With Blade Runner 2049 (2017) in cinemas now, all the kids (and me) were revisiting Ridley Scott’s original. Long famous as much for the director’s endless tinkering and various cuts, it feels like of recent years people have started to actually consider the final product, and rightly position it as one of the better sci-fi films of all time.
Once forced to endure the horrors of the theatrical cut as part of a university course, the director’s cut of Blade Runner (1982) is now the only one for me. Who knows what the differences are except for the scrapping of the abysmal Harrison Ford voiceover and the total flipping of the ending’s tone, but that’s enough for me. Actually just canning the voiceover would be enough, there’s argument to be had about which ending is superior. The film follows Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard, employed as a Blade Runner to hunt down synthetic replicants who have been banned from earth. The film is small for a sci-fi flick, and the story beats can essentially be reduced to a crime story. A fair amount of the film is just Deckard running down clues. It’s a slow burn, not heavy on plot and taking place in a pretty confined setting (as in a single city, not multiple worlds or galaxies). These genres are melded visually too, subtly evoking noir films through lighting and weather, and directly referencing the genre through costuming elements. It is these aspects that put the visuals over the top, and to this day it is a remarkable looking film (even on the shoddy VHS copy I watched). One element of the film that is perhaps underappreciated are the excellent action sequences. The early rain soaked chase as Deckard hunts a female replicant who has escaped him encapsulates everything the film is going for. On a stylistic level at least, if not thematically. A dour vibe is lent to the sequence through the weather, Deckard gets his weariness from Ford and there’s some surprisingly good gun battling and chase elements through the crowded, polluted streets shrouded in a neon glow that oppresses as it illuminates.
Discussion around the film so often focusses in on whether or not Deckard is himself a replicant (driven in large part by the change to the ending in the director’s, and subsequent, cuts of the film). However the assertion that Deckard is a replicant is not all that supported by the text, aside from the insertion at the ending. And the film’s main thematic concern – what it is to be human – is a strong focus without attempting to answer the question of Deckard’s nature. Indeed this focus on the constitution of humanity is present from the opening text crawl right through to the excellent final showdown. We all love Harrison Ford. But he doesn’t have the greatest range and here he slips into a bit of an Indiana Jones as spacecop territory. The real star performance-wise is Rutger Hauer as replicant Roy Batty. Hauer is just a raw physical presence here, but somehow communicating that with a level of subtlety. His line readings from some of the best parts of the script certainly help in that regard. He carries the key end sequence that is the film’s high point. A bravura, extended showdown that eschews wild action beats for a mental and even spiritual confrontation. It is rightly iconic. Batty’s dialogue and philosophy, plus the reserved arch beauty of the shooting provide the artistry. Deckard copping a real beating (most notable the symbolism laden nail through the hand) provides the brutality. It’s a heady mix. Just how alive Batty is in the face of death, the bliss of feeling rain on his face, even if he is not ‘real’, is the most affecting element of the film. Moreso than any of the supposed ‘human characters’, playing into those considerations of what it is to be human, and if that even matters all that much.
Verdict: This is kind of beautiful sci-fi filmmaking. Thought provoking without being unnecessarily cerebral in its plotting, incredible noir-infused visuals and underrated action. Well worth a look, even in the face of the underwhelming sequel. Pint of Kilkenny
Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1960) is one of those films that seems to have cultural impact and name recognition that outweighs how many people have actually seen it. Selected imagery from the film has found fame outside the classic film bubble, but reducing the film to that overlooks its worth as a fantastic, stylish genre mashup.
Generally speaking, it takes time for a movie to fully captivate. The web needs to be weaved so to speak. But somehow Eyes Without a Face pulls you right into the mystery from the first few minutes. That’s a difficult thing to achieve. But through shot composition and overall mood driven by the scattered score, a car trip that just feels a little off lures us in. From there the film builds into a crime-horror hybrid that recognises that both mystery and shocks are important to overall success. Doctor Génessier has a real Doctor Frankenstein vibe about him as he yearns for the ‘mad-scientist’ solution to his daughter’s mutilation in a car accident. That probably makes the film and the character of the doctor a touch more whimsical than it is. The film examines how actions that can be grounded in supposed love, can be violent, misogynist and inexcusable. Indeed protestations of love can be used to excuse heinous thoughts, words and deeds. There is great mystery in the way the face of Christiane (the doctor’s daughter) is kept from the camera. This culminates in a literal unmasking that perhaps does not have the Phantom of the Opera (1925) level impact it was aiming for. As for the horror side of things, well for starters the film features one of the greatest masks in film history. Talking Jason or Michael Myers level of simple, terrifying iconography, though perhaps with more thematic weight to it, when considered in light of the focus on patriarchal possession of the female body. The doctor is imposing blankness and uniformity onto his daughter’s body against her will. A body he also touches and manipulates throughout the film without seeking her consent.
Also on the horror front, the film features a sequence of grossness that I didn’t believe existed in film until at the least the 80s. A slow, considered scene of a face being surgically peeled off. This main surgery sequence is methodical, almost silent to emphasise the gravity of what they are doing as a scalpel deliberately runs underneath face skin. These people are literally peeling a face off! And here, unlike in a lot of films, the audience really feels the impact of that and is forced to consider it. A lot of the great style of the film goes to the horror. In another sequence, documentary style still ‘mug-shots’ are used to show the rejection and failing of Christiane’s face transplant. Again this melding of documentary into the horror film for added impact and authenticity feels way ahead of its time. It is also measured and services the themes of the film, rather than just using gross photos to shock the audience, as it is sometimes used for such as in Adam Green’s otherwise pretty excellent Digging up the Marrow (2014). The final shot of peace after the chaos is a horror staple and Eyes Without a Face closes with one that is meaningful and almost physical in the way it soothes jangled emotions wrought by the 90 minutes that precede it.
It is quite amazing the grossness Eyes Without a Face creates quite simply through the well-executed practical effects. A thin mask, good acting, camera placement, shot length and positioning of the characters, all combine to make the scene difficult to watch because of its penetrative ickiness. Part of what makes this scene work so harshly watching it in 2017 is that we as an audience are so used to CGI for something like this. So when practical effects are used so well, it feels almost extra real. There are also a lot more subtle ways that the film injects unease into the audience than face peeling. The shot composition throughout is creepy, even when showing something mundane. It’s often symmetrical, an over-curated vibe playing into the surgical overtones of the film. This also speaks to the control of the doctor over all the characters, as though the films aesthetic is similarly restrained by him. The score is a wonderful mixed bag. A lot of it recalls Bernard Herrmann’s work for Hitchcock – scattered, jarring and disconcerts the viewer into a state of trepidation. But there is also a distinct sense of Wizard of Oz (1939) at various moments, potentially using some of the same music.
Verdict: The way that this film combines the mystery and horror genres makes it a must see. There’s a complexity to the themes and technical brilliance here which is filtered through simple, yet totally effective, style and stark early cinema grossness. Pint of Kilkenny
There are various levels to the filmography of Alfred Hitchcock. The all-time classics everyone has heard of. The Hollywood stylistic experiments. His early formative British and silent work. But perhaps the most enjoyable of these groups to discover as a film buff are the ones not all that many speak about, but that are equally as brilliant to that first group. In my experience they are his best, most pure in genre terms thrillers. Shadow of a Doubt (1943) is one, and happens to be my favourite of his films. And now to that I would add Strangers on a Train (1951), which if it doesn’t quite match that film for me, it manages to pack maybe the best character and best sequence of the director’s career into one film.
Perhaps equalled only by Psycho (1960) in Hitchcock’s oeuvre, this is a quite nasty film. There’s some fuckin menace bubbling along just below the surface. In perhaps the most brilliant sequence of his career, a tense and totally brutal murder takes place at a carnival. This follows a chase with all of Hitch’s hallmarks. The shadows and sounds of the tunnel of love as well as the bluster and bravado of the murderer on a test of strength, just feel so distinctly him. If it sounds utterly all over the shop and out there, it is. I’m not sure any other director could have made it work. The plot carries on, the characters swirling around one another. Hitchcock shows us he is able to elicit incredible tension, just through the length of a tennis match. The events come to a head back at the carnival from earlier in the film. This whole end sequence, sort of sums up his reputation for me. A wildly fun and crowd pleasing denouement to a perfectly, artistically constructed tense thriller. Without giving anything away, it mainly goes down on a carousel, a structure of fun taking on malevolent overtones in a stark way.
Strangers on a Train stands as a monument to Hitchcock’s brilliance as a storyteller. From the very start where our ‘strangers’ are identified only by their feet, the film almost overflows with creativity. But in a highly controlled manner, as Hitch is able to harness his highly original approach in a way that serves story above all else. There is something chilling about the psychological edges of the characters in the film, most notably Bruno. So much of the character comes from the great performance by Robert Walker. Something off with him from the get-go, his unsettling obsession with “people who do things”. The witty and quite modern script, the way Bruno helps a blind man cross the road, gives him psychopathic tendencies that feel both real and harrowing. The plotting of the film hangs off this character too, based around how each character will react to his manipulation. Just as the first trip to the carnival is maybe Hitchcock’s best sequence, Bruno is maybe his best character. Also excellent is Farley Granger, playing the charming tennis player Guy well out of his depth. He almost functions as a measure of normality to consider Walker’s Bruno against.
Verdict: Strangers on a Train is a legit classic Hollywood thriller and sees Hitchcock at the absolute peak of his creative powers. Anchored by a couple of very good performances, the plot gets you so invested in events it will leave you wanting to yell at the screen (or in my case, actually yelling at the screen). Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
Like plenty of folk, last year I started doing #52filmsbywomen, attempting to watch at least a film a week directed by a woman. There is a huge range of great films to choose from and I easily filled my quota. But I was also keen to check out some older films directed by women, which are not as immediately findable as those on my Netflix queue. Which led me to the career of Ida Lupino, generally regarded as one of the true pioneers when it comes to female directors.
The Bigamist (1953) is one of Lupino’s most famous films and shows her willingness to take on material that is challenging, or was considered taboo at the time. The film subtly and effortlessly sets up the core plot machinations. A husband and wife, unable to conceive a child, are undergoing the adoption process. They are both presented with a form, allowing the powers that be to look into every detail of the private life. He’s aghast. She signs immediately. And from this simple, yet great sequence the audience is hooked, wanting to know where his hesitation stems from. The plot is not all that big on tension. When it is, the film plays like Double Indemnity (1944), but about adoption rather than insurance fraud. If the film does sag a little, it is during a very lengthy flashback. This is partly an issue because it sidelines the character of Eve Graham, played by Joan Fontaine who is perhaps the most interesting in the film or at least the character impacted by the events of the film in a most meaningful way. There is a lot going on in Eve’s relationship with her husband. Their inability to conceive a child and the business bent their relationship takes on because they work together. Perhaps most important is the fact that she’s so capable, better at his business than he is, a fact that clearly wounds his masculine pride. Fontaine delivers a great, emotional performance here, in a role that could have been kind of thankless in lesser hands.
Eve’s husband Harry is the bigamist of the title and Lupino delivers a very complex character. In a way he is set up as an almost sympathetic figure. Or perhaps more accurately a figure of pity. We see different sides to him – the doting enough husband, an annoying womanising cad – as the film progresses and depending on which woman he is with at the time. However for all the back and forth Lupino gives you with the character, it is clear that he is a weak scumbag and that is the overwhelming impression she wants to leave you with. In the end, the adoption inspector is the one who nails him and verbalises the audience’s feelings when he rebukes Harry by saying: “I despise you and I pity you.” The intricacies of the characters are one of the film’s real strengths. They are all interesting to some degree and Lupino establishes layers to them. The director controls the narrative in such a way that we are given fleeting peeks at these different elements when she chooses.
Verdict: The Bigamist starts out as a crime story with a difference, quietly morphing into a flashback heavy character study. The gender politics are pretty forward and Lupino excels at delivering complex characters that will challenge you as to exactly how you react to them. Pint of Kilkenny
As far as female arthouse directors go, Agnes Varda is right at the top of most lists. With a career that has stretched from La Pointe Courte (1955) to today, she has directed around 50 films. A remarkable achievement for any director, let alone a female one, given the system seems to be set up to deprive women filmmakers of multiple chances.
Perhaps her most famous film, Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962) is the first I’ve seen from Varda. It opens on a tarot reading, the cards on the table the only parts of the film shot in colour. From there it delivers a fantastic character study with a great sense of a specific time (the 60s) and a specific place (Paris). The latter two achieved in large part through the sequences of Cleo simply roaming the city. The main character is an increasingly famous singer, living in opulence and facing a health crisis of some form or another. For most of the run time, the audience is kept in suspense as to whether it is a legitimate illness or something minor exacerbated by hypochondria. The film is about a woman’s experience as she navigates a couple of tense hours but also a life. She may be a hypochondriac. But it may also be that she is merely being dismissed as whiny and attention seeking because she is a woman. It is notable just how much we see the action through a female lense, because it is so rare in film. There are interactions with cat calling bogans, brief loving portraits of toughass female taxi drivers and a focus on beauty and societal beauty standards. “When I am still beautiful, I am alive” Cleo reflects early on, intoxicated by her own beauty. But this is also the film pondering the importance of superficiality to this character, and women more broadly.
The greatest feat of Varda with Cleo from 5 to 7 is the way she conveys the inner state of her characters. This is done through form, style and music. A disconcerting camera with quickly repeated shots. Mesmeric reflections upon reflections. The settings providing a contrast between inner and outer spaces. Cleo ‘suffocates’ in her huge opulent apartment. The white, clear spaces not reflecting the tumult of her mind as she ponders her potential sickness and mortality. Similarly her aimless roving over the cityscape is evocative of the swirling, concerned inner life. The editing also helps reflect the place of a celebrity in society, everyone staring at Cleo. Again the discomfort the viewer feels as a result of these stares situates the film as emanating from the female gaze. The film is shot really nicely, the camera often situated closer than expected, putting us right in the action feeling what Cleo is feeling. This is helped by the great lead performance from Corinne Marchand – intense but at times charming, troubled and physically embodying the character.
Verdict: Totally focused on the female experience, Cleo from 5 to 7 is a study of character, time and place. Varda is a master of conveying the inner state of a character in a subtle, technically brilliant way that is well worth checking out. Pint of Kilkenny
Pier Paolo Pasolini is an interesting dude. Actually that’s underselling it greatly. Pasolini may be the most interesting dude in cinema’s history. And perhaps the most interesting thing this gay, Marxist, atheist artist ever did, was make The Gospel According to Matthew (1964), the definite cinematic account of the life of Jesus.
In terms of construction, the reverence that Pasolini has for the gospel as a piece of literature, makes the film play like a Shakespeare adaptation. There’s a faithfulness to the dialogue that initially jars, but quickly comforts the viewer through its familiarity and artfulness. The film is solemn and artistic, wordlessly creating a weight to moments, emotions and words that you can feel. The film opens on a close-up of the pregnant Mary’s face, centring her and the human, not deified, aspects of the birth of Jesus. The film is sparse in terms of exposition, presumably relying on the general familiarity with the source material. The story progresses almost as a montage of his greatest speeches for a time, effectively and rapidly establishing Jesus’ wisdom. The films builds through these speeches, with the words gaining more power and weight as the narrative goes along. There is an interesting lack of miracles or God in the film, rather casting Jesus in an interesting light. He talks of pitting family members against each other, while the scenes of him throwing down with the orthodoxy are the best of all. The film pulls no punches either in its approach. Both to paint a portrait of Jesus that is perhaps not what is expected, and in presenting the reality of the world as it was. There is an infanticide scene in particular that is very tough going. Overall there is a power to imagery and silence in the film. The wordless power of the crucifixion scene, boosted by the soundtrack, is very powerfully done.
Where you really see the director behind the film shine through, is in the subversive nature of Jesus. This is the Jesus of class struggle. A subversive, passionately geared toward overthrowing ingrained systems of power. An anarchist. Sure that’s inherent in the Jesus of the bible (if not the Jesus of today’s most prominent Christian movements), but Pasolini amplifies that over trite miracles. The focus of this cinematic Jesus (and by extension presumably the director) is blowing up the self-interest of those with unearned religious power. He ‘holds no distinction from man to man’. Again Pasolini emphasising the socialist aspect of Christ. There is a dichotomy to Jesus in that he is both man and more than man. Pasolini shows this through showing the way in which he renounces his family and other actions that appear questionable. As well as his very human grief at the death of John the Baptist. On the other hand is the depth of love he shows to the family he builds, of all those who have faith. A well of love that comes from a spirituality that transcends his biological humanity. Perhaps spiritual is too twee a word for The Gospel According to Matthew. Elemental may be more accurate and more in line with what Pasolini was angling for. This aspect is throughout the film. In the movement of people across landscapes, the acknowledgment of God, the purity of a child (any child), the great expanses of the physical environment and how Jesus occupies and moves through that expanse.
Verdict: This film from 1964 may well be the portrait of Jesus that 2016 needs. The historical figure, a fierce subversive, has long been highjacked by the right for their own devious means. Here is an elemental picture of the radical, delivered by a cinematic radical, lifted straight from the text of the bible. Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) was perhaps one of the first ‘world’ films to really break out. Especially 5-10 years ago this was a film that budding cinephiles yearned to see and talk about. It also inspired the much loved American-west set remake The Magnificent Seven (1960) which would further cement the film’s ongoing legacy. However the intimidating run time (well over three hours) and the fact there are just so many damn films to get to, meant I only recently checked this one out for the first time.
Seven Samurai begins with a plot structure the film innovated, but which by now you would have seen a million times. A village, under repeated assault from bandits and realising the existential danger a post-harvest raid would pose, sends representatives into the city to attempt to locate some samurai and convince them to defend their homes. Though not without its charms, this opening section is a bit of a slog, laboured to the point it can feel a little boring. There are some nice comedic moments though and Kurosawa excels at establishing the sense of a land of great poverty which establishes the stakes for the entire film and the importance of the central task. However once the recruitment starts picking up steam so does the film, and things really start to zip along. This first act also establishes a social dynamic that is one of the film’s two sources of tension (the other, more obvious one being the crew of murderous bandits). The villagers are in a bind. They are utterly reliant on the samurai, needing to pay them for protection. But they are also terrified of them with fears of a murderous or sexual assault rampage sweeping through the village. The titular seven are a fun, unique crew. Makes the viewer want to see how they will interact and if their attitudes can co-exist enough to achieve the task at hand.
The script is responsible for establishing a lot of this, achieving the difficult task of bringing out the dynamics of the individual members and how they function as a troupe. These individual aspirations and group dynamics also evolve really well as the film progresses. Similarly, the writing of the long battle stretches, especially how the tactics evolve under pressure as the situation changes, makes for some of the best ‘war’ sequences ever. The second half of the film is a succession of military style training, tactics and brutal fights that makes plain why this film deserves its classic status. It’s also quite a vicious, murderous film. A great example of how a film foes not have to be bloody to be really violent, and at times barbaric. It’s also a film about process. Preparations, tactical planning, back and forth discussions of strategy. Again all written with a clarity that makes it super engaging and immersive. The writing is responsible actually for it being a much more immersive portrait of war than any other example of the genre.
The film also operates on numerous levels. As a siege film it is tense and genre heavy. It is saying societal level things about militarisation, as well as the role of a government to protect, to lift up and also to tax. But then it is also charming, featuring witty jokes and commenting on new love and the maintenance of it. Much of the film is stylistically way ahead of its time, still feeling fresh today. The use of slow motion when someone dies is an incredible flourish that has been mimicked ever since. Even just the use of close-ups during conversation, adds so much to the weight of individual scenes. As well as the style, the entire film is enhanced by the presence of Toshiro Mifune. Here he proves why he was one of the greatest movie stars that ever lived. He had a presence to him onscreen that transcended, though was heavily reliant on, mere acting ability. Able to balance the hero and fool elements of this character like few others would have been able to, Mifune’s Kikuchiyo becomes the clear charismatic anchor point of the film.
Verdict: Especially after the first 45 minutes, Seven Samurai is a feat of very crisp, clear storytelling. Time has not blunted the film at all over the past 60 years. It is still a vicious, cerebral and immersive examination of warfare and community that deserves its place in any canon of truly great cinema. Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
Wes Craven and the slasher just go together and he is probably the most creative exponent of the subgenre we have ever seen. He combined the prototypical teen slasher with supernatural elements in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), went meta with the same series in New Nightmare (1994) and even his lesser efforts such as Shocker (1989) or My Soul to Take (2010) toy with the genre in some way. However of all his films, it is Scream (1996) that is his most radical reinterpretation of the formula.
From the very start, Scream is about the dual goals of expressing a love for slasher films as well as delivering a bloody good one. The film opens with Drew Barrymore’s character just about to watch a scary movie. A phone call leads to a deadly game of horror film trivia and one of cinema’s more memorable opening sequences. From there the film shifts into a teen slasher with Neve Campbell on one front, and an interested media helmed by Courtney Cox on the other. There are the general tropes of partying and cool kills (getting mashed by garage doors an obvious highlight of the latter). But the media interest and hype around the killings also adds another dimension to the film. However most notable is the constant allusions to, and invoking of other horror films, including Craven’s earlier work. The film sticks hard to the high concept premise that it sets up and explores ideas through this such as the notion that a life is like a movie. Plus unlike some other meta-horror films, this one is constantly respectful toward the genre. At times it plays as exceptional homage to the genre’s greatest hits, such as the close-ups of people in the throes of terror. The meta approach to the film also means it is laden with references, that I am sure would open up more to me on a second viewing. There is a sense though that the film slightly loses the narrative thread a little as it goes along. The finale is perhaps not as well set up or magnetic as it could have been. Having said that, the final twist is a gem, especially if you have somehow remained spoiler free for the past 20 years.
The greatest achievement of Scream is the script, which may be the best horror script of all time. It is damn hard to be both as meta and as effective in the genre as this. Not to mention the level of tension achieved while all this is going on is quite remarkable. The choices made in terms of doing what’s expected are a pretty masterful manipulation of the audience. At times it’s exactly what you are expecting, whilst at others the expectation is totally subverted. It is a great way to engage with horror clichés. The assured hand of Craven is all over the film, with numerous small choices enhancing the overall experience a lot. The casting is nailed, with a funky mix of Neve Campbell, Drew Barrymore, Courtney Cox, Rose McGowan, Henry Winkler and David Arquette combining for loads of fun, with the necessary acting chops to back it all up. The ensemble is important but Campbell is the clear star. It is a very good performance. She looks so tired and beaten down in a very real way by how her life has been progressing, and brings the audience along as she sinks even lower. The score (recently re-released on vinyl) is excellent, and fits into the overall approach of reverence to the genre’s past coupled with innovation. There is a real A Nightmare on Elm Street vibe to this element of the film, with a fair hint of Psycho (1960) too. The way that both score and sound design are used to punctuate everyday moments, with whooshes and emphasis creates great tension, without ever being cheap about it.
Verdict: If Scream is perhaps slightly below the standard of Craven’s very best work, that speaks more to the quality of his output than the film specifically. However it is one of his most interesting films, and as far as reflective and meta-horror goes, this is a classic. Pint of Kilkenny
More and more, I am finding that I am a sensibility guy. There are some directors whose sensibility and worldview I immediately connect to, or am enamoured with – Terrence Malick and Wes Craven being perhaps the two that most immediately spring to mind. This works both ways though, and there are certain beloved directors whose craft I can respect, but that fail to move me on an enjoyment or thematic level as much as most people. I spoke of this when reviewing Scorsese’s Casino (1995) recently, and in addition to Marty it is perhaps the Coen Brothers who connect with me the least.
Whilst Blood Simple (1984) was their first film, it was Fargo (1996) that really vaulted the duo onto the indie map and they have never looked back. Speaking of sensibilities, the Coens have a very unique one. So much so that it is disconcerting to the viewer in its unconventionality. We are used to certain structures and beats that are rarely delivered in the order or pacing that is expected. Of course, subverting expectation is certainly not a bad thing in and of itself. But it perhaps hurts the overall impact of this film, particularly on a purely narrative level. The first period of the film is focused on William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard, a down on his luck car salesman looking to get rich quick through organising a kidnapping of his wife that will force her loaded dad to come up with the ransom payment that Jerry will share with his hired goons. There is a deep well of thematic complexity with this character, a normalish guy in way over his head, which forces him to forsake his family. It is not until the half hour mark that we meet Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson. A heavily pregnant police detective brought in to investigate the murders this scheme has wrought. The film is at its best when it ratchets up the action and violence. There’s a coldness to Peter Stormares’s hired goon that fits perfectly into the snowbound landscapes. Overall there is a weird mix to the tone. Drama and black comedy but laced with the occasional piece of heightened Tarantino style dialogue or a silly character.
Marge is a great character, immediately exceeding the somewhat dreary and languid setup of the film. Everything about the story thread with McDormand at the core elevates the film. The writing of the procedural elements offers an auteurist take on the genre tropes of crime fiction, as she runs down the various clues on the case. The character and performance are excellent examples of quirk without grating the audience. Pregnant, wide-eyed, diligent, brilliant and hilariously written and performed. The arrival of McDormand and Marge change the film totally, the character giving the film something to anchor on, settling it in a really good way. She makes the straight comedy scenes a lot funnier and the investigative angle gives the plot the purpose and conventionality it needs. Of course the focus on Jerry is not abandoned and that part of the film still feels flat. In large part that is because the character is such a weak one. The film is really ‘about’ this character if anyone. But he’s so unsympathetic, with vague motivations and that comes off as needlessly oblique rather than mysterious, and I do think the character makes the film weaker overall. The real Ned Flanders vibe coming from Macy’s performance at times didn’t exactly help bring me along either. After McDormand, Peter Stormare gives the best performance. He has this wonderful elemental presence of danger that looms over proceedings and is thankfully not overused.
Verdict: There are two ways to think about Fargo. About 30 minutes’ worth are a very good, very original lean police procedural. The rest is a dramatic black comedy let down by a weak main character in Jerry. However McDormand and the character of Maggie are so great that the film is worthwhile simply for her presence. Stubby of Reschs
Perhaps no American director seems to have created more cinephiles than Martin Scorsese. I have never been his most ardent fan though, generally liking rather than loving most of his work. But he’s also one I feel I need to continually revisit to see if I will ever find the spark of genius that so many others find.
The plot of Casino (1995) sees Robert De Niro playing up and coming member of the mob Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein, making his way in the world of organised crime. An advanced party for the organisation’s tentative excursions into Las Vegas. He runs a casino which in turn funnels huge sums of money back to his superiors. Ace’s mission is complicated by having to keep an erratic, violence prone, ‘made’ (unlike De Niro) member of the mob Nicky Santoro (played by Joe Pesci), in some kind of check. All sound pretty familiar? That’s because Casino is painfully similar to Goodfellas (1990). So close it could be a remake. The grand sweep of the arc is the same, the ups and downs, machinations of the mob and a focus on ‘street level guys’ all reappear. The films mainly look the same and many of the same actors appear. Even specific plot beats echo loudly from one film to the other. There are some slight differences – the love triangle dynamic is well set up here involving Sharon Stone’s Ginger McKenna, and the notion of a film structured like an American epic but really only being about a casino intrigues for a little while. But the similarities certainly consume any tangible differences. In addition to these similarities, the film also loses its narrative core regularly along the way, feeling too vague. Some of the story elements, Ginger’s drug habit for example, are really muddled in the way they are conveyed, which lessens the impact of that part of the story.
Style wise, Casino does not do a whole lot out of the ordinary, and what it does is a mixed bag. The duelling voiceovers are tiresome and the cutesy stuff such as ‘back home years ago’ subtitles are ineffective. But there is a gaudiness to the colours that Scorsese employs well, helping the glitz and seediness of Las Vegas pop off the screen. Similarly the performances range from the disappointing, to the stock standard to occasionally good. Pesci is perhaps the best of them all. I don’t really care for his character, it’s basically the exact same little wired psychopath vibe we’ve seen before. But he performs it very astutely, becoming the focal point of the scenes he is in. At the other end of the scale, particularly in terms of the writing of the character, but also performance wise is Sharon Stone. The film asserts that she is “the most charming woman you ever saw”, but at no point does that come out. Stone plays Ginger as a blank slate and neither the writing or the performance gives us any clue as to why she becomes such a contested part of the story.
Verdict: In the end, I feel the same about Casino as I do about a lot of Scorsese films. It is a fine, watchable experience. But ultimately a pretty hollow one. For me, the film does not have anything to say and it is further weakened by being essentially the exact same film as Goodfellas. Stubby of Reschs