A Bigger Splash, in case you missed it.

A Bigger Splash.

A Bigger Splash (2015) is the fourth film from Luca Guadagnino, and the one he made before the much acclaimed Call Me By Your Name, which was nominated earlier this year for four Academy awards, and which I reviewed here.

Tilda Swinton plays Marianne, a Bowie-esque rock god who has decamped with her sculpted, documentary film maker man to the island of Pantelleria, one of the many stepping stones that link Africa to Europe in the southern Mediterranean.

Call Me By Your Name.

But the peace and quiet of their island idyll is shattered with the arrival of Harry, Marianne’s long-time partner and one-time producer, and the one who introduced her to her new beau. And on his arm he arrives with what seems to be his latest conquest, but what turns out to be his recently discovered teenage daughter.

That peace and quiet is considerably more fragile than first it appeared. Marianne is recovering from surgery on her throat, and must refrain from speaking, while her man is a recovering alcohol who one year earlier made an unsuccessful attempt at taking his own life. Harry meanwhile is, unsurprisingly, still in love with Marianne, and his daughter has arrived there with an agenda all of her own.

Dakota Johnson making a splash.

There’s a wonderful sense of menace and impending doom which contrasts gloriously with the warmth and colour of the landscape which provides the film with its lush backdrop. And the combination of untrammelled hedonism, base carnality and the kinds of primary colours that only the Mediterranean can produce, proves a heady mix. And yet.

As good as A Bigger Splash is, it’s not quite the definitive cinematic marker one was hoping for. Like I am Love (2009) before, and Call Me By Your Name (2017) after, it is ever so slightly too cool and aloof to really engage on an emotional level. It’s definitely the best of what Guadagnino has called his trilogy of desire, but desire is the one thing that’s missing from all three. Granted, there’s no shortage of idealized desire, of requited love, in Call Me By Your Name. But desire without pain is meaningless. If you want to witness true desire, watch Brief Encounter (1946).

David Lean’s peerless Brief Encounter.

The problem is I think that Guadagnino works exclusively as a director, and relies on others for his source material, and on scriptwriters to then write his scripts for him. This frees him up to explore the stylistic elements of his films, and there’s no question that A Bigger Splash looks magnificent. The film’s signature stamp are its many close ups of mirrored sunglasses, which manage at once to be a revealing portrait of the protagonist on view, and an expansive establishing shot of the landscape behind.

But it also means that he doesn’t pursue his chosen themes with the same kind of obsessiveness and purblind passion as does, say, Truffaut, Fellini, Antonioni or, most obviously, Bergman.

Fabulous Fiennes.

Still, what elevates A Bigger Splash and really brings it to life is the magnetic performance Ralph Fiennes gives as Harry. You can’t take your eyes off of him. He is both the most obviously annoying and insufferably obnoxious character, who you just know will ruin everything, because he always ruins everything. And, the most impossibly charming individual you could ever hope to meet, and the one person you know will make whatever the evening is a memorable one.

You can see the trailer of A Bigger Splash here.

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Habaneros, BBC doc on the Cuban revolution.

Havaneros – You Say You Want a Revolution.

Habaneros, the BBC’s brilliant new documentary charting the history of Cuba, completes an unlikely comeback for Julian Temple, one time enfant terrible of British cinema.

Temple shot to fame in 1980, when he documented the rapid rise and demise of the Sex Pistols in The Great Rock and Roll Swindle. In it, Malcolm McLaren cleverly presents himself as the evil Svengali pulling all the strings, and the brains, therefore, behind the band’s success.

On the back of which, Temple was handed the reigns on Absolute Beginners in 1985, which duly became the most expensive film ever made in Britain, and which was supposed to have established Goldcrest as a rival for the big Hollywood studios across the pond.

Absolute Beginners.

Instead of which, the film bombed, the quote studio unquote crashed – aided by the disaster that was the Al Pacino vehicle Revolution – and Temple departed with his tail between his legs in the general direction of the Hollywood hills.

One of the peculiarities of the film industry is that it is always better to have made something, anything, however vacuous, than to have more prudently done nothing at all. So once there, they gave him more money to make his second feature, the instantly forgettable Earth Girls Are Easy, from ‘88. He spent the next decade making equally forgettable if impressively expensive music videos for big name artists like the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, The Kinks and David Bowie.

The Great Rock and Roll Swindle.

But his unlikely comeback began in 2000 with The Filth and the Fury, his well-received Pistols doc which went someway to correcting the biases of his earlier venture. While in 2015, he made the Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson, one of the many, many impeccable Storyville docs that BBC4 has been producing over the last decade (reviewed earlier here). And now this, once again under the auspices of the BBC, this magisterial doc charting the history of Cuba over the past hundred years or so.

The first half of Habaneros charts the history of Cuba in the run up to the revolution in ’59. The repeated interference of the US throughout the first half of the century, which eventually produced the Batista revolution in 1933. But he quickly proved himself to be every bit as corrupt as the regime he’d revolted against, and he and his acolytes bled the island dry before retiring to Florida in ’44. But he returned once more in ’52 when he was re-installed as a US puppet – imagine that, a US backed military coup to overthrow a democratically elected foreign government. Well there’s a first.

Havaneros.

But in ‘56, the exiled Fidel Castro sailed back to the island with 81 troops, only to be immediately ambushed on landing. Just the 12 of them survived, fleeing in desperation for the hills of the Sierra Maestra, with the sum total of seven rifles between them. But in what must surely be the most unlikely successful revolution ever embarked upon, just three years later he and Che Guevara marched triumphantly into Havana on News Year’s Day of 1959, having taken control of the entire island.

This first half of the film is undoubtedly the more lively of the two, as Temple brilliantly mixes media, telling the breathless story of the lead up to the revolution through a montage of carefully chosen interviews, archive footage and animation, on to which he superimposes newspaper and magazine pages that comment on the visuals and voice over underneath.

The second half then follows the history of the island in the wake of that revolution, from the Bay of Pigs, to the Cuban missile crisis, the cold war and the eventual collapse of the Soviet bloc in the‘90s, which resulted in their sole source of funding disappearing into the ether.

Viva la revolucion!

As scrupulously fair as you’d expect from one of the many projects overseen by the peerless Alan Yentob, the second half is inevitably less exciting than the pre-revolutionary fervour that precedes it. As on the one hand, the revolution continues to be celebrated by some, who rightly point to the heroic resistance that the island has maintained against the avaricious interference and oafish grandstanding of its bullying neighbour to the West. And on the other, there are all those who lament how inevitably disappointing that revolution proved to be for the lives that so many of the islanders were forced to live.

It’s a brilliant film, intoxicatingly so in its first half, and everyone involved, especially Temple, should take a very deep bow.

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You Were Never Really Here, a new film from Lynne Ramsay.

You Were Never Really Here.

Lynne Ramsay is one of the few, genuinely exciting film makers working anywhere in the world, and You Were Never Really Here is her latest offering.

She arrived on the scene with Ratcatcher in 1999, which covers exactly the sort of terrain you’d expect from a first film, but in an unexpected and impressively enigmatic way. Next up was Morvern Callar, from 2002, which comfortably confirmed all of the promise that had been hinted at in her debut.

We Need To Talk About Kevin

Mundane events, in what appears to be a conventional genre film, are presented in an off-kilter and distinctly left of field manner. And everything is transformed by her insistence on fully exploring the cinematic language and grammar at her disposal. So that sound is used every bit as expressively as the visual elements, and pace is as pregnant with meaning as any of the sparse if carefully considered lines of dialogue.

We Need To Talk About Kevin came next, in 2011. Ramsay’s adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s contentious novel was as viscerally disturbing as the source material demanded, and was one of the stand-out films of that year. So is this, her fourth.

Joaquin Phoenix and Ekaterina Samsonov in You Were Never Really Here.

You Were Never Really Here centres around Joaquin Phoenix as one of those nebulous, violent fixers prepared to do the sorts of things that well brought up, middle class people wouldn’t dream of doing themselves, but which they are perfectly happy to pay others to do for them. When a high level politician’s 12 year old daughter is abducted and enslaved, Phoenix is dispatched to recover her.

Over the course of the film, we move back and forth between the sinister events of the present day thriller, and the equally dark episodes from his past. The abuse he suffered as a child, and his experiences as a soldier in whichever one of the US wars he was sent over to pointlessly partake in.

Boorman’s Point Blank.

You Were Never Really Here could have been, indeed is essentially, a genre piece. But what might have been little more than a conventional thriller is elevated into something significantly more substantial thanks to Ramsay’s very distinctive stamp. So that the sort of violence which ordinarily washes over us so easily is rendered shocking and even surprising because of the stylised way in which it is presented.

Rarely is anything shown in an expected manner, as key events take place off screen but are heard, loudly, or are seen at one remove, on the CCTV in the corner of a corridor. While Johnny Greenwood’s score, though sparingly used, further adds to the heightened sense of dislocation and the constant sense of threat.

Morvern Callar.

All the performances are pitch perfect and Phoenix is exceptional, but the real star of the show is Ramsay who delivers infinitely more in 90 minutes than just about any other film maker around manages to do in twice that time. And, although there are clear shades of John Boorman’s Point Blank, particularly in its dissonant, staccato editing, and of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver in its themes, this is a triumphantly original piece. She might not yet have produced that definitive masterpiece, but Ramsay’s first four films, and particularly the last three, herald the arrival of a gloriously distinctive and impressively original cinematic voice.

You can see the trailer to You Were Never Really Here here.

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Ready Player One, the new Spielberg film. Yawn.

Ready Player One.

So Ready Player One, the New Seven Spielberg film, is a formulaic, painfully predictable pastiche of the genuinely cinematic. So what? What should we expect from the latest Hollywood blockbuster?

For what it’s worth, the story revolves around a Steve Jobs type tech wizard and his creation of the Oasis. This is the virtual reality video game world where everyone in the universe, that is to say in America, escapes to in the year 2045. By then, we will have so thoroughly trashed the actual world that life will only be bearable in the virtual one accessible through our ubiquitous screens.

Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Before his death, this latter day Willy Wonka announces that he has hidden three keys within the world of the game, and whomsoever retrieves them shall be bequeathed his entire fortune and, more importantly, the world of Oasis.

And so our teenage orphan-hero teams up with a motley crew of juvenile waifs and strays in a race to retrieve the three keys before the evil rival corporation gets their hands on them first. And, much more importantly, to win the love and respect of the inventor father figure, who continues to live on in the world of the game.

It’s not hard to see what they were trying to do here. A few decades ago, Hollywood film makers looked at the way merchandising was threatening the world of film making, and they chose to address it head on by making Toy Story, one of the best trio of films that Hollywood has ever produced. And so, watching today as all of those dollars disappear into the abyss that is the gaming world, they’ve tried to make a Hollywood film about, and addressed to, gamers.

Toy Story.

Bizarrely though, they’ve drowned it all in a sea of cultural references from the 70s and 80s. Not one or two sly nods to Back to The Future and Atari. It’s a never-ending barrage of increasingly tedious and, worse, poorly chosen references. So they’ve produced a film aimed at the under 30s which will only appeal to the 40s, and, much more likely, the 50s, 60s, and overs. There’s one especially cringe-inducing scene in a virtual club that’s the cinematic equivalent of seeing your uncle trying to breakdance to Bon Jovi at your cousin’s wedding.

The fact that this is the new Spielberg film shouldn’t, I suppose, surprise us. After all, it’s a long, long time since he made Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1975 and ’81. His only film of note in the last 30 years or so was Catch Me If You Can and the first hour and a half of Minority Report, both in 2002. And let’s not even mention the execrable Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Catch Me if You Can.

No, what’s so disappointing about Ready Player One is its look and feel. It’s so thin and flimsy, so undifferentiated and inconsequential, so cheap looking and just so, well, digital. A digital screen can be wonderfully engaging in the privacy of your own space. But up on the vast expanse of the silver screen it gets lost, and is reduced to being horribly flat and lifeless.

Very unwisely, Spielberg references Stanley Kubrick (reviewed earlier here), his cinematic hero and father figure, in one of the key scenes. But all this does is to remind us of why it is that real film makers go to such trouble to source actual locations, proper period furniture, tactile costumes and physical trinkets.

Barry Lyndon.

So with a film like Barry Lyndon, and not withstanding its many, many flaws, it still has a magnificent physicality and a tangible solidity to it, because of the manual process through which the images were put together. In contrast, when you know that the edge of the cliff that your hero might be about to drive over is merely made up of pixels, you couldn’t care less.

But much more to the point, and most obviously of all, who wants to watch a video game you’re not allowed to actually play? Imagine peering over someone’s shoulder, and being told you have to stand there and watch as they spend two and half hours playing a game that you’re never going to get a turn on. Who the hell was the Hollywood genius who agreed to green light that idea?

You can see the trailer for Ready Player One here.

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Buster Keaton’s magisterial “The General”.

Buster Keaton, a force of nature.

Orson Welles said of Buster Keaton, that he was “one of the most beautiful people who was ever photographed”. And he said that Keaton’s signature film The General, from 1926, wasn’t just Hollywood’s greatest comedy, but the best film that was ever produced there. “It really deserves that tired word, masterpiece.”

Keaton grew up as part of a family vaudeville act and he made his way inevitably to New York in 1917, where he teamed up with Fatty Arbuckle at the Talmadge Studios – sticking by the latter, both publicly and financially, after his spectacular and unmerited fall from grace.

Buster Keaton’s The General.

By 1920, he’d married one of the Talmadge daughters and had moved out to Hollywood where he set up and ran his own, independent film studio. There, he produced a succession of spectacularly successful shorts, including the justly renown The Playhouse, in which he plays all of the dozen and more characters who people the first ten minutes or so – although beautiful he might have been in a suit, but I’m afraid he very much failed to cut it when trying to sport a dress.

By the middle of the decade, his ambitions had expanded and he moved into fully fledged features, which eventually produced The General. At the time, it was the most expensive film that had ever been made, but tragically it flopped, and he was forced to close down his studio, losing his much cherished independence in the process. And at exactly the same time, Al Jonson could suddenly be heard in cinemas throughout America, as over night the arrival of the talkies rendered the silent era redundant.

6 Keatons look and listen on, as Keaton conducts in The Playhouse.

Predictably, his wife Natalie left him, taking all his money and both his sons – generously forcing them to change their surname – and, following in his father’s footsteps, he slipped into alcoholism and increasing anonymity. But, after briefly marrying and divorcing a nurse at the institution he’d been confined to, he met and married his third wife, Eleanor in 1940.

At 22, she was literally half his age and neither of their friends held out any hope for the union. Remarkably, it lasted for over a quarter of a century, and she can largely be credited with helping him to turn his life around.

Beckett’s Film, starring Buster Keaton.

There was a second act of sorts, in television and with cameos in the likes of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. As well of course as in Beckett’s only foray into the medium, Film of 1965. And he seems to have borne it all, once he got over his alcoholism, with remarkable equanimity. But there’s no getting away from it, his talents were criminally overlooked in the course of his own life. And it’s really only now that people have come to fully appreciate the scale of his genius.

In a way, it’s not hard to see why The General perplexed those initial viewers. It doesn’t have the same madcap mayhem of those earlier shorts, and is a far more measured, mature and sophisticated a piece. It still has any number of those jaw-dropping feats of physical daring that so thrilled audiences then. As a matter of fact, it’s probably we who fail to fully appreciate the physicality of his film making, so used are we now to just assuming that everything we see on a screen must obviously have been doctored and massaged.

Evidently, a man’s man.

Have a look at this 5 minute clip here, and then have a look at it again. There are no special effects or stunt doubles, and the only trick photography he ever uses is the sort of sleight of hand that is self-evidently a trick. Like the time he appears on stage in The Playhouse playing all 9 members of the chorus line, as well as each of the members of the orchestra below. Other than which, everything you see him do, physically, he really does actually do.

That he was the greatest physical actor of the 20th century is without question. What he shows in The General is that, beyond that, he had an astonishing gift for depth and subtlety and a God like sense of timing. Never has the great stone face been put to more impressive if impassive use, and the performance he conjures up in between literally death defying stunts of Archimedian precision is a sight to behold.

He was quite simply an irrepressible force of nature. So the next time you have 78 minutes to spare, watch The General which you can see here.

 

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