The Hunger Games: Mockingjay (Part one) (2014)

As well as clocking in as one of the longest film titles this year, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay (Part 1) also, unfortunately, happens to be one of the more underwhelming films too.

Once again, Jennifer Lawrence dons wig and quiver as Katniss, victor of the 74th Hunger Games and now working begrudgingly for District 13 led by the steely-eyed, President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore). Under the tutelage of ex-Gamekeeper Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour-Hoffman), Katniss is prodded and poked into becoming the face of the District’s rebellion. Like a member of the royal family, she is carted around from place to place with a camera crew/marine guard filming her every moment. Meanwhile, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) appears to be now working for the Capital who are ramping up their propaganda to sedate to the great unwashed.

You know how in the run up to an election, you become awash with leaflet campaigns and door knocking from every party. You start becoming deaf to their accusations that the other party is the worst. Mockingjay (Part 1) is similar in that despite its big name stars and large budget, we’re basically following some people on a campaign trail.

Those who have read the source material will know the action doesn’t really ramp up until the second half, which makes it all the more obvious that this is simply a cash-in. There is nothing here that wouldn’t be missed if someone was to take a scalpel to the film and cut it down to 45 minutes tops. This is not a slur on anyone involved in the film itself. Everyone is fantastic and on the ball through out, with the exception of Liam Hemsworth who hasn’t convinced in any of these films. It’s just it’s hard to defend Mockingjay (Part 1) against accusations of lining the pockets of those above. No movie needs this much setup. Like The Deathly Hallows Part 1, people are being duped into thinking this is a complete film. It’s not. It’s flashy exposition. It’s the prawn cocktail before we get to the roast dinner.

When the second part is released next year, there’ll be a better idea of how well this film fits in with the narrative. However, for now, this is an incomplete movie. After the success and, quite frankly, joy of Catching Fire, it’s a shame the suits had to be involved so much.

Doctor Who: Deep Breath (2014)

Warning: The following contains spoilers.

Once again, the BBC have graced us with the opportunity to see Doctor Who on the big screen. Last time, it was all chins, old faces and Zygons for the show’s 50th anniversary and now it’s regenerations, steampunk and dinosaurs in this, the series 8 opening.

Bursting onto our screens literally like a belch from a T-Rex, Deep Breath hit the ground running acting as a reboot, relaunch and continuation all in one feature length portion. The Doctor may look older, but the show appears to have undergone a bit of a renaissance.

After the baddy stuffed, exposition overload that was last year’s Christmas special, showrunner Steven Moffat has wiped the table clean of all his timey wimey, Silence Will FALL, ‘I can’t go back for Amy. No, really I can’t. I’m not listening, lalalala.’ bag of tricks, to focus on a lean plot that still manages to sow the seeds for future plot lines in a manner reminiscent of the Davies era. Ben Wheatley (A Field in England) took over directing duties in this season opener, which certainly gave the whole bit of oomph; a meaningless word and one which doesn’t do his work justice, but it’s done now. There were some glorious set pieces, from a T-Rex on fire, Peter Capaldi riding a horse through London in his jim-jams and, let us not forget, the spine-tingling and tense scene of Clara holding her breath. It’s great to see Doctor Who experimenting with people at the helm, and it’ll be fascinating to see what Rachel Talalay (Tank Girl) does with her pieces later this year.

Having been painted into a corner (in the nicest possible way) last season, Jenna Coleman has had her role beefed up. Not that the Impossible Girl wasn’t beefy last year. She was just more beef flavoured. Oxo cubes; the role was the equivalent Oxo cubes. Yes, let’s stick with that.

This time around, relating it back to the Davies era, here was a companion ready to think on her feet and fend for herself. Admittedly, the opportunity arose because she was left with her backside in the breeze by a still-percolating Doctor. ‘We can’t risk both getting caught.’ The Doctor said, skirting ever so close to his time during the Twin Dilemma.

Speaking of the Doctor, Peter Capaldi looks set to be one of the more iconic interpretations. He was rude, impertinent, insulting, confused, loving, unable to do hugs and prone to throwing people onto church steeples (or did he?). In short: brilliant. If his previous incarnation could be seen as a midlife crisis wrapped in a new face and tweed, then here was a teenager in middle age clothing. Sensing that an old Doctor might put off the kids – sorry folks, we need to remember, this show is always about the kids first and foremost – time was taken to ease the nippers into this new fierce face. All of which was topped off by a cameo by Matt Smith lovingly telling Clara (ie us) that he is he, and he is he and we are altogether.

Let’s not forget the return of the Paternoster Gang, clockwork baddies and new potential baddy, Missy played by the always brilliant Michelle Gomez. Deep Breath was bursting with fun. Here’s to keeping our fingers crossed that the momentum can be kept up. Here’s hoping.

Deep breath everyone.

The Master (2012)

Possibly contains spoilers…between the lines at least. Sorry.

The Master lands not as just a film, but as an Event. Ever since Paul Thomas Anderson went to California with Daniel Day Lewis, expectations have been sky high. This tale of post war America and the beginning of a cult called “The Cause” (Not Scientology, never Scientology.) sees Anderson taking on another turbulent period of America`s recent past.

Freddie Quells (Jaoquin Phoenix) is introduced on a beach in the South Pacific at the death of World War 2. He is already a tragic figure, hunched, slurring, drunk on hooch (containing torpedo fuel!), ignored by most, masturbating into the sea. Life on his return to America doesn’t get any easier. His volatile temperament and seemingly magical ability to make homemade booze from anything get him fired from jobs as he drifts across America searching for something. Leaping over the rails of a ship bound out of San Francisco makes as much sense as the rest of his life has. He is awoken and dragged before the ship’s ostensible commander, Lancaster Dodds (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd’s describes himself as a “…a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher but most of all a man, a hopelessly inquisitive man…”. Dodd’s takes a shine to Freddie and his volcanic homebrew, taking him under his wing and teaching him of “The Cause”, his quasi-religious family of past life explorers. This is the crux of The Master. The relationship between Dodds and Quells. This is explored to such a level as to become almost a character study. Scenes of an ambiguous nature abound, purely to show tiny fractures or changes within the dynamic.

The performances that Hoffman and Phoenix deliver in their master and slave roles are astonishing. Given half an hour with Freddie before Lancaster even makes an appearance, it’s difficult to believe Hoffman will be able to stand up to such a tour de force from Phoenix. Shuffling, mumbling, sneering with hooded eyes and an unspoken air of violence, it’s an intensely physical performance. Quell’s inner rage is palpable and in several confrontations and scuffles, visibly painful. Phoenix has portrayed a character so expertly that mentioning him alongside De Niro’s troubled duo of Jake La Motta and Travis Bickle doesn’t feel like sacrilege. When Hoffman finally appears, his power is instantly obvious. Charismatic and still, he calmly guides Freddie and the rest of his cadre through the ins and outs of his thinkings. Never showing any doubt. He is the perfect counterpoint to all of Phoenix’s tics and lilted cadences. When giving speeches he makes little jokes with an overly expressive face, much like a certain Foster Kane, he’s a showboat, performing for everyone, family included. In long careers full of interesting roles it’s questionable whether either has ever been better suited to or executed a performance better.

The homo-eroticism is pronounced, at least one way. Quells never really shows any signs of being attracted to Dodds, being a simple creature in his black and white world the option probably never occurs to him. Dodds, however, spends his time wrestling Quells to the floor for rough and tumble, begging Freddie to return to him, plaintively screaming his name across the desert and serenading him in the denouement. Dodd’s wife (Amy Adams) even resorts to warning him against his fantastical pursuit of Freddie, masturbating him over a sink and demanding he orgasm to re-assert her sexual superiority in Dodd’s wandering mind. This is certainly a new edge to Anderson’s regular forays into the father/son relationship. Dodd’s at once wants to father Freddie, dominate him in the master/slave role and at least entertains the idea of sex with him. Perhaps this is the reason Dodds allows such a splenetic failure as Quells to remain within his family for so long.

The Master hinges on three scenes. First, there is Freddie’s first “processing” by Lancaster, a scene where the walls around Quell’s mind are broken down through persistent questioning, this cements the bond between the two men as it’s doubtful whether Freddie has ever revealed so much. Next, in adjacent cells after Dodds has been arrested for misappropriation of funds, Dodds stands tall and calm whilst Quells destroys his cell like an animal, this is the first time Freddie questions Lancaster’s integrity, something he doesn’t take kindly to all film. Finally we have a scene of Freddie traveling into his physical past, rather than his mental one The Cause has been having him visit, only to find that it isn’t there anymore. These scenes exemplify The Master and Freddie in particular, allowing us to have empathy if not sympathy for our protagonist.

Which brings us to the ending, just Quells and Dobbs in a well furnished room where Dodd’s finally reveals in which past life they had previously met and then serenades Freddie first gently, then forcefully. Whilst not as visceral and fierce as There Will Be Blood’s bloody finale in the bowling alley (Isn’t it unfair to compare one film to another? Tough, don’t make one of the best American studio pictures of this century then…), this proves to be just as emotional, underlining their tumultuous year or so together and at the same time solving nothing. This is as it should be, answers being too hard to obtain within this all too complex, unfulfilled relationship.

When Anderson really came to light with Boogie Nights and Magnolia, we thought we had found our new Altman, heavily influenced by Short Cuts and Nashville. Then after making a kind of musical without songs with Adam Sandler (Punch Drunk Love), he surprised everyone by delivering There Will Be Blood, a classically styled, birth of America film with hints of horror that wouldn’t have been out of place alongside Lean’s or Welle’s output. The Master continues this trend of modern throwbacks. Every frame is meticulous and some images linger (Freddie asleep on a sandcastle of a woman surrounded by whorled sand, A ship at night, lit up and drifting out to see for example.), the pace is stately and the exposition non existent. Anderson is in a field of one making films such as these.

What Anderson has achieved with The Master is merely add to and enforce his body of work detailing America as, once again, being the land of opportunity, where anything is possible but absolute power corrupts absolutely. Just that.

Once Upon a Time In Anatolia (2011)

An epic take on a small, human tragedy, Once Upon a Time In Anatolia continues Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s ascent to the upper echelons of European cinema. Shooting like Lean whilst keeping an eye on the minutae of characters like Tarkovsky will do that. Ceylan takes twelve men out onto the steppes in search of a body. Police Cheif, Prosecutor, a doctor, the suspects who buried the body and various policemen, drivers and members of the gendarmerie all drive out in three cars at dusk, hoping to wrap up a crime that seems to be an open and shut case.

This is complex, rich, layered storytelling. Exposition is subtle or non existant. Characteristics, pasts, needs and wants are revealed through minute conversational clues, reactions to the situations, the way they respond to a beautiful woman and seemingly a hundred other ways. What starts out as a group of Turkish guys looking for a body (Stand by Me, Ha), becomes, over 2 hours, the packed, infinite narrative of a dozen or so loosely bound men.

The Anatolian Steppes are brought alive and given a supernatural, almost ethereal feel. As night falls a storm always seems near, the air crackles with electricity, rain spatters and threatens, lightning cracks and dogs bark (one dog in particular is almost certainly meant to evoke the black hound in Tarkovsky’s Stalker). The men are buffeted and uneasy, both with the unpleasantness of their task and the unpredictability of their surroundings.

The mission continues through the night with the suspect, Kenan, unable or unwilling to reveal the corpses location. As the weather worsens, the Prosecutor, nominally in charge, calls for a break. After an amusing argument, the village of the driver, Arab Ali, is chosen as it is near by. The mayor is woken and food prepared. These are perhaps Anatolia’s warmest scenes. The men sit down and eat, laughing and joking, mostly at Arab Ali’s expense. Things turn more serious as the mayor explains the plight of a village where “all the young are gone” and wild animals desecrate corpses in the cemetary as there is no money to fix the wall, as if on cue the power fails in the wind. The mayor calls for his daughter to bring lamps. She comes, with light and glasses of hot coffee and makes her way slowly round the room. The shadows flicker, the men nod their thanks and all is silent. It’s quietly bravura filmmaking that stuns in it’s audacity whilst being totally immersive (EBFS is fairly sure we enjoyed a coffee in that room).

Tying together the different sections of the film with conversations that span them, particularly between the doctor and the prosecutor (the intelligentsia of the piece) is a neat narrative trick that holds Anatolia together at it’s heart. allowing the many other disparate elements, conversation and ideas to never get too far from the central themes of loss and guilt.

Light is used almost as a character. First as safety from the darkness with the headlamps and the oil burners,  then danger as lightning flashes overhead and finally an enemy as the cold light of day fills the men with a sour pall that continues until the credits.

An extended (really extanded) coda in the town hospital before and during the autopsy of the recovered body seems indulgent but then we are hit quickly (relatively) with two revalations, not twists, of such a magnitude that coupled with the time invested and the effort required are both shocking and at the same time, richly rewarding. A careful use of the word “triumph” is probably called for.

Gone With The Wind (1939)

It’s strange watching Gone with the Wind for the first time 72 years after a low key release and a smattering of independant film awards. It’s a picture that is so revered and documented that it already feels like you’ve seen it inside out even on a first viewing. It’s epic in the true sense of the word, romantic like almost no other film, beautifully shot and filled with one line zingers stars today would crawl over barb wire to deliver. It’s also a film about a regularly skewed, racially atrocious period of America’s young and bloody history.

Hollywood is naturally about ten years out of date with it’s attitudes towards liberalism (whether towards women or different ethnicities, politics or religion, censorship or freedom of speech), but it’s still difficult to watch Gone with the Wind and not think about slavery. It tries hard, the slaves we do see are well fed, happy and generally content with their lot in life (even the ones marching off to war to fight for the right to keep slaves). They’re not (offensively) stereotypical in the whole, although Prissy (played by the excellently named Butterfly McQueen) is a clear forerunner of JaJa Binks and no less annoying for it. Hattie McDaniel is all bustling good nature and old world value compassion as Mammy and was well rewarded (sort of) with an Oscar for her effort. Any bad signs of slavery are swept firmly under the carpet so as not to get in the way of our classic “love story set against the backdrop of a world gone mad!!” which even in 1939 (1929 in Hollywood remember) is high class bullshit.

Right, that’s the politics out of the way, now what about the really important stuff, the Romance. The romance is there, it oozes from the film like so much molasses. Old fashioned, broken hearted, rote in the stars romance.  Scarlett and Rhett are meant to be, it’s fate, you’d put your last dollar on them ending up in a sunset relationship as the crediits roll. Which is why the continual, will they, won’t they, should they, can they rollercoaster of their relationship still feels fresh today. It’s unconventional, laced with bitterness, loaded with baggage and stained with the present situations thay find themselves within.

What’s even less familiar to regular viewers of these old classics is the main characters themselves. They start off unsympathetic and remain so until the final frames. Scarlett starts out spoilt, heads straight for manipulative, has a few headstrong, business years before sinking back to her twisted, money grabbing, looking after number one ways.There is more than a hint of Scarlett in Cathy Ames, the chilling heart of Steinbeck’s East of Eden, written 13 years later. Rhett, on the other hand, is a veiled Byronic nightmare (dark, handsome man with a past), getting what he wants by any means necessary and rarely finding heart for the consequences. He’s louche, prone to violence (rape is insinuated), rashly jealous and carries a vulnerability andd weakness inside himself despite his smooth, confident exterior. The two performers (particularly Leigh) pick out their character’s flaws and strengths perfectly. Their skill is particularly evident between the lines, Leigh gives Scarlett a wounded disbelief that anything bad could ever be happening to someone like her whilst Gable (they don’t make them like him anymore) just about outacts hs own eyebrows (impressive) to lend Rhett an air of desperation that just about seeps through his natural charm, of which there is bucketloads.

Gone with the Wind has aged surprisingly well (think how bad Avatar will look in five years, let alone seventy). It’s sumptuous, primary colour (particularly in the ginger hair of the twins at the start) palette transmits both the extreme wealth of the plantation owners and the searing humidity of the deep south. It’s scope is staggering, encompassing the war and the rebuilding years of vast political change that follow it. Films as a rule don’t do large periods of time well, but here it’s handled perfectly simply by leaning back and letting it happen. Nothing feels rushed, plot twists feel natural and come at appropriate intervals. The war (rarely seen, like Wild Strawberries, Bergan fans) is rarely seen but is a hulking, shadowy presence in fecting every scene with a solidity and grounding in the horrors of what men will do to each other. There are moments of violence and murder but these are carefully held back to heighten their impact, which they do, sometimes shockingly so. It certainly doesn’t feel 3 hours and 44 minutes long.

In the end though, the hours fly by, allowing you to bask in a forgotten age of Hollywood, that like the era of the film itself, is so much dust and ashes, gone forever.

Andrei Rublev (1966)

It’s lazy and frankly unfair to compare Andrey Tarkovsky and Stanley Kubrick but lets do it anyway; Two talented directors,  blessed with almost total control over their output, operating at roughly the same time (Tarkovsky 1956-1986, Kubrick 51-99) making pictures on wildly different subjects with common themes running through them. Both were perfectionists, both relied and encouraged a certain level of over acting in their performers, both made two science fiction pieces…..and they get more tenuous…….

Whilst Kubrick kept a careful distance from the emotion and sometimes the soul of the characters, Tarkovsky paints their innermost thoughts through wrought faces, through symbolic imagery, frantic body language and long, long silences.

So whilst comparing the two against one another can be dangerous, skewing your opinion against one or the other, it can be useful to consider the two differing reflections of the same thing. 2001 sits alongside Solaris with ease whilst, to a lesser level, Andrei Rublev can be a good companion piece to Barry Lyndon. Watching one, it is nearly impossible to not recall the other.

Both focus on individuals, both span decades (something film does badly, as a rule), both show episodes of their protagonist’s life to demonstrate the whole, both have grand scores, both are baroque and bleak in their imagery and both are set against a backdrop (of a worlde gonne madde) of violence and unrest.

Lyndon is a study of greed, base lust and malice whilst Rublev focuses on faith, artistic creation, sin and torment. Both do it well.

Rublev (for those not up on their fifteenth century, Russian icon painters) is a fifteenth century, Russian icon painter about which little is known (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrei_Rublev). Tarkovsky has seemingly extrapolated a tortured soul from his works, which we see before the end credits. Rublev is a monk, eschewing worldly pleasures for a simple life of religious fulfillment and artistic creation. Unfortunately, fifteenth century Russia is a brutal place, subject to raids from the Tartars, ruled by feuding Princes, struck by famine and cold.

Rublev speaks rarely, embracing a vow of silence for a large portion of his life, he looks and listens to the violence and poverty around him. Using it to produce sparse, ascetic, almost uplifting paintings. We see Rublev watching a Jester criticise the church and state with satire before being led away by soldiers, stumbling across a pagan festival, being a victim during the sacking of Vladivar within a cathedral he has decorated and other scenes Tarkovsky imagines influenced the artist within him.

Creative (and wholly made up characters) pop up to symbolise creative freedom and indeed the lack of it, a man launches a hot air baloon whilst people decry him as a devil for example. Rublev is beset by visions; the crucifixion on a snow covered hill, a prince putting out the eyes of an artist so he can work no more and  crucially, a vision of his mentor Theophanes, who appears to Rublev whilst he sits in the ruins of Vladivar Cathedral, Rublev talks to him and at one point stares into the camera whilst railing against the idea of the truth as if speaking directly to us, centuries in the future.

Tarkovsky ( with wonderful cinematography from Vadim Yusov) makes every image a lesson in expressing the scene, fifteenth century Russia looks authentic and populated by fake people and stories give the film a dreamlike (nightmare) quality, slow motion is employed to heighten the horror of every day life.The violence is more shocking than say, Hostel, because of the context, eyes are cut out, men are tortured with fire, horses fall off scaffolding (then get stabbed), women are raped and it’s clear that life expectancy is short.

Andrei Rublev is a film that will reward repeat viewings, slowly unveiling it’s layers of subtle meaning and undercurrents through almost perfect use of sound and images. Like films are supposed to be.

The horses are lovely too.