Thursday
Apr032014

Mendes: Skyfall (2012)

Daniel Craig has transformed Bond more than any Bond to date. For the most part, he’s entirely eschewed Bond’s camp, aristocratic leanings and moved more in the direction of a traditional action hero, with a bit of Bourne-like opacity thrown in for good measure. There was always something delightfully improbable about previous Bonds being modern action heroes, or about Bond’s good old-fashioned field action coming up against Q’s technological wizardry – you sensed his canny know-how survived despite all the gadgets that were thrust at him, rather than because of them. In many ways, Skyfall summarises everything about Craig’s Bond, and his world, that makes this untenable – it’s the first Bond film to feature a digital nemesis (a hacker modelled on Julian Assange), as well as the first Bond film in which Q seems genuinely disinterested in Bond, offering him a couple of comically perfunctory devices before getting back to monitoring the M16 firewall; their job descriptions have irreversibly changed, and the film struggles to change with them. For the first two thirds, Mendes opts for futurism, as Bond pursues Javier Bardem’s Raoul Silva through a cyberspatial China straight out of William Gibson, moving almost imperceptibly from action hero to stealth, subsumed into great walls of neon and digital glitch, swathes of semi-sentient space-time. Yet the film collapses under the weight of all that futurity into a nostalgic third act, as Bond returns to his family home of Skyfall, and the reassuring spatio-temporal co-ordinates of the earlier films, in an effort to renew what it means to be a field agent, if only by literalising it. That abrupt movement from an unimaginable future to a calcified past – an abrupt shift in palette and cinematography as much as anything else – gives the film an extraordinary, reflexive impotence, reminding us that Craig is also the most vulnerable Bond to date; for all he’s jettisoned their aristocratic affectations, he has to work much harder to stay in the present than his forbears. For that very reason, though, his performance is more relaxed and comic than in his previous two films – he at home in Skyfall’s tensile discomfort, which means that his humourlessness is less grating, less self-serious than in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, which feel warmer, more charismatic, in retrospect. From that retrospective perspective, then, it’s something of a paradox – like Never Say Never Again, it sets out to crystallise our love for a particular Bond by placing him in a world in which he can no longer properly exist.

Thursday
Apr032014

Gervasi: Hitchcock (2013)

Starring Anthony Hopkins in the lead role, Hitchcock revolves around Alfred Hitchcock's personal and professional life during the production of Psycho, especially his relationships with Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johannson) and his wife, Alma (Helen Mirren). Given Hitchcock's canonisation and sedimentation as a director of psychological thrillers, there's something refreshing about the way the film recovers him as not only a director but a pioneer of horror, as well as the way it ascribes his horror impulses to his televisual career as much his film career: according to the film’s logic, Psycho allowed Hitchcock to give himself over to horror because it arrived at the beginning of the decade in which he finally gave himself over to television. Perhaps that’s why Gervasi groups Psycho with Alfred Hitchcock Presents rather than with his cinematic filmography, giving Hitchcock itself something of the flavor of a telemovie, much like the HBO telemovie The Girl, which came out around the same time, and examines the same broad period in Hitch's career. Among other things, that makes it a loving tribute to the prosthetic creakiness of televisual horror – alternately comforting and alarming, just as interested in grotesquerie as in suspense. And Hopkins goes out of his way to make Hitch as grotesque as possible, putting in his most prosthetic, artificial performance since The Silence of the Lambs, until it’s more like attending a waxworks exhibition than watching an actor, part of a pervasive plasticity that makes every face feel made up, balloons every utterance into bloated, baroque excess. This is the Hitchcock of monstrous publicity stills and staged silhouettes, ballooning as the film proceeds, absorbing more and more duties into his directorial role, including writing, editing, calming censors and, finally, funding the project out of his own pocket. At one level, that creates a certain nostalgia for Hitch’s gung-ho, entrepreneurial auteurism, but it also feels like a reflection on the current revival of auteurist television, and how Hitch might have handled it – what the director of Psycho might have done with his own HBO show.

Tuesday
Apr012014

Refn: Bronson (2008)

Nicholas Winding Refn’s crossover hit and first English language film is based on the life of notorious English prisoner Charles Bronson, although it’s not a biopic in any conventional sense. Instead, Refn presents Bronson’s movement from petty theft, to imprisonment, to twenty years in solitary confinement, as a pastiche of ultra-masculine genres – prison films, boxing films, kitchen sink films, crime films, action films, vigilante films – to the point where the film plays as a catalogue of poses, or postures, or at least a series of mise-en-scenes and set pieces designed to showcase the muscular male body in the most fetishistic, flattering light. It’s perhaps surprising, then, that the effect of piling all those genres on top of each other is that none of them feels adequate – or all of them feel impotent, as if Refn were trying to recoup the intense hit of masculinity that genre films once afforded, and to lure back the male demographic that might once have sought genre films as a way of vicariously flexing their muscles. And, in many ways, it’s a genre film made for an age in which cinema has lost a great deal of that vicarious power, superseded by all the avatars lurking around the synthetic fringes of Refn’s vision, as if to remind you how much more effective this might feel as a first-person gamer, a tendency embraced further in Only God Forgives. In this case, though, Refn takes that lurking digital impotence as a challenge to re-embody the male genre film – a challenge that he addresses most powerfully when he draws on Bronson’s fitness books and programs, rather than his insistence on being a vaudevillain, which gets monotonous pretty quickly. Great swathes of the film play as a workout guide, or a demonstration of what a good workout guide can get you, as if prescient that a certain male demographic now works out for the same reasons they might have seen a genre film back in the day, just as the gym has come to eclipse the cinema as a site of male hysteria and anxiety. In fact, it often literally feels designed to attract audiences who might otherwise be at the gym – or to be played at gyms – as Refn concedes that genre films can no longer be satisfied to supply masculinity vicariously; this is a film that actually wants to provide you with a workout, or at least make you feel as insidiously inadequate as the most effective personal trainer, while Hardy’s Bronson is little more than a bodybuilding catalogue made over as an arthouse film, suffused with the high-end brute chic of a boutique fashion spread. Fists perpetually clenched, ready to punch his way out of every situation, there’s no thought or perception that doesn’t have to traverse a thick seam of muscle before it eventuates, which is pretty much the position Refn puts us in as viewers, in one of the most exhausting, exhausted genre films in recent years.

Tuesday
Apr012014

Akerman: Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

Made when Chantal Akerman was a mere twenty-five, this staggering film depicts three days in the life of a single Belgian mother, played by Delphine Seyrig, as she attends to her apartment, runs errands and looks after her son. Devoting roughly an hour to each day, Akerman doesn’t reject so much as eviscerate and exhaust the conventional Hollywood three-act structure, in one of the most perfectly modulated descents into madness ever committed to film. Over the first day, and hour, Jeanne Dielman is presented as a paragon of orderliness and routine – a mistress of domestic economy, with the focus on the economy – and Akerman’s camera follows suit, observing her with a detached, procedural blankness that never strays from static mid-shots. Nothing seems amiss about Jeanne’s routine, apart from the fact that she services male clients every afternoon to help pay her bills – the only part of her life we don’t see in painstaking detail – and that’s perhaps what starts to precipitate her breakdown on the second and third days. It doesn’t seem quite right to ascribe any overarching cause, though, since this a breakdown that comes so gradually that you only start to feel that it’s started in retrospect – Akerman ingratiates you so subliminally and hypnotically into Jeanne’s routine that it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when she starts to deviate from it, or to account for why even the most apparently trivial deviations start to take on momentous significance. What is clear is that, by the third day, Jeanne has started to become well and truly dissociated from her routine, which means being dissociated from her apartment. Strangely, that opens up the possibility of boredom for the first time in the film, but also the possibility of curiosity, as she – and the audience – see the apartment for the first time, and the film becomes less about watching an apartment operating itself than something closer to a conventional, realist character study. Appropriately, it’s at this point that Akerman also starts to deviate from a relatively narrow pool of compositions, while Seyrig’s body language almost imperceptibly slackens, loses something of its conviction and coherence, like a mechanical doll that’s gradually winding down, fighting with all its power not to become part of the furniture, tripped up by household objects that have suddenly turned hostile. Less a breakdown in slow motion than a breakdown in real motion, seen moment by moment, in all its metrically gradated minutiae, it’s one of the most visceral, unbearable films ever made – Akerman films Jeanne losing control as calmly and completely as she films her eating a bowl of soup, or reading a newspaper article, with all the shock of recognition that comes from seeing actions completed and contemplated in real time.

Tuesday
Apr012014

Allen: The Uninvited (1944)

The Uninvited is generally considered to be the first serious haunted house film, or at least the first high concept haunted house film, as well as the first to ascribe the haunting to a supernatural cause. Set on the Cornish coast, it’s about a brother and sister, Roderick and Pamela Fitzgerald (Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey), who impulsively buy a remote, desolate clifftop house when holidaying from London. They quickly move in, and just as quickly realise that there’s something wrong about the house – a series of “disturbances” that take them back to the original owner, Commander Beech (Donald Crisp) and his granddaughter Stella Meredith (Gail Russell) for questions. For the most part Lewis Allen draws on the lush atmospherics of the Lewton horror cycle to heighten our sensitivity to the precise modulations of moving from one room to another - insofar as the “disturbances” tend to manifest themselves, it’s as fleeting, elusive changes in how a room feels, or sounds, or smells, as horror tends to hang around doors, porches, windows and other thresholds between one micro-atmosphere and the next. Among other things, that tends to collapse the difference between scenes shot on sound sages and scenes shot on location – if anything, the more furnished a room, the more distinctive an atmosphere it accrues, as Roderick and Pamela learn after attempting to make over the house in their own image, a ploy that just provides the “disturbances” with a greater canvas of materials and textures to make their presence felt. And, at its strongest, it feels as if Allen is offering the haunted house genre as just this collapse of real and staged scenes in the name of an affinity between the camera and the spaces it describes that doesn’t much care whether those spaces are regarded as being natural or artificial by human standards – a realism of space that bypasses human use and so ends up feeling too real for human perception, as if supernaturalism were simply the moment at which realism exceeds our sensory limitations. Not unlike the relationship between the camera and its spaces in the Paranormal Activity franchise – the film includes one of the earliest and eeriest séance sessions – it must have struck audiences with a similar terror and uncanniness, making for one of the most melancholy, memorable horror films of the 40s, and a morbid, moody precursor to The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.