. Yet not only do the drums generate a propulsive rhythm of their own, they also make for an original, highly cinematic visual, and it’s a credit to director Damien Chazelle for recognising their potential as a linchpin. Chazelle’s complex thematic conclusion matters less to me than the drama of which conclusion he’ll reach. That is to say, an undeniable, emotionally ferocious knockout.

A+

Inglorious Basterds

The opening scene. Directing brilliance. A set-piece in performance and dialogue rather than special effects and action. The camera waltzes around Christoph Waltz, who waltzes around the screen with all the camp charm and darkening menace you want from an actor playing a movie-Nazi. And the scene keeps going and going, and it works because of that. Such a long scene at the start of a movie acts as an unexpected palate cleanser. When it’s over, we’re hooked in and ready for its gears to change up. Except they don’t. Soon it becomes clear every single scene in the film is going to be a half-hour conversation with a quarter of content, and always likely to culminate in a bloodbath. The pacing’s lifeless then, which means boredom, but it doesn’t have to mean anything worse. Except the reason every scene is so long is worse than you could possibly imagine. The pace has been killed to make way for Quentin Tarantino to extend his huge filmographic boner. Every other line is an indulgence to his internal monologue, every other shot an indictment of his auteurship.

Not even the plot is spared. Get this. Hitler gets blown up, in a cinema! And the cinema’s going to be burnt down by combustible film. Did you know 1920’s film was combustible? Here’s Samuel L. Jackson to tell you what nitrate film is. The 1920’s. Are you familiar with 1920’s German cinema? By the way this scene’s going to have some blues guitar in it, because even though the movie is set in World War II, it’s also a Western. Did I mention German cinema?

Ejaculating your encyclopaedic knowledge of cinema onto a script of infantile historical-revisionism doesn’t make you a modern day Orson Welles. It makes you Michael Bay—with a film studies degree.

D+

The Lavender Hill Mob

Heist comedy that’s so innocent and simple that it’s almost escapist, while also functioning as a time-limited portal to London in 1951. Inevitably then, the social etiquette on display feels quaint, but instead of dating the picture, its old-fashionedness proves  key to its most moving scene, with philia between the two proponents  — Pendlebury and Holland — cemented by the pair feeling close enough to introduce themselves on first name terms (“Al” and “Dutch”). Other highlights include a well-choreographed escapade on the Eiffel Tower, and a poignant denouement that succinctly inverts the opening. Plus it’s technically a mob movie.

B+

BlackKkKlansman

Point off for Spike Lee affixing a non-fiction broadcast as a coda that shouts his film’s already explicit message at the audience. The racial politics of the 1970s are as woefully relevant in 2018 as ever. Received, processed, acknowledged, and concurred with. If Lee felt the need to spell it out with a coda, what was the point of the film? Only an ignoramus could miss its explicitly post-Trump parable – just take these excerpts of dialogue: ‘America would never elect somebody like David Duke as president’ // ‘For America to achieve its greatness again…’. And of course, chants of ‘America First’. As it happens, increasingly convoluted plotting and a ‘70s rock melange of a score were steadily distancing the subject matter’s vitality anyway. Ultimately superficial, Steve McQueen has done this better.

B

Review Roundup: June 7-13/21

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND

A first contact movie that never mentions the word alien, Spielberg’s earliest sci-fi establishes the blueprint he would later gear for sentimentalism in ET, and outright terror in War of the Worlds. This falls somewhere between those two poles, opening with a devolved space-invasion checklist in which characters are rightly relegated to a succession of strange occurrences we already know the answers to. Act two moves back into the kind of formula you expect from Spielberg — storytelling grounded firmly in the eyes of children, beats string-blasted by John Williams. Something more straightforward. So you’re not expecting a curve-ball when the final half-hour slips into a carefully induced reverie that can only be described as Spielberg doing 2001. This beguiling, near-wordless symphony-with-pictures will leave you pondering I’m not sure what. Pondering something.

A-

DIRTY HARRY

Serial killer on the loose in San Francisco, only one grizzled cop for the job.

Unusually for an action movie, carrying my attention throughout wasn’t the action — which was assured — but the eye-catching photography constantly permeating the picture. Shots artfully framed, awesome panoramas of the San Francisco cityscape, sharp contrasts, and — it has to be said — the image of Clint Eastwood, its leading man. One such example tracks his character, maverick inspector Harry Callaghan, walking down the road having just foiled a downtown bank robbery with some spectacular marksmanship. Don Siegel arranges this scene of devastation with a burst fire-hydrant, an upturned car, and flustered shoppers in broad daylight, all around Eastwood, whose insouciant strut juxtaposes it all like a giant middle-finger.

It works both ways though. The sequence that implies due process is putting serial killers back out on the street, after Callaghan has tortured his main suspect, wrangles with this viewer. Such messaging has been described as fascist — I think it’s sincere but too clumsy for me to take seriously, a case of scriptwriter and future NRA-guru John Milius conflating his medium with his politics. If there were due process in action movies, they wouldn’t be action movies, and if real-life law enforcement behaved like they do in action movies, we wouldn’t want them to. Leave the logic of genre-cinema to genre-cinema.

A-

O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?

Pleasant but insubstantial, the Coens’ songful rendering of the Deep South shimmers with Hollywood artificiality, and, well, not much else. Perhaps my lack of familiarity Homer’s Odyssey, on which this is to some extent based, would be worth an extra point. But I am familiar enough with the Coens’ work to know this is amiable by their standards.

B

SAVING MR. BANKS

I love Mary Poppins. Frankly I’m suspicious of anyone who doesn’t. Songs, performances, storytelling, pretty much everything except the “Jolly Holiday” segment. So with those cards on the table, there’s more than usual riding on this based-on-true-story, ‘based’ being the operative word. Structurally, a flashback thread documenting P.L. Travers’ childhood in Australia is incorporated into her present-day negotiations with Walt Disney, who wants to secure the rights to make a film based on her Mary Poppins books. (Disney is played by Tom Hanks, a casting choice so perfect it’s almost surprising the role hadn’t come along for him sooner; Travers by Emma Thompson in her iron mode.)

Those flashbacks, which delve deep into the traumatic tales bubbling under Travers’ work, adopt a heighted tone that’s almost suggestive of the magic realism of the 1964 film. However, the line between magic and unreality is crossed by Colin Farrell’s theatrics as Mr Banks, the father whom she failed to save. This being a drama about the making of Mary Poppins, there are irresistible moments, but even to enjoy them I had to tune out Thomas Newman’s twinkly, woefully overbearing score, which cakes everything with an ersatz sweetness.

All of that is on the film’s own terms. In context, its narrative is almost entirely constructed — infused with real detail yes, but impossible to draw any conclusions from given the way they are strung together. P.L. Travers would doubtless recognise a galling double-irony: she fought obstinately to prevent her work from being Disneyfied — here, 27 years after her passing, her own life-story befalls that same fate.  

B

American Psycho

Slick slasher that darts spryly between black comedy and horror, all the way defined by Christian Bale’s sardonic, imperious exhibition of Wall Street monstrosity.  As those uncomplicated arguments were convincing, an ambiguous twist-ending in the then-age of Fight Clubs and Shyamalans was rendered unnecessary, even if enforced by the screenplay’s source material. Conversely, as a political allegory – Reagan was a serial killer, stockbrokers’ only emotions are greed and disgust – the translation of its sentiment on-screen initially felt like a reach. But the longer those words have been sitting on the page?

A-

The Wolverine – review

This is where James Mangold begins to implement the ideas that would bear full fruit in Logan. Look at the difference in the way Wolverine is directed compared to Bryan Singer’s films. For the first time the action scenes capture the feral, time-bomb ferocity a character of the name should demand. Action scenes delimited by their PG-13 rating, but a necessary advancement. Jackman’s performance too is a step in the right direction, carrying himself with coiled fatigue, a wounded animal weary of carrying on, never far from lashing out. Place him in the middle of a Japanese family power-struggle, under a moody Marco Beltrami score, and you have a samurai exploration with enough intrigue pulsing under the surface to keep you interested. Until it craps the bed with mecha-suit tomfoolery in act three. That might be even more delimiting than the rating.

B

Onward – review

Great animations rest on being able to buy into their central conceit, and for all the efforts of exuberant lead-duo Tom Holland and Chris Pratt – and the odd heartfelt character moment – I never did. Its suburban America meets Middle Earth fantasia just left me asking, why? The device that sees a once-wizarding dead father spell-cast from the waist down, is the sketchiest means by which to haul the revelatory dénouement into place. The screenwriters appear to have started with the climax, then spent hours jumping through the narrative hoops necessary to reach it. There was something viable in its paternal dynamic – even in scripts as middling as this, Pixar know where the important beats lie. But for a studio that occasionally hits great heights, one can’t help but feel the churn of content-production does their talents a disservice.

B-

Valkyrie – review

Serviceable Nazi thriller that lacks the punch to be anything more than just that serviceable. Tom Cruise leads, and is miscast. He’s not a bad actor – far from it – but in an (at least formally) intense historical drama surrounded by a who’s who of crack-British character actors, he feels sorely out of place. Cruise is a suave physical performer, not an actor you hire to suggest emotional depths – in the same way you wouldn’t cast Tom Hanks as Ethan Hunt. That said, the Brits haven’t got much to get their teeth into either. Two flaws symptomatic of a film that never gets under the skin of its proponents, and of a direction lacking in subtext. Gripping wartime conspiracy, straightforward Hollywood jaunt.

B