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Perplexing Poetry: Sergei Parajanov’s The Colour Of Pomegranates (1968) – Blu-ray review

February 8, 2018 by Simon Kinnear in At Home, Retro with 0 Comments

Parajanov turns poetry into film with undeniable craft and unfathomable meaning; an experiment seldom repeated on the big screen but an inadvertent inspiration to MTV.

Colour of Pomegranates

The Colour Of Pomegranates
(Sergei Parajanov, 1969)

From Eisenstein to Tarkovsy, Soviet directors weren’t known for their accessibility.  But with The Colour Of Pomegranates, Sergei Parajanov set himself the challenge of outdoing his peers and predecessors.  The story – well, kinda – of Armenian poet Sayat Nova, it’s like Parajanov watched Tarkovsky’s study of another famous artist, Andrei Rublev, and said, “Nah, there’s not enough art in it.”

This, then, is a deep dive into the extremes of art cinema.  Rather than a simple biopic, Parajanov immerses himself in both the historical facts of Nova’s life and the texts of the poems, and conflates them into a series of tableaux, reportedly to emulate the ‘inner world’ of Nova but close to a parody of any poet’s feverish imaginings.  The result is as bonkers as that sounds, with incredible trouble gone to create eye-catching, yet elusive set-pieces, always filmed with a fixed camera but with the mise en scene bursting with detail.

To take one example: towards the back of the shot, a man appears to be levitating while asleep.  Another man and a child stand on castle ramparts either side of the sleeper, throwing a golden ball to each other.  In the foreground, on the ground, Nova watches as a white smock dances in the air, of its own accord.  Beside him, a woman fires a gun.  In the middle of it all, completely nonplussed by all this activity, a llama eats hay.

Note that this isn’t even the weirdest shot.  The Colour Of Pomegranates is a film that highlights the sheer density of information that cinema can convey; there are moments it would take pages to describe if written down.  The downside is that it’s often hard to physically tell what’s going on, and words might at least help to explain what we’re seeing.  If you’re up for the challenge, this is the kind of film you could spend a lifetime trying to decode – or you watch it once and let its mesmerising but strangely inscrutable imagery wash over you.

The world’s critics placed this in the top 100 films of all time during the last Sight And Sound poll.  It came between Casablanca and The Wild Bunch, and it’s hard to think of a film less like them.  Even naming directors who have been influenced by Parajanov is difficult: Jodorowsky, Greenaway, Gilliam perhaps.  The bigger influence, unlikely as it seems, might be in music video; it’s practically a mood board for the career of Tarsem Singh, and even Katie Melua borrowed its imagery to accompany one of her songs.

Certainly, while the effect is austere and scholarly, Parajanov’s visual style is flamboyance itself.  How many films can credit both an architectural consultant and a jewellery designer?   There’s a point where, without knowing the cultural specificity of Armenian art or history, all those symbols and allusions – the copious use of tapestries, the repeated imagery of holes, the menagerie of animals – are unmoored from meaning and become fodder for wall-to-wall pop-surrealist bricolage.

The Colour Of Pomegranates is released on Blu-ray on 19 February. The two-disc set includes two cuts of the film, plus lots of extras to contextualise why.

Post-Hiatus Heist: Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky (2017) – Blu-ray review

January 9, 2018 by Simon Kinnear in At Home with 0 Comments

Soderbergh’s ‘comeback’ – so unassuming and under the radar, so confident in its crowd-pleasing remit, that it scarcely feels as though he’s been away.

Logan Lucky

 

Logan Lucky
(Steven Soderbergh, 2017)

Ah, the cliché of ‘one last job.’ It’s only four years since Steven Soderbergh swore blind he was done with cinema… and yet here he is again, returning to the high-stakes heist movie he helped define in the Ocean’s trilogy.  Usually, such a comeback would have a hint of desperation, but Soderbergh – backed by a novel model of funding that meant he had nothing to lose – displays a real insouciance.

This means Logan Lucky has a cheerfully brazen, couldn’t-care-less tonal mismatch at its heart.  The heist movie really is a cinema of desperation; historically, it’s the work of directors with something to lose.  Think of rising star Stanley Kubrick in The Killing, or blacklisted director Jules Dassin heading to France to make Rififi.  The subject matter of Logan Lucky lends itself to this lineage, its scheme the last roll of the dice for a redneck family apparently beset by calamity, but Soderbergh doesn’t hold much to such notions.  He’s weathered his fair share of bad luck over the years, to the point where this film floats with an almost Zen-like adherence to having fun, pure and simple.

No matter how intricately plotted its actual crime is, there’s a remarkable casualness to this film. Soderbergh lays out the heist with an admirable clarity, but it never feels cluttered, and he gives ample time to show the characters’ lives outside of their scheming.  These aren’t exactly real people – there’s an exaggerated, cartoonish quality to the characters – but Soderbergh hangs out enough with them to give a sense of what drives them: a fierce familial loyalty, a deep-grained desire to get by, a love of Game Of Thrones.  Aptly, the milieu is a far cry from Vegas glamour, so Soderbergh dials down the visual bravura for a more pragmatic, no-frills camera style.

Like the Ocean’s films, this emphasis on character even in the face of such an incident-heavy narrative means that an A-list cast is flocking to work with him – who else could get Hilary Swank for a final-act cameo?  Channing Tatum is now rivalling Clooney and Damon as Soderbergh’s go-to guy, and his easygoing, deceptively nuanced performance serves as the lightning rod for everyone else.  Adam Driver provides an intriguing foil as Tatum’s brother, more watchful and sceptical, while Daniel Craig has a ball as a larger-than-life bank robber, chalking out science lessons mid-heist and blowing things up with gummy bears.

Logan Lucky is out now on Blu-ray, DVD and on demand.

The Neo-Western In Winter: Taylor Sheridan’s Wind River (2017) – Blu-ray review

December 27, 2017 by Simon Kinnear in At Home with 0 Comments

Sheridan stakes his claim as Hollywood’s greatest maker of neo-Westerns, adding directorial chops to his sharp-shooting skills as a screenwriter.

1 Wind River

Wind River
(Taylor Sheridan, 2017)

Making a Western in the 21st Century is hard – so all credit to Taylor Sheridan for successfully writing three in a row.  Following Sicario and Hell Or High Water, Wind River sees the former actor directing as well, making it clear that this hot streak is no fluke.  Sheridan’s trilogy of thrillers all invoke the iconography of the American West, but their crime-inflected narratives all revolve around a realist treatment of race, bigotry and poverty.

There’s a danger in Sheridan’s cinema of laying it on too thick.  It was true of Hell Or High Water, with its blunt symbolism of home repossession billboards, and in Wind River it’s present in the solemn talk of suffering, and the elevation of Native American experience into a kind of mythic martyrdom.  “What’s all this talk of ‘we’?” Jeremy Renner’s scout, Cory, is asked about his allegiance to his adopted people – and Wind River skirts close to being the tourist porn of a white director touring the reservation.

Yet it’s the sincerity of Sheridan’s eye that distinguishes the film.  He films with restraint, often from a distance – the viewpoint of a hunter, of course, but also of someone who knows he can’t clumsily bring his camera into the action via hand-held verité.  It’s there in the bold decision to frame the story from Cory’s perspective, rather than the rookie FBI agent Jane (Elizabeth Olsen) sent into this strange new world.  That would be a cliché but Sheridan’s vantage point is deliberately placed on the ethnic faultline, all the better to ask troubling questions.

So the film becomes a snapshot of an embattled culture, facing precious few options – college, the military or drug-fuelled apathy – while all the while seeing the land (nominally, the last thing it owns) usurped by capitalists and their paid lackeys.  The lack of respect, the barely-hidden racism and misogyny, is everywhere, and when Cory paints a picture of their being only survivors, not winners or losers, in his world, does he even know that he’s got several advantages over his friends and colleagues?

These questions are framed in a startling piece of drama whose slow-burn tension periodically erupts into sudden violence.  Sheridan has clearly learnt well from seeing how Denis Villeneuve and David McKenzie handled his work, but he brings several inventions of his own, notably a remarkable, clever transition into a flashback.  But more than the earlier films, there’s the sense of Sheridan’s background in the performances.  Renner’s impressive work as Cory, for whom the latest case cracks open his own grief into a haunted, stoic calm, recalls his career-defining role in The Hurt Locker.  And Hell Or High Water’s Gil Birmingham returns to prove that he’s the ideal muse for Sheridan’s wistful update of Western tropes.

Wind River is out now on Blu-ray, DVD and on demand.

Prison Precision: S. Craig Zahler’s Brawl In Cell Block 99 (2017) – Blu-ray review

December 15, 2017 by Simon Kinnear in At Home with 0 Comments

Come for the promise of bloodshed, stay for Zahler and Vaughn’s smart fusion of arthouse and grindhouse, a slow-burning character study of a pragmatic psychotic.

Cell Block 99

Brawl In Cell Block 99
(S. Craig Zahler, 2017)

Brawl In Cell Block 99 is a title that recalls the exploitation movies of days gone by: the kind of lean, muscular actioner that Don Siegel or John Carpenter might once have made.  With his second film, S. Craig Zahler reaffirms his claim to being the heir apparent to these directors, but it’s precisely because he goes his own way that he warrants the comparison.

Just as in his debut, Bone Tomahawk, Zahler plays a long game.  His naturalistic style, all long takes and lived-in performances, feels closer to the art-house than the straight-to-video feel of films’ premises.  And yet, in both films, the screws are tightened (literally here, as friendly prison guards give way to a more inhospitable bunch) and the violence becomes uncompromisingly brusque.  It’s all the more effective because of the gradual shift from poverty-row realism to Grand Guignol grotesquerie.

The result is exactly the short, sharp shock of a B-movie it promises to be… but tagged onto the end of an impressive character study that enriches the mood long before Vince Vaughn’s Bradley Thomas starts his arm-ripping, head-stomping rampage. The narrative is incredibly depressing on the face of it: the high point comes at the start when Bradley loses his job, and from there the only way is down.  And yet, as the film pivots on its awful, barely comprehensible ultimatum – kill a prisoner or see his unborn child mutilated while still in the womb – Bradley starts to make his own luck.  As he says, you can’t rely on the law of averages for a break, so it’s probably inevitable that Bradley supplies the breaks himself.

Zahler is a remarkable exponent of the ‘show, don’t tell’ school of filmmaking, and he has a willing guinea pig in Vaughn.  This is a revelatory performance, dropping the actor’s usual slickster charm for a fierce, focussed pragmatism.  The likeability that led Vaughn into comedy is redeployed into the soulful concentration of a guy battling inner demons, struggling to right his moral compass – and with real grace, he allows himself to be the straight man to some darkly comic cameos, notably from Fred Melamed as a prickly prison guard and Don Johnson, instantly in the pantheon of great ‘sadistic warden’ performances.

And, man, can Vaughn and Zahler do action.  A lesser director would lose the calm assurance of those early scenes when handling the fights, but Zahler shoots and cuts with a methodical sense of space.  The brawl(s) don’t disappoint – frankly, they’re near-unwatchable in their graphic brutality – but Vaughn’s unflustered fighting style helps to define the film’s patient precision.  Faced with an inmate who asks if he wants to start something, Vaughn replies laconically, “I’m more of a finisher,” and the results are like watching a master craftsman whose craft just happens to be mayhem.

Brawl in Cell Block 99 is out now on Blu-ray, DVD and on demand.

Intersectionally In Stitches: Michael Showalter’s The Big Sick (2017) – Blu-ray review

November 27, 2017 by Simon Kinnear in At Home with 0 Comments

A film that is all the funnier for the realism of its wide-ranging look at gender, culture and religion.  For once, Hollywood gets to be ‘intersectional.’

1 Big Sick

The Big Sick
(Michael Showalter, 2017)

There’s a useful rule of thumb – best proved by Howard Stern in Private Parts – that people should never play themselves in a lead role.  The movie becomes a pseudo-movie, a big-screen echo of ‘constructed reality’ shows.  Yet, surely, it all comes down to the person.  If there’s a decent reason why nobody else could play the part, then it becomes far more than a vanity project and instead captures the emotional core of the situation being depicted.

So it is that stand-up comedian – and perennial supporting player – Kumail Nanjiani gets the lead role of his lifetime.  On the Blu-ray extras for The Big Sick, producer Judd Apatow explains that they’d been looking for the right story for Nanjiani for a while… and then it turns out that he’d already lived it.  So the tale of how the star/co-writer fell in love with Emily Gordon, only for the latter to fall so ill she was put into a medically-induced coma, becomes the putty for a rom-com of unusual depth and range.

That’s down to Nanjiani’s status, one which he’s cultivated in his stage persona, as a Pakistani comedian.  The comedy pivots delicately on the differences in his personal and professional lives, pushing the autobiographical slant that Apatow has long favoured in his ‘Funny People.’  But there’s an extra layer provided by Gordon as co-writer.  Her involvement gives a female perspective often denied in Apatow’s laddish comedy, just as Nanjiani’s cultural background informs the meet-cute in a way that, say, Lena Dunham in Girls, could never pull off.  Every character has a distinctive voice and worldview; just imagine how most films would demonise Nanjiani’s parents and see how delicately this portrays their conservative attitudes to marriage.

The result pinballs between subjects, finding space to dissect arranged marriages, cricket fielding positions and 9/11 (Nanjiani gets a brilliant joke at the expense of well-meaning liberals asking for his stance) even as it effortlessly captures the romance at the heart of any good rom-com.  And then, when Emily is stricken and bed-bound, the arrival of her parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano as the in-laws you never knew you wanted) adds further complexity, as Nanjiani becomes the witness to a sort of ‘Ghosts of Christmas Future’ of how his own relationship might turn out.

There’s a certain bagginess, customary to Apatow-produced films, but it’s no bad thing here.  It doesn’t feel like an extended improv session, more that director Michael Showalter is gently coaxing the comedic – and, just as often, dramatic – potential from the story.  And, at the heart of it is a brace of star-making performances.  Gordon’s real-mZoe Kazan is more screwball zinger-slinger than Manic Pixie Dream Girl, while Nanjiani brings a smart blend of easy-going charm and gentle, non-judgemental sarcasm.  In one sight gag, he reveals he modelled himself after Hugh Grant in his teenage years, and you know what?  He could be in the Hugh Grant class provided Hollywood can create parts on the same level as his own life story.

The Big Sick is out now on Blu-ray and DVD.

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