As part of my Newton Talks podcast I have started a spin-off series of short ‘microcasts’ on cult cinema, much shorter than my regular episodes. Each episode will see me introducing a different cult film. The first of these is all about Walter Hill’s The Warriors (1979). I hope you enjoy it. Have a listen here;
The Gentlemen (Guy Ritchie, 2020)
Watching Guy Ritchie’s latest film proved to be a very useful experience. While I was entertained in parts, and interested in how the convoluted plot worked itself out, I was also incredibly put off by the affected mannerisms of each character. Mainly, however, I found the film to be very ugly around its presentation of violence, most of it accompanied by verbal and physical humiliation. Normally, I respond well to movies that wallow in bad taste, and I would also consider myself to be an aficionado of on screen violence. Was I being hypocritical, then? I am a fan of Quentin Tarantino after all, who has also attracted some criticisms around his throwaway attitude to violence.
However, Tarantino circumvents these criticisms for two reasons. Firstly, many of his narratives take place in a ‘movie universe’, which provides a distancing context for whatever occurs. Secondly, he seems to have a greater understanding of the psychological and physical repercussions of violence that Ritchie hasn’t yet demonstrated. Tarantino’s characters are both perpetrators and victims of violence, none of them are immune from the consequences of the worlds they inhabit. Take, for example, the scene where Marvin accidentally dies in Pulp Fiction. This is on the surface a glib moment. But it then develops into an examination of the hugely traumatic physical effects of being shot by showing us the aftermath and what it takes to clean up the mess. The perpetrator, Vincent Vega, is also eventually ignominiously killed. If you watch the seemingly nasty and cheap rape flashback in The Hateful Eight, you will notice that the rapist, played by Samuel L. Jackson, may well have made up the story; we witness him picking up details relevant to his tale in the moments leading up to where he uses it to goad a man into going for his gun. Like in Pulp Fiction, he is also a victim of an ironic fate by being shot in the balls and slowly bleeding to death in the final act of the movie.
These moments of depth and nuance do not often appear in Ritchie’s crime narratives. The violence is almost entirely played for laughs in a way that made me feel a little irritated, if not quite uncomfortable, by they way we are asked to side with the strong against the victims. I had the same reaction when watching his previous gangster film, Rocknrolla. Yet Snatch, which I love, succeeds because Turkish and Tommy show fear, are reluctant to get involved in physical confrontations, and spend most of the film trying to avoid significantly stronger, more aggressive, and more violent men. When the violence happens, it is often surreal, and the comedy comes from its absurdity and sense of shock.
I haven’t fully worked through how I feel about all of this, and I am certainly not convinced about any of my assessments or analysis. So, despite its flaws (or at least, what I saw as flaws) I am grateful to The Gentlemen for forcing me to confront my own reactions and possible hypocrisy around violence on screen.
In this episode I welcome media lecturer Will Hill back to the Newton Talks studio to discuss Star Wars IX: The Rise of Skywalker (J.J. Abrams, 2019). We analyse the latest film, the sequel trilogy more generally, and the franchise as a whole.
In this episode I talk to filmmakers Sam Mason Bell and Jackson Batchelor, the creative directors of Trash Arts in Portsmouth. Trash Arts have collectively produced numerous features, shorts, and web series, including Lonely Hearts, Conspiracy X, Trash Arts Killers Vol. 1 and 2, and the forthcoming Millennial Killer, along with many others. We discuss their filmmaking ethos, how to make feature films with no budget, and how to promote and distribute your movie in the marketplace.
This episode features prolific Welsh horror and exploitation filmmaker Andrew Jones. Andrew, through his company North Bank Entertainment, has directed nearly thirty profitable movies, including The Curse of Halloween Jack, Robert the Doll, Werewolves of the Third Reich, Bundy and the Green River Killer, The Manson Family Massacre, and many more. I talk to him in this podcast about his career in micro-budget filmmaking.
The latest (final?) sequel to First Blood arrived earlier this month to, at best, lukewarm reviews and mostly very strong criticism. Much of this criticism was because of its violence and what was interpreted as a reactionary world view on account of its depiction of Mexico as a hell hole under the control of drug cartels. The film is undoubtedly the cheapest looking, and to mind the worst and least enjoyable entry in the series. But it also has much charm in places, and I had a good time watching and am confident in saying I liked it (though this clearly tells you something about my tastes).
Rambo: Last Blood reminded me a lot of Death Wish 4: The Crackdown (J.Lee Thompson, 1987) and its follow up, Death Wish 5: The Face of Death (Allan A. Goldstein, 1994). In these sequels, Charles Bronson plays an ageing and untouchable hard man destroyer, far removed from the morally torn character of Paul Kersey from the original Death Wish. Likewise, Last Blood has moved way beyond the more complex study of American attitudes towards Vietnam and 1980s geo-politics of First Blood and its sequel, Rambo: First Blood Part Two.
Last Blood is held back by a seeming lack of confidence in pushing its ideas through to their ultimate conclusions. The slow and still moments of calm before the storm aren’t really very slow or still, but instead very fleeting. The baroque violence, and the particularly inventive use of coloured lighting in the brothel scene, is also over before it gets a chance to have much of an impact. More time and space was needed to give some of the action more meaning and gravitas.
Also, Rambo shouldn’t speak so much. His character up to now has been quiet, reserved, and monosyllabic. But here he gives moral advice and emotional support to various characters, when he is far more effective as a character when struggling to communicate his feelings.
The film’s strengths are in its violent excesses, particularly the climax. This sequence set in the tunnels under Rambo’s ranch is brutal and fun, and builds beautifully into a crescendo when he blasts out Five to One by The Doors to distract the cartel members coming to attack. The use of The Doors is particularly apposite because of their association to 60s counter culture – often defined by its opposition to the Vietnam War, where, of course, Rambo’s skills, body, and damaged psyche were formed. (Their association to that war was also reinforced through their inclusion on the soundtrack to the opening of Apocalypse Now). For these reasons it is an inspired and confident choice of song, in a film generally lacking in such verve.
Overall, the main selling point of Rambo: Last Blood is in its old fashioned and unapologetic depiction of such a warlike and uncomplicated man. Unlike many modern action heroes, he is not a zen-like sage, who resorts to aggressive action only when all other options have been exhausted. Instead, violence, extremely bloody violence in this case, is John Rambo’s first response. And this stands out by how rare it is in contemporary mainstream action cinema.
Bait appears to have attracted nothing but reviews full of superlatives due to its timely themes of gentrification (about the economic threat to fishermen in a Cornish coastal village thanks to the influx of the urban middle-classes), and its form (shot on 16mm with a clockwork Bolex, hand processed, and with a soundtrack fully built during post-production).
It is certainly a striking piece of work. The cinematography, combined with the other worldly soundtrack – including the voices and sounds, as well as music – is folksy and feels timeless. It brings to mind, among other films, Kevin Brownlow’s Winstanley (1975). I also thought of Requiem for a Village (David Gladwell, 1975). Had it been released a few years ago, clips from Bait could well have formed a part of the kaleidoscopic Arcadia (2018), Paul Wright’s documentary that uses an extraordinary array of archive footage as an ode to Britain’s connection to its landscape and suppressed anarchistic history (in which clips from Winstanley and Requiem for a Village feature).
The black and white, 16mm footage occasionally has a flickering, strobe like effect. The cracks, crackles, grain, and the odd hair are all particularly visible when blown up onto a big screen. It is wonderful to see the form so overtly in an age where the means of production are typically hidden and anathema to modern cinema. It makes the film look as if it has aged, and makes for perennial images that contrast beautifully with the contemporary and relevant story. The film looks like an enduring artefact, mirroring the architecture of the village and its way of life. But, like the community it depicts, it has its own life which the modern cannot, or should not, interfere with.
The editing, which utilises flash forwards, and the soundtrack of rolling waves, droning sounds, and loud dubbing of spot effects and dialogue, combines with the cinematography to form a hypnotic and hallucinatory effect. Jenkin shoots the film with mainly close ups and mid shots – waves, knots, fish, and fisherman’s boots seem to dominate. This creates a rhythm to the movie, rather than just a straight retelling of a story.
The middle classes, announced via a close up sequence of them filling their fridge with champagne and brie, are portrayed as clueless, chinless, and believing in their own inherent goodness. They don’t think they are helping to destroy the village, but instead consider themselves as part of the community, whose contribution through their tourism and holiday homes is instead supporting its continued existence. The struggle of the fishermen, some of whom have had to turn to cab driving or running tourist trips, is never romanticised as part of the contrast to the middle classes we are shown. But there is a definite commentary threaded throughout that reminds us that gentrification and tourism can take as much away from a community as it brings.
Like 2017’s Apostasy (Daniel Kokotajlo), it is another British film that takes a very low key, small story, and makes it cinematic through the use of such a dynamic form.
As a person who is also a filmmaker, for me Bait is an excellent and humblingly confident film.