Loro

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Loro is Paolo Sorrentino’s second film that explores the political landscape of his home country Italy, after the Cannes winning Il Divo. Il Divo starred the charismatic Tony Sevillo as corrupt prime minister Giulio Andreotti and displayed the typical stylish hallmarks which would later garner Sorrentino an Oscar for The Great Beauty. Punchy music, arresting visuals and an ambitious scope characterize both these films. But, although Loro is closer in subject matter to Il Divo, similar thematic links can be drawn to The Great Beauty.

The first thing that strikes me about the film is that we are not introduced to the main protagonist, Silvio Berlusconi (Tony Sevillo), until 30 minutes in. This not only builds his mystique, but seen through the eyes of characters who refer to Berlusconi as Lui, Lui (him, him) we get an insight into his overbearing influence. Berlusconi seems to be solely remarkable for his material achievements, rather than his personality. Indeed he is later portrayed as a small man with a weakness for young women, juvenile practical jokes and breast implants. However, to self-described ‘talent scout’ Sergio Morra (pictured above) who is an ambitious finder of beautiful women used in negotiations to secure lucrative government contracts – Berlusconi is the elusive prize. Indeed Sergio goes to great expense to rent a villa in Sardinia close to Berlusconi’s and hand-picks women to attend a staged ‘party’ to catch his eye. We get an idea of just how important Berlusconi is when the whole congregation silently stare in the direction of his villa, waiting for hours just to be noticed.

These initial party scenes are reminiscent of The Great Beauty. Sorrentino excels at stylistically capturing 21st Century hedonism – with thumping beats, dancing, drugs and excess – ‘a spectacle of bad taste’ as described by Henry K Miller in Sight & Sound. There is a particularly arresting visual moment when, to signal the party starting, hundreds of brightly coloured MDMA pills are thrown into the air. Sorrentino lingers on this slow-motion shot whilst a narrator describes the neurological affects of the drug. Nudity, partying and indeed ‘bad taste’ continue throughout the film.

The same contrast exists here as it does in The Great Beauty. Hard-won human achievements taking time and real effort, vs the transience of excess and hedonism. This is never more poignant than in one of the final scenes at Berlusconi’s villa where Sergio is finally asked to stage a party. Of course, he invites the full congregation of beautiful women. A 20 year old aspiring actress, Stella, who seems uncomfortable catches Berlusconi’s eye. She is the only one who doesn’t laugh at his jokes. She seems to surprise him with the line ‘I can’t do this, it’s all so pathetic’. This dignified and unattainable woman is the one Berlusconi wants, and can never get. She does not fit into the category of superficial beauty. Suddenly the empty reality hits home.

Again, this contrast is evident when Berlusconi’s wife leaves him. Throughout the film she pleads to visit the stunning temples of Cambodia, criticizes his TV channels for bloated advertisements and no intelligent programming, and accuses him of having limited cultural horizons in comparison to the Fiat magnate owner of Juventus Gianni Agnelli, who commissioned a portrait from Francis Bacon. In some ways this failure to appreciate cultural beauty ended up being Berlusconi’s downfall. I felt compassion for Sergio by the end of the film. Never managing to kindle friendship with Berlusconi and enter his circle, he melancholically proclaims that ‘they [loro in Italian] are smarter than us’. Not sure if this is the case, Sergio.

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Eighth Grade

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In Director Bo Burnham I feel like I’m witnessing another Jordan Peele rise. Again, this is a filmmaker with a background in sketch comedy who, with his debut feature Eighth Grade, seems to have already made a significant contribution to film culture. Indeed, Barak Obama has named Eighth Grade one of his favourites of 2018, and I can see why.

Eighth Grade avoids many of the usual coming-of-age tropes. The film is imbued with a remarkable authenticity. This isn’t comedy on the scale of Mean Girls with surreal cut scenes and popularity wars, instead the focus is on Kayla Day’s last week in middle school and the battle to discover herself. Burnham takes joy from small triumphs against a tidal wave of “cool” conformity. He has created an excellent character in Kayla Day who isn’t insecure enough to abandon her lamer interests. Whilst watching I certainly started to remember what life was like at that age and the process of building my personality. I was also somewhat surprised to find myself relating to a 13 year old girl.

Part of this authenticity comes from Elsie Fisher’s mesmerising turn as Kayla. There was a groundedness to her performance that was refreshing to see from an actress her age. She was adept at realistically conveying the awkward interactions which provided dry humour throughout. Many of these interactions revolved around her dad, Mark Day played by Josh Hamilton. This was a character I had sympathy for, a dad that dealt with his daughter with goofy good humour despite her efforts to push him away. He provided something of a moral anchor too, and was instrumental in Kayla’s closing revelations.

Burnham initially gained a following through comedy videos on Youtube. I’m not surprised then, that the film also provides insightful commentary into social media lives. After she was voted ‘quietest in school’ Kayla’s Youtube video tips on topics such as “being yourself” or “putting yourself out there”  are a reminder of the contrast between appearance and reality. Social media certainly highlights the anxiety of school but it also allows Kayla to discover who she is. It almost feels like the audience isn’t important in these videos, what’s more important is her freedom of self-expression. This is no more evident than in the final scene when she leaves a heartfelt video message to her eighteen year old self, ‘if you don’t have a boyfriend, that’s ok’, ‘if high school was bad for you, that’s ok too’.

Just like in Us, the score here is particularly good, with loud, brash techno music amplifying the horrendous nerves Kayla feels when she sets eyes on her crush in school. There are also some hugely engaging montages of Instagram surfing, working well with tracks like Enya’s “Orinoco Flow”. I can’t wait to see what Burnham does next. This could be one of the first of the Youtube generation to master cinema.

 

 

 

Us

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During the spring of 2017 I couldn’t help being aware of the impact Get Out had upon cinema audiences. Working at Rich Mix gave me an insight into its huge popular and critical appeal. Jordan Peele successfully magnified the covert racism of liberal America in a skilful and entertaining masterpiece which I only managed to catch recently on Netflix. Indeed, the breath of Peele’s work has hitherto been unknown to me. I was particularly pleased to discover his sketch acting on Youtube, which includes viral classics such as the hilarious ‘substitute teacher’. It’s been a great couple of years for Peele, who went on to play a part in producing Spike Lee’s well deserved first Oscar win Blackkklansman, as well as winning an Oscar himself for Get Out.

Something like Get Out and Us could only have been made by a cinephile. In a recent MTV interview Peele himself admits that he had a face-hugger from Alien dangled over his bed as a child. Certainly there are echoes of Ripley in Lupita Nyong’o’s character Adelaide, but the references in Us go beyond that. Peele has been compared to Kubrick in his fastidiousness and attention to detail, indeed Kubrick is drawn upon several times. The opening scene of a family driving towards their doom through the American landscape is reminiscent of the opening scene in The Shining. The Vulture Blog points out both Us and A Clockwork Orange feature a sequence in which a crisp, clean, upper-class dwelling is invaded by attackers to incongruent music (“Singin’ in the Rain” in A Clockwork Orange, “Good Vibrations,” and “Fuck Tha Police” in Us).

Peele is also a fan of Lewis Carol it seems, declaring “There are thousands of miles of tunnels beneath the continental US” in the films opening statement, before cutting to a horrifying close up of a rabbit which pans out to reveal more rabbits in cages stacked on top of eachother. It’s the music at this point that’s terrifying, with gothic style chanting overlaying the ominous image. We are through the looking glass and down the tunnel. As well as the gothic chanting, more biblical references abound throughout the film, particularly Jeremiah 11:11 which crops up on clocks and in the hands of street-preachers, it also happens to be the number of rabbit cages stacked by width and length in the aforementioned opening scene. The biblical idea of a dual ‘soul’ and ‘body’ is also central to the narrative, and the symmetrical symbol 11:11 feeds into the theme of ‘mirror’ images, reflecting the “tethered” and their surface counterparts.  Jordan Peele has been quoted as saying, “one thing you can be sure of in this film, everything is deliberate”.

The home-invaders theme and cold atmosphere instantly felt like Micheal Haneke’s Funny Games. Indeed, Funny Games also opens with a family drive and The Vulture Blog also points out that Zora takes out several of the “tethered” versions of the Tyler family with the chief weapon of the Funny Games villains: a golf club. Just like Haneke, Peele seems to pay close attention to the score which is a remarkable achievement for Michael Abels’ second feature as a composer. I particularly enjoyed the slowed-down version of Luniz’s ‘I Got 5 On It’, working very well as a horrific and foreboding piece – in contrast to the original.

Both of Peele’s films thus far have taken place in fairly unconventional horror settings, Get Out in an idyllic, middle class, liberal home and Us on a beach resort. He talks about daylight often being scarier than the more predictable dusty, dark basements and attics. I agree, daylight forces us to acknowledge everything is on display. In Us the build-up of tension works very well when there are several foreboding moments early on, particularly when Adelaide’s son Jason goes missing. This keeps the audience guessing as to when the real scares are going to come.

Early on in the film the characters of the family are also well-established, building up our emotional investment in them. Winston Duke as Gabe Wilson does a superb job of running with the comedy baton we first saw with Lil Rel Howery’s TSA agent in Get Out. Cast in her first leading role, Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o is fantastic as Adelaide and Red, showing a fierce commitment and intensity.

Finally I want to talk about the films’ themes. Mark Kermode points out that Us locates our anxieties about outsiders in a guilty fear of ourselves. This ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ psychology is interesting because it’s very ambiguous as to who ‘Them’ could be metaphorically. In Ancient Greek myths monsters such as the Typhon or Centaurs are said to represent uncontrollable nature. Perhaps ‘The Tethered” in Jordan Peele’s film are repressed aspects of our consciousness, our dark natural instincts coming into focus. However, there are also modern political interpretations we can draw. When asked ‘who are you people?’ early on the “tethered” version of Adelaide responds ‘we are Americans’. Perhaps this could be a manifestation of US guilt for the native American genocide, perhaps Peele envisions a world where they once again take control. One of the good things about Peele’s film is it does not provide any straightforward hints at who ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ might be in the real world, it is very much down to your interpretation and perspective. Certainly the horror tradition established by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, playing on our worst fears in the disruption of the ‘nuclear family’ is at work here.

 

The Song of Achilles

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I know, I know. I’m supposed to review films, but I really hope this book will eventually grace the big screen. The rights have apparently been acquired by Caryn Mandabach Productions (Peaky Blinders).

Madeline Miller’s book The Song of Achilles follows the story of Troy: the Iliad. For those of you that are unfamiliar it starts when Queen Helen leaves Sparta (Greece) with Prince Paris for Troy (in Asia Minor). This sparks a diplomatic nightmare, and the Greeks end up sailing over to reclaim her in a thousand ships, lead by Agamemnon of Mycenae and his brother the spurned Menelaus of Sparta. The Siege lasts for 10 years until it is finally broken when the Greeks construct a giant wooden horse as a pretend gift for Troy and the Gods. Hidden inside, they open the gates of Troy and the rest of their army pours in and ransacks the city.

Miller’s book focuses on the story of Achilles who, although he had no part in starting the war, is arguably its main protagonist. He is the greatest hero and fighter on the side of the Greeks, but is unruly and suspicious of authority. He has numerous disputes with Agamemnon. One such dispute results in him refusing to fight and without him the Greeks start to lose the war.

Achilles is featured much in ancient Greek pottery, literature and culture. There is no doubt he has played a part in representing masculinity for the West. Most of us will still remember the Hollywood film Troy (2004), with Brad Pitt in the role. Pitt plays him as a fearsome fighter, honourable and respected by all. He is also very much a ladies man too. In a similar way, the siege of Troy has been used by the West as a way to glorify war. The original book helped to form the concept of ‘nationhood’ for the Greeks, and since then fighting for your country has been held in great esteem – and also the sign of a ‘real’ man. I want to argue here that this is a problematic interpretation of the original ancient Greek text, written by Homer. Miller’s perspective shows a clearer understanding of the complexity of the original themes and ideas.

If you want a breakdown of the original ancient greek text, I would recommend Lindybeige on Youtube. He points out that what Homer’s text does is simultaneously glorify and condemn war.

These are heroes! Fighting is the way to attain immortality. AT THE SAME TIME we are acutely aware of the tragedy. So many deaths – for what?

Lindybeige draws our attention to the death of Iphidames in Homers text as a great example of characterisation. The tragedy here is brought into sharp focus when this insignificant minor character (with barely a paragraph of space devoted to him) is given a rich background story. He is incidentally the first Trojan to die by Agamemnon. We hear about his life growing up in Thrace, his wedding and father attempting to persuade him not to leave to fight. The description of his death that follows is extremely melancholic; ‘he slept a sleep of bronze most piteously, far from his wedded wife’. We never hear from this person again.

Anyway, back to Madeline Miller. Both the condemnation and glorification of war are actually present in her book. Her description of Achilles’ fighting is glorious, she seems to revel in the beauty of his movements. However, Miller’s true focus is not on the heroic fighting or the epic battles, it’s on the simple relationship that altered the course of the war – Achilles’ relationship with Patroclus that was underplayed in the Brad Pitt movie. Why did Achilles go so mad with grief when Patroclus died? How could this relationship have meant so much to him that to seek revenge he abandoned his pride and continued fighting, turning the tide of the war? This relationship seems to have been infinitely more significant than Hollywood portrayed, and had a heavy bearing on the entire life of Achilles, before and after Troy. Miller made the bold choice of telling the story through the eyes of Patroclus and thereby shedding new light on the ancient text. Homer leaves it ambiguous as to wether Achilles and Patroclus were lovers or not, however there are suggestions. In Millers book they are.

Certainly a character worth exploring then, and a relationship that can explain a lot of Achilles’ motivations and choices. Patroclus is described by Homer as always gentle. From his time growing in Pithia and the crucial friendship blooming, to his pivotal role at Troy.

He didn’t have any godlike abilities or an aptitude for fighting. He was largely ignored by the more important figures such as Agamemnon and Menelaus. At first he was only really noticed due to his relationship with Achilles. What did Achilles see in him then, to consider him a worthy companion?

Early on in the book Achilles is sent to train with the centaur Chiron on Mount Pelion. As the son of a goddess, he is expected to grow up to become a legendary hero. Thetis, his mother, is a sea nymph and detests Patroclus as an unworthy mortal. She does everything she can to separate the two. And yet Patroclus does not give up, and on discovering Achilles’ absence, runs nonstop to Pelion from Pitha to find him. This takes him a full day. The wise Chiron then allows him to stay, sensing I think, a unique kind of unwavering determination. Later on in the book, at Troy, Patroclus starts working in the medical tent in order to make a contribution to the war effort. In the course of his training with Chiron he is more interested in learning the healing arts than fighting. This is a very different version of masculinity.

In an interview I watched on Youtube Miller stated her great affection for Patroclus. An ordinary character who makes important choices, some of which alter the course of history. It is clear throughout the book he trying to make the world a better place, without seeking glory or immortality.

The Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse Episode

The Wiener Dog Episode

The BFG Episode

The Ghostbusters Episode

Knight of Cups

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Terrence Malick is certainly a unique filmmaker who has developed a distinctive cinematic vernacular. ‘Knight of Cups’ is no exception and fits comfortably into the artistic style he has honed throughout his career. His camera wanders through interesting visual elements in a frame; whereas more conventionally it would be focusing on expositional dialogue and moving the story forwards, that is to say – human faces and action. Malick pulls down to feet when people are talking, he pauses to film water in various states, perhaps symbolizing a new period beginning with the old washed away. He notices animals, flowers, plants and beautiful landscapes. A brilliant moment such as this in ‘Knight of Cups’ was when we look up at a German Shepherd from underwater struggling to catch a tennis ball in his mouth – ‘The Guardian’ suggests this is a metaphor for modern Hollywood. I feel like I came out of his film with a well-rounded life-experience and perhaps was given the space and visual stimulation to let my mind and imagination wander to places it would not have otherwise ventured.

The narrative is presented in fragments as if recalling a memory (can you tell I studied film at university?). Time is not consecutively or neatly packaged. What we get instead is a flavor of romantic liaisons. We are drawn to one woman after another, but not necessarily as a linear progression in Rick’s (the main protagonist’s) life.

Even now I feel the film is close to a vague memory, an impression or feeling.

‘The Tree of Life’, although employing the same visual style, differed fundamentally in its subject matter as well as having a continuity-based narrative strand. I think it is the subject matter that set ‘The Tree of Life’ apart from ‘Knight of Cups’, and the reason it was generally better reviewed.  ‘Knight of Cups’ is less touching, it focuses on a successful Hollywood screenwriter rather than a struggling family. He flits from one beautiful woman to another (each female character having little depth) and still manages to remain melancholic!

One line delivered by Brad Pitt’s character to his children in ‘The Tree of Life’ has stuck with me for years ‘without you guys I would have nothing to show for my life. zip.’ A large part of the film was focused on the father struggling valiantly to secure his kids future and failing to achieve his personal dreams. One of the only lines I can recall from ‘Knight of Cups’ is ‘If Cleopatra’s nose had been shorter she would have changed the future of the world’. I think perhaps these examples succinctly demonstrate the main difference between the two films, ‘Knight of Cups’ – first world problems. Boo Hooo!

 

 

 

The Jungle Book

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Having recently re-watched a portion of the original Disney classic and dwelling on the memory of one of those rare and important childhood film experiences, I was keen to see the new live-action version but also decided to quell my expectations.

The first thing that struck me was the intensity of the action sequences; this was a film with pace, tension and what seemed like real danger. It no longer looks like merely a fun, childhood romp in the jungle but a full-blown action film for adults and children alike. The jungle is real and, by extension, the action is palpable too.

Having the canvas of a real jungle to play with in an endless depth of field worked well for the film. As I mentioned before, it ramped up the excitement compared with the original 1967 Disney version. There was also a lot more focus on the wolf-pack that adopts Mogli. This was not a cursory glance, the laws of the wolf-pack and the individual characters therein were given depth and featured throughout.

Having said that, this new film does draw heavily upon the 1967 classic, with 2 of the most popular songs as well as the same basic plot. None of the comic effect is lost when converted to live action either, with Bill Murray doing an excellent job as Baloo the bear. In fact, most of the acting was superb especially Nell Sethi as Mogli. His performance was engaging and confident.

My only criticism is the ending. Part of the reason why the original Disney Jungle Book was so compelling for me was the overarching exploration of man’s relationship to nature which initially is covered with some realism. However, it seems to me that coexistence on this scale is impossible and the brutal reality is that man destroys nature as well as creating  harsh conflict in a bid for control of resources and habitats.  The meaningful friendship between Mogli and the jungle, including Bagheera or Baloo, has to end. Justin Marks (the writer) was unwilling to finish in the same way as the Disney original, perhaps to preserve the opportunity for a sequel. The tragic impact of these close friends parting forever (as they do in 1967) is therefore lost, along with the gravity of certain messages: 1) On a psychological level you should be comfortable with, and true to your identity and not seek to imitate someone or something you are not, and 2) Man should maintain a respectful distance from nature.