Telephones (Christian Marclay, 1995)

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Pleasantly humorous and humorously pleasing, Telephones is a classic Christian Marclay film, utilising montage as a visual DJing technique, mixing up films of all eras and varieties, focused on the classic device of the telephone conversation. Unlike the unique formal premise of Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid , Telephones does not establish new dialogues between characters in a series of shot-reverse-shots; instead, we may imagine characters from such films as Psycho, Sleepless in Seattle, Ruthless People and Goldfinger encircling a black hole, absorbing these bisected conversations, these half-stories – all these classical Hollywood films (whether in terms of era, or narrative construction) now have their leading characters speaking into the void – the void that is, what? The cutting room floor? I don’t wish for the existential angst of my art student review to detract from the light comedy at the centre of Telephones – merely to praise it for its function as film-as-film-theory. However, its restricted premise never allows the full potential of this function be reached as it might in a Peter Tscherkassky or Martin Arnold film and, my own navel-gazing aside, Telephones remains little more than I described at the start of this review: pleasantly humorous, and humorously pleasing.

***1/2

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We are the Flesh (Emiliano Rocha Minter, 2016)

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Okay, now this is something very special. Tenemos la carne / We are the Flesh is one of those feature films for which the concept of the 5-star rating was invented: it is a film I feel, on some level, truly grateful for. I hesitate to give any real synopsis as part of this review as it is a delirious enough experience to make it unclear what would be a spoiler and what would not. Suffice to say, my assumption of the premise on the basis of the (still very good) trailer with regard to narrative events and character dynamics was pretty much erroneous, though for all the better, as my anxieties about this simply being a Mexican answer to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre were quickly allayed.

Instead, We are the Flesh appears to be the brainchild of Alejandro Jodorowsky and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, not to mention Jean-Luc Godard, the late playwright Sarah Kane and a whole host of video artists, devised theatre groups and installationists. In fact, what The Revenant may positively be described as being to European Art Cinema (a not-inappropriate link to make, considering Iñarritu’s backing of this film, alongside Carlos Reygadas and Alfonso Cuarón), I feel We are the Flesh may be said to be to a contemporary Artist’s Film & Video. The premise meanwhile combines what appears to be Catholicism, folklore and fairy tales, with a central figure whose name may be Mariano who appears and acts all at once akin to Charles Manson, Rumpelstiltskin and the Devil incarnate (no pun intended). The first act, amongst other things, details the transformation of an abandoned floor on an abandoned office building in an unexplained post-apocalyptic landscape into a womb-cave that may act as venue to each character’s Id to fully express itself. The film’s themes of sexuality, violence and cannibalism all have direct connections to psychoanalysis, as much as they do to the concepts of sin, and both are exploited to full symbolic effect in the film. Meanwhile, We are the Flesh rallies between states of modernism and post-modernism as the “film itself” struggles and seemingly fails to contain the jouissance within – visuals break to singe photographic frames as someone foams at the mouth; a sex scene turns into a music video shot in heat-cam and, later, another sex scene reaches a level of volatile intensity that the film distorts and colour-shifts into oldschool anaglyphic stereoscopic vision.

At pivotal moments (though I may not intend the pun, I’m not so sure the filmmakers don’t) throughout the film, the camera appears to spin 360⁰ in a style highly reminiscent of other recent Satanic Mexican art film Lucifer (interestingly enough, I believe the titular character’s actor, Gabino Rodriguez, may make a cameo in We are the Flesh though I’ll have to check when IMDb is more accommodating)’s use of “tondovision.” At others, it exploits a fantastic score, masterful editing, and psychedelic post-production values to elicit anything from empathetic lustmord to kolpophobia (at these points, one may detect faint echoes of William S. Burroughs’ writings in Central and South America, above my personal favourite, all Cities of the Red Night).

If We are the Flesh may be understood as a response to anything, I feel inclined to view it as a response to Ben Wheatley’s infinitely disappointing adaptation of High-Rise, whose ironic detachment from the narratologiccal grisliness was far too distant in the former and far too “stylish” in the latter – certainly a word of which all film-goers should be wary, due to its typical indication of little more than plenty of shiny things in the mise-en-scène. In the papier-mâché catacombs of We are the Flesh, nothing shines, though the entire film glows with an intoxicating, evil beauty of which I cannot wait for my next fix.

 

*****

The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino, 2015)

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I hate agreeing with Mark Kermode. Especially on the subject of Tarantino. I find it an utter bore that people are so anxious to be iconoclasts that it’s become as cool as it is to say you hate Tarantino’s filmmaking in the same breath as denouncing The Beatles. No, neither of them are as good as the hype. Nothing is. That’s why it’s called hype.

That saidThe Hateful Eight is just too damn long. I mean, it really is so long. I’m saying this as someone who holds Sátántangó  and Dekalog in the highest regard. Appreciating and sometimes studying the films of Hungary, Poland, Russia, China, Romania and Japan to name a few has solidified in my esteem the ability of an extended average shot length to re-centre the spectator’s focus, away from any plotline froth to the humanity and, by extension, spiritual dignity of the characters, navigating unforgiving territory, both geographical and existential in nature. The length of The Hateful Eight can, for the most part, only be understood as representative of Tarantino’s vanity and self-assurance.

Indeed, though it certainly became apparent during the considerably more enjoyable Django Unchained, the mask of Tarantino started solidly to slip for me in Eight. I as aware going in that it would take at least half an hour for us even to arrive at the cabin, which sounded fine to me – I mean, it takes longer than that to get into space in Solaris or the Zone in Stalker; who needs a racing start, especially with that celebrated Tarantino dialogue? The Hateful Eight, apparently. Indeed, one of the problems with relying ever more on genre film archetypes in a historical setting is that the quotidian profundity that punctuated his slick crime thrillers, that later developed into genuinely heartfelt poignancy in Kill Bill: Vol 2 is little more than a nostalgic memory. Instead, as opposed the spectacular use of Ultra-Panavision 70 setting up a precedent for full use of cinema as a visual medium, Tarantino tells, rather than shows the narrative set-up with some of the clunkiest expositional dialogue I recall seeing outside of the ending of Vanilla Sky. “Do you know why they call him ‘The Hangman’?” Warren (Samuel L Jackson) asks Daisy (Jennifer Jason Leigh), as she is literally manacled to John Ruth aka “The Hangman.” He proceeds to mansplain to Ruth’s live bounty that Ruth doesn’t kill his bounties, before Ruth asks to see Warren’s “Lincoln Letter,” which he’s already seen. Near everybody knows each other, but they still have to introduce themselves to one another, for the sake of the audience, which seems utterly ridiculous when you know Tarantino’s going to throw in a narrator’s voice for ten seconds, like Jackson’s in Inglourious Basterds, you figure he could have quickly introduced the characters via narration or on-screen text and saved us at least twenty minutes. Gorgeous as the landscapes certainly are, the philosophy of tell-don’t-show (which is something of a consistent re-occurrence  throughout) is surely Tarantinto at his least cinematic.

We are saved, somewhat, by the time we reach the cabin and are afforded more characters. Tim Roth’s performance certainly tries to steal the show, but is afforded nowhere near enough screen time to do so. There is also the niggling feeling that Roth’s success in this film – or, at the very least, his character’s – is based largely upon a close modelling and channeling of the notable-by-absence Christoph Waltz. Eight establishes itself as something of a paranoid thriller, in which Ruth harasses everyone else in case they try to lay their hands on Daisy, his $10,000 bounty (something which might be aided by him not constantly telling everyone how much she’s worth), and develops into having the barest semblance of a locked-room mystery, and eventually devolves into an extended Mexican standoff. In many ways, The Hateful Eight is a remake of Tarantino’s own Michael Fassbender sequence from Basterds – which a vast number of people, myself not actually included in this case, complained was too long – turning it into a film the best part of three hours, which damn near everyone is saying is too long. I’m doing my best to keep this review spoiler-free, but I shall simply say: there is a gaping plot-hole surrounding the nationality of one character and the alleged racial prejudice of another, and the devolution from locked-room mystery to Mexican standoff is catalysed by a plot device I feel I can only describe in one word: cheating. Indeed, though the main issue with Eight is quite simply that it is a Western thriller with elements of mystery that is incredibly short on suspense. I don’t think I really felt any tension in the film until a considerable number of the characters were already dead. However, soon after the tension was established, it then became pretty clear nobody was fully sure how the film should end. “Very ploddingly” was apparently the answer.

Don’t get me wrong, there are flashes of brilliance in this film, and I do not regret watching it. It’s lovely to see Tim Roth and Michael Madsen return triumphantly to Tarantino’s fold, even if they are both criminally underused in favour of the fairly unlikeable Walton Goggins and increasingly pretty tiresome duo of Jackson and Russell. The dialogue is not all dreck, certainly past the expositional hurdles, and it really is pretty gorgeous. Oddly enough, it may well address racial issues better than Django, even though the number of people of colour has been significantly reduced from that film to this. However, there is a scene in Eight that relies on the white fear of the symbolic Black male body, within the context of sexual assault via coercion that made me desperately uncomfortable – speaking as someone who really doesn’t get uncomfortable in films easily. For sure, that was the point, but that it was Tarantino’s point, rather than another writer/director better qualified to make it is less than impressive. The bloody violence is enjoyable and the score does indeed scream “modern classic.” I didn’t hate this film; just, speaking as someone who still likes Tarantino, despite herself, I was left very disappointed.

**1/2

Drive (Nicolas Windig Refn, 2011)

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(Rewatch)

 

On second viewing, my thoughts are pretty much the same – in terms of nice little exploitation movies of the current era, Drive is pretty much king. It has that visual-narrative cinematic purity that has since been exaggerated upon to even greater, more epic success in Mad Max: Fury Road but I think Drive manages to create and re-create tension, beautifully paying off with just the right level of ultraviolence to make it an eye-watering, uncomfortable experience, but not too much that it stops being a stylish romp. My one complaint is that I wish there had been a little more driving! The chases are filmed fantastically and the film could easily have done with one more. Otherwise, a great, fun film that balances extreme playfulness with palpable tension and some great, Noé-esque brutalism in a way so few films manage.

****

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (Robert Rodriguez & Frank Miller, 2014)

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(Originally posted in now-defunct student e-zine FourFrame, under the title “Sin City: a Misogyny to Pass On”)

 

As a comic book fan, I am not without gratitude to Frank Miller. When Batman was starting to dwindle in 1986, it was Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns that spring-boarded a reinvigoration of and new respect for the character that cannot be over-stressed. Sadly, he is also very much known for using comics – and more recently films – as platforms for his own ugly socio-political ideology. Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is absolutely no exception.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For sets us in territory immediately familiar to watchers of the first film. Its multiple narrative structure shares characters between stories, in doing so making it difficult to follow for those who hadn’t seen the first film. The twisting chronology in fact made it rather difficult for me, someone who had. Frankly, I’m still not sure that a lot that happens in this sequel is physically possible, even within the limits of the Sin City universe: if Nancy (Jessica Alba)’s revenge narrative in this film is supposed to be set 4 years after the events of the first film, either Marv (Mickey Rourke)’s story from the first one must have spanned over four years or he has mysteriously come back to life after being sent to the electric chair… It usually helps when a film doesn’t distract me with such glaring narrative issues, and yet I had this thought stuck in my head for pretty much the whole 100 minutes. On perhaps a shallower note, I also refuse to acknowledge that back-alley plastic surgery would ever change Josh Brolin into Clive Owen. Plastic surgery has worked many a miracle, but as yet, it does not work magic.

Visually speaking, A Dame to Kill For is objectively impressive and, though I saw it in 2D, the depth of field was rich enough to make seeing it in 3D a worthwhile experience for someone who loves the film’s look. Personally, comic and noir fan as I am, I don’t care for the visuals of the Sin City franchise – the lack of rhyme and reason in terms of what gets colourized cheapens the effect whilst the digital sheen only detracts from the allegedly gritty ambiance: it becomes the rather telling embodiment of style over substance. I said it regarding the first film and I shall say it again now: frame-for-frame similarity with the source material is nothing to be proud of; this is a film, not a comic book, different media require different approaches.

The brief for: A Dame to Kill For was very clearly “like the first one, but more,” and certainly, the film strives to be more of everything: more violent, more sexual, and more black-and-white-film-with-random-things-colourized-for-no-discernible-reason. Whilst it certainly does achieve the third – very distractingly so – the most violent element of this film is its out-and-out misogyny. Granted, the original Sin Citywas hardly ever going to meet the approval of Molly Haskel, but its sexism was largely rooted in its constant “damsel in distress” tropes in the face of hyperbolised male chauvinism, and even the strongest of its female characters are viewed solely through an exaggerated male gaze. A Dame to Kill For moves away from traditionally sexist trivialisation of femininity to an abundant suspicion and hatred of it. Female characters are almost solely connected to images of manipulation and duplicity and, regularly, it seems only the female characters are the ones who will be punished for their dark ambition, regardless of it being a trait shared by literally everyone in the film. The most angering moment for me was in the final story, in which Nancy seems to symbolically shed her femininity in order to “man up” for her revenge plot by cutting her hair and then soon after cutting her face (the disfigurement of women is a common theme in the film). This would be bad enough, but it angers on yet another level as she then uses her new facial scars to manipulate Marv into doing most of the dirty work for her, anyway. In Miller’s mind, even the heroines are to be mistrusted by the heroes.

To give credit where credit’s due, the film is not let down by the performances – in particular the newcomers such as Eva Green and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are as good as one should expect of such fine actors. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s story (just like Jessica Alba’s) is completely new and takes direct cues from Casino Royale in working out how to make a poker game legitimately tense and atmospheric, though thankfully without the patronising narration explaining the rules. However, the notable absence of certain actors (Brittany Murphy and Michael Clarke Duncan both died between films, being respectively written out and replaced very capably with Dennis Haysbert) does make it apparent just how long it has been since the first Sin City film came out: nine years ago. I don’t remember anyone crying out for a sequel and, judging from how much it is currently struggling at the box office, it seems nobody was. At the end of the day, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For acts more as documentation for the steady increase of Frank Miller’s ultra-right-wing misogyny than any form of legitimate entertainment and, quite frankly, his article on Occupy Wall Street was more than enough documentation for me. Want to watch a noirish comic book movie? Watch Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns. Watch The Crow. Hell, watch The Shadow. At least the film that almost killed Alec Baldwin’s career understood the difference between showing guts and having guts.

*