This Week We’ve Been Watching…

    Mike’s Been Watching…

BAD COMPANY [Main Picture]
DIR: Robert Benton
If the cinema was built for escapism, the Western genre is perhaps its greatest fantasy. Indeed, the myth of the Old West was built in novels and Technicolour movies; the characters depicted by John Wayne never existed, but it’s fun to think that they did. Settlers likely struggled and toiled through starvation and dynamic weather, and journeys like these are rarely explored on film. A good recent example would be Meek’s Cutoff (2010), but I’ve never seen another film like Bad Company. The story follows Drew (Barry Brown), an Ohio-born man in his early 20’s who’s shipped off toward Jefferson City to avoid the call of the Civil War (which has already claimed his brother), and falls in with a band of ragtag outlaws led by Jake (Jeff Bridges), an Artful Dodger type with a bark bigger than his bite, but enough roguish charm to get along. His manners are polite but his cocksure attitude hints at darker depths, also well expressed in a scene involving the skinning of a rabbit. This is a visually sumptuous tale of friendship on the frontier, and the relationships are honestly and carefully etched, and the performances impressive. Bridges displays in abundance why he’s become the prominent star that he is, injecting Jake with anger, sadness and charisma, and it’s one of his best early performances. But what of the forever-typecast Barry Brown, once quoted as saying “The only time I’m not unhappy is when I’m acting”, who took his own life in 1978? He made some interesting pictures but was never allowed to explore the talent present in every frame of Bad Company. The film now acts as not only an exceptionally authentic, gripping and moving Western, but also as a memoriam for the times he felt most alive. He is much missed.

GHOST DOG: THE WAY OF THE SAMURAI
DIR: Jim Jarmusch

The films of Jim Jarmusch have a specifically offbeat brand of cool, and their New Wave inspired peculiarity lends them a timeless quality. Take Ghost Dog for example. It’s an almost perfect blend of Kurosawa and Melville, taking the samurai’s ethical coda and sense of honour and proposing its use in a laid-back genre movie; its hero silent, its action quiet. There are 90’s touches too, especially in the soundtrack by hip-hop artist RZA, but overall this tale of mob revenge (which also makes recurring use of Ryûnosuke Akutagawa’s Rashômon, adapted by Kurosawa in 1950) doesn’t belong to any one time, place or genre. It is, however, thoroughly engrossing, and one of the most underrated films of the 1990’s. Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) is an enigmatic hitman who lives above the city, studying bushido (the ancient samurai’s code of honour) and tending to his carrier pigeons, which are also his means of communication with his retainer (master) Louie (John Tormey). Ghost Dog also has a friendship with the French-speaking Ice Cream vendor Raymond (Isaach De Bankolé). They don’t share a language, yet they understand each other. Ghost Dog drifts through the world as a neutral observer, but when a mob family (including Henry Silva) decides to wipe him out, he decides he must make the first move. Jarmusch’s camera floats above and around the city, and the film has a beautifully measured pace, as well as a witty sense of humour (Silva watching Woody Woodpecker cartoons stone-faced is hilarious). But really it’s Whitaker who commands the screen with his quiet sensitivity and violent grace. The final half hour sees him dispatching the bad guys, eventually ending up in a Western showdown, but the action all takes place on his face. Funny, moving and often fascinating, Ghost Dog may not be for everyone, but I loved it.

    Oren’s Been Watching…

HEREAFTER
DIR: Clint Eastwood

Just by looking at all of the talent involved in this film, one would have a very hard time accepting that it is in fact a total dud. Many reviews that I read for the film seemed to be particularly apologetic, probably because of the talent involved. But as far as I am concerned, there is simply no way around it: This film is a stinker from start to finish; an absolute, total stinker. The screenplay itself is mainly to blame. I was originally excited by the prospect of Clint Eastwood directing a script by one of my favorite contemporary writers, Peter Morgan, the man behind some of the most taught, well-written and interesting fact-based scripts produced over the past 10 years in both film and television, including The Queen, The Last King of Scotland, and Frost/Nixon. However, the script for Hereafter reads more like an amateur’s attempt to write about themes discussed in the philosophy class he just took in his freshman year in college as opposed to the work of a seasoned, veteran writer. The plot is practically non-existent, nothing is propelling the characters forward; they do not undergo any change after the initial events that launch the story; much of the film, in particular its ending, is based entirely on chance and we never get a sense that it is actually building towards a well-established, deserved conclusion; characters are established only to completely disappear thus nullifying their existence in the first place; the characters, situations, story beats and dialogue are inescapably hokey, and overall, it just reads like an amateurish first draft with good intentions but nothing even close to the focus and precision of a polished script.

And so, I wasn’t the least bit surprised to discover that this in fact was the first draft of the script. Apparently, in-between projects, Peter Morgan wrote the script on spec, and sent it to Steven Spielberg just as a preliminary “I think this might be the beginning of a cool idea for a film, let me know what you think.” At the end of the day, I am most disappointed in both Spielberg and Eastwood, who for some reason thought that this first draft was fit to film “as is”, without any major changes or revisions whatsoever. This is most disappointing because both of these directors are among the most reliable for recognizing truly great stories that deserve the cinematic treatment. As it is now, this is a film that had an interesting premise, dealt with fascinating subject matter and certainly had potential, but was simply not ready to film. Eastwood in particular let me down – many of the performances are uninspired, and the child actor in particular is almost painfully bland; the cinematography is fairly uninteresting, and the special visual effects re-creating the Southeast Asia tsunami are pretty terrible, and most undeserving of the Best Visual Effects Academy Award nomination that managed to garner.

MAGNOLIA
DIR: Paul Thomas Anderson

Paul Thomas Anderson asks a lot from us. He asks us to spend 3 hours with these 9 characters he has created and so richly and realistically and deeply written and rendered. 9 living and breathing people; some of whom have done terrible things, some of whom are too naive for their own good, some of whom cannot see the good in their lives, some of whom don’t have any but want some so desperately. We see ourselves in these characters, and see that deep down, they all only want what we want: Redemption, acceptance, love. The film deals with layers upon layers of themes, ideas, concepts, motifs, and images. The central theme is about relationships with fathers, but there is so much else going on: regret over the past, hope (or lack of it) for the future, coincidence, chance, coinciding destinies, fate (or lack of it), and so much more. All of it is propelled forward by Jon Brion’s relentless score and Robert Elswit’s sumptuous and dynamic cinematography; the camera seems to never stop moving, and as it’s whipping around and dollying in, and whipping around all to the beat of Jon Brion’s score, one can’t help but feel a strong bond between all of the characters. The rewards of spending these 3 hours are unmatched: At the end of this journey, we are left with one of the finest character dramas ever crafted; an ambitious, incredible masterpiece, and a work of true genius from one of the finest filmmakers of our generation, and to a greater extent, of all time.. Is and remains my 2nd favorite movie of all time.

    Sam’s Been Watching…

IN BED WITH MADONNA
DIR: Alek Keshishian
In Bed With Madonna (also known by its equally provocative US title Truth or Dare) is a very strange film. It purports to be a documentary, but for all of its 112 minutes it feels overwhelmingly false, and yet you get the sense that its very falseness is incredibly revealing about Madonna. The Madonna we see here has already been perhaps the most famous woman on the planet for five years (the film was made during 1990’s Blonde Ambition tour) and she seems to be, for the most part, an entirely artificial creation; every utterance seems calculated, every move and every relationship contrived. She’s not the monster that some have tried to paint her as (though she can be a bitch), she’s just become more image than person.

Watching the black and white backstage footage is fascinating, trying to unpick it, trying to see a glimpse of the real person behind the artifice. She does slip through at times, probably against her will, be it when she mimes vomiting after a bemulletted Kevin Costner calls her show ‘neat’, when she asks her Dad if he liked the show, or her anger when there is a technical problem with the show (the one thing you do feel is real is the desire to do a good show every show). Madonna is a terrible documentary subject in a lot of ways, largely because of her awareness of the camera (there is a definite desire to be outrageous on show here, and clearly exacerbated by the crew, as in the game of Truth or Dare in which she fellates a bottle). She comes off worst in the sequence in which she meets up with an old childhood friend, she has no time for her, and there’s no warmth between them, it feels like an uncomfortable fan encounter, and like everything she says is a lie.

As a fan it should be said that the songs we see in full are excellent, with Madonna on fine vocal form throughout. I wish I’d been old enough to see this show. If you want a film about Madonna the person, then In Bed With is useless, if you’re interested in Madonna the pop star, Madonna the media product, it’s pretty much untouchable, and endlessly fascinating.

VIVA RIVA
DIR: Djo Munga

You have to hand it to Djo Munga, it must have been tough getting a relatively large scale and well made film together in the Democratic Republic of Congo, given the political turbulence and the horrible situation that many people there face day by day. You only wish that the film came out with had been more distinctive, had had more to do with where it comes from, had, essentially, been more than just another melodramatic gangster film.

Riva (Patsha Bay) has stolen a load of stolen gasoline from his employer; Angolan gangster Cesar (Hoji Fortuna), and is trying to sell it in DRC. He’s pursued both by a vengeful Cesar and by Kinshasa mob boss Azor (Diplome Amekindra), whose girlfriend Nora (Manie Malone) Riva is attempting to steal away.

If you’ve ever seen a gangster movie, well, here it is again, but this time in Kinshasa. The problem is that the setting actually doesn’t end up feeling as novel as you might expect, because the wealthy criminal class that Riva moves in is basically the same as it would be in New York or London. As the film becomes more violent it also becomes more melodramatic, the performances are often turned up to eleven and the events of the story become more and more outlandish (a female Army captain forced to dress up as a nun, palling around with a lesbian hooker, really movie?) by the end any pretence of reality is lost in a haze of double and triple crosses.

Muga’s imagery can be interesting; the contrast between the run down buildings of Kinshasa and the lifestyle that Riva and his peers have is striking, but its all very much a surface gloss. The film never digs deep, it doesn’t address the politics of Riva’s situation, nor does it really explore or betray any real emotion. It would like to be a Congolese Scarface (the 1983 version), but while Viva Riva is overblown, it never reaches the delirious fever pitch that film manages, and so it falls between the stools of trying to look at the realities of the criminal life in DRC and going totally mental, and never does either very well. It’s a shame, really.