The more I think about Quentin Tarantino, the more conflicted I feel. He’s perhaps one of only two directors in the history of cinema (Hitchcock being the other) to have made himself into a genre and he’s also responsible for some of the purest blasts of cinema seen over the past few decades. On the other hand, I seem to like his films less than most, a lot of them being just ok. I also have a strange propensity to like his sillier works such as Death Proof (2007) and Kill Bill Volume 1 (2003) more than the more serious efforts that have garnered the director major acclaim.
That is all a longwinded background to where I was coming from when I sat down to watch Reservoir Dogs (1992) for the first time recently. This is the film that blasted Tarantino into stardom and it is a pretty perfect summation of where his career would go. On one front it is a little disappointing. All of his flaws (except for maybe the recently acquired tendency for his films to be vastly too long) are on display here, though it must be said, also are many elements of his filmmaking genius. This film is incredibly talky, with characters talking over each other about, well bullshit a lot of the time. The rapturous reception, to what is an admittedly pretty original conceit of having characters engage in lengthy side-conversations about movies and music, may have done Tarantino’s work a disservice in the long run. Almost in contrast to my feelings about Tarantino’s filmography broadly speaking, here he is best when being serious. The film is much better when painting something like Tim Roth’s desperation to live rather than the riffing on pop culture bulllshit. It’s all about story. If he is dicking about with the script, but it’s in service of the story, then I am in. But otherwise it is just tiresome. On a plot level, this is a mixed bag. Here we see Tarantino’s flair for mixing up narrative structures in a way that increases both the enjoyment and intrigue you will take out of it. But after you tease out what is going on, it is a pretty thin tale, with a twist that really falls flat.
In case you hadn’t noticed, Quentin Tarantino has a stratospheric ego. Here, in one of his interminable cameos (Hitchcock shows us how director cameos should be done – requiring no skill, playful and SHORT), Tarantino gives himself all the most attention seeking, motor mouthed lines in a display that shows off his woeful acting chops. It is interesting to see how actors deal with the script that really does have a lot of rubbish in it. Some flounder, whilst others are able to excel despite the weaknesses on display. Most notably among the latter in Reservoir Dogs is Harvey Keitel, and to a lesser extend Michael Madsen. Somehow those two cut through the weakness of the writing and deliver performances that actually service the plot. They make you believe the dialogue, rathe than feeling you should be sitting back and admiring it for its cleverness.
Verdict: Weirdly, I really don’t have all that much to say about this film. It didn’t move me any more than the fact it is a moderately interesting crime flick. An alright film and notable for being the start of a great career, but no more. Stubby of Reschs
Perhaps none of the original suite of Universal Monster films has such an enduring reputation as James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935). It is frequently highlighted as the high point in this series of iconic films.
Narratively Bride of Frankenstein plays almost like an early example of fanfic. It is a story “suggested by” Mary Shelley’s novel, functioning as an extension of it. The film opens with Mary Shelly and Lord Byron inserted into the film. This leads into a pretty incredible early example of structurally recapping the first film, as Shelley goes over the events of Frankenstein (1931) with cut scenes from that film playing onscreen. Unfortunately though, after this quite inspired beginning, the narrative is pretty unsatisfying, mainly because of where attention is focused. Namely, the focus is more on the human characters and elements of the story rather than the monsters. Frankenstein’s monster is denied agency throughout, which is generally not how these characters are treated in the Universal canon. The very basis of the plot – a bride for the monster – does not come from the monster. Some scientists just decide to make one for him, denying the character the agency to determine their own path. The story being driven by the humans, makes the plot drag badly, rather than the more kinetic progression that would have made the film stronger. On a much more simplistic level, this film needs way more bride of Frankenstein. She shows up with maybe six minutes to go. We’re are talking Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) levels of not giving the people what they want. It’s a bummer too because she is such a great character, both in terms of appearance and what she brings to the story.
The film is at its best when being unique and quirky, rather than the more stock horror elements. There is a wildly fantastical touch when some miniature people show up. Similarly fantastical are the scenes of the monster walking through the woods as a mythic feeling soundtrack plays. It appears James Whale was experimenting with the content and form of these films, and his boldest expressions work the best. The main joy that I took from the film came from these little touches. Boris Karloff is now billed simply as ‘Karloff’ whilst the iconic ‘?’ credit now goes to the monster’s mate. Also, like all these Universal films, it looks great. Such a creativity to the set design and the film always feels so atmospheric even when the story fails to deliver.
Boris Karloff is such a cerebral actor and this may be one of his best performances, even though the film is weaker. He has such a physical presence. And it is not just that he looks hulking, but also in the way that he acts with his whole body. The performance is even more impressive given the character is much more ill-defined than in the first film. At times he is tender, at others viciously murderous, and there seems to be no rhyme or reason as to why he acts a certain way at each point. Perhaps the major misstep is having the monster talk. It is totally unnecessary as the character was already iconic without that ability. This choice amplifies a broader clumsiness in the film, that is the characters speak the themes, rather than the story embodying them in any coherent manner. In addition to Karloff, the other standout performance comes from Colin Clive as Dr Frankenstein. He is able to convincingly convey the experience of a beaten, battered man going through torment. A man torn apart that provides a solid emotional core to the film.
Verdict: I had high hopes going in, but I have to say Bride of Frankenstein is unfortunately one of the lesser Universal Monster flicks. The choice to deny the original monster of any real agency, and the bride of any real screentime, means we are stuck with less interesting human characters to accompany through the story. Schooner of Carlton Draught
A pretty even split for March. There were a few really hyped new releases that I did not fancy at all whilst most of the ones I dug were older films I was catching up with. Perhaps the dud month of new releases explains my lack of motivation to get out to the cinema over the last few weeks.
- The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974), Joseph Sargent – A very 70s, very stylish thriller. Plenty of the style comes from the excellence of the soundtrack. The plot builds up wordlessly driven by that. The film also reflects the social make-up of the time. African American issues and the Vietnam War play a role in attitudes held and choices made. Not in a forced way though, these issues are just part of the fabric of the film. It is a little slow, but really well acted and scripted. Walter Matthau brings a cool laconic intensity to his role. An action film about process, focused on the inner city, with some truly dark violence. Occasionally feels like a procession of clichés, but perhaps that is because it has become so very influential.
- Pet Sematary (1989), Mary Lambert – A horror that comes out of universal terrors – death of a pet or child. The score is great, over the top, spooky and kitchsy. In fact the whole film is like that. You’ve seen the domestic bliss vs supernatural shenanigans structure countless times before. But this feels fresh, in turn fun, scary then really quite intense. The characters are good, with Jed feeling like a fresh take on the horror movie ol man. Plus that creepy kid is creepy.
- White Material (2009), Claire Denis – Denis is an intriguing stylist. Sound design is initially disorientating, strange levels and abrasive soundtrack. This is all combined with the visuals in a really interesting way. Film takes place in an unnamed African country, a former French colony, in the midst of civil war. It’s relatively freeform, to be consumed on a sensory rather than intricate narrative level. An examination of colonialism with glimpses of plot. Focuses on the fragility of white power both on an individual and broader level. Also the way in which priorities and what needs to be done to survive are often different. A civil war film where no group are the goodies. Which is kinda the point.
- Red State (2011), Kevin Smith – There is so much excellent here that it is a shame Smith can’t help but be both obvious and juvenile. Both his worst attributes that he just cannot seem to suppress for an entire movie. Basically a direct attack on Westboro Baptist Church, skewering a very particular fundamentalist brand of Christianity. Michael Parks’ preacher is shot in an almost drunken, intoxicating way which is clever. A strange little film that gets both very silly and a little intense. There’s a flippancy toward death that really does not sit well with the subject matter.
- Far From Men (2014), David Oelhoffen – Feels almost like a neo-western set in the incredible scenery of Algeria. With an incredible Nick Cave & Warren Ellis soundtrack. Viggo Mortensen plays a schoolteacher of utmost principle. A slow film, low in action. Has that festival film, languid vibe goin on, though eased by the gentle humour throughout. Interesting to see a man with very little interest in violence forced into situations where it is occasionally necessary. Also about engrained societal honour systems and the almost farcical notions of ‘fairness’ in war.
- Child’s Play (1988), Tom Holland – This is a middling piece of kitschy 80s schlock. But that doll is still so motherfuckin creepy. It is a stock standard horror setup (single parent, kid gets attached to a creepy possessed doll) with some awkwardly bad dialogue. But the kills are great, some of them smile inducing their own way. The kills, like the movie, are best when the silliness is wholly embraced. Some of the practical effects are great too. Is a little slow for this kind of affair and the whole thing is overall more good-bad rather than simply good. But if you are a fan of franchise style horror and haven’t seen this one like me, it is still worth your time. Mainly just because that doll is still so utterly terrifying. They pull off a great, iconic villain where it could so easily have been laughable.
- Broad City Season 1 (2014), Ilana Glazer & Abbi Jacobson – This has been so hugely hyped and early it struggled to live up to that for me. It’s a little awkward and the characters take time to settle. The two leads are great though, they have an excellent presence and interact well with each other. Gets excellent towards the back of the season. Writing becomes more assured and the style of comedy gets downpat. Cool social commentary and feminism weaved in. A great spirit to the show. Feels like people are having fun making it.
Not Worth Watching
- Cloverfield (2008), Matt Reeves – rough. Feels a little try-hard with the found footage stuff. And is the definition of nauseating in its use of shaky cam. Frustratingly constructed, a contrived vibe. Some of the dialogue reasonably realistic, but the broader storylines are badly written and there is no levity to the script as a whole. Kind of an annoying film, with forced Godzilla and 9/11 allusions and references. Though the glimpses of the monster are pretty cool. Not a good film at all.
- Friends with Kids (2011), Jennifer Westfeldt – The arc of this film is 100% clear from literally minute one, and nothing makes that predictable journey worthwhile. The leads are ok, especially Jennifer Westfeldt, whilst Chris O’Dowd is nicely laconic. But they are all heavily constrained by middling material. The attempts to balance overwhelming cliché with moderately edgy comedy do not come off. It’s like an annoying show stringing out a will they or won’t they relationship. Everything lays out exactly as telegraphed. All the characters being so hateable doesn’t help. Neither does a very montagey feel that seems like a failure of storytelling.
- Zootopia (2016), Byron Howard & Rich Moore – I’m very much in the minority here, but I found this to be a totally flat experience. Some of the social commentary stuff is good, if shallow. We are talking quips rather than thematic or storytelling depth. But the story hits no particular heights, while there is nothing at all particularly revolutionary on display or even interesting about the visuals or voicework. Plus the female lead disappointingly continually relies on her male companion to solve the case, whilst the late twist is so tired. And that song is fuckin woeful. A disappointing effort from Disney who have been red hot over recent films.
- Hot Pursuit (2015), Anne Fletcher – Probably one of the worst films I’ve seen in quite some time. For starters, it’s disappointingly sexist and transphobic. But outside of that, it’s also really not funny, exciting, competent or interesting on any level whatsoever. I am a huge fan of Reese Witherspoon. But not so sure she has a great comedic presence. Sophia Vergara has that. But the script is totally devoid of humour so she has little to work with. The story is just a procession of comedic plot points you’ve seen a million times before getting ticked off, straight-laced character getting high and all.
- Hail Caesar (2016), The Coen Bros – Starts strong and absurd. But quickly just becomes a succession of boring, barely connected skits. There’s some nice characterisation. But most of the actors are reduced to mere cameos. Josh Brolin’s studio problem solver is an interesting, though underdeveloped, centrepiece. Writing certainly not as funny as it could be. The commentary, both on social mores and the filmmaking biz, are quite silly. I continue to feel like I’m missing something with the Coen Brothers.
- Grimsby (2016), Louis Leterrier – Simply by having some really astute things to say on class, this film takes a more interesting approach to comedy than the contemporary norm. And this has gained the film love in some quarters. Personally I quite liked the patter between Baron Cohen and Mark Strong too. But this is still not a good film at all. Overly crass and not all that funny. It’s also a very flat experience. Also, unlike something like Spy (2015), it does not work as a spy flick outside of the silliness.
If you only have time to watch one White Material
Avoid at all costs Hot Pursuit
Documentaries and feature films about Mount Everest have become a dime a dozen over recent years. They all follow a pretty simplistic formula – a focus on some American or European climber chasing their dream, caught up un some terrifying existential disaster, tragedy and heroism abounding and all helpfully set against perhaps the most stunning backdrop in the world – and they all feel a little bit the same as a result. Jennifer Peedom’s Sherpa (2015) though feels totally different, and adds something new and important to the conversation.
The film begins by laying out the perspective of a Sherpa, both in more societal terms and through an individual examination. From there, the film focuses on an intelligent analysis of the Everest industry, pivoting around the differing reactions to a day of major tragedy in 2014. Perhaps a better term for this western construction would be the Everest industrial complex. There is a form of racism or more accurately colonialism where westerners pay huge sums, sometimes six-figures, to climb the mountain. A mountain where they will traverse the most dangerous parts of once or twice, while the indigenous Sherpas will be required to climb the same area up to 30 times in a season. It also gets to the deep emotional connection that Sherpas have with the mountain, contrasted with the ugly, shallow pursuit of accolades apparent in those from the west. We see a man who has come to love the mountain more than his family, who has summited 21 times. An outlook built on obsession but also a very real, genuine spiritual connection to both the mountain and his continued ascent of it. As befits the location of the story, Sherpa is one of the most visually striking films I’ve seen this year, especially in the first half. Here creativity and excellent shot selection make the imagery both familiar and unique – slow-mo, snowflakes, close-ups, wide shots. There is some handheld, primary source material too, but it’s thankfully not overdone and Peedom selects when to use it, the shots to select and how long to run them for really well.
It is a surprise, a nice one though, that a film such as Sherpa has received such a wide cinema release. Eschewing expectation, ‘disaster-porn’ or putting the interest of western participants second makes the film far more interesting and intellectually stimulating, though less immediately marketable. It is the kind of film that does the festival circuit (which this one has to rave reviews), but that it would be nice to see more of in mainstream cinemas. Of course the shit does eventually hit the fan, and it is presented in a white knuckle terrifying way. This sequence is incredibly composed, the cutting together of radio chatter and footage brings to life the organisational chaos unfolding. But whilst respectfully acknowledging the tragedy, Peedom is more interested in the ramifications that it brings about. Initially there are arguments over who should go in the first chopper to the disaster site. And this divide is reflected again and again in understandably ever-broadening points of contention. Insurance, pay, respect and widespread anger toward inequity and the government’s role in it. It is here that the film’s only real failure is present. I’m not so sure that the complexity of Sherpa vs western dynamic after the avalanche is handled that well. Maybe that’s because it is just so damn complex and Peedom is not interested in giving glib niceties as the solution. But additional clarity around the root cause, specific demands and historical machinations between the two groups may have strengthened this part of the film slightly.
Verdict: Sherpa towers above similar films… like Everest if you will. Unwavering in its focus on the local connection and exploitation raging at the heart of the mountain, this is one of the best documentaries of the year so far. Pint of Kilkenny