Review: Knight of Cups (2015)

This review was originally published on Scannain.com.

**

Knight of Cups opens on the awe-inspiring sight of the aurora borealis from space, while we hear narration from the late Sir John Gielgud reading from John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress on the soundtrack. Like Bunyan’s opus, Terrence Malick’s latest charts the journey of its hero (named Christian in the book, with Malick’s surrogate played by Christian Bale in a surfeit of serendipity) from the depths of sin to “safe arrival at the desired country.” It certainly captures the ardour of such a journey; it’s fraught with questions, plenty of which go unanswered, and littered with distracting characters at once obstinate, pliable and wanton. Right from the start, it’s a voyage through a pretty landscape, but the climate is distractingly humid, toploaded with hot air.

For the sake of full disclosure, this reviewer saw Knight of Cups legally on a big screen. Yet even before the film ‘leaked’ online (The leaked copy came from a legally downloaded version, originally from iTunes, hence the inverted commas), the chances of seeing Malick’s oh-so-tasteful L.A. commentary in any public arena were gradually slimming. The official synopsis proved to be both vague and overly reductive, already pitching the film at the level of a Zen riddle. A dazzling trailer was counteracted by mixed buzz after the film’s Berlinale bow. Cue nearly a year of flapping limply around the festival circuit, and it’s now getting a staggered Blu-Ray release. After the indifferent passing of To The Wonder, perhaps another grand folly played out in public was too much to bear for ol’ Terry Malick. On this evidence, he only has himself to blame.

Bale plays Rick, who works in Hollywood, though you’d have to read a detailed summary to conclude that he’s a screenwriter. He could be an actor or a director, but the film offers little context beyond the Los Angeles setting. He’s a typically dissatisfied Malick-ian soul, though there’s plenty surrounding him to serve as distractions. The trailer for Knight of Cups, with its choppy cuts, handheld cameras and nightclub footage suggested something that at least moved faster than the sun-dappled To The Wonder. The L.A. of Knight of Cups is no less sunny, which proves a contrast to so many films that are happy to mine its underbelly for a story. The sun illuminates the streets, film sets and aquaria of the city, all of which Rick visits on what is to be a long journey towards some sense of self. The film gets its title from the tarot card of the same name, whose emotional control is dependent on what way the card is turned. Rick is an upside-down card, emotionally drained and in need of calm, away from the distractions of the City of Angels. Considering that we started on with the aurora borealis, this focus seems too narrow for Malick. He reaches for the skies, for the thoughts of Bunyan and the ethereal arctic glows, but Malick’s finished product is too compartmentalized (Perhaps too compromised?) to get there.

Rick’s efforts to upright his card are framed within his meetings with various people, the angels of all shades in a city that Malick seems to think is bereft of them. Initially, Rick parties his way through L.A. as Malick and DoP Emmanuel Lubezki alternate between handheld and Steadicam, black & white and colour. The stylish look of some of these scenes is unusual for Malick, but it does help establish the hedonism of the city before he ramps his methods and message up proper. Encounters with Rick’s mistress (Imogen Poots), estranged wife (Cate Blanchett) and father (Brian Dennehy) come and go, but all with little impact. With the possible exception of Wes Bentley (as Rick’s wayward brother), the cast look lost, as if freshly awoken from sleep. The scenes become more and more Malick-ian, with muted dialogue, gliding camera sweeps back and forth, and important-sounding whispers as voiceover. We’ve been here before; the familiar methodology suggests familiar themes as well, but it never coheres into a satisfying whole. Malick covered the conflict of fathers and sons to much more staggering effect in The Tree of Life, while To The Wonder embodied the joy of love in the simple joy of Olga Kurylenko’s endless twirling through fields. Here, there’s little respite for any character, and even less for an audience.

As much as one could grumble about a similar weightlessness in To The Wonder, the characters were sufficiently engaging to keep it grounded. With less defined characters and less security in what it’s trying to say (beyond broad platitudes about the soullessness of the entertainment industry), Knight of Cups threatens to flit away long before Natalie Portman shows up in the third act to fulfil another ill-defined role. There is an argument to be made that this hollowness is part of Malick’s point. At one stage, a Las Vegas stripper tells Rick, “You can be whoever you wanna be.” Is Rick at such critical mass that he can’t identify himself or anyone else? Well, at one point, Rick wanders into a room filled with fog. Yes, Knight of Cups can be that thunderingly obvious. For a better representation of troubling identity crises, try Anomalisa; that deals with its lead character’s Fregolian dilemma in a way that’s more original and less self-parodic.

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Review: Grandma (2015)

Director: Chris Weitz

***

This review was originally published on Scannain.com.

Though never too far away from our cinema or TV screens, Lily Tomlin hasn’t taken a lead role in a film since 1988’s Big Business. If the part of Elle Reid in Paul Weitz’s Grandma wasn’t written for Tomlin, it was some kind of serendipity, because her performance is one of just a few elements that keeps Grandma from disappearing from the mind soon after it ends.

Grandma is defined by its title character, Tomlin’s retired academic and poet, who starts the film by breaking up with her current girlfriend Olivia (Judy Greer, who sadly never says “Say goodbye to these”, Arrested Development fans). This is but the first in a series of incidents that come, one after another, to make for a very singular day for Elle. No sooner has Olivia left, but Elle’s granddaughter Sage arrives. Sage is played by Julia Garner, delivering a restrained turn in a role that could so easily have turned quite shrill. Inheriting a certain portion of her grandmother’s bluntness, she confesses she’s pregnant and needs help funding a termination. Grandma doesn’t lack for drama, but it lacks a cohesive structure to keep it grounded. Once Sage makes her announcement, she and Elle are off in search of debtors and friends who might help them cobble the funds together. Thus begins a sorely episodic jaunt all over Los Angeles, with visits lined up one after another. The film is divided into chapters, each with their own title card. The film is episodic enough; the title cards just make it official. As the pair hop from encounter to encounter, some of which are more helpful than others, one can’t help but wish there was something a bit more concrete holding it all together. The handheld camerawork only adds to the feeling the whole film could drift away.

They travel in Elle’s late partner Vi’s vintage car, which rattles and splutters along the sunshiny LA byways. The car serves as both a source of laughs (via engine troubles) and a memory. Throughout, Grandma mingles lumps in the throat in with its guffaws. It’s a tricky balancing act, but Weitz succeeds a little too well. Neither drama nor comedy wins outright; they seem to cancel each other out. We laugh at Elle’s rationales for cutting up her credit card, but this is an emergency where it could make a difference. The scramble for money is the epitome of Weitz’s approach; it’s both an opportunity for laughs and a melancholy commentary. Most of the laughs come courtesy of Tomlin’s delivery of the profanity-peppered dialogue. Elle takes no prisoners; she’s seen and experienced enough to know better than to tolerate younger nonsense, as evidenced by an early encounter with Sage’s boyfriend (Nat Wolff). The poor chap never knew what hit him. Tomlin is unapologetically brilliant as this justified sourpuss, and her rapport with Garner is just the right blend of tough n’ tender. We want this granny in our corner.

Even if the events of Grandma don’t quite gel, it is at least peppered with great individual moments. All too brief appearances by the likes of Laverne Cox, Marcia Gay Harden and the late lamented Elizabeth Peña add to the flavour, while a meeting between Elle and her ex Karl (Sam Elliott) is a beautifully-crafted nugget of drama, with pasts teased out and skeletons unearthed. Alas, Elle and Sage have other places to be, meaning that the great moments don’t last. Even if it’s fleet-footed, at least Grandma isn’t preachy, treating its central premise with the respect and practicality it deserves. The cast make it, but Grandma’s easy-going nature is both blessing and curse.

What’s the French for ‘binge-watch’? Rivette’s OUT 1

This article was originally published on Scannain.com

So, would you watch a 13-hour film?

That’s the inevitable first question that crops up in any discussion of Jacques Rivette’s 1971 opus Out 1: Noli Me Tangere. But that run time is just one element of a glorious mystique that has built up around this masterwork. The release of a brand new Rivette Collection box set (by Kino Lorber in the U.S., and Arrow Video in the U.K.) with Noli Me Tangere (plus its shorter version, the 4-hour Out 1: Spectre) brings the film to the masses, and demystifies one of cinema’s holy grails. It was not a lost film, rather a film that was difficult to find, its history plagued by bouts of obscurity. That won’t be happening again. Originally conceived as a television series, Rivette eventually made it into a 13-hour feature with an eight-episode structure. Rivette drew inspiration from early serials like Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampyres (1915), which is similarly compartmentalized yet shown in its entirety. He called it Out 1 to show his refusal to be ‘in’; it would ultimately become too obscure to be anywhere near ‘in’. Its blend of length, structure and thematic depth fuelled a cult following; seeing Out 1 became a badge of honour for cinephiles. Now, it’s open to all; given that the film playfully mocks the leftist revolutions of 1968, it’s another layer of irony to be added to this elusive work.

The enigma of Out 1 only deepens when trying to explain what it’s all about. There are characters, but the story in which they’re involved evolves and shifts about very readily, even diminishing in importance from time to time as we switch from one location and one set of characters to another. The film centres on two theatre groups in rehearsal. Each group is rehearsing an Aeschylus play; one’s doing Seven Against Thebes, the other Prometheus Bound. Like a hangover from Rivette’s previous film L’amour fou, we watch the groups engage in prolonged exploratory exercises built on spontaneity, a method favoured by many theatre groups at the time. From one group performing yoga-aping feats with limbs and bottoms, we cut to the other group lumbering and squealing around a dummy, like the apes reacting to the monolith in 2001. As with these actors, there’s a playful freedom to Out 1 that makes the whole endeavour seem quite unpredictable. Unbound to expectation, Rivette captures this latter rehearsal in an unbroken shot that continues for well over half an hour. Plot will come later, as the links between the two groups are revealed to be more personal than a shared playwright. In the meantime, we’re propelled into the workings of these groups, and relationships are laid down that will drive the narrative on when it actually arrives.

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Bulle Ogier in OUT 1

Also in this mix are two con artists, also operating separately from each other. The most recognizable face in the film is that of Jean-Pierre Léaud as con man Colin. At this stage, he had not yet finished playing Antoine Doinel for Truffaut, and is just one of many ways Out 1 ties into film history. The film is riddled with faces and names who defined, and would continue to define, French cinema. Michael Lonsdale became a renowned character actor both in France and beyond. Bernadette Lafont would be known before and after for her work with director Claude Chabrol. Bulle Ogier and Juliet Berto would star in Rivette’s Céline and Julie Go Boating, before forging successful partnerships with Rivette and Jean-Luc Godard respectively. And so on. Out 1 teems with the energy of these young actors, who never baulk at the film’s relative lack of narrative. In fact, they embrace it. The narrative flexibility allows them to create memorable characters and moments. One of the defining scenes of Out 1 sees Colin walking down a Parisian street reciting a passage from Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark, which he believes contains a clue to the theatre groups’ activities. There is a determination to Léaud’s performance that borders on intimidating, especially next to the more naturalistic work by members of the theatre troupes. Rivette’s greatest feat is to have created such a hypnotizing journey from so many disparate elements. The disparities are manyfold, but we’re willing to forgive the odd appearance by a boom mike or a self-conscious extra when the work holds together as a whole so well. It’s like the most cerebral soap opera you could possibly imagine.

Berto plays conwoman Frédérique in Out 1; separately, both she and Colin get mixed up with the theatrical groups by way of curiosity. Both are fascinated by rumours and suggestions of a group (Theatrical? Political? Or otherwise?) called ‘The Thirteen’. It’s a direct reference to Balzac’s Comédie Humaine, to which Out 1 is hugely indebted. It is the primary literary link in a work that is generously suffused with cultural references. The intertextuality at play throughout the film is a treasure trove. From Balzac to Cayette, to Carroll, to New Wave directors, to Rivette’s own filmography, this is full of material ripe for critical analysis. A most delicious example occurs when Éric Rohmer, another literary-minded purveyor of film serials (Six Moral Tales) turns up for a cameo as a Balzac expert approached by Colin for information. It’s no spoiler to say that the mystery of ‘the Thirteen’ is not worthy of either Colin and Frédérique’s efforts; the former seems quite disappointed in the louche organization of their nominal hideout ‘The Corner of Chance’ (a dive run by Ogier’s Pauline). Yet Out 1 is all about that search for belonging. Each part of Out 1 is necessary, and the con artists want to feel needed and necessary, too. Any time either group comes under threat (which is often), the members panic. Out 1 is about a sense of community and definition within a group. Colin’s con act involves him playing a deaf-mute; out of a strange mix of loneliness, curiosity and boredom, he suddenly feels a need to be heard by others. At least two characters in Out 1 are missing, and are never viewed onscreen. Though they prove important through their offscreen actions, there is a pervading sense that these groups could carry on just as well without them. These men may not be islands, but the links that bind them to others are threatened by the men’s absence from proceedings.

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Juliet Berto in OUT 1

The episodic format of Out 1 has worked before and since (Think of Kieslowski’s Dekalog or, more recently, Dumont’s P’Tit Quinquin). Screenings of the film, from its initial presentations up to recent showings in New York, London, Dublin and other cities, tend to spread the film across two days, with four episodes each day. You might say the home entertainment release of Out 1 came at just the right time; with binge-watching becoming the new ‘Tune in next week’, the freedom permitted by the DVDs is a wonderful thing. Out 1’s episodic structure works in tandem with its thematic complexity and richness. It could only be accentuated by the ability to pause and rewind. Rivette couldn’t have seen the age of boxsets and binge-watches coming, but the fact that he’s survived to see the day (He turns 88 in March) may well amuse him. This is the format his chef d’oeuvre has been waiting for.

Review: Queen of Earth (2015)

Director: Alex Ross Perry

****

This review was originally published on Scannain.com

Queen of Earth starts as it means to go on, with emotions both buried and on display for all to see. It opens on a close-up of Elisabeth Moss in the role of Catherine, as she’s being dumped by her off-camera boyfriend. They exchange the requisite bitterness and emotions build, yet the camera stays on her face for the whole scene, through tears and trauma. The unflinching gaze of writer-director Alex Ross Perry and the emotional commitment of Moss are bolted down from the start. The rest of the film is similarly unflinching; just as Moss’ range is thrown from pillar to post, so genre gets toppled on its head to let fractured emotions through.

It may seems kitsch for a film to use form to locate itself, but Perry knows his influences, and decides to celebrate them rather than quell suggestions or comparisons. When was the last time you saw a title card come up accompanied by a copyright notice and the year in Roman numerals? It is there to invoke the period and genre Perry yearns to channel, namely the great female-led psychological dramas of the late 1960s and 1970s. By invoking the spirit of these films, Perry posits that films with such complexly traumatised women front and centre were better back then. He might be right, as they provide inspiration for a drama of blinding intensity. As Catherine repairs to the lake house owned by her friend Virginia (Katherine Waterston), her attempts to repair her fragile sense of self recall the broken women of Bergman’s Persona. Yet neither woman here is unable to talk; quite the opposite, in fact. Catherine’s fragility and Virginia’s standoffishness prove uneasy bedfellows. As Virginia tries to lead her usual routine, whilst hooking up with cocky neighbour Rich (Patrick Fugit), Catherine feels the lakeside setting growing more claustrophobic. The increasing tension recalls Altman’s 3 Women or Allen’s Interiors, with both women sniping for the sake of their own peace of mind. Virginia impatiently wants to help Catherine, but Catherine repeatedly speaks of her desire to be left alone. It’s a no-win situation ripe with drama and decidedly bitter repartee.

Queen of Earth is all about its two leading queens, and selling this pair of bitter pills are two actress working at the peak of their powers. Moss is creepily impressive, with the subtlest of eye flutters telling their own story. Her quietness invites us in, and makes her bolder statements all the more eerie (“I could murder you right now and no one would ever know”). It also marks her inevitable unbalancing all the more traumatic. In Waterston’s second ‘70s throwback in as many years (after Inherent Vice), she’s altogether more understandable, bringing a blend of concern and distant vexation to her terrific turn (“I love you more than anything, you stupid brat!”). Perry’s script, laced with this bitter flavour, comes with a healthy dose of black humour. Perry’s flirted with self-importance before (and arguably succumbed to it with his previous effort, Listen Up Philip), but his icy laughs and direction keep Queen of Earth from disappearing up itself. From slow zooms on emotional faces, to genre-nodding high and low angles, Queen of Earth fizzes with unpredictability.

Despite many visible influences, Perry smartly blends them to make Queen of Earth stand out as his own concoction. At first, the most notable touchstone might be Listen Up Philip. With this very different follow-up, Perry appears to have discovered how best to use the affectations of the purposefully unlikeable Philip. Besides Moss, both films also share key technical personnel. Sean Price Williams shoots proceedings once more on 16mm film, but it feels less like the work of an insistent hipster and more like an active evocation of those great female dramas of yore. Working at a similar pitch is Keegan DeWitt’s score, its French horns and wrenchenspiels recalling early Polanski and Carpenter. All these elements recall great works of the past, but by working in tandem they gift Queen of Earth verisimilitude. It’s too convincingly acted and sharply written to be dismissed as mere homage, and it’s sufficiently off-kilter to avoid being po-faced. While a few nods might be a little on the nose (A scene involving an animal jawbone recalls Blue Velvet far too readily), Queen of Earth is still its own beast, a quiet shriek of beautiful insanity.

Review: Spectre (2015)

Director: Sam Mendes

**

This review was originally published on Scannain.com

 ‘The dead are alive.’ Thus reads the first title card that pops onscreen in Spectre. James Bond may not be a zombie, but the 007 franchise takes delirious pleasure in cannibalizing itself, forever loading each new installment with jokes and nods to films past. Skyfall kept in-jokes to a sarky minimum and upped the personal stakes. This approach earned it a billion dollars and two Oscars. Spectre takes precisely the opposite approach: it ties itself to Bond lore so tightly that it cuts off its own air supply. Skyfall was smart yet nimble fun, but the past is too great a burden for Spectre to bear. Even with director Sam Mendes back on board, it doesn’t have to be as good as Skyfall; it just has to be good. The opening scene bodes well; starting with a lithe tracking shot, Bond attempts to take out an Italian assassin during the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico City. Things go awry, and the scene builds in tension as a helicopter gets involved. Between the eerie skeleton imagery and top-notch stuntwork, it’s a thrilling setpiece, and the finest opening to a Bond since Casino Royale. So far, so good.

Then, Sam Smith’s forgettable whine of a song kicks in. This high-pitched dirge accompanies Daniel Kleinman’s typically-stylish credit sequence. Spectre’s octopus symbolism is referenced throughout the sequence, though it means some shots feel more like they belong in Zulawski’s Possession. Once Smith shuts up, we’re back in London to find Bond being reprimanded for his rogue Mexican antics by M (Ralph Fiennes). He’s understandably vexed. Bond’s latest antics might be the last nail in the coffin for the 00 unit, as new Defence Ministry bigwig Denbigh, codename C (Andrew Scott, ditching charm for smarm) seeks to shut them down in favour of a world-spanning surveillance program. Didn’t we have a similar 00-killing dilemma in Skyfall? Spectre is needily indebted to its immediate predecessors. The returning scriptwriting team of Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan are joined by Jez Butterworth (Edge of Tomorrow, Black Mass) to create a story that tries to balance the leaner, more modern elements of Bond that Skyfall perfected with plots and traits of older Bonds. Yes, the traditional gunbarrel sequence returns to the start of the film, but the nods in the action and plot beats to the whole canon, from The World Is Not Enough to From Russia With Love, are too uneven to allow Spectre to leave its own mark.

On instructions left for him by previous M Judi Dench (Because, y’know, the past), Bond follows a trail from the assassin’s funeral to his widow (Monica Bellucci, doing a lot with not near enough screentime) to a secretive organisation having a whispery board meeting in central Rome. The evil organisation SPECTRE hasn’t appeared in a Bond film since 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever, largely due to rights issues. Mendes and the script see no need to mould the idea of SPECTRE to fit into a world that has changed so much in 44 years. Here’s a top-secret organisation that can somehow get away with crater bases and high-level meetings in the middle of big cities. Yet, the screenwriters think it’s a gambit so worthwhile that it ties the antagonists of the previous three films into SPECTRE’s web. Its leader Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz, exhibiting little of the relish that made Hans Landa so memorable) is a throwback to other OTT Bond megalomaniacs, but with little to define him besides a half-baked backstory that might just have audiences slapping their foreheads. Spectre is so concerned with looking back into the past that it can’t see the stumbling blocks ahead of it.

Following a quick escape from Rome, Bond hops to Austria to meet with Casino Royale’s Mr. White (Jesper Christensen), who directs him to to our Bond girl for the evening, Léa Seydoux’s Madeleine Swann; try as that name might, the only thing Spectre has in common with In Search of Lost Time is its bum-numbing length. Realistically, this location just allows for some snowy action to recall On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Spectre lollops along for over an hour at a steady, yet uninspired pace. We get basic introductions to SPECTRE, Oberhauser and our old-school henchman Hinx (Dave Bautista, menacing but sadly silent), but no overawing sense of threat. To invoke another unfavourable comparison to Skyfall, Javier Bardem’s Silva was so menacing because he had a clear agenda and target. In an age where cyber-terrorism is the threat of the day, fights with burly henchmen fall somewhere between quaint and anachronistic. The Denbigh plot taps into issues of covert surveillance versus personal freedoms, but it jostles for attention with Bond’s globe-hopping in a film that’s sorely overlong (148 minutes), yet never allows its characters time to develop. By the time the pace grinds to a halt with a prolonged trip to Morocco, it becomes clear that Skyfall spoiled us.

From the Proust referencing to a continuous mirror motif, there are hints that Spectre is trying to earn bonus points for extra knowledge on its exam paper. These efforts are all for naught when the old school necessities of SPECTRE, far-flung locales and Bond girls needing rescue get in the way. There are plenty of iconography-baiting moments for Bond fans to chew over, but it also means Spectre will be as inaccessible to Bond noobs as Skyfall was fun for all. Enjoying himself least of all is Craig, who looks less at ease as Bond here than in his previous outings; perhaps he really means it when he says he’s done with this role. Seydoux beings more energy to her role, even if Swann is there just to impart information and be rescued. The MI6 bods fare best here. Ben Whishaw’s Q steals every scene he’s in with a quiet smirk and gentle humour, while Naomie Harris is a sparky-if-underused Moneypenny. Meanwhile, Fiennes continues his habit of simultaneously having fun and being terrific. His M is as tough as Judi Dench’s, but he also has a headmasterly quality that makes him both a valuable ally and a keen sparring partner for Bond. On this evidence, an M prequel might be more interesting than James Bond’s return.

No Longer In Control: Revisiting Blackhat

This article was originally published on Scannain.com

On a first viewing Blackhat seems, for a Michael Mann movie, uncharacteristically uninterested in its characters. The film opens with a view of our planet defined by its international online connections rather than by borders. It glows bright blue with the voluminous links and transactions traversing our planet. The scope of this tale is laid down; the cops and criminals in Mann’s latest picture are working on a global scale. Considering the damage Mann’s damaged men can cause on a local level, Blackhat is charting actions and distances bigger than we have seen before in his films. It’s a Parallax View-inflected slice of conspiracy, with a body count and danger to match the levels of paranoia.

The actions undertaken by the characters in Blackhat have a wide reach, yet they begin with the tiniest infractions on a microchip. From our blue worldview, we slowly cut to a nuclear power plant in China, and then cut in further and further, and the scale gets smaller and smaller. We eventually arrive at the infinitesimal circuitry of a microchip embedded somewhere in the power plant’s control systems. The grey chips and circuits are suddenly flooded with bright lights, as alternative instructions come flooding in to the computer system. More obstructive instructions pile on the circuitry before the plant’s cooling system breaks down, triggering an explosion. In all of this, we briefly cut to a shadowy figure in a remote location punching in commands on a keyboard. In his crime oeuvre, Mann’s criminals pride themselves on a certain distance. Heat’s Neil McCauley insisted on emotional distance to allow himself a hassle-free escape should it be required. In Miami Vice, the cartel being investigated is located in the Caribbean, far from the reach of the Vice squad in Florida. Blackhat’s antagonist is only glimpsed in the last act, with an ocean and various middlemen separating him from the chaos he created in China with a keyboard and a sturdy Internet connection. His identity doesn’t matter, but his intent and his capabilities do. As Mann’s criminals get further away, the damage they can cause increases exponentially.

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Chris Hemsworth and Viola Davis in BLACKHAT

It may be this distance that caused Blackhat to be a costly flop for Mann. For audiences, this dependable chronicler of solitary males driven by basic compulsions/desires to undertake grave actions may have cast his net too wide. Goodness knows why; it’s his typical tale of a leading man (Chris Hemsworth in the role of criminal hacker Nicholas Hathaway) with a basic desire (freedom from prison) driving him to a great task (apprehend the hacker who blew up the power plant). Some of the blame can be pinned on a relative failure by filmmakers to adequately treat the world of hacking and cyber-terrorism with the respect it deserves up to now. The most notable films featuring hacking narratives include Hackers and The Net, which speaks volumes. Most directors will admit it’s tricky to make scenes of people tapping code into keyboards look cinematic or exciting, and with hacking’s onscreen track history, most any analyst of box office figures would have guessed that Blackhat was a risk. Yet, underneath the tech-y guise is a Mann film through and through. Its failure to gain critical traction was a surprise, considering Mann’s relative success in that arena. Mann has almost always come through box office disappointments (Manhunter, The Insider) by virtue of the fact that he had a great many admirers in critical and industry circles. He gained this traction simply by being a good director, and Blackhat is an unquestionably well-directed film. His choices of camera angles, his framing and blocking are elegant, rarely calling attention to themselves but offering up rewards for the attentive viewer. For any gripes about who did what (Blackhat has four credited editors and three credited composers, with contributions from others), Mann is the undoubted auteur of this film.

As with all of Mann’s work, Blackhat’s plot is predicated on an atmosphere of cool distrust. From the anonymous attack on the power plant, to protagonist Hathaway being a convicted criminal, the audience is put on the back foot when it comes to expectations. Before Hathaway is even brought into the mix, the initial investigations see Chinese analyst Chen DaWei (Leehom Wang) seeking assistance from the FBI in tracking the attack. We meet FBI reps Barrett (Viola Davis) and Pollack (John Ortiz) reviewing DaWei’s credentials. Despite DaWei’s Western education, Pollack describes working with their Chinese counterparts as ‘inviting them into the henhouse.’ For all the trumpeting Hollywood may do of increased Sino-American cooperation (see Transformers: Age of Extinction or The Martian for examples), Blackhat sees such cross-border enterprises on a more tactical level. Before achieving a common goal, the two parties must first establish trust; that being said, in the course of the film inter-agency trust is necessarily established and broken, allegiances are scattered and bodies pile up. The film begins in the depths of a corrupted computer system and balloons in size to end on a shootout. Pessimism goes through Blackhat like words through a stick of rock.

The basic requirement of trust sees DaWei enlist the assistance of his sister Lei (Tang Wei), a fellow analyst. In the forms of Hemsworth, Wei and Wang, the protagonists in Blackhat differ from Mann’s stock-in-trade leads. Once, Petersen and Cox talked through iron bars, and De Niro and Pacino had a shootout at a bank. Now, the criminal is a continent away, possessed of different skills and abilities, which can only be countered by a new generation of coders, analysts and investigators. In numerous other films, hackers and hacking is a novelty. In Blackhat, Mann uses his stylish, mature eye to elevate it to a legitimate, awe-inspiring threat. Crucially, the architecture of circuitry and code is not made accessible; it is a foreign, cold world with few trustworthy navigators. Scenes take place with credible discussion of online security systems in rooms with towering servers emitting blue glows (Mann always gets the most of his DoP, and Stuart Dryburgh’s work here is no exception, creating a world of darkness pierced by interloping primary colours). Overseeing all of this is the ever-wonderful Davis as Barrett, a throwback to old-school defence in need of youthful expertise to provide security in a new battlefield. She’s not weak (“Chica? Am I hispanic?!”) but she is tactical, with an attempt at a backstory proving an unnecessary adjunct to the basic foundation of leadership and security she provides. Watch her break a stock market official (Spencer Garrett) in pursuit of information on possible beneficiaries from a stock market spike.

The relationships between countries, and between young and old, are initially chilly. Yet the urgency of the hacker’s threat, as evidenced on a follow-up attack on a stock market to inflate soy futures, ensures the working relationships grow closer quickly, if only out of necessity. The increased closeness of cooperation is emphasized by Mann’s framing, with more single shots of DaWei and Barrett analyzing data together, while Lei and Hathaway try to track down contacts to the hacker on the ground. Their relationship has grown beyond the professional, but the script gives little dialogue to this aspect. Mann conveys their growing closeness through furtive glances and glimpses at necks and arms. Throughout his oeuvre, in the most basic of human interactions, Mann lets body language do most of the talking. Blackhat is all about showing, not telling, not least because telling is ineffective. Why try to explain the transfer of corrupting data through a computer network when you can show it instead? Complicating your script with potentially cheesy dialogue will do you few favours, but showing the desires of the characters works effectively and efficiently. Early on in the investigation, Hathaway asks the crucial question, “What does this guy want?” What he wants hardly matters; it is his want, his desire, that is dangerous, because he can get most anything he wants with a few taps on a keyboard. For all its technical trappings, Blackhat is a paranoid glimpse at desire at its most horrifically manifest. Control, power, money; it’s all there at the click of a mouse. (Not really, but Mann sure makes it feel that way).

Review: The Hateful Eight (2015)

Director: Quentin Tarantino

**

This review was originally published on Scannain.com

Throughout the filmography of Quentin Tarantino heroes, zeroes and everyone in between brandish weapons with a knowing flourish before delivering the killer blow. Of course, the greatest weapon they’re given is the ever-arch QT brand of dialogue. Tarantino’s characters talk for any number of reasons; to advance the plot, to pass the time, to establish their credentials. Once upon a time, the chat came stylishly, yet with a certain naturality. But there came a point when QT’s dramatis personae became even more articulate and more removed from the immediacy of their predicament. There was little call for kung-fu assassin leader Bill to suddenly wax lyrical on Superman, yet off he went. From Kill Bill on, Tarantino’s dialogue became more and more about the need for control. He who talks, rules. Now, along comes The Hateful Eight, and everyone is determined to have their say.

For Tarantino more than most, opening credits are a statement of intent. The credits of The Hateful Eight remind us (like we could forget) that this is his eighth feature. As a genre, Westerns are defined by their efforts to perpetuate their own myths, so it’s apt that the never-understated Tarantino has stayed in that genre following the similarly bloody and prolonged Django Unchained. For his next trick, he’s reaching for the horizon and capturing it all in the resurrected glory of 70mm film. It’s unlikely to lead a resurgence in 70mm screenings, but the beauty of Robert Richardson’s muscular cinematography is undeniable. The opening credits are backgrounded by a wooden crucifix against a stunning cyan-and-white vista that engulfs the screen. As dazzling as it is, it is also self-cognisant in the extreme. Nothing new to Tarantino of course, but the over-eagerness of The Hateful Eight’s design feels less like a throwback (except to QT’s own films, in particular Reservoir Dogs) and more like an exercise in self-aggrandisement, a phenomenon that has only increased with each new Tarantino film.

Slowly from behind the crucifix a stagecoach emerges, and our bloody adventure begins proper. As bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his captive, murderess Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), head across wintry 1850s Wyoming to the town of Red Rock, Tarantino treats the first couple of ‘chapters’ of this tale as a knockabout comedy of the blackest kind. On their way, they pick up Major Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and Sheriff Mannix (Walton Goggins), and the menfolk exchange tales while Daisy insolently interjects on occasion and gets an elbow in the face for her trouble. Before this ends all characters, the nominal octet and beyond, will have endured their fair share of misery and indignities. We might have cared if Tarantino wasn’t playing it for laughs. The casual misogyny and racism (A certain racial epithet may be exercised more here than in Django Unchained, where it might have been more contextually justified) feed into a mood of increasing hysteria, sitting alongside cartoonishly copious bloodshed in a film whose formal pretense belies its lack of subtlety at every possible turn.

Forced into a halfway house by an incoming blizzard, the rest of the film turns into a distinctly claret-shaded mystery. The stagecoach troop encounter another similarly singular band of misfits at the hut known as Minnie’s Haberdashery. With the likes of Tim Roth (polishing off his Terry-Thomas impersonation), Bruce Dern and Demián Bichir now on board, tensions bubble up to erupt in fits and burst that puncture the tall tales being told by all and sundry. The wintry surrounds, the testosterone-heavy atmosphere and the original score by Ennio Morricone (a dazzling near-throwback of a score, with enough new elements to make it stand out) all recall Carpenter’s The Thing. It’s an unlikely comparison, but then it shows the height of Tarantino’s indulgence. He’s not making a Western; he’s making his version of one, in which the bloodiest squibs imaginable are used for the shootouts, and Jennifer Jason Leigh can earn comparison to a hideous alien shapeshifter. For all the artistic effort put into this endeavour, it’s all in the name of a script with too much going on. Devices come and go with reckless abandon. The third act introduces narration for no other reason other than for QT to actually take part in the film (Didn’t he learn not to do that after his Django cameo?), while a letter Warren carries from Abraham Lincoln gets trotted out a few times for a hint of pathos. It’s a stew brewed from equal parts Carpenter, Leone and Agatha Christie, which affords QT more opportunities for showstopping vistas and showboating dialogue. Every actor gets their chance to shine with a monologue, as everyone fights for their moment of talkative control. But when 8+ marauders are looking for their share of the pie, who’s there to rein it all in? Quentin?… I say, Quentin, where’d you go?

It behoves Tarantino to move to his own beat, but this might be a step too far, particularly at a relaxed three hours. One can’t help but feel his former editor, the late Sally Menke, may well have brought this down to size. Fans might argue that it’d deprive us of time spent in the company of some fine performances. In truth, Leigh and Goggins earn their spurs, though the rest land somewhere between enjoyably hammy and oddly immemorable (That’d be Madsen in the latter category, FYI). Ultimately, this world is of Tarantino’s making, That means the jarring choices he makes, be they over-reliance on racist and sexist tropes or odd choices on the soundtrack (The White Stripes and David Hess belong nowhere near Civil War-era Wyoming, yet here they are), can only be pinned on him. Sturdily enjoyable ingredients become a bloated, bloody mess when QT blends them to his recipe.