The Revolution devours its children: Sergio Leone’s Duck, You Sucker

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The year 1968 was defined by political radicalism and civil unrest. From the May demonstrations in France to the American civil rights movement, a wave of anti-authoritarian protests and riots swept much of the world, even reaching behind the iron curtain of the USSR. In Italy, home of director Sergio Leone, almost all the country’s universities were rapidly occupied by a predominantly left-wing counter-culture movement known as “Sessantotto”. This was a period of unprecedented civil strife in the post-war world, and film-makers had never had it so good.

It was against this tumultuous backdrop that Leone, along with collaborators Sergio Donati and Luciano Vincenzoni, devised another of his spaghetti westerns as a follow-up to his acclaimed “Dollars” trilogy and the upcoming Once Upon a Time in the West. This next project was to be set against the chaos of the Mexican Revolution around the year 1914. It followed a great heritage of films about the conflict, but where those had typically charted the revolutionary heroics of Pancho Villa or Emiliano Zapata, this was to tell the story of two luckless bandits stuck in the middle.

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The result was the curiously titled Giù la testa, or “Duck your head”, which arrived in Italian cinemas in 1971. This became Duck, You Sucker for the English-language release, although later American prints carried the title A Fistful of Dynamite to capitalise on the popularity of Leone’s first western, A Fistful of Dollars (1964).

Despite this awkwardly enforced association, Duck, You Sucker is a much harsher and more cynical film than any of Leone’s earlier work. In many ways, it feels like a conscious reflection on the director’s career thus far. Where he had previously deconstructed the tropes of classic Hollywood westerns in his “Dollars” trilogy, here he critiques the archetypes found in his own films, and how they, in turn, had influenced contemporary Hollywood. As such, Duck, You Sucker is a fascinating example of self-reflection from one of history’s great film-makers, and a cruelly underappreciated work in the western canon.

With this in mind, it may come a as surprise that Leone never intended to direct Duck, You Sucker himself. He had hoped that Once Upon a Time in the West would be his final statement on the western genre, and wanted instead to focus on an adaptation of Harry Grey’s prohibition-era crime novel The Hoods (this would eventually become 1984’s Once Upon a Time in America). A series of alternative directors were approached to helm the project, including Peter Bogdanovich, Sam Peckinpah, and Leone’s long-term assistant director Giancarlo Santi. In fact, the latter was ten days into shooting when a series of on-set problems forced Leone, reluctantly, to step behind the camera himself.

Having been coerced into another Western, Leone seems to have been determined to cast the film in a very different mould from his previous efforts. The film’s opening moments make perfectly clear that this is not the light-hearted hijinks of his “Dollars” trilogy, nor the romanticised heroism of existing films on the Mexican Revolution.

Our protagonist, Rod Steiger’s hapless bandito Juan Miranda, is introduced urinating onto an ant-hill in the film’s first shot, and within moments he has robbed a stagecoach, executed a man in cold blood, and raped a terrified woman. A ruthlessly amoral character, Juan is a far cry from Tuco, the lovable rogue played by Eli Wallach in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, and this brutality sets the tone for the rest of film’s world. Instantly, Leone is asking his audience to cast aside their romanticised preconceptions of the gunslinging Old West in which his films exist.

The film shortly introduces us to its secondary protagonist, John Mallory, an expert dynamiter and veteran of the Irish struggle for independence (in one of the film’s many anachronisms, he carries a flag marked “IRA”, an organisation formed years after the story takes place). Played with an admittedly questionable accent by James Coburn, John seems to be cut from the same cloth as Clint Eastwood’s morally ambiguous “Man With No Name” archetype, but a series of flashbacks reveal a darker truth to his past. By the film’s climax, John is discovered to have murdered his best friend while escaping from British authorities in Ireland. Now finding himself embroiled in the Mexican Revolution, he continues to seek atonement for this personal betrayal committed in another, distant war.

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James Coburn and Rod Steiger as John and Juan, two bandits caught in the middle of the Mexican Revolution

A tenuous friendship is formed between these two characters, but the essential contrast between them is made clear in their conflicting perspectives on the ongoing revolution. John is an idealist; in his pocket he carries a copy of The Patriotism by Russian Revolutionary Mikhail Bakunin, and he appears willing to sacrifice himself for a greater good. Juan, on the other hand, has no such creed, nor any inclination to selflessness. His only allegiance, he insists, is to himself and his own family. Of these two perspectives, Leone seems to sympathise with the latter, who’s world view is made explicit in an impassioned speech delivered mid-way through the film:

“I know all about the revolutions and how they start! The people who read the books go to the people who can’t read the books, the poor people, and say, “We have to have a change.” So, the poor people make the change. And then, the people who read the books, they all sit around the big polished tables, and they talk and talk and talk and eat and eat and eat. But what has happened to the poor people? They are dead! That’s your revolution!”

Juan’s speech is vindicated later in the most tragic of circumstances, when his entire family are slaughtered while resisting government troops. However, this is not to suggest that the film is on the side of the oppressive authorities. Indeed, emphasis is placed on the brutality dealt by government forces, with a number of lengthy sequences depicting massacres and summary executions.

Throughout all these events, the specifics of the Mexican Revolution and the various factions fighting it are only alluded to in vague terms. Rather, the conflict appears to stand for the concept of revolution in a generic sense. An opening quotation from Mao Zedong (which was removed from the American release) states that “The revolution is not a social dinner, a literary event, a drawing or an embroidery; it cannot be done with elegance and courtesy. The revolution is an act of violence.”

The sentiment of this quote is echoed in the brutality of the film’s violence, in stark contrast to the stylised, larger-than-life gunplay of Leone’s earlier westerns. In depicting the bloody massacre of civilians and combatants alike, the film makes clear that revolutions are never clean, nor is the violence inherent to them in any way honourable. In short, revolution is a dirty business, and anyone proposing such a thing from the comfort of an Italian university should understand the consequences.

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If Duck, You Sucker has a philosophy, it might be best described as something approaching nihilism, or at least individualism. When caught in a revolution, Leone seems to argue, the best option is to look out for number one – in other words; duck, you sucker! Indeed, Leone himself called the film a “reverse Pygmalion” story; the intellectual revolutionary (John) meets an uneducated petty criminal (Juan), and it is the simplistic, selfish world view of the latter which appears to win out.

Such a cynical interpretation of the Mexican Revolution caused controversy in Mexico itself, where the film was banned until 1979. This was hardly a proportionate response, as Leone is evidently more concerned with elaborate action set-pieces than he is with politics. A lengthy bank-robbery-turned-prison-break in the second act is one of the finest sequences of his career, accompanied by an unusually jazzy yet typically masterful score from composer Ennio Morricone.

With Duck, You Sucker, then, Leone continues the cinematic finesse of his previous westerns while exploring more thematically interesting territory, with occasionally refreshing results. The stylised, almost balletic violence which characterised his earlier work is exchanged for a grittier and less glamorous atmosphere. Likewise, his characters are no longer appealing archetypes but flawed and thuggish killers.

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In the years between the first conception of Duck, You Sucker in 1968 and its release in 1971, much had changed. At the same time as the world was in turmoil, Hollywood had experienced a revolution of its own. Taking influences from European cinema, a new wave of young American auteurs were pioneering a fresh style of film-making which cast aside the taboos and stuffiness of the old Hollywood. In this vein, westerns like The Wild Bunch and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (both 1969) had drawn upon Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns to popularise a new form of so-called “revisionist” western. These films thrived on moral ambiguity, anti-authoritarianism, and stylised violence, and they appealed to cinema audiences living in a world of rapid social and political change.

 

Much as John Mallory is atoning for his past in Duck, You Sucker, Sergio Leone is likewise reflecting upon his own influence on world cinema. The irreverence with which he had portrayed violence and cruelty in his “Dollars” films had helped to transform not just the western genre, but the very way in which Hollywood operated. Having pioneered this new western for the counterculture age, Leone seems to ask, “Is this what you really want?”

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The 2018 clued-down Movie Awards

Say what you like about the last year, but it’s been a marvellous time for movies. Whether you’re into blockbusters, art house, or anything in between, there’s been something for every film fan, and it feels unfair to single out any one film or film-maker for praise – but that’s why I’m here. Below you will find my nominees and winners for the best achievements in film of 2017/18.

Best Film

Nominated

Call Me By Your Name

John Wick: Chapter 2

The Death of Stalin

Get Out

Good Time

The Shape of Water

Lady Bird

Paddington 2

Phantom Thread

Winner

Dunkirk

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Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is a miraculous cinematic achievement, a perfectly executed tour-de-force of visual storytelling. Its technical triumph in recreating the 1940 evacuation of Dunkirk is matched only by its narrative ambition, weaving together three competing perspectives from the land, sea, and air. Nolan makes no effort to clumsily tackle the moral or political implications of the conflict, only the senseless terror of its experience, and the result is a heart-pounding deconstruction of heroism, tragedy, and triumph in the face of defeat.

Best Director

Nominated

Christopher Nolan – Dunkirk

Jordan Peele – Get Out

Greta Gerwig – Lady Bird

Paul Thomas Anderson – Phantom Thread

Winner

Guillermo Del Toro – The Shape of Water

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This year’s selection of directors represent a refreshingly diverse mix of voices and artistic ambitions, and any one would be a worthy winner. Nevertheless, Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is a technically stunning and emotionally uplifting masterwork which could only have spawned from the brilliant, demented brain of this Mexican auteur. Del Toro manages to weave together elements of thriller, sci-fi, fantasy, horror, and romance into a single, spellbinding tale of tolerance in the face of prejudice.

Best Actress in a Leading Role

Nominated

Vicky Krieps – Phantom Thread

Soarise Ronan – Lady Bird

Sally Hawkins – The Shape of Water

Meryl Streep – The Post

Winner

Frances McDormand – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

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Frances McDormand has never been known for playing your typical big-screen heroines. Before now, she was probably best known as the kind hearted and heavily pregnant police chief Marge Gunderson in the Coen Brothers’ Fargo (1996), for which she won her first Academy Award. Now, over two decades later, she has at least matched that performance with an wholly different but no less affecting role. As grieving mother Mildred Hayes in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, McDormand provides a nuanced portrait of a physically and emotionally aggressive woman, yet she manages to imbue her performance with a hint of repressed vulnerability beneath the surface. The result is a wholly believable and multi-layered rendering of a person’s journey through loss, anger, and forgiveness.

Best Actor in a Leading Role

Nominated

Daniel Day Lewis – Phantom Thread

Chris Kaluuya – Get Out

Gary Oldman – Darkest Hour

Timothée Chalamet – Call Me By Your Name

Winner

Robert Pattinson – Good Time

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The Safdie Brothers’ Good Time was entirely overlooked by most major awards bodies this year, perhaps unsurprisingly for a film so unashamedly rough around the edges. Nevertheless, it’s an unusual and aggressively compelling crime-caper, thanks in large part to the efforts of Robert Pattinson. He stars at the centre of the film as Constantine “Connie” Nikas, a morally unscrupulous bank-robber determined to show his disabled brother a “good time”. It’s a restless performance which demands attention, particularly as the camera lens pushes into insistent close-ups to capture every twitch of a muscle or bead of sweat. The London-born actor entirely disappears into the part of a New York lowlife, and it’s exciting to see the bloke from the Twilight films continue to prove himself as a compelling lead performer.

Best Actor in a Supporting Role

Nominated

Adam Driver – Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Daniel Craig – Logan Lucky

Sam Rockwell – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Michael Stahlberg – Call Me By Your Name

Winner

Hugh Grant – Paddington 2

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Having long been typecast into bumbling romantic leads, Hugh Grant is an actor of underestimated versatility. As the villainous Phoenix Buchanan in Paddington 2, he is finally given the opportunity to flex his theatrical muscles in a delightfully camp romp across a plethora of accents, prosthetic disguises, and song-and-dance numbers. Paddington 2 wasn’t eligible for this year’s Oscars, having only arrived into American cinemas in early 2018, but here’s hoping that Hugh Grant receives the recognition he deserves in next year’s ceremony.

Best Actress in a Supporting Role

Nominated

Laurie Metcalf – Lady Bird

Octavia Spencer – The Shape of Water

Mary J. Blige – Mudbound

Allison Janney – I, Tonya

Winner

Lesley Manville – Phantom Thread

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A veteran of stage and television, Lesley Manville is nonetheless a remarkable cinematic presence, even when going to-to-toe with the fearsome Daniel Day Lewis. In Phantom Thread, she does just that in the role of Cyril Woodcock, sister to the obstinate Reynolds Woodcock (Day Lewis) and matriarch of the haute couture House of Woodcock. She regularly steals the scene from her venerable co-star, as their ambiguous relationship plays out with all its affection and conflict. Every put-down and backhanded compliment is delivered with satisfying bite, but this acerbic façade is only part of the story. Indeed, Manville takes what could have been predictable old crone and develops her into something much more interesting and sympathetic. It’s a delicate performance which reveals more upon repeat viewings, as the true nature of Cyril’s intentions become less transparent.

Best Original Score

Nominated

Hans Zimmer – Dunkirk

John Williams – Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Daniel Lopatin – Good Time

Alexandre Desplat – The Shape of Water

Winner

Jonny Greenwood – Phantom Thread

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Arguably better known as the lead guitarist and co-songwriter for Radiohead, Jonny Greenwood’s contribution to the world of film has been every bit as essential as to that of rock music. A long-term collaborator of director Paul Thomas Anderson, Greenwood was previously robbed of an Oscar nod for his work on There Will Be Blood (2007). Fortunately, this is no consolation prize; his score for Phantom Thread is his best work yet. Managing to be both whimsical and sinister at the same time, the music provides almost every scene with a heft and intensity that never feels intrusive. It’s a magnificent, sweeping evocation of Bernard Hermmann’s best work, cementing Greenwood and Anderson as one of cinema’s great director/composer partnerships.

Best Cinematography

Nominated

Hoyte Van Hoytema – Dunkirk

Sean Price Williams – Good Time

Bruno Delbonnel – Darkest Hour

Rachel Morrison – Mudbound

Winner

Roger Deakins – Blade Runner 2049

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I’m not sure if Blade Runner 2049 really is the best achievement in cinematography from the last year – after all, Dunkirk did stick an IMAX camera onto a Spitfire – but this award still goes to Roger Deakins, more for his incredible body of work than any single film. Probably the greatest living cinematographer, Deakins lends each of his films a picture-postcard quality, from the snow-swept vistas of Fargo to the intimate brutality of Sicario. Characteristically, every shot of Blade Runner 2049 is a masterclass in framing, colour, and lighting, with an expertise that goes beyond just looking pretty and weaves itself into the fabric of the storytelling.

Best Original Screenplay

Nominated

Martin McDonagh – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Jordan Peele – Get Out

Greta Gerwig – Lady Bird

Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor – The Shape of Water

Winner

Paul Thomas Anderson – Phantom Thread

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Paul Thomas Anderson has made a career writing complex, languorous character studies; from a Californian oil magnate at the turn of the century to a porn star in late-70s Los Angeles. Phantom Thread delivers a story in a similar mould, dropping the audience into a dizzying slice of 1950s London and its lavish haute couture scene. What begins as a familiar study of artist and muse is quickly subverted into a richly rewarding tale of love, passion, and control. While asking profound questions about the very nature of human intimacy, the script also manages to feature more laugh-out-loud zingers than most comedies. Phantom Thread cements Anderson’s place as one of the finest writer/directors currently working in American cinema.

Best Adapted Screenplay

Nominated

Paul King and Simon Farnaby – Paddington 2

Armando Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin and Peter Fellows – The Death of Stalin

Scott Frank, James Mangold and Michael Green – Logan

Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber – The Disaster Artist

Winner

James Ivory – Call Me By Your Name

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Adapted from the novel by André Aciman, James Ivory’s screenplay for Call Me By Your Name is an affecting, delicate, and occasionally painful portrait of a fleeting summer romance. In a story where the characters rarely have the words for what they truly feel, Ivory manages to communicate their innermost desires and conflicts. It articulates the confusing and overwhelming sensation of being in love, and the inevitable agony of knowing that it must come to an end. The power of the script lies in its abstraction, functioning as both an intimate study of gay discovery and sexuality, and a universal tale of love, passion, and heartbreak.

Top Ten… Christmas Films

Christmas is a time of year at which we often find ourselves watching some truly terrible films in order to satisfy our friends and relatives, occasionally resulting in heated post-luncheon arguments. In fact, the very definition of what constitutes a “Christmas film” is a contentious issue (just ask anyone what they think of Die Hard). Thankfully, there are some genuine classics to be enjoyed over the holidays. The following list is a selection of the best Christmas films I have watched over the last month. From action, to comedy, to romance, there’s a choice for every mood.

10) Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

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The only film on the list to feature a masked illuminati orgy, Eyes Wide Shut isn’t the sort of Christmas film you can watch with your Nan. Nevertheless, it provides a dark and eerily erotic take on the season of goodwill, skewering the fiercely exploitative nature of modern consumer culture in the process. Stanley Kubrick’s final work, it makes for an intoxicating experience as we follow Dr William Hartford (Tom Cruise) on a journey of self-discovery amidst New York’s sleazy and surreal underworld. It’s a complex film with myriad implications and interpretations, revealing more upon each viewing. What better way is there to escape the monotony of a family Christmas than to immerse oneself in Kubrick’s final, erogenous misadventure?

9) Joyeux Noel (2005)

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Chronicling the 1914 Christmas Truce during the First World War, Joyeux Noel follows the experiences of British, French, and German soldiers as they come together in No Man’s Land. The film lacks the battle sequences and destruction of other films set during WWI, and instead focuses on a moment of peace. The result is a touching and ultimately tragic film which provides a testament to the strength of human compassion amidst the most inhumane of conflicts.

8) Home Alone (1990)

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Home invasion films aren’t typically a barrel of laughs, but the brilliance of Home Alone is that it essentially functions as a live-action Disney cartoon. As eight-year-old Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin) defends his home from violent burglars Harry and Marv (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern), the invaders are set on fire, beaten, shot, and pierced with spikes, but quickly bounce back without any serious injuries. It doesn’t have much to do with Christmas, but this is slapstick comedy in its purest form, elevated by charismatic performances from Culkin and Pesci. Several lacklustre sequels have since followed, but none have dampened the appeal of this anarchic original.

7) Trading Places (1983)

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Director John Landis’ last great comedy before his subsequent decline into mediocrity, Trading Places is a wonderfully subversive Christmas romp. Drawing from Mark Twain’s 1881 novel The Prince and the Pauper, the film sees a wealthy business executive (Dan Aykroyd) exchange lives with a poor street hustler (Eddie Murphy) in order to satisfy a bet between two aristocratic brothers. Both Murphy and Aykroyd are at the height of their comedic powers, complemented by scene-stealing turns from Jamie-Lee Curtis and Denholm Elliot. Dealing with issues like racism, drug abuse, prostitution, and inequality, it’s an atypical Christmas comedy which delivers laughs year-on-year.

6) Carol (2015)

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Adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt, Carol is the story of a yuletide romance between an unhappily married woman (Cate Blanchett) and a young, aspiring photographer (Rooney Mara). It’s an achingly tender film, in which every glance and touch is palpably weighted with unspoken longing. Edward Lachman’s sumptuous 16mm cinematography transports the viewer to the early 1950s, capturing an idealised vision of a snow-swept New York. All this serves to underpin the fizzling chemistry between Blanchett and Mara, resulting in a Christmas love story which speaks to anyone who has ever found themselves suddenly and unexpectedly in love.

5) Brazil (1985)

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Depicting a deeply bureaucratic and consumerist dystopia, it’s no accident that Brazil takes place around Christmastime. Hymns, Christmas trees, and men in Santa costumes provide an inane and incongruous backdrop to the futuristic tyranny of the film’s world, but it also provides a commentary on the hollow materialism which often characterises Christmas in the real world. Deftly swerving between comedy and horror, the film makes a rewarding change of pace from the forced sentimentality of more conventional Christmas classics. Beside its festive credentials, Brazil remains the pinnacle of director Terry Gilliam’s career – an intimate study of the human condition in a world devoid of humanity.

4) The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

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There is a sequence at around the halfway point of The Bishop’s Wife, lasting about ten minutes, in which three characters go ice-skating on a frozen lake. It’s a spellbinding chapter which acts as a useful demonstration of what makes this film so magical; this is Christmas as it appears in children’s picture books, a fantastical ideal of snowbound streets and icy parks. This serves as the perfect backdrop for a funny and charming story of romance and the true meaning of Christmas. Cary Grant is perfectly cast as Dudley, a suave angel sent to provide guidance to Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven), an overworked clergyman who is losing touch with his faith and, more crucially, his wife Julia (Loretta Young). Grant oozes the charisma which defined his on-screen career, and it’s worth watching for the immaculate contours of his haircut alone – perhaps explaining why the film was retitled Cary and The Bishop’s Wife for some US markets.

3) The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

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For my money, this is the finest cinematic adaptation of Charles Dickens’ widely filmed novella, and the best entry in the Muppet franchise. The tunes are all appropriately catchy and the Muppets are as hilarious as ever, but it’s Michael Caine’s central performance as Ebenezer Scrooge which elevates this film into the classic it is. Despite acting against the surreal and slapstick stylings of Kermit and gang, he plays his part entirely straight, injecting genuine tragedy into the character of Scrooge. His journey from pitiless miser to benevolent altruist is entirely believable, as an icy exterior slowly thaws with feelings of sorrow, regret, and finally compassion.

2) It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

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It’s easy to understand why this film continues to resonate with audiences over 70 years since its release. Dealing with the same doubts and fears which we all face throughout our lives, It’s a Wonderful life is an archetype of life-affirming cinema. James Stewart gives one of his finest performances as George Bailey, a down-on-his-luck family man who considers suicide on Christmas Eve – that is, until a guardian angel arrives to show George what the world would be like had he never existed. It’s a film which affirms our collective responsibility towards our fellow man and the dangers of greed and cynicism. Most importantly, a Christmas viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life serves an annual reminder that your life matters, and that every act of kindness, no matter how small, helps to make the world a better place.

1) Die Hard (1988)

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Over the past few weeks, an irritating assembly of naysayers have tried to argue that Die Hard isn’t a Christmas film at all, but merely an action movie which happens to be set on Christmas Eve. It must be asked whether any of these dullards have actually watched Die Hard – this is a quintessentially festive tale of redemption and rekindled romance, which happens to take place during a terrorist siege. The hero of the film, NYPD Officer John McClane, is a modern-day Ebenezer Scrooge; a cranky misanthrope more concerned with catching crooks than being with his estranged family. Over the course of an explosive Christmas Eve, he begins to recognise the error of his ways and eventually finds redemption in the arms of his wife. The fact that he blows up a few people doesn’t detract from the film’s essentially festive themes. Die Hard is a timeless reminder that Christmas is a time to reconnect with those you love, even when Alan Rickman is trying to shoot you.

Top Ten.. War Films

War films have always been a huge part of why I love cinema. I spent a large portion of my childhood watching old war movies with my Grandad, and that probably explains why I came to be so fascinated by both history and film. Next month sees the release of Christopher Nolan’s new war epic, Dunkirk, and to celebrate I thought it would be appropriate to assemble a list of my top ten favourite war films.  I’ve loosely and arbitrarily defined the genre as “films which are about war”, rather than films which happen to have a bit of war in them or use war as a setting (so Dr Zhivago, Casablanca, and Barry Lyndon, for example, did not qualify). I also can’t claim to have been in any way objective or comprehensive – this is an entirely subjective collection of the war films which I enjoy the most. My honourable mentions go to The Great Escape, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, and The Thin Red Line, which just failed to make the cut.

10. Das Boot (1981)

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No film has ever established a sense of claustrophobia as effectively as Das Boot. Taking place almost entirely within the confines of a German U-Boat in the Second World War, the film examines the psychological toll of intense confinement at sea, and strikingly captures the excitement and terror of naval combat. It’s the distant nature of submarine warfare which gives Das Boot its unique character, as glimpses of the enemy are fleeting. Instead, the camera remains trapped within the oppressive metal hull of the U-Boat, forced to exist intimately alongside the crew just as they live and work alongside each other. It’s a heady and immersive atmosphere which benefits from authentic set design and ingenious use of sound, bringing the audience constantly closer to the actors on screen; tension becomes suffocating while brief moments of relief are jubilant. Director Wolfgang Petersen has gone on to helm a number of American action films, including Air Force One and Troy, but none have come close to this maritime triumph.

9. Zulu (1964)

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Zulu is the quintessential film about a siege, a classic tale of outnumbered heroes desperately defending themselves against overwhelming odds. The film avoids the jingoistic trappings which could so easily have defined it, and the bloody consequences of battle are never shied away from. The result is a three dimensional and often melancholic tale of heroism, punctuated by rousing battle scenes and superlative performances. Michael Caine is a revelation in his first major role as Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead, an upper-class officer whose preconceptions about his enemy and the very nature of war are rapidly challenged. Meanwhile the South African locations are vividly captured in bold technicolour photography as John Barry’s iconic soundtrack swells underneath. Zulu adopts an unrelenting pace almost immediately, and the first act is a masterclass in building tension. The taut structure unsurprisingly served as the inspiration for, among others, the Battle of Ramelle in Saving Private Ryan and the Battle for Helm’s Deep in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. An undisputed classic of British cinema, Zulu remains a touchstone within the war genre.

8. Land and Freedom (1995)

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Land and Freedom is an atypical film from Ken Loach, a name usually associated with kitchen-sink dramas about tragedy in the North of England. This story focuses on the tumult and tragedy of the Spanish Civil War, told through the experiences of a Liverpudlian, David Carr, after he volunteers to fight in late 1936. Although historical accuracy is occasionally sacrificed for the sake of drama or the director’s political leanings, it’s one of the few English-language films to address the Civil War in Spain, and isn’t afraid to confront its political complexities. Indeed, the film’s central characters spend more time debating land collectivisation than they do fighting fascists, but Loach never loses sight of the humanity at the heart of his story. Thus, with Land and Freedom, a human perspective is given to a conflict which is often confusing and opaque, and the result is an emotionally affecting and heart-wrenching experience.

7. A Bridge Too Far (1977)

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The last of the truly epic war films, it would be impossible to make a movie like this today. Chronicling the last major allied defeat of the Second World War, Operation Market Garden, A Bridge Too Far plays out with a mind boggling scope. The screen is decorated with unquantifiable numbers of aircraft, troops, and ground vehicles, while the credits are the stuff of fantasy; Sean Connery, Laurence Olivier, Michael Caine, Anthony Hopkins, Robert Redford, Gene Hackman, Ryan O’Neal, Liv Ullman, Hardy Kruger, Elliot Gould – the list goes on and on. The film undeniably creaks under its own weight at times, and Robert Redford’s late-70s hairdo is one of many anachronisms, but the immense scale of A Bridge Too Far remains an impressive achievement. Above all, it demonstrates the potential of film to transport audiences to another time and place, communicating history as a living, palpable reality.

6. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

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It is difficult to overstate the influence of Saving Private Ryan on the war genre, or even cinema as a whole. Steven Spielberg’s visceral style captured the brutal sights and sounds of battle with a greater verisimilitude than had ever been seen before, and in doing so reinvented the popular understanding of the Second World War. Bookended by two combat sequences which remain as shocking today as they were almost twenty years ago, Saving Private Ryan exposed war for the hell that it is; an unrelenting and confusing frenzy of gore, death, and destruction. However, to define the film by its moments of violence is to do it a disservice. At its core, Saving Private Ryan is the story of men at war, and how they are able to come to terms with, if not justify, their actions whilst remaining in touch with their own humanity. The film’s most effecting moments are not firefights, but conversations, a fact which been largely missed by its many imitators. An overdose of Spielbergian sentimentality undeniably creeps in at times, but the movie remains a mature reflection on the corrupting and dehumanising influence of war. The pervasive influence of Saving Private Ryan may be observed as recently as last year’s Hacksaw Ridge, but Spielberg’s anti-war epic remains unmatched.

5. Where Eagles Dare (1968)

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Not every war film can be a profound, anti-war lecture on man’s inhumanity to man. Sometimes, watching people pretend to kill each other can actually be a lot of fun, and this is never truer than in Brian G Hutton’s Second World War thriller, Where Eagles Dare. In 1944, an allied commando team is parachuted into the Austrian Alps in order to rescue a captured American general, but it quickly becomes clear that all is not as it seems. Twists and double-crosses ensue as a complex and rewarding plot unfolds, which goes far beyond the usual expectations of escapist entertainment. More importantly, Where Eagles Dare combines an infinitely hummable soundtrack with an array of superbly executed action set pieces, whilst Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood offer effortlessly charismatic lead performances.  The ultimate “blokes-on-a-mission” movie, this is the best example of a genre which includes classics like The Guns of Navarone, The Dirty Dozen, and Inglourious Basterds – a perfect accompaniment to a lazy bank holiday or Sunday afternoon.

4. Apocalypse Now (1979)

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Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now often feels more like an ordeal than a movie. Adapted from Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novel Heart of Darkness, this film is the definitive cinematic treatise on the Vietnam war; a bloody, surreal, and darkly comic odyssey down the Nung River. At every turn, Coppola fills the frame with iconic images, from the opening shot of a jungle doused in napalm to a swarm of helicopter gunships descending on a beachside village. The eclectic soundtrack relies as much on The Doors as it does Richard Wagner, providing a perfectly intoxicating backdrop for the increasingly hellish events on screen. By the time of the climactic montage of death, it’s difficult to argue with Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz as he whispers his final words; “The horror. The horror.” Perhaps more impressive than the film itself is the story of how it was made, an astounding tale which is excellently chronicled in the 1991 documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse.

3. Paths of Glory (1957)

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Stanley Kubrick’s First World War drama spends most of its time in a picturesque chateau far behind the front lines, but still provides a powerful commentary on the inhumanity and callousness which guided the so-called Great War. The first act of Paths of Glory contains one of the most visceral sequences of trench warfare put to film, showcasing Kubrick’s rarely observed talent as a director of action. Kirk Douglas has never been better than in this dominating performance as Colonel Dax, a French officer who defends his three of his men against trumped-up charges of cowardice. The emptiness of death hangs over the film like an unbearable stench, serving as a constant reminder of the utter hopelessness and terror of war. Despite its cynicism, however, the film’s final moments are a plea to the essential goodness of the human spirit – a much needed tribute to humanity within an atmosphere of oppressive inhumanity.

2. Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

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Set in a Japanese forced labour camp in Burma during the Second World War, Bridge on the River Kwai serves as a powerful testament to the madness and futility of war. What the film lacks in historical accuracy it more than compensates for in drama, as the perilous construction of the eponymous bridge is contrasted against the allied commando unit who are despatched to destroy it. Alec Guinness stars in an Oscar-winning turn as Colonel Nicholson, a British commanding officer who’s pride and upper-class fortitude lead him to unwittingly collaborate with his Japanese captors. It’s a brave and complex story for a film made so shortly after the war’s end, and was not without controversy upon its release. Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson’s script deals in weighty and existentialist themes, but they’re packaged within an exciting World War Two adventure and complemented by David Lean’s characteristically stunning cinematography.

1. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

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David Lean’s finest cinematic achievement and probably the most beautiful film ever made, it feels like a disservice to call Lawrence of Arabia a “war movie”. Of course, this First World War drama deals heavily and effectively in epic battle sequences and sweeping desert panoramas, but these serve as an accompaniment to the nuanced character study which forms the centre of the film. Peter O’Toole’s performance as the enigmatic and controversial TE Lawrence is rightfully iconic, masterfully moving between charisma, melancholy, and madness, while the camera lingers lovingly over his absurdly striking features. Over the nearly four-hour runtime, Lawrence remains a frustrating and impenetrable figure, a perfect cipher for the confusion of war and what it does to the human soul. In its final act, Lawrence of Arabia moves beyond the personal to cast a cynical eye over the political machinations which control and manipulate conflict for their own benefit. It’s a multi-layered experience which reveals more upon every viewing, and should be seen on the largest screen possible.

New Articles on Den of Geek!

I’ve recently had the opportunity to write a couple of pieces for the amazing people over at Den of Geek. Hopefully this relationship will continue for the foreseeable future, but to find everything I’ve written for the Den so far you can click here.

Alternatively, I will be using this blog to curate all of my work which has been featured on other websites, just head over to the Other Stuff I’ve Written page for the full list.

For now though, here are my first two articles for Den of Geek:

Bond 25, and the untapped stories of the novels – Den of Geek
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Putting the film back into films – Den of Geek
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Keep checking back for more content!

Lots of Love,

Mark.

2016 – A Year In Review

It’s been one hell of a year. When looking back over the events of 2016, films might be the very last thing on your mind. But amongst tragedy, political turmoil, and the ongoing collapse of Western civilisation, the cinema screens of the world have provided a few moments of much-needed respite.

Of course, not all has been entirely well in the world of celluloid. Some of the industry’s finest talents have sadly left us this year, including Alan Rickman, Guy Hamilton, Anton Yelchin, Robin Hardy, and Gene Wilder. Meanwhile, the DC Universe, for which hopes had been so high, remains floundering, facing a renewed critical mauling with every entry. And the avalanche of lacklustre sequels and reboots has continued unabated, bringing Ben-Hur, Ghostbusters, Independence Day: Resurgence, and a multitude of others too depressing to name.

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“Whit Stillman made a triumphant return with Love and Friendship

Amidst all this, however, a few beacons of light continue to shine through the tumult. In May, director Whit Stillman made a triumphant return with Love and Friendship, a bitingly funny and lavishly decorated adaptation of Jane Austen’s novella Lady Susan. Starring Kate Beckinsale, with supporting appearances by Chloe Sevingy and Stephen Fry, Love and Friendship was a welcome surprise in the dour summer line-up, and a testament to the cinematic potential of Austen’s prose.

Summer also saw the UK release of Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent, a beautiful and haunting film set in the Amazon rainforest during the early twentieth century. Telling the parallel stories of two western explorers, the film is rooted in a familiar adventure narrative, owing a clear debt to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and its many imitators. However, this time the focus is transposed from the outsider to the native point of view, providing an unvarnished perspective on the horrors and barbarity of colonialism. David Gallego’s monochrome photography perfectly captures the tragedy of a civilisation and a people since lost to time.

Hell or High Water, directed by David Mackenzie, was another surprising coup which left critics rightly bowled over. A gritty heist film with neo-western inflections, Hell or High Water wisely distinguishes itself with a focus on snappy, amusing dialogue and a cast of genuinely sympathetic characters. Jeff Bridges and Chris Pine both provide first-class performances as two men on opposite sides of the law, but equally adrift in declining rural America. A film which reaffirms your faith in old-fashioned, character driven storytelling.

The funniest and most charming movie of the year arrived in the form of Hunt For the Wilderpeople, a distinctively New Zealand-flavoured hit. Directed by Taika Watiti, the darling of kiwi comedy, Wilderpeople pitches screen legend Sam Neill alongside newcomer Julian Dennison, both bringing superb chemistry to a script that deals in equal parts hilarity and pathos. For anyone tired of the vulgarity and excess that characterises much of the modern comedy genre, this film provides a necessarily witty antidote.

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Hunt for the Wilderpeople, “the funniest and most charming movie of the year”

It’s also been a great year for documentaries; Ava DuVernay delivered a scathing critique of modern America’s prison-industrial complex in the made-for-Netlifx 13th, while Mat Whitecross’ Supersonic gave a visceral insight into the heights of Britpop. My pick of the bunch, however, would have to be Eight Days a Week, Ron Howard’s exhaustive take on the heady days of Beatlemania between 1962 and 1966. For Beatles fanatics such as myself, the film is a gratifying tour of songs and characters that have become an essential part of my brain’s wiring. For novice audiences, the heavy use of original concert footage helps to illustrate why those four musicians were such a phenomenon. It may not open your eyes to a great injustice or inspire you to change the world, but as entertainers The Beatles remain unparalleled.

As summer came to a close, films with a greater social consciousness came to the fore. I, Daniel Blake, the Palme D’Or winning drama from Ken Loach, went on general release. The film acts as an enraged indictment of the political status-quo, detailing how the country’s most vulnerable people are being condemned to a precarious and pitiful existence. Paul Laverty’s screenplay is wholly human in both its warmth and its anguish, while the central performances by Dave Johns and Hayley Squires have a painfully clear ring of authenticity. For anyone who wants to understand the impact of austerity politics beyond a series of faceless statistics, I, Daniel Blake will outrage and enlighten you.

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I, Daniel Blake will outrage and enlighten you”

If the dreary reality of Ken Loach’s Britain is too much for you, then Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival has an altogether more hopeful outlook. This magnificent sci-fi is imbued with a palpable sense of awe and wonder, but never loses sight of its essentially human heart, anchored to an astonishing centrepiece performance from Amy Adams. After the moribund programme of blockbusters this summer, it is a joy to see mainstream film-making that is ambitious not only in spectacle, but in ideas. Dealing in substantial themes, from personal loss to geopolitical tension, Arrival feels all-too-relevant in the growing uncertainty of today’s world, but does so with an accessible and life-affirming vigour. Villeneuve has emerged as one of the finest and most versatile directors currently working, a reassuring sign for next year’s Blade Runner sequel. You’ll be left with plenty to think about once the credits roll, leaving the cinema on a thoughtful and wholly positive note.

All things considered, then, 2016 hasn’t been a bad year for film-goers. Admittedly, I can’t pretend to have been entirely comprehensive in my praise – a student’s budget can only provide for a limited number of cinema tickets, after all. And of course, at the time of writing, some of the year’s most anticipated pictures are yet to be released, with upcoming titles including the Star Wars spin-off, Rogue One, and Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited Silence. Yet, as the curtain falls on 2016 and we look forward to another year, it’s becoming increasingly risky to count on anything. As long as they keep making movies, I’ll make do with that.

 

This article was first published in Exeposé, Exeter University’s independent student newspaper. To find more of my work for Exeposé, click here.

What are film critics for?

This article was first published in Exeposé, Exeter University’s independent student newspaper. To find more of my work for Exeposé, click here.

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Like lambs to the slaughter.

Alex Proyas, the much maligned director of I, Robot and Gods of Egypt, recently called film critics “a pack of diseased vultures pecking at the bones of a dying carcass”. As part of a bizarre Facebook rant, Proyas said that critics “have no personal taste or opinion”, and would soon be going “the way of the dinosaur or the newspaper”. Popular film critic Mark Kermode, never one to take a beating lying down, responded that if he really was a “vulture”, then surely that made Proyas’ films as good as roadkill.

Although Proyas may hope to blame critics for the financial failure of his films, the reality is that professional movie criticism has very little impact on the box office. To take just one example, Michael Bay’s Transformers saga has received intense critical savaging with every new installment, yet the two most recent entries soared past the $1 billion mark at the global box office. A similar story is true of the various Pirates of the Caribbean sequels; universal derision within critical circles, but unadulterated hits among the film-going public.

This apparent paradox has felt more prescient recently, as a number of 2016’s biggest films received a notably poor reception in the press. The newest entries in the fledgling DC Universe, Batman V Superman and Suicide Squad, are both sitting on a decidedly “rotten” rating on the review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes. Meanwhile, the two films have earned a comfortable profit during their theatrical runs, despite a quibbling notion of “under-performance”. As far as the money is concerned, these big-budget, glossy franchise installments are often too big to fail, regardless of what the critics have to say.

Big-budget, glossy franchise installments are often too big to fail, regardless of what the critics have to say.

Positive reviews have a similarly negligible impact on a film’s chances at the box office. Star Trek Beyond and the controversial Ghostbusters remake were both released this year to a surprisingly upbeat press response, but neither has really succeeded in earning its keep, thus bringing the future of both franchises into doubt. Of course, critical darlings often fail to reap millions – you’ll rarely see a blockbuster sweeping the awards ceremonies – but the authority of critics remains ineffectual even when their praise is focused on mainstream fare.

If the influence of critics is really so limited, then why do people appear to care so deeply about what they have to say? Part of this phenomenon is surely down to the growth of review aggregate websites. Pages like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic attempt to condense often hundreds of reviews into some kind of binary compromise, usually a rating out of 100. While this is helpful if a film is genuinely loved or hated on a mass scale, it entirely fails to take diversity of criticism into account. By aggregating a broad range of opinions into a single figure, these websites rob film reviews of all their nuance, enforcing a consensus that may not actually exist. Many film buffs will no longer go to a single reviewer that they know and trust, but rather check if the assembled might of the world’s press have deemed a picture “rotten” or “fresh”.

The result is that far more weight is given to critical consensus than is really warranted. Narratives are quickly built around a film’s quality or popular reception, and these narratives don’t always reflect the lived reality of the cinema going public. Outside of the critical bubble, audiences remain as fickle and easily pleased as ever. The job of the critic is not to decide which films succeed and which do not, and the truth is that they rarely do.