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.
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.
Below are my thoughts on Ari Aster’s Midsommar. There are mild spoilers.
Midsommar is Ari Aster’s second wholly wonderful horror film, coming after last year’s Hereditary. It shares with his debut feature some stylistic, tonal, and thematic similarities. It stars Florence Pugh as Dani, who is coming to terms with a family tragedy and bereavement. So like Hereditary, the camera lingers on a character struggling with the aftermath of severe grief. Aster includes a very similar moment to one of the most affecting scenes in Hereditary, of Dani howling in anguish and being comforted by her partner after she has just received the most dreadful news.
It also includes some shocking and unexpected edits to close ups of deformed faces – both dead and alive, and there are several moments of blunt force trauma that are, if anything, more severe than that of the head collision in Hereditary.
The film is also about a cult/close community. But whereas Hereditary disguised this twist and revealed that it had been about a cult only at the climax, Midsommar‘s structure stays strictly within the formula of the folk horror movie/film about a cult from the beginning – using The Wicker Man as its template. (Though with its emphasis on flowers as a motif, May Queens, and with an errant boyfriend who is sexually tempted by other women in the community, it reminded me more of Robin Hardy’s belated, and maligned, follow-up, The Wicker Tree). That it sticks so closely to the Wicker Man‘s structure is not a criticism. The pleasure to be had in these films is the slow building of tension, and increasing weirdness, with the audience understanding exactly where it is all leading – typically to a final orgy of excess.
One way Midsommar foreshadows this eventual spill over into excess is through depicting tapestries and paintings hanging on walls that hint at some necessary bloodletting to come. Though one moment depicted in a tapestry, that recalls some disturbing self harm familiar from Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, never arrives on screen for real.
Midsommar leads exactly where you expect it to (if you are familiar with this sort of film), and this is its strength. Aster plays with horror convention, but is not afraid to be formulaic where necessary, so part of the enjoyment is in seeing how those moments you know are coming are about to be delivered. And, also like his first movie, Midsommar is hilarious as well as being genuinely emotionally affecting (though the grief depicted in this film isn’t as impactful. There is no drama as effective as the dinner scene in Hereditary, for example). The humour comes in a couple of very funny one-liners as well as in its moments of pure absurdity.
With only a couple of hours of daylight in the fictional community (supposedly Sweden), most of what we see is set in bright sunshine. Aster’s camera continually shifts perspective, from very high angles, shots that are upside down, and point of views (including of eyelids being closes). Later on he uses shots that are either super imposed or long cross dissolves (I will have to watch it again to see). The effect is frequently hallucinatory, to which the diegetic folk soundtrack contributes.
Overall, this is superb piece of horror, at once original and familiar.
I was interviewed by Dr Chris Deacy for his excellent Nostalgia podcast series. I was humbled to be asked to take part, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Here is a link to the interview:
Three songs by Lady Trash.
The latest version of the Robin Hood folklore story has been met by mostly poor reviews from critics. One of my film fan Twitter followers has claimed it has prompted her first ever cinema walk-out. The Telegraph reported on the 26th November that it is 2018’s largest box office bomb – the biggest flop, in fact, since Guy Ritchie’s similarly maligned King Arthur.
The comparisons to Ritchie’s movie are also relevant because Robin Hood takes a similar stylistic approach – CGI heavy, grungy, and a clear attempt to make the iconic hero ‘cool’ again. At times, the design approaches the steampunk aesthetic – as characters wear anachronistic clothing and work in what appear to be industrial revolution era factories. Nottingham itself is rendered as a sprawling, industrial metropolis, with high rise buildings, slums, and narrow streets.
It is this approach that struggles to convince, and stops the film succeeding. English medieval countryside and towns do not have to be enhanced and made modern to look fantastic on screen. In doing so, the film only sabotages its setting, one of its main potential selling points. The look is dark and artificial with little deviation in the brown and charcoal colour scheme – sometimes striking, but mostly preventing us from enjoying one of the exciting elements of the original story (stories) – its medieval locale. Similarly, there is nothing wrong with costumes that reflect the period, rather than the standard and predictable Nazi-esque clobber of the Sheriff of Nottingham and his soldiers.
Ironically, the most obvious attempt at modernisation also results in the film’s most effective scene. Robin is drafted to fight in one of the crusades, and Bathurst recreates a War on Terror style troops under fire action sequence, clearly reminiscent of news footage and documentaries following soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. Here, for the only time in the film, the action is hard and spectacular, and effectively defines the character traits of three of the central figures in the story. It is the definite highlight. But the overall seriousness of it all undermines the other attractive element of the Robin Hood story – the tone of ‘derring do’. This tone is almost entirely missing.
The cast however, is terrific. Taron Egerton, Jamie Foxx, Ben Mendelsohn, and Paul Anderson, are usually superb performers when working with the right material, and they struggle manfully with what they are given here. The film tries hard to be fun, politically relevant, and up to date – but doesn’t succeed in any of these endeavours. The best cinematic Robin Hood remains the 1938 version starring Errol Flynn, and the Robin of Sherwood 1980s TV series starring Michael Praed could possibly the strongest and most interesting version of them all.
I recently attended the Prince Charles Cinema’s all night movie marathon of the teen horror movies, consisting of The Craft (Andrew Fleming 1996), Scream (Wes Craven, 1996), I Know What You Did Last Summer (Jim Gillespie, 1997), Urban Legend (Jamie Banks, 1997), The Faculty (Robert Rodriguez, 1998), and Final Destination (James Wong, 2000).
Though I was familiar with each film, bar Final Destination, which I had only seen part of previously, it was a fascinating process to watch them back to back. In particular, while their self-awareness and reflexivity was always evident, it was only when watching them together that the full extent of how much they converge, correspond, and play off each other became fully apparent. (I am not claiming that this is an original thought – clearly the PCC had thought this through already).
Firstly, Kevin Williamson is the writer of three of the six, Scream, I Know…, and The Faculty. Urban Legend also contains a link to Williamson, it stars Joshua Jackson from the TV series Dawson’s Creek which Williamson wrote. One of the jokes in the film is a reference to Jackson’s role in the series (this had to be pointed out to me since it was a reference I didn’t get).
The casting cleverly bleeds over between films. Neve Campbell and Skeet Ulrich featured in The Craft before taking the two leads in Scream. I Know… stars Sarah Michelle Geller, and Urban Legend‘s masked killer is revealed as Rebecca Gayheart, both of which appear in Williamson’s Scream 2 (not shown on this night). I Know… also stars Jennifer Love Hewitt, and one of The Faculty‘s early intertextual gags has the character of Zeke (Josh Hartnett) flogging bootleg video tapes from the back of his car claiming they contain nude scenes of Campbell and Hewitt. So, while each film demonstrates an awareness of horror, Sci-Fi, and and other movie conventions, they are also dependent upon each other – referencing their immediate predecessors and competitors.
It was also interesting to note how the films from this cycle that made the most impact on the sell out audience were those that demonstrated the greater self-reflexivity. The Craft, Scream, and The Faculty, whose narratives are dependent on self-aware and movie literate characters, received the most vocal and tangible responses from the knowledgeable crowd.
Perhaps the biggest surprise and disappointment from the cycle is that The Faculty never led to further sequels, unlike what happened to lesser films. It deserved to become a successful franchise. For those who haven’t seen it, you would have to go a long way to find a more enjoyable ensemble movie. The stand out scene comes early, when each of the utterly engaging teen characters is introduced in a sequence of terrific swagger and maximum narrative economy. For me, it is probably Rodriguez’s best few moments of screen direction.