Thursday 21 May 2020

Article: All Hail the Cinema Bastard

It is said that audiences love a good villain and when looking through the annals of cinema it isn't hard to dig up a Darth Vader here or an Ursula there. The appeal lies in their charm. That swagger. Confidence. With good villains, it's hard not to sympathise, but never surprising if we empathise. I for one was not surprised by the Thanos is right truthers. He tells his tale convincingly. Great stories have antagonists as compelling as their heroes.

This piece isn't about that. 

I've decided to write about the toe rag of movies. The obnoxious, self-serving clowns who are not the villains of the story, yet they're certainly not the heroes. The Richard Hammond of the seventh art. The Cinema Bastard.

Usually a melding of a well-horned screenplay and a brilliant character actor, the cinema bastard is the stock character of legend. An underrated individual who can really make a film. The bureaucratic gatekeeper, the smug sleazebag. He will never be the true villain but is happy to cosy up to him as his hype man. If you are thinking of a right-hand man like Oddjob or the muscle-bound, metal-mouthed Jaws then you're mistaken. Those guys can handle themselves against Bond in their own right. They are worthy foes. Boris from GoldenEye, on the other hand, is a cinema bastard. Arrogant, smug, and just a traitorous pain in the ass as opposed to a more accomplished, formidable ass-kicker. The Cinema Bastard will not get his hands dirty and if there is a chance to screw over the protagonist without doing so. He is all in. He is the gambling turncoat. The morally bankrupt also-ran who will sell you out to get a leg-up. The pencil pushing office dweeb who has a sudden taste for needlessly enforcing rules against our hero. Especially if a girl is involved. He is a jerk, but he is never the main boss.

Do I have an example? Why of course. There are so many.

Director James Cameron is one of the first names that springs to mind when we consider the Cinema Bastard. He gave us two of the best. In The Terminator (1984) we are introduced to Dr. Silberman (Earl Boen). A criminal psychologist who is an infuriating mixture of somewhat decent intentions and justifiable ignorance. He is not seen what Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) has seen, so it’s understandable that he simply marks her tale of an indestructible mental man as pure delusion. However, it is not so much that he doesn’t believe Sarah, more than the smarmy, offhanded way he denounces her claims. This, of course, comes into the forefront in Terminator 2 Judgement Day (1991) when Silberman arrogantly parades an imprisoned Connor in front of some other colleagues. Channelling his inner Dr. Phil with haughty aplomb. His reaction when the T-1000 turns up is priceless.


Cameron gives us the quintessential Cinema Bastard in Aliens (1986). Carter Burke (Paul Reiser) is the smarmy corporate lap dog. The smirking stooge who hides the insidious wants of the Weyland-Yutani corporation under his cheap suit and tie or trashy plaid shirt, beige ghillie combo. There’s good reason to think of Burke has the villain of Aliens due to his morally bankrupt actions. “Let’s release those face-huggers!” “I’m going to let you all deal with the Aliens. Let me close this door!” Proper villainous. However it’s important to remember that the aliens are the main course, Burke is still really a side dish. A heinous one, but a side dish all the same. What is important about Burke is the reason why he’s pulled such acts. All the chummy interaction he holds with Ripley. All the weaselling around the Army men. Going down to LV-426 as a “representative”. Burke is Ian Holm’s Ash muscled up from the 1979 original, but at least Ash was programmed. Burke is more than happy to skirt past the line of moral decency because…money? A corner office?

Like Ellis in Die Hard (1988), Burke seems to operate on the deluded belief that he’s somewhat impervious to the chaos, for little reason other than dishonest bluster. One of the key aspects of the best cinema bastards stems from the fact that we know they’re a wrong un from the off. Villains can obtain a sense of empathy. Audience members never side with the morality vacuum that is The Cinema Bastard. Even if what they’re saying makes sense, they’re a prick about it. One of the nastiest things about Burke is the best part of Paul Reiser’s performance: The sheer blank-faced denial that he is ever in the wrong. He is a pure oily politician. Born and raised to convince and deceive. Nearly everything he says is an angle. The most disturbing thing about Burke is how easily we could image him in congress or parliament today, spewing fake news without blinking an eye. Burke would happily cause disruption and confusion in the streets of a seismic global event. If there’s a price.

Everyone has their own special Cinema Bastard. Walter Peck (William Atherton) from Ghostbusters is well loathed. My personal favourite? Resident warmonger Albert Nimzicki in a deliciously sleazy turn by James Reborn in everyone’s beloved hawkish blockbuster Independence Day. He can be summed up in two moments. Getting his way and getting President Bill Pullman to launch nukes at the volatile little grey planet destroyers who have invaded Earth being one of the major ones. As the POTUS rightly hesitates upon the action (“God have mercy on our souls”) Albert Nimzicki just leans over his shoulder and apples EVEN MORE PRESSURE on the Prez with his gentle nudge "Mr. President” he mutters as if he hasn't already doomed us all.
The nukes launch, they strike the spaceship, and Nimzicki is already polishing his brass neck way before the hit is even confirmed. That is a pure bastard. A man that's so sure of himself that he doesn't even wait to see if the ship is still there. Of course, it hasn’t made a dent. ID4 is a long-ass summer movie and the nukes occur at the midway point. But nothing is more satisfying than when this bastard gets his pink slip near the end of the films running time. For bastard watchers, that’s when the fat lady sings.
What is it about the cinema bastard? The human face of banal evil. The bouncer who IDs you on a night out when you are clearly old enough. The retail customer who pulls demands to see the manager over a mild inconvenience. When the bastard arrives in the movie, we already know the problem and they love to pretend that they are the solution. Think Harry Ellis in Die Hard. We all love a villain, but we love to hate the cinema bastard. The contrarian asshole who wonders what's in it for me. The red-tape loving nightmare who stirs the administrative pot for the hero.

That is just who they are. Mr. Status Quo. The devil's advocate for Thanos. The open-plan office arsehole whose answer needs to be heard, despite no one asking the question. There's nothing wrong with holding libertarian values if you feel that way. However, the cinematic bastard feels endeavored to tell you it's the only way to go and he’ll do it with a smug grin.

The zombie sub-genre is prime real estate for the cinema bastard to move in with his awful taste in furniture. A Twitter colleague reminded me of the superb turn played by Dylan Moran as David in Shaun of the Dead (2004). The so-called pacifist whose blatant affection for Shaun's girlfriend manifests itself into a particular method of passive aggression towards Shaun before of course, he becomes lunch.

Harry (Karl Hardman) from Night of the Living Dead (1968) may be doing the best for his family in his eyes, but the socio-political tension that inhabits this movie, with its black lead, helps turn the claustrophobic house into a battleground. Harry does what he can to rub our hero the wrong way. Romero often stated that he wasn't trying to be political and yet considering every zombie film he did after Night, as well as that film's brutal ending, it's hard not to think that Harry would probably listen to the lead character if he shared the same skin tone.

Leonard Nimoy, most known for being Star Trek’s stoic logical foil behind Captain Kirk as Spock, plays self-help bastard Dr. David Kibnar in the first remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978). His new book’s out. He's the toast of the town. Always informing folk of his opinion but never listening to their words. He says things like giving people a psychological band-aid after giving them some pop psychology. If the film was made now? He would be a self-help scammer on Instagram. He would be Dr. Phil. He is the man telling everyone that nothing is wrong while the world's on fire. The smug cynic. We are never surprised when he succumbs to the alien spores. But he’s never the chief enemy. Merely an irritating distraction.  

Zara from Jurassic World (2015) is a weak example from a franchise that gave us 1 of the 90’s best bastards in its first cinematic entry. The insidious notions of Dennis Nerdy (Wayne Knight) seem so far away in a movie marred by retrograde views on gender. Unfortunately, Jurassic World also decides to give Zara a bastard style comeuppance. The unlucky babysitter is marked as the first female on-screen death of the Jurassic Park franchise, yet her demise is highly obnoxious considering her lack of bastard level. The appeal of the Cinema Bastard lies within a film dishing out a delicious brand of its own rich creamy Moral Justice. That director Colin Trevorrow wanted to switch the script and surprise the audience is understandable. We've kind of seen it all at this point. But the jarring aspect of Zara’s death without even a level of bastardry can give off disabling effect in terms of tone. The level of assholery is so close to what we know so a cinema bastard comeuppance is a small hooray. Not here. Her death feels frivolous and senseless. An outcome with little of the weight of a true cinema bastard. It's a reminder that we go to movies for the same way Mia Farrow’s character does in Purple Rose of Cairo (1985). We love to indulge in the black and white escapism that the movies so often give us. The cinema bastard is all about getting his way and getting hoisted by his own petard.

It’s the likes of Zara from Jurassic World that make us realise that we’re seeing less of this kind of this jerk of a character. This piece has referred to films of the ’60s and ’70s (The Mayor from Jaws anyone?), but it’s no surprise that the Cinema Bastards entered a rich vein of form in the ’80s and ’90s. Particularly in larger mainstream movies where you need an authoritative or administrative figure who may stand in the way of our brave protagonists, but only for so long. The cinema bastard was a great role for a solid character actor who may not have been the main draw of a movie but held a “that guy” presence that keen-eyed film fans would always appreciate. The list of actors is a long one: JT Walsh, Paul Gleason, Anthony Heald, John C. McGinley, Ronny Cox, Miguel Ferrer, James Tolkan, Colm Meany…need I go on?


As film tastes have changed hugely since the arrival of mega franchises and cinematic universes it does feel like there is less space to take up the cinema bastard mantle. When I tweeted about how much I missed the cinema bastard, I quickly had a thread filled with amazing jerks from so many films of my adolescent years. The Cinema Bastard has taken a step back in recent times, despite having the likes of Ben Mendelsohn (Rogue One) and Ann Dowd (Hereditary, Compliance) keeping the throne warm. The Cinema Bastard seemingly has a healthier living in the world of TV, possibly due to the time allowance a show has for it to grow. As major films place their focus squarely on spectacle, there’s little shock that we see the likes of Ann Dowd rising to the occasion in The Handmaids Tale in spite of her superlative displays in the aforementioned movie examples. For me it one of the reasons why Zara’s character and death feel so out of step in Jurassic World. The pieces all seem to be there, but they just don’t fit. It is a bit of a shame. Sometimes we need jerks.

Tuesday 5 May 2020

Article: Looking back at City of God

Despite my recent viewing being an umpteenth watch of City of God, my reaction is still the same. From the opening credits to the final moments, I was pulled back to when I used to work at my local cinema and I dragged my friends and co-workers to see a Brazilian Gangster coming of age film that they have never heard of. I saw a five-star review of the film in the now-defunct Hotdog magazine. To this day the best film magazine, I had the pleasure of reading. The magazine hyped the film as a Brazilian Goodfellas (1990), which was enough for me to lure my pals into the feature. As the “film guy” of the group, they never truly trusted my opinion on movies. They still don’t.

The film guy came good in this case. We all left the film rocked by what we just saw. Not just due to being the perfect age (18) to be blown away by a gritty, gun-toting journey into the favelas of Brazil. Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund’s piece is an astonishing piece of filmmaking. The Goodfellas comparisons from critics were clear and understandable, but the film’s signifiers came from a different place. They bought a new and eclectic vibrancy to proceedings. The way the film exploded on to the screen was simply something else. Watching the film now, it still hums with energy. 

A Docufiction adapted from Paulo Lins’ 1997 novel of the same film, the film throws its viewers into an intertangled mesh of organised crime beginning in the late sixties and continuing throughout the seventies. We’re guided through the film’s narrative by Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), as he navigates his way around the drug wars which inhabit the Cidade De Deus suburb where he lives. The film wouldn’t feel too out of place with the criminal coming of age films of Made in Britain (1982), Scum (1979), or Neds (2010). However, while the mentioned films have moments equally as shocking in their way, none have the same vibrancy that takes place here. It’s a film that truly illuminates, not only shedding light on the unlawful activity of Brazil’s notorious favela but doing so with a spark of electricity. High contrast, richly saturated cinematography, quick sharp cross-cut editing, and converging stories. Even now rewatching the film again, I found myself astounded by the breathless way directors Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund inform the story. It’s a shorter film than Goodfellas or The Godfather (1972), but it holds a similar richness. From its expressionistic close-ups to its Funkadelic soundtrack. It is an ugly story beautifully told. 

If there is one thing I forgot about the film, it’s how horny it is. From the first meeting between the young hoodlum Shaggy (Jonathan Haagensen) and Bernice (Bernice) to the death of one character (and the war which comes later from it) hinging partly on the sexual frustration and machismo of a character. Isn’t it funny that a film writer who co-hosts an erotic thriller podcast would note this aspect of the film? That said, this is a film that has no qualms over showing beautifully tanned bodies, often encased in sweat. One reason why this film writer felt so aware of the film’s libido, is because it feels like 18 years on, films have only now seemingly reached a point where they are more undaunted with ebony bodies and sensuality. Yay progression.

Films are no less violent than they were back in 2003 and yet the volatile acts that occur within City of God still feel like a sobering slap to the chops. City of God crafts an environment where poverty and struggle breed corruption. Existence is cheap. The emotional tug which comes from the film’s bleak set pieces often stems from just how young the victims and killers are. The grim fatalism which hangs over the death of groovy playboy Benny. The still horrific hand or foot sequence which befouls some kids who may not have even reached double figures in age. The despair that loiters in the dark alleyways is set against the modest desires of the film’s more amiable characters. To remind us of the previous paragraph, so many of these guys should be out trying to get phone numbers.

The films of Fernando Meirelles often portray an element of innocence lost. Something that the kids in City of God were rapidly losing while teenagers like myself and our first world problems held on to. Granted I am sure many more films have done similar. Let us not be so naïve that I knew nothing about the world at large. But there was something about this film’s urgency despite being a period piece struck me. Something that Meirelles did further on in his career with the likes of The Two Popes (2019), a fictionalised account of a meeting between the incumbent, conservative Pope Benedict XVI, and the liberal future Pope Francis. City of God was a film that blunted the fairy-tale coming of age that I started to notice in American films at the time. Films that were quick to mark growing pains as a passing awkward phase. It expressed a greater world in which young people at my age were inhabited by people who would not be so lucky. 

This is probably why the film is such a formative one for me. That first watch of City of God came at a time when I so close to the age of the characters. With much of my time watching coming of age films and television where the pubescent struggles were somewhat “safer”. It’s understandable to see how the film's violence could provide a stigma to those who live the favelas of Brazil, it’s also films like City of God which broadened the horizons of a viewer like myself. It’s a film that never felt exploitive but impassioned. It tells its story without the kind of romanticism that the likes of Coppola or Scorsese invoke. A period piece with a powerful immediacy.  

City of God wasn’t just a film that became a small bridge to me and my friends in terms of film watching (I also got turned one of my same friends on to Duncan Jones’ brilliant Moon). For me, it’s still a marvel of bold cinematic filmmaking. You don’t need to hold a degree in the socio-politics of Brazil to get what’s at stake, but it does prime a viewer for what is witnessed in films such as Elite Squad (2007). It’s also no surprise there was a boom of production filming shortly around the time the film was released with 45 productions being completed around the same time. People were seeing the potential of creating new challenging works with different areas of the world. The film introduced me to a director whose future work on similar themes of corruption and exploitation have been executed with a comparable amount of skill. 

City of God was one of the films that started the odyssey. The gateway to different and challenging experiences with film. A strange liberation in watching teenagers who we’re trapped in hell. A film that would make how you look at other movies differently. I still marvel at the film's rich use of technique and inventiveness in its intricate storytelling, but as a piece of cinema, I was able to sit with my friends in a dark cinema and hold a shared cinematic experience. It’s also why I find the warm reception at the cinema of the likes of the Oscar-winning Parasite (2019) to also be a large positive. When World Cinema is given the distribution and push, it finds the audience. It makes the connection. Then film guys get to sleep soundly at night. 

Article: Up All Night

"Kids, your grandma always used to say to me, "Nothing good happens after 2:00 a.m.," and she was right. When 2:00 a.m. rolls around, just go home and go to sleep" – Ted Mosby, How I Met Your Mother 

After spending a lot of my younger life in office jobs and still being in one now, the idea of living for the weekend is a common and desirable aim. Whatever you do in your glass and concrete cage it matters little when the clock hits quitting time. It’s your time to spend. It’s precious. This is clearly obvious for Paul (Griffin Dunne), a word processor and protagonist of Martin Scorsese’s spiraling midnight farce After Hours. The opening moments are so wryly put together. Paul’s wandering eye gaze over the seemingly never-ending piles of paper being carried around to nowhere. His colleague: Lloyd is a new blood trainee who bores him with his mundane chatter about not wanting to be stuck in this humdrum world forever. We all know the type. Especially when you work in an office in your mid-twenties.  It’s clear Paul wants to break free from the shackles of the working day. Very soon the gates that keep him trapped will open and he’ll get his chance of freedom. The trouble is after tonight will he really want it? 

After Hours is usually the first film of the various movies I think of when I hear the overly recycled argument that “Marty only makes gangster films”. Such is the quarrel that I’ve heard for nearly 20 years. After Hours is as old as me, so god knows how long others have had to listen to such lazy claims. Paul this lonely, bored office drone, meets a slightly kooky, bohemian girl, Marcy (Roseanna Arquette) in a diner after work. They bond over the book he’s reading. She’s a little off, but not as much as the weird cashier who they both laugh at. Paul is clearly looking to spice up his life with a lady. Forget about his job for a bit. Looking for an escape from the monotony, it seems there might be something between the two of them. She invites him back to her place in Soho. She lives with a punk artist who makes paperweights. He could have one. Although he’s sure that’s not what she’s inviting him for. That said. What’s the worst that could happen?

In revisiting After Hours, I couldn’t help but snicker at the glee the film has in hiding everything it can from Paul who hasn’t got the facilities for the Soho life. He is not supposed to be there. He does not fit in and it shows in the conversations, the glances. The film isn’t a large-scale clash over social culture, but After Hours makes it clear that Paul is the kind of button-pusher that shouldn’t be hanging around Soho at night, least he found him plummeting into bohemian purgatory. It's not really paranoia if they're really out to get you and the clues circle all around him while he stumbles throughout his urban nightmare. 

Often considered a “lesser” Scorsese, it was a project that the director took up after admitting that he was out of touch with a new blockbuster led world. Both Raging Bull (1980) and The King of Comedy (1982) had failed financially and Scorsese’s pet project The Last Temptation of Christ was abandoned by Paramount at that point. With this as the background, Scorsese moved towards smaller more independent fare. 

Smaller? Yes. Independent? Indeed. Lesser? Not by a long shot. Rewatching After Hours only highlighted how much of an anaconda of a movie it is. Full of the high running anxiety which bleeds through so many of his movies. Watching Paul squirm and struggle after each minor inconvenience wraps around him and becomes a larger problem is something of a macabre joy. Looking back at the one-two punch of this and the King of Comedy, I am fascinated by the amount of dark humour Scorsese gets out of the pervading menace of the urban night dwellers of the New York streets. Like Greek Theatre, Scorsese sees both the tragedy and the comedy in machismo. He still toys with masculinity in later movies (GoodFellas, The Wolf of Wall Street) however it is within earlier works such as this that feel somewhat more defined. Possibly because Paul is only one step up from a two-bit putz. Henry Hill and Jordan Belfort both have the charm to spare. It’s easy to see why people consider their actions in their respective movies to be glamorised. In After Hours, Paul is not so lucky. Late on in the movie, Paul witnesses a murder in a nearby apartment window. “I bet they’ll blame it on me.” He remarks. The crazy thing is, he is so deep into the inner-city sludge, a lot of it his own doing, we would more than likely agree. 

After Hours falls into the strange small sub-category of films in which our protagonists often stuck in a rut in their regular lives, endure madcap hijinks over the course of one night. Other features include the likes of John Landis’ cameo loaded Into the Night (1985), Doug Liman’s kinetic three-storied Go (1999), and perhaps my favourite movie House Party (1990). It’s a sub-genre I find myself enjoying due to the unpredictability that comes with the territory. Paraphrasing from the opening quote nothing good happens after 2 am. The lure, however, is seeing what happens to *these guys* at that time. Watching the cranks start to turn and the oddballs slide out of the shadows, with everything falling under a tightly wrapped cage of controlled chaos. It is the type of film that allows filmmakers to flex their muscles with economy and pace. If Scorsese was feeling frustrated at the idea of blockbuster movie making at the time, he conquers it here with a film that still harbours all his visual tics and themes. Hell, it even allows him to throw in shots reminiscent of the short silent Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory (1895). 

New Jersey writer Joseph Minion seemed to have a passion for the oddballs that wander New York City at night. Along with After Hours, his other feature screenplay of note is the Nicolas Cage vampire vehicle Vampire’s Kiss. Watching Cage as a literary agent slowly descend into hallucinatory madness is eventful, yet despite Vampire Kiss’s holding comparable surreal darkness to After Hours, along with similar anxieties towards women and yuppiedom, Minion’s work holds far more presence and control under the gaze of Scorsese and his crew. Vampire’s Kiss lacks the punch in the storytelling that the likes of Scorsese provides, allowing an overacting and irritating Cage lord all over the material. Amusingly it is no surprise that one of Cage’s best (and more subdued) performances comes in Scorsese’s 1999 film Bringing Out the Dead. Another film which deals with New York in the dead of night. It’s also a film that flopped commercially yet was well received by most who did see it. Additionally, there are no gangsters in sight. 

It’s interesting reading reviews of After Hours (Paul Attanasio and Vincent Carnby are examples) which state that the film “fails to satisfy”, that in itself brings around a small measure of humour. The film itself is almost entirely wrapped with male anxiety and the wish to please and satisfy women. The amusement comes from watching this office type flounder in front of all these women who are clearly more creative and process more control in their destinies. To quote The Rolling Stones “You can’t always get what you want” and that within this turn of events is not only funny but satisfying in its own way  

It would be wise to take note that the demise of one character does come off as unjust from a feminist reading standpoint, helping confirm what many already feel about Scorsese as a male director. Particularly after recent discourse over Anna Paquin’s character’s silence within The Irishman. However, I cannot say that this one aspect confirms the entire whole of the twisted universe of After Hours, in which the other female characters hold their own spikiness. Scorsese has never been the type of director I would look towards for certain female representation and I’ll try not to go back into the likes of his filmography to try and retcon the matter. However, I do find the women that appear in After Hours to be entertaining and sharp in the film's own special way, even if they are not the focus. Linda Fiorentino’s Kiki, for instance, may not feature in many scenes, but her “fuck you” attitude coming 9 years before The Last Seduction (1994) is certainly holds its charms.

The spotlight is however on Paul who holds a type of guilt which is common with Scorsese films of its ilk. Paul’s “blame” comment is funny because while his punishment doesn’t fit the crime, the film suggests this simps arrogance within the earlier segment of the film; courting Marcy (Roseanna Arquette) while hitting on rock chick Kiki, when Marcy steps out briefly, is more than enough to set the wheels of fate turning. It is the type of butterfly effect turn that has the film in common with Scorsese’s Cape Fear (1991). Someone is going to pay for that somehow. It is little surprise that The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) and Goodfellas (1990) are quick to get picked on when looking at Scorsese's work. Their asshole protagonists have little care in guilt or shame, which can make them dangerously glamourous to some. If only Paul was as brazen, he was in the earlier scenes. Then again, it’s clear he doesn’t know that nothing good happens after hours. He should have just gone home and slept.