Saturday, 1 August 2015

Wavelength (1967)


I watched this one on YouTube in about 9 minutes. I'm fairly confident I missed nothing in skipping through it.

An experimental 45 minute film where the camera slowly works its way towards a picture frame.

There is something to be said for that pleasant lonely voyerustic feeling of watching real-life unfold unbeknownst to anyone in the world but you - like people-watching or peering inside of a brightly lit living-room when you're walking past at 10pm on a cold, dark rainy night...

...but I didn't even get that from this film. Perhaps if I had dedicated the full 45 minutes to watching it, I would have gotten more but I see 45 minutes of watching a camera zoom towards a wall as about the most reductive way I could possibly spend my time.

I am generally a fan of experimental film and definitely surreal film but this was probably could have made, more importantly this was a film I could have quite easily lived therefore I do not see the merits of committing it to film, less so including it as one of the 1001 best films ever made.



RATING: – I hope I don't have to hand out too many of these.


In the Heat of the Night (1967)

“He's not my favorite actor of all time, by the way. My favourite actor is Mr. Sidney Poitier.”

Like my previous review, this film deals with race relations in America and was ultimately awarded Best Picture at the Oscars, thankfully I am able to report this was a much more effective study of both character and in this instance, area, as we delve into 1960s deep south USA.

Our protagonist, black detective Virgil Tibbs (Poitier) arrives in Sparta, Mississippi and is picked up as a suspected murderer by racist police officer Sam Wood (Oates). Treated with disrespect and mistrust, Tibbs eventually proves both his innocence and his aptitude to police chief Gillespie, played marvellously by Rod Steiger.

Gillespie, like his comrades, is naturally racist and initially doubtful of Homicide Detective Tibbs. We are introduced effectively to the cultural divides that lay across America in this time period. In the North Tibbs is respected and it is suggested that he stay on and try to find the actual murderer.
Poitier and Steiger form a reluctant union and it is one of the more memorable screen duo’s I’ve seen as Poitier’s character does all he can to hold his poise and dignity in the face of bigotry whilst Steiger’s character has to wrestle with his own values.

The crime story is interesting, enough so to hold the interest of the viewer, but it is the encounters that Tibbs faces and the personal journey that Gillespie goes through that makes this story a worth Oscar winner and a film worthy of a place on the 1001 List.

BEST SCENE: Tibbs, tired of being racially abused and treated with disrespect strikes back against plantation owner Eric Endicott when Endicott slaps him. Not only within the film, but globally, this was a statement; that black people will no longer peacefully submit to bigotry. This film came out a couple of years after the death of Malcolm X, a year before the ’68 Mexico Olympic Games ‘black power’ salute. Race relations were at a high in regions in America and in this scene where Tibbs slaps his white suppressor, it sends a clear and direct message.

BEST CHARACTER: Though Tibbs may be the more important character historically, Gillespie’s personal journey is far more interesting. To come to a place where you can reject values you were raised on, that all your friends support and that will leave you wildly unpopular because in your heart you know are wrong takes great courage. The acting performance by Steiger is excellent.

BEST QUOTE: They call me Mr. Tibbs!

RATING: ★★★☆ – This is a very good film, the detective crime investigation is secondary material to the race issues and therefore doesn’t quite come up to the standard of elite detective films, perhaps being a couple of generations removed from the racial tensions lessens the impact of this film for me personally, though I still have no problems giving it a strong reccomend.


Thursday, 30 July 2015

12 Years a Slave (2013)

Academy Award winning Best Picture, what could go wrong…?

I suppose I better just come out with the controversial opinion right off the bat, I thought this film was really average. Perhaps I had overhyped it myself, I was a huge fan of Steve McQueen’s previous film Shame, the cast was absolutely loaded and it had a boatload of 4 and 5 star critical rave review.

So what went wrong? There was something off about this slave story, perhaps I was burnt on the subject – it’s not exactly an entertaining topic, parts of the film are brutally hard to watch but I don’t think that was it. I have been able to watch far harsher depictions of violence and far grimmer subjects than this and still appreciate the film. This one just fell flat for me.

Let’s focus on the positives first, McQueen, a director I admire, assembled a dynamite cast and the lead performances from Ejiofor, Fassbender and Nyong’o were excellent. For my qualms with their characters, which I will get to, they certainly gave it their all, Nyong’o especially, whose character I was probably most taken with. They were supported by a deep cast featuring Cumberbatch, Woodard, Pitt, Dano & Giamatti.

This felt like a film of contradictions. For a film that was marketed as grisly, realistic and pulls-no-punches, the flashy cinematography seemed out of place for the subject matter. It was the sort of gritty realism that the academy will like, that isn’t really gritty or realistic at all. This did end up winning Best Picture and for me, it’s pure Oscar Bait.

The score, certainly my biggest problem with this film, by Christopher Nolan favourite, Hans Zimmer, was awful and so out of place. It was a slightly altered version of his Inception score (which was absolutely appropriate and full of grandeur) and in this supposed gritty look at Slave America, it felt wholly inappropriate, bordering on ridiculous and every time it would swell would completely take me out of the picture.

The narrative is very basic, I struggled to see the characters as anything other than characterchures; here’s sympathetic slaver, here’s sadistic slaver; there was no wider depth to these men, or at least none that was explored. I would like to have known more about Solomon Northup before he became a slave, he was clearly talented, relatively well-off and well-to-do, seemingly accepted in a society that I would have assumed would have been largely racist and unaccepting of his success. How did he achieve this acceptance? He seemed oblivious to the plight of his fellow Negro, did he have no concern or opinion on slavery? Was he accepting of it or thinking of himself above it? He does not even turn around and acknowledge the existence of the slave who stares admiringly at him in a shop at the beginning of the film. If that reading was explored, he could have reminded me of Andre Braugher’s character in the film Glory, but they are left untouched, perhaps as they would have been seen as a negative portrayal of our protagonist, but at least he would have been a character rather than an attempt shell.

Ultimately I am removed from him and thus struggle to fully get behind his story or gain any more insight than ‘slavery was awful’, which I already knew going into the film.

This film has been compared to, and largely favourably over, Django Unchained which has been derided for being more exploitative and over indulgent. But I question whether McQueen’s effort is any less indulgent or exploitative? Certainly the inappropriate gloss over the film seemed to wrestle with the ‘gritty’ subject matter. It has been widely praised for its historical accuracy on depicting slavery so perhaps I will have to bow to those with greater knowledge and admit my own shortcomings in not ‘getting’ this picture but this is not the type of film that gets me excited about cinema – it had that same gloss as so many other recent historical adaptations that do well come Oscar season – I’m thinking The King’s Speech. Its safe film making. I didn’t get a wider statement on the world, I didn’t get characters I can invest in, I did not have a fun time watching this film.

BEST SCENE: There were two moments in the film where I felt the emotion I think the film was trying to convey throughout, the first when Northup’s wife is separated from her children as they are cruelly auctioned off and then when the sadistic Epps forces Northup to beat Patsey.

BEST CHARACTER: Patsey – Nyong’o’s portrayal of this expert field-hand who is subjected to rape and abuse at the hands of her master and his wife is chilling. I felt her story more than our lead’s, she is sympathetic, she is strong and we truly feel for her plight when she is broken. Whilst McQueen’s focus is on the male characters in his films, here I felt that his female characters were the most sympathetic and most real.

BEST QUOTE: Five hundred pounds ‘a cotton day in, day out. More than any man here. And for that I will be clean; that’s all I ask!

RATING: ★★  – Another Best Picture winner that I ultimately thought was disappointing and overrated. There is clearly some very powerful imagery and gritty realism to this story, but when its main characters are so under developed, I have a hard time buying into it.