Saturday 16 January 2016

Article: The Year That Was: 2015

When we were hurtling towards the end of another year, I was politely asked by two online outlets, if I would be so kind to deliver a top ten list. After a brief rumination, I decided why not? I may not invest too much into lists any more, but the internet still wolfs them down like the sweet clickbait candy that they are. Remember who you're writing for, I guess.

Apologies for the slight snark. I mean no harm. However, since last year, I’m finding myself more interested in things I found in the year overall, rather than a scything down the favourites in order to separate the crop.

Subjects like sex and erotica had a torrid time in the few films I saw, which focused on them.  The over hyped, unevenly baked 50 Shades tried to sell vanilla sex scenes as more than they actually were (or could ever be), because whips and chains. Shades may not have been the total turkey man had thought (and secretly hoped). Its box office gross clearly showed that, be it hype, curiosity, friskiness or a mix of all three, there was an adult (mostly female) market to be exploited. It’s a pity that despite a rise in sex accessories, the film’s vanilla sex scenes do little to take it’s ideals of sensual escapism further.

The Arthouse scene, which has far less qualms in explicit material gave us Gasper Noe’s self-indulgent Love. A plodding, underwritten sex fest with a narrative of angsty Sundance aspirations. Noe’s shoe gazing feature not only pales in comparison when observing the trillions of gigabytes of internet porn (which deliver their cumshots with far more earnestness), but feels vastly inferior to mumblecore features of a decade ago. Lest we forget Lars Von Trier’s flawed saga Nymphomaniac (2013), which despite being also indulgent and overlong, at least attempts to say something greater about how our emotions conflict and contrast with our physical intimacy. Love’s narrative, give or take a few elements, wouldn’t feel too out of place in a line-up of overegged young adult features. 50 Shades may have been born from young adult fan fiction (Twilight), but Love’s self-conscious anxieties make E. L James’ opus feel like a heady brew of maturity.

Documentary Chemsex did its best to spread moral panic, while feeling light on facts. Important insights of isolation and community almost get lost between a vast mass of talking heads and stories, which never give us enough time to breathe. It’s main conceit; that sectors of homosexual males are mixing a deadly cocktail of drugs and unprotected sex, is so focused on one sector of Britain, it feels inconclusive and incomplete.

The winner for me when it came to any discussion of sex or sensuality within cinema, was Peter Strictland’s dreamily shot The Duke of Burgundy. The film comments on sex, kink and love with the type delicacy and emotion we should expect from erotica. The film’s Crown Jewel? It’s all woman cast, which help provide a fresh take on dominance, submission and obsession. Losing the need of the all-seeing, all-encompassing male gaze.

This brings me on to 2015 bringing forth some engaging features which give a positive engagement of the dreaded word of diversity. The films that lingered in my head, were often great with their commentaries and ideas of gender and race. Dear White People updated Spike Lee’s School Daze with a grander scope and little Do the Right Thing structuring. Straight Outta Compton was a blockbuster biopic, which did quite well in depicting N.W.A as a glossy, urban version of The Sex Pistols. The aforementioned The Duke of Burgundy and it’s all female cast, Carol, were all well put together. The 7th Fast and Furious once again revelled in its multi-racial cast and multi-million box office haul.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens illustrated organic progressive qualities, while Fury Road gave us a new, well rounded female hero wrapped within a Mad Max film. It’s important to remember that Fury Road’s white male director made the most of its female editor. Rebecca Ferguson’s covert agent in the fifth MI entry also helped the aims and intentions of the Internet film culture, if not the wider culture, in terms of gender.

It was, however, the Martian that I found to be the most warming and heartening in a world that's feeling increasingly isolating and dangerous. Now an Oscar nominated feature, it’s we are the world commentary may feel a little trite, but god damn it made the idealist in me smile.

Ryan Coogler’s (Fruitvale Station) Creed has made waves recently, revamping the Rocky franchise with an African American lead. I have yet to see it at the time of writing this, yet its solid word of mouth is showing us that both Coogler and Michael B Jordan may certainly have something to say in the realms of representation. The fact these aforementioned films with their successful attempts at bringing across diversity show that the passive white male hero can be joined by others quite easily. Just make the material compelling. It's important to realise that roughly around 500 Hollywood movies get released each year. The fact that The Huffington Post can only find 11 films with black cast members (not even leads) of that average, worth watching that's not even of the same percentage equivalent. You can see the frustrations. It's more troubling when we place into consideration that we're seeing artists break down the speaking parts of the POC cast by the minute. We don't a complete reversal of the casts. But we do need at least try and achieve the percentage representation.

I say this as social media and ignorance has seemingly helped warp the ideal of progressiveness on both sides. American cinemas felt it necessary to bulk up security for Straight Outta Compton for reasons that are quite transparent to people like myself. That said, things such as the push for Idris Elba to play everybody, or the internet outrage which sparks the moment a z-lister feels hard done by, are well intentioned but often feel short sighted. For me the push for more BAME filmmakers in a stronger position to create their own stories is far more important to me than forcibly seeing a POC become James Bond or fighting to get Ava DuVernay to do a Marvel film. Particularly when we see just how clear these franchise films run on a track. Coolger’s positioning into the Rocky franchise may hold a certain amount of transparency (all about the franchise Benjamins), but its success for both director and star may help open up new pathways for POC artists. The same certainly goes for Straight Outta Compton.

I have missed a load of films for the simple reason that either they've been smaller release that don't enter cinemas. Or mainstream fare that looks like tripe. Annoyingly, with the likes of Disney owning Star Wars, Marvel and of course, their own product. There's a bleakness that sometimes hovers over me like a dark cloud. Films that will look and sound the same, now dictate openings with such velocity, it can feel depressing. Avengers Age of Ultron did little to remain in my thoughts. Only really adding more characters to a larger film that doesn’t wish to end. Other franchise entries such as Spectre felt exactly like the name suggests; a ghostly re-tread of Bonds of the past with what little deviation gained from the earlier Craig movies being rubbed out. Franchise films are beginning to feel rushed and neglectful of their scripts. When Marvel and Disney release their timelines and release dates for their ongoing franchises. May mind was instantly cast back to When Alien 3 (1993) had a release date before a finished screenplay. There’s been many examples of this, although none stick out as egregiously as that one.

Yet now fan demand and the demands of commerce outstrip artistic creativity in mainstream cinema so perversely, it’s sometimes hard to see the forest for the trees. The Mamo Podcast gave the perfect description of the 2nd biggest film of the year: The good enough blockbuster.  Jurassic World is dumb, weakly scripted and spiteful, yet has enough branding and call backs in it for fans to be happy and the book with its palatable themes can be forgotten once more. A shame.

Also worrying was while Star Wars: The Force Awakens was a fun re-entry to a much loved cinematic world, it also felt like a re-polished Episode 4. A film with no real surprises (despite the cries of no spoilers), and an insurance that nothing will be really tampered with. Lest we upset fans by offering something new.

That both titles made a ton of cash with the audiences trading in the more solid storytelling of the previous films for the chance to hear the music, see the characters and feel like a child again is quite perturbing. Escapism is fine, but I wish these films would be scrutinised as much as other films which are just as fictional but don't have the nostalgia to lean on.

For all the issues the Sony hack delivered, isn't it funny that The Interview, the film that was called to be banned, still pooped out a cinema release, before cropping up on Sky a few months later? It is now widely available and not much happened about the hack since. Although a fair damage certainly hit Sony at the point of impact, like so much of our view of such events, everything was quickly forgotten. Meanwhile the revealing talk about race that came from some of the executives’ emails, including the dubious riff what Obama’s film tastes, help highlight why I’m not surprised at yet another Oscar whitewash year. I wonder if such attacks, along with the PS4 hack may become more familiar. Though how it will affect our entertainment is another story.

So we’re three weeks into the New Year with more franchise features and sequels to look forward to. In the past four weeks, we’ve lost four artists (Haskell Wexler, Alan Rickman, Vilmos Zsigmond and David Bowie) whose contributions to cinema will certainly inspire many for years to come. In light of my aforementioned ramblings, I certainly do hope so.  Film critics will of course lament where the medium of criticism is going. Soon after expect the same critics to attack audiences/other critics/filmmakers with cheap snark and not see the connection. Twitter will get angrier. Brands will amass more cash. But as long as the films get made and entertain, things will be interesting.

Review: The Hateful Eight

Year: 2015 (2016 UK Theatrical Release)
Director: Quentin Tarnatino
Screenplay: Quentin Tarnatino
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Demián Bichir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern

Synopsis is here

By the end of The Hateful Eight, I found myself at a loss. As a huge admirer of the filmmakers' work, I found the eighth film from the idiosyncratic director to be slightly uninspiring. Not a bad film by any means. The dialogue holds that sing song prose we often expect. The humour has more than a touch of the gallows to it. The references, as always, have the type of richness we’d come to expect from the energetic, egotistical pastiche picture maker.

As a fan, it’s hard not to hold a fondness for the films brutal, bloody and bold filmmaking. Clocking in at 167 minutes (general release version), it’s still great to see Tarnatino as the diehard hip-hop auteur that he has always been. The novelistic narrative, the political incorrectness, the characters who hold a sense of depth despite their cartoonish nature. At times it feels like a medley of greatest hits.

Despite this, The Hateful Eight seems diluted. A reminder that many enjoyed the filmmaker when his were more streamlined. It’s easy to see elements of Reservoir Dogs (1992) crop up throughout The Hateful Eight. What I realised is just how much the limitations pushed the filmmaker in his early days. Characters are nailed down quickly while payoffs are executed sharply. The Hateful Eight, much like Tarantino’s Death Proof (2007), seems to put out a lot of posturing, but while impressing from a technical standpoint, never seem to deliver that pleasurable gut punch we know that the director can easily provide.

Something that has dropped into the pit of peoples stomach, however, is Quentin's love for the word nigger, which like Django Unchained (2012), is used to convey the post-civil war era setting as well as the racial tension, which are stirred within the film itself. Of course, liberal commenters were quick to react towards Tarnatino consistent use of the word and with good cause. To a point. Tarnatino’s racial politics can often feel troublesome and problematic. The film could probably easily tone down its uses of such a slur. Yet in watching a film called The Hateful Eight, made by a man whose viewing pleasures are often occupied by the sleaze of exploitation and Grindhouse, while I don’t condone it. I can at gain a sense of understanding. In comparison, Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope (2015) is equally infatuated with the word, yet has little else to back up its overuse. Interestingly, both films, gender politics also come into play. The Hateful Eight features deplorable violence towards women sometimes cartoonish, often troubling. Yet still works towards making its lone lead female (a fantastic Jennifer Jason Leigh) a compelling feature of the movie. Unlike Dope’s various sketchily drawn females, Leigh’s Daisy Domergue is an actual character with motivations worthy of watching. One may not agree with what she does, at least she is not window dressing.

Despite this there are some understandably awkward stereotypes which raise their head during a pivotal point of the movie. Combined with a strange, beguiling, sexually aggressive monologue by Samuel L Jackson. These sequences distressing to some due to their displacement of black women and the connotations of black sexuality respectively. While Tarantino tries to remain canny by once again making his black and female characters the smartest players in the room, he’s doing so in a film that could really do with some decent chopping. Critics have been trying to unpack the deeper themes of the film as best they can. I don’t care too much about that. Mostly because the film isn’t as strong from a fundamental standpoint. The elements are there, but everything feels far too surface level. Yes, even for a Tarantino movie.

Despite a gruff Kurt Russell, the film never reaches the fever pitch of tension found in The Thing (1982). The film's visuals are attractive, but never deliver the same creeping feeling of dread that occurs in previous Tarnatino features (Inglourious Basterds for instance). The film’s performances are all enjoyable, but the outcome of everyone is not. It’s a strange feeling to have in a Tarantino film but, one I felt all the same.

Is this a misfire? Not really. A few of the reasons on why I watch Tarnatino raise their head. No doubt, I’ll see movies this year with a dazzling amount of inaptitude. Something The Hateful Eight certainly doesn’t have. The Hateful Eight, however, seems to suggest that Quentin Tarantino may do well to step out of his own head for a while and take a breather. If what he says is true, then he only has two films left. He should go out with a bang.