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Thursday, 30 June 2016

Andrei Tarkovsky's "Stalker" – "Transporter 5"



Perhaps it is too fanciful to imagine a young Jason “The Stath” Statham resting after a hard session with his weights, protein shake in hand, earnestly studying the atmospheric films of Russian master Andrei Tarkovsky.  Yet I am not the first person to notice something of The Stath’s style in Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy's portrayal of the Stalker in Tarkovsky's 1979 film.  For one thing they have similar shaped heads and close cropped hair.  For another thing, Kaydanovskiy has the habit of bending his neck slightly as though in apology for his brawn, a habit The Stath uses to good effect in the Transporter series – humble in his strength, sure in the knowledge that if a gang of chain-wielding thugs were to jump him, he’d quickly see them off with his astonishing fighting skills.

WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS



And the similarities don’t end there.  Tarkovsky’s Stalker character performs some nifty driving at the start of the film as he evades the military guards of the Zone.  And just like the Frank Martin character in Transporter, he lives his life according to a strict set of rules.  No women are allowed in the Zone, for example.  The shortest route to your destination is not a straight line, for another.

There are differences, of course.  When the Stalker tries a bit of fighting, to wrestle a portable nuclear weapon from the Professor, he turns out to be rubbish at it.  If The Stath was playing the role, he’d use the Stalker’s iconic leather jacket as a makeshift kung fu weapon, throw a few of the cloth-covered nuts around, and find a pool of oil to do some topless wrestling.

Still, after seeing George Clooney mug his way through an insipid remake of Tarkovsky’s Solaris, perhaps it’s best if The Stath sticks to his tried and tested franchise films for a while longer.

Review continues below...

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There is an interesting Free Thinking BBC podcast on the subject of Stalker that’s well worth a listen if it’s available where you live.

The wonderful thing about Stalker is its refusal to accept conventional wisdom.  In the Zone, only the broken and the wretched are allowed to live and to enter the special room where a person’s innermost wishes are fulfilled.  Openly dealing with archetypes, the main characters are known simply as Stalker, Professor and Writer.  And there is a robust rejection of the science and art of the Professor and the Writer, with the Stalker despairing of the characters’ self-serving efforts when he leaves the Zone.  There is also a sense that it was science and technology that got the ‘small country’ into the mess it’s in.  The Zone has plains full of decaying tanks and big guns, and a polluting power station stands close to its outskirts at the end.

There are some ironies here, however.  The pin-sharp focusing and flashy depth of field and lighting effects are only possible thanks to a mastery of scientific lenses and cameras.  This film that denounces the pursuit of art as self-serving egoism is full of poetry and philosophy.  And the apparent “Fuck you, Science” telekinesis displayed by the Stalker’s child at the end was no doubt made to happen through some pedestrian special effect.

But if there’s one film that isn’t afraid of contradictions, it’s Stalker.

The music is amazing, the visuals are amazing, the ideas are amazing.

This is as good as film gets.  Top marks.

Personal Score: 10/10



This is part of a series of film reviews where I give my comments on IMDB Top 250 films as a writer. The idea is that over time these posts will build into a wide-ranging writing resource.

For more details about the approach I've taken, including some important points about its strengths and weaknesses (I make no claims about my abilities as a film critic or even the accuracy of my comments... but I do stand by the value of a writer's notes on interesting films), see my introductory post here.

Friday, 17 June 2016

Paul Thomas Anderson's "Magnolia" – Cruising for a Bruising



I suppose that if I walked along a pebble beach for long enough – trillions of years, say – I would eventually find a portion of the beach where the pebbles spelled out a message: “Happy birthday, Michael Hardach!  Have a great day!”  And if I walked long enough (billions of trillions of years) I might even stumble upon this message on the day of my actual birthday.  It would be a pretty awesome moment.  A couple of things would diminish my awe, however.  One, I’d be dead.  Two, the apparently amazing coincidence would be the result of the cold machinations of blind chance.

WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS



Because of the short length of human lives, truly stunning coincidences of this kind never happen.  And so it is that the three coincidences described at the start of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia didn’t happen.  The three men with crazily coincidental names didn’t murder the chemist (they were framed), the failed suicide shot by his own mother is a legal thought experiment designed to test the limits of the application of law, and the scuba diver dumped on a forest fire is an urban myth.  But even if they had happened, they would be boring, because they would be coincidences.

Imagine the scene in the casting room: ‘We need an actor to play a macho misogynist prick.  Mel Gibson’s not available.  Who shall we use?’  They went for Tom Cruise.  Watching Cruise pump his way through his character’s trajectory is a depressing experience.  As he stands by his dying father that he hates, his face contorted with emotion as he (apparently) invokes memories of his real-life dying father… maybe I’m a heartless swine, but I just wanted to create an amusing animated gif of his face and put it on the internet for people to mock.  If you put “tom cruise” magnolia filetype:gif into Google Images you’ll find that others have had similar ideas.



There is plenty of flashy filming in Magnolia and there are plenty of resonances between the loosely connected threads.  To give just a couple of examples, the scuba diver in the tree at the beginning echoes the raining frogs at the end.  The policeman’s musing over how he treats the criminals he finds (some need help, some need a warning, some need jail) echoes the decisions that the various children have to make about the failings of their fathers.  And there are hundreds of these sorts of resonances in the three hours of Magnolia.  So, if you like flashy filming and a high density of clever cross-references, this film could be for you.

William H. Macy does a nice turn as Quiz Kid Donnie Smith, a loser adult who was a child star on a quiz show (his parents stole his winnings and abandoned him).  Macy’s character’s existence has now become a trivia question of the kind he used to be able to answer.  ‘Do you know who I am?’ he asks the people in a bar.  And the answer is, Yes, you’re Quiz Kid Donnie Smith, and weren’t you struck by lightning?  Philip Seymour Hoffman also has a good performance as a male nurse who keeps threatening to transform into the out-and-out pervert he played in Todd Solondz's Happiness (another film of loosely related stories with a bitter-sweet backdrop, but in my view much more successful than Magnolia).  But the character ends up taking a different direction.






There’s a scene late on in the film where all the characters take turns to sing over Aimee Mann's song "Wise Up."  It’s expertly filmed and the way the actors’ voices cut in over the original vocal is masterly.  The song itself is suitably plaintive, with kooky chord changes, haunting piano chords and the cracked voice of a boho girl singer-songwriter, a fellow traveller.  Like so much in this film it is both a success and a failure.  It does what it set out to do but the end result is like one of those adverts for coffee or banks where they overlay a plaintive song by a cracked-voiced boho girl singer-songwriter, a fellow traveller.


Cramming in dying fathers, showing children rejecting their parents even when they’re terminally ill, describing the emotional fall-out of failed parental relations on children's lives – this stuff is the dramatic equivalent of the opium drops that Earl’s trophy wife obtains for him – and yet I found that it didn’t move me.  Why not?  Hard to say.  The events shown are mostly not over the top and in some ways their mundane reality is a strength (child abuse, parental greed, parental abandonment), yet I didn’t believe in anything I was watching.  More fundamentally I felt I was in the presence of a director who was ideologically removed from me.  There are obvious influences from Martin Scorsese, Sidney Lumet’s Network and Robert Altman – not my favourite things.

Personal Score: 5/10





This is part of a series of film reviews where I give my comments on IMDB Top 250 films as a writer. The idea is that over time these posts will build into a wide-ranging writing resource.

For more details about the approach I've taken, including some important points about its strengths and weaknesses (I make no claims about my abilities as a film critic or even the accuracy of my comments... but I do stand by the value of a writer's notes on interesting films), see my introductory post here.

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Alfred Hitchcock's "Rope" – Time is Ticking




Two characters, Philip and Brandon, perform the perfect murder of their friend David for kicks at the very start of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope.  Disconcertingly for UK viewers, the murdering leads – Farley Granger (Philip) and John Dall (Brandon) – look a bit like Ed Miliband and a young Michael Portillo.  I’ll try to forget about that for the rest of this review.

WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS



Rope is a sophisticated film but tonally it hits the odd bum note.

James Stewart doesn’t seem very comfortable in the role of the murderers’ old housemaster, Rupert Cadell and his final lecturing speech shaking off all responsibility for his own philosophy’s influence on the murderers is hardly satisfying.

There is also something unsatisfactory about the homosexuality of the murdering pair.  There is a suspicion that their homosexuality is somehow linked to the moral deviancy that they have enthusiastically learned from their housemaster.  This link is not explicit.  The question is, has Hollywood moved directly from not representing gays at all to having two implicitly gay characters whose sexuality has absolutely nothing to do with their separately held views, which just so happen to be morally deviant?  Or has Hollywood in this case landed on non-politically correct middle ground?  To answer this question fully, you’d perhaps need to ask the same question of the finished film, the screenplay, play on which Rope is based, and even the real-life crime that inspired the play – and you might get a different answer for each.


A series of long takes, artlessly joined by unsubtle zooms to the backs of characters’ jackets due to technical limitations at the time of filming on how long an uncut take could last.  The long takes create an effective sense of claustrophobia and increases the sense that the film is played out (more or less) in real time.  I can’t see the point of the pretend non-cuts, though, which are obtrusive.

I’d like to distinguish between issues described above and deliberate use of ambiguity in the film, which I believe is the reason for its overall greatness.




Some examples of intentional ambiguity in the film are:

Despite Brandon’s homosexuality, he has been romantically involved with their female guest Janet (Joan Chandler) in the past.

The philosophy underpinning the murder is that it is acceptable to murder an inferior human, yet David is shown to be at least the equal of the murderers academically, socially and financially.

Far from a perfect murder, the pair have simply killed their friend in a sneak attack during broad daylight, with only the vaguest idea on how to dispose of the body.


There are also some subtle points that enhance the presentation of the plot.  I’ve mentioned the effects of the long takes above.  Another example is the use of music.  There is no overlaid score to the film proper, with the sound being generated from the events of the film.  A metronome ticks away like the timer on a speed chess game as the Prof ramps up the pressure on the visibly cracking Philip.  At the same time, Philip plays Poulenc's “Mouvement Perp├ętuel No. 1” on the piano, whose shifting harmonies and discordances echo the unfolding cat-and-mouse game.  

Personal Score: 7/10





This is part of a series of film reviews where I give my comments on IMDB Top 250 films as a writer. The idea is that over time these posts will build into a wide-ranging writing resource.

For more details about the approach I've taken, including some important points about its strengths and weaknesses (I make no claims about my abilities as a film critic or even the accuracy of my comments... but I do stand by the value of a writer's notes on interesting films), see my introductory post here.