By Chris Rogers, Dec 7 2016 6:36PM
On a cold afternoon in New York eight years ago next January, a routine domestic flight took off from La Guardia airport bound for Charlotte, South Carolina. One hundred and fifty passengers, three flight attendants and two pilots were aboard the Airbus. Two minutes later a flock of geese smashed into the plane’s engines, destroying both of them and leaving the aircraft a ninety-five tonne glider. With no thrust, limited electrical power and losing height rapidly, Captain Chesley Sullenberger calmly decided to steer the falling A320 across Manhattan island, line her up with the Hudson river and land her on its surface. Less than four minutes after leaving the ground, Flight 1549 ditched at a speed of 130 knots and came to a stop on the water. After Sullenberger gave the order to evacuate, the cabin crew assisted the passengers onto the wings of the floating airliner or into its emergency chutes, which also function as rafts. Within an hour and a half, the rescue effort that had immediately followed when ceased, with every one of the passengers and crew alive and safely ashore.
That astonishing true story is the subject of this new film, directed by Clint Eastwood from a script by Todd Komarnicki and starring Tom Hanks as the title character, whose post-crash book (written with the late Jeffery Zaslow) forms the basis of the screen story. The ‘miracle on the Hudson’, as those dramatic few hours became known, was surely an obvious candidate for adaptation, but at issue is how such a world-famous event should and indeed could have been presented. The answers that Komarnicki and Eastwood have given are both the resulting film’s strength, and its weakness.
We begin hearing the sound of a more horrific crash than actually occurred and then see it on screen, only for this to be revealed as a nightmare. Sullenberger and his First Officer Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) are in fact confined, mere hours after the Hudson landing, to a hotel and awaiting the first of several inquiry hearing, these to be held between the crew and a range of experts across an uncomfortably small table. Further such meetings follow, with both Sullenberger and Skiles accused of risking rather than saving lives by not taking the option to return to the airport or divert to another.
Already, then, several degrees of falsity are overlaid on the facts. In truth no hearing took place for days, and no such confrontational approach was taken when it did. Sullenberger’s midnight jogging sessions appear unreal too, as does the enforced separation from his wife (Laura Linney in a somewhat thankless role that involves her playing to a phone handset throughout) for the duration. If the aim was to conjure up the actual unreality that Sullenberger and the others aboard that day must have felt, I’m not sure that this cinematic sleight of hand is the best way of doing so. More widely, but equally obstructively, much of the dialogue is simplistic and awkward even when it can be heard, and secondary characters never rise above background status.
Fortunately Hanks holds the screen whenever he appears and Eastwood recognises this, perhaps because as an actor he excelled at playing extraordinary people in relatively ordinary surroundings whereas Hanks flourishes in the exactly opposite situation. From an astronaut on a routine Moonshot that turns into a potential disaster (Apollo 13) via a teacher-turned-soldier on a near suicide mission (Saving Private Ryan) to a skipper in the merchant marine playing a deadly game with pirates (Captain Philips), this is Hank’s milieu and Eastwood responds simply by framing him squarely and letting the man react. Again, however, the contrived structure of Sully means it take some time for the audience to see Sullenberger truly in the hot seat, in turn rendering the artificially hostile interviews of this early portion a frustration.
After the further induced drama of apparently contradictory air crash data, this audience member thus welcomed the film’s move into more expected territory when it becomes clear that we are, finally, watching the lead up to the accident itself. Here, as hinted through gentle gliding shots over New York’s night-time skyline previously, Eastwood’s decision to shoot on the IMAX corporation’s tweaked digital 6K ARRI Alexa 65 camera just about pays off, validating my own related choice to watch at an IMAX venue. You really will need to fasten your seatbelt even before the flight begins, as a similarly vertigo-inducing aerial shot of La Guardia places you right in the action in a way that even this ‘Lie-MAX’ variant, as detractors dub it, delivers. The familiar blue leather seating of an A320 cabin appears almost tactile as the passengers board, the camera pushing its way down that centre aisle with them. The format’s square frame comes into its own too in such a space, something also seen in the quieter building interiors. True, the cockpit shots feel a little flat, possibly as a result of the digital backdrops combined with a slight insufficiency of realistic aircraft movement, but given the short time between this and the main event cinematographer Tom Stern can be forgiven.
As that accident begins, then, any doubts about Eastwood’s ability to summon tension vanish.
Intercut very effectively (by Blu Murray) with the air traffic controller’s desperate, clearly 9/11-inspired attempts to maintain contact with Flight 1549 and provide it with alternatives for a safe landing, Sullenberger’s and Skiles’s efforts to work the relevant checklist, assess the situation and make decisions are gripping. It is, though, when the captain eschews a recovery, decides to ditch and informs all aboard to “Brace for landing” that things become almost unbearable: immediately echoed down the aircraft by two of the flight attendants chanting in unison, the startlingly present stereo (in both senses) of their joint instructions to “Brace, brace! Head down, stay down!”, repeatedly endlessly yet with an oddly beautiful harmonic, sends a chill down my spine even as I remember it to type this. It is an electrifying sequence that will, I think, curiously, confirm and allay fears over flying at one and the same time.
The landing itself is highly effective, the evacuation, too, exciting and, with the commercial ferry crews and emergency services racing to help, real pace is delivered.
Unfortunately the inevitable return to the inquiry slips into awkwardness once again, with a painfully drawn-out and repetitive courtroom-style contest between Sullenberger and the inquiry board over the validity of the various simulations run to test the former’s decision to ditch. Even if one accepts the corner the film-makers appear to have painted themselves into with this scene, the absurdly compressed geography and timescales weighs heavily against the film’s credibility. At this point its 96 minutes, barely enough to span the actual incident, feels rather longer.
Another structural game is played around the cockpit voice recorder playback, which introduces a repeat of almost the entire downing but now with slightly altered and additional dialogue. If, again, the purpose is to set up, undermine then revalidate the concept of a single, objective truth, my conclusion deserves repeating as well – it was the wrong call in this instance.
With satisfaction obtained, as history relates, the credits play over a final unsettling of reality – the actual Sullenberger, his crew and the passengers meeting and reminiscing. It’s very hard to discern any reason for this particular intrusion – why go to the effort of constructing a filmic version of reality, only then to puncture it in such a way?
This film is a worthy simulacra of a supremely worthwhile event, for the true records of which the online world is an astonishing portal. It has moments that are superbly absorbing, and moments that are admirable. Ultimately, it fails to fully work thanks to badly judged decisions on form and content.
The last line should belong to Sullenberger. That end-credits sequence functions as a postscript in more ways than one; after its recovery, the aircraft itself – visible in the background – ended up as an exhibit in the Carolinas Aviation Museum, which is adjacent to the very airport that was the intended landing point that day. Thanks to Chesley Sullenberger, Jeff Skiles, Donna Dent, Sheila Dail and Doreen Welsh, Flight 1549 made it to its destination after all.
By Chris Rogers, Nov 17 2016 2:35PM
This intelligent, absorbing drama from director Denis Villeneuve is framed as a science fiction film and indeed the plot is driven by the global appearance of a dozen alien ships of unknown purpose or origin. It gradually becomes clear that this is simply a framework for the exploration of some very human truths about decision, action, reaction and regret, however, filtered through linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and the apparent recent loss of her young daughter.
Working for but also in the shadow of the US military, with all that that implies in such circumstances, Banks partners with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and together they begin to make progress communicating with the Heptapods, as they are termed. It is only when the ambiguity of their first success raises concerns over its meaning that the temperature is raised.
What follows should not and will not be spoiled. Suffice it to say that this is a film that engages the mind even after the lights go up, as the exact meaning of elements of what has unfolded settle in. If its ultimate conclusion seems a little trite, the manner in which it is reached is refreshing enough to forgive this and current world events suggest it might not be a bad thing for the film to be shown in the White House, Great Hall of the People and the Kremlin.
The script is by Eric Heisserer, based on Ted Chiang’s pre-Millennial short story 'Story of Your Life', and the screenplay adds this military element as a concession to convention. It is the character of Banks that is the key, though, and in this role the film is anchored and indeed propelled by an astonishingly naturalistic and wonderfully sympathetic performance by Amy Adams. Calm, reflective, utterly believable, Adams is also photographed in a resolutely – at times almost wilfully – non-glamourous mode, both forming an instructive contrast with her other current release, the hugely disappointing Nocturnal Animals. It is certainly Adams’s film, as in truth the Donnelly character is rather redundant for most of the time, becoming significant only at the climax.
As a writer it is good to see language and its structure at the heart of such a film, and the sequences in which the breakthroughs are made are as gripping any thriller. If it is a little disappointing that Villeneuve falls back on a montage and voice over to cover much of this, his approach to the remainder of proceedings compensates considerably. Complementing the dialled-down performances from all three principals, the other being Forest Whitaker as Col. Weber, Villeneuve employs a very quiet, informal shooting style that avoids entirely any show or bravura yet is still pitched aesthetically higher than the more visceral hand-held look familiar from its first appearance in Saving Private Ryan (1998). Coupled with Bradford Young’s low-contrast, slightly soft photography – which has caused some audiences to comment adversely – the effect is a kind of intimate, over-the-shoulder relationship between viewer and participants that is considered and considerate, of actors and audience alike.
In fact, save for an exquisite series of shots showing the Heptapods’ ships departing, each interacting subtly but spectacularly with the atmosphere, the film has such reserve that it is not especially cinematic at all. This not necessarily a criticism, but simply an observation, though in this Villeneuve’s film departs visually from its closest comparable precursors, Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1978), Robert Zemeckis’s Contact (1997) and Gareth Edwards’s Monsters (2010). It does though clearly cleave toward that true categorical rarity to which they all belong: the smart, ideas-based speculative fiction film. Others from the same period include Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 (2009), Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010) and perhaps Duncan Jones’s Moon (2009), though certainly this is superior to Nolan’s ill-judged Interstellar (2014), which it otherwise closely resembles in parts.
All of the above make one think, and adopt a tone that is contemplative rather than confrontational. By chance the difference between these two words is addressed in Arrival itself, caught in a line that about the definition of a certain Sanskrit word.
We appear to have lost the imagination and openness of the more experimental side of SF cinema that emerged in the 1960s, 70s and early 80s, no doubt thanks to the box office and marketing pressures that produce the kind of histrionic, cataclysmically noisy material that comprised the trailers at last night’s screening. This is a welcome contribution to that lost art, a thoughtful, intriguing and humane drama that deserves attention. And with it, Prisoners (2013) and Sicario (2015) to Villeneuve’s name, things bode well for his Blade Runner 2049 next year.
By Chris Rogers, Nov 14 2016 7:10PM
What makes you human? Beyond that, how do you know that you are you? Could you tell if something changed either of those states? Could anyone else? And as you become increasingly connected to a sea of information much wider than your own direct experience of life, how well do you know yourself anyway? These are the questions at the heart of Masamune Shirow’s cyberpunk action drama Ghost in the Shell, which first appeared more than twenty five years ago as a Japanese comic series and whose latest iteration, a live-action Hollywood film directed by Rupert Sanders and starring Scarlett Johansson, will be released next March. Its
Those familiar with Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 anime feature of the same name, undoubtedly the best-known aspect of Shirow’s universe, will have immediately recognised several elements of that ground-breaking production that are replicated in the new piece, from the skyscraping dive of lead character Kusanagi that opens the film to her hand-to-hand takedown of a gunman in a flooded city street. That hints are present in a brief on-location report of the scene that precedes this in the anime and also – in the trailer again – the battle with a walking tank that climaxes that version will also have gladdened fans.
That film took animation as a medium to new heights of subtlety, using dynamic body movements, realistic depictions of reflection, refraction and fluid motion and the kinds of camera choices usually only seen in live action. Pioneering digital animation and compositing techniques were also employed to create convincing graphics for tactical displays, background cels that shifted in the correct perspective and, in a dazzling computed-generated shot that was a first for the industry, an entire building, lit up at night and rotating as it is circled by a (traditionally-rendered) helicopter.
Oshii’s film, a thoughtful, at times melancholy work despite its thundering action sequences, borrowed freely from the original six-part 1989 manga, published in the West in 1991. It employed a sophisticated structure to tell a complex geopolitical tale of inter-agency and international government rivalry that frames a second, far more intimate, story musing elegantly and eloquently on identity and humanity in the face of exceptional, even transcendent, technological advancement.
Set forty years into the future in an altered Japan (changed to Hong Kong in the anime, perhaps in response to its then-impending handback to China), it depicted a world in which artificial body parts are routine and individuals who could as a result truly be regarded as cyborgs – part human, part mechanism, depending on the degree of replacement.
Crucially, this ability to improve on nature was also extended to the mind with the concept of cyber-brains, themselves composed of a mixture of organic and mechanical material and which could as a result interface with any electronic device, not just those in the body. The obvious if disturbing corollary is that a cyber-brain can be hacked just as a computer can.
With this came the conceit that sits at the centre of Shirow’s invention – that if the shell or body is man-made, along with most of the brain and perhaps its memories and experiences too, what of that person’s ‘ghost’ or soul, and who is to say what is human then?
Certainly Motoko Kusanagi, a major in the Section 9 special security unit, presents as a confident woman entirely in command of both her team and her destiny, yet as a near total cyborg herself has developing worries over what she is and particularly how valid the thoughts, feelings and memories that comprise what she thinks of as ‘her’ can be said to be. These are already clouding her pursuit of the powerful hacker nicknamed the Puppet Master from his habit of controlling his victims’ actions even before their respective fates appear inescapably intertwined. The revelation that life might emerge from the Net as well as be manipulated via it emerges as vital, and the end scenes occur in an abandoned natural history museum complete with stone relief of a tree of life, its branches labelled with stages in human evolution. Where have the exhibits gone? Superseded by something better? No longer relevant? Shirow’s cover art for the first part of the manga showing a physically connected Kusanagi in near-foetal pose also suggest this conflation.
It can be seen how such a story owes much to the pre-Web novels of Philip K Dick and William Gibson, both of whose principal achievements in this field (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and Neuromancer) appeared comfortably before Shirow made his own mark, but as I've written before, there is a solid and persistent anxiety – or at least morbid curiosity over – of humans becoming machines that infects much of Japanese anime and manga. In addition to the explanation I advanced in that piece I wonder now if this may have also been conditioned by the unique experience of a populace once decimated by the ultimate example of technology. And yet it's notable that notwithstanding the powerful collective culture in Japan, where anime has explored this theme – in Silent Moebius, or Bubblegum Crisis spin-off AD police – the fear is on a very personal scale rather than global or even supranational.
Oshii’s film retains and actually amplifies much of this, not least with the exchange on a boat at night (itself preserved in the new film, it seems) in which Kusanagi appears sanguine about the risk of drowning without the buoyancy kit that her heavy cyborg body requires. This introspective quality is also signalled by carefully-considered scenes in which Kusanagi is mirrored in the glass partition of an interview room and the surface of a lake from below. The moment when she glimpses an office worker who has the same-model head and hairstyle as her own is a neat twist on this whilst reminding viewers that her cyborg body is simply, as Ryan Lambie perceptively puts it, "a vehicle to be driven, like a car."
Thanks to the success of the 1995 film, the manga became the core of an ever-expanding multi-media empire that now includes follow-ups, animated features, television and video series and even a theatrical performance. It is, though, Sanders’ film – which has not involved Oshii (beyond a set visit) or, as far as can be determined, Shirow – that will deliver this poignant yet exciting story to a new and much larger audience.
Written by Jonathan Herman and Jamie Moss, its cast also includes as Section 9 chief Aramaki cult figure Takeshi Kitano, who previously co-starred in Robert Longo’s adaptation of the Gibson short story Johnny Mnemonic that was released in the same year as Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell. Shot in New Zealand and China and with wuxia-style wireplay as well as the more familiar visual effects, it will be one of the very few live action adaptations of anime or manga to date, in stark contrast to the world of American and British fantasy comics that continue to be a rich course of material for film makers to plunder. Indeed it is perhaps instructive that Aeon Flux (2005), probably the only other example that comes to mind, is based on an American rather than Japanese property
That said, many feature films from the last twenty years or so have either incorporated sequences that refer (consciously or otherwise) to their drawn counterparts or are infused with their spirit. Examples include John Woo’s Hard Boiled (1992), the Wachowskis’ The Matrix (1999), Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002) and Michael Mann’s Blackhat (2015). Mamoru Oshii himself also made the anime-like Avalon (2001) from his original screenplay.
Of course it will be another few months before an assessment can be made as to whether this attempt succeeds or fails in any of these categories, though all involved must at least be congratulated for trying.
Ghost in the Shell, a DreamWorks SKG/Grosvenor Park Productions/Reliance Entertainment/Seaside Entertainment film for Paramount Pictures, is released in the UK on 31 March 2017
By Chris Rogers, Nov 7 2016 4:26PM
There is epic cinema, and then there is epic cinema. Last night I attended the Royal Festival Hall’s new digital presentation of the current, restored print of
The restoration itself – achieved through traditional photochemical means by editor and film historian Kevin Brownlow – is fifteen years old, and so is Davis’s score, but this was the premiere of the improved, scanned version of the single film print that was made. As such, according to Brownlow, disparate sources have been blended more seamlessly, colour grading has been improved and other problems rectified. The venue is also one of the few that, thanks to an elegant temporary installation, can project the famous climactic multi-coloured triptych or three-screen sequence as it was intended to be seen.
For me, this was another revelatory movie moment. I had never seen any version of the film before, but had had my interested piqued by attending an illustrated talk by Brownlow a couple of years ago. Duly prepared, seated and armed with the beautiful and informative programme, I let this ninety-year-old drama unfold before me…
“Napoléon lived amongst them in wild isolation” – intertitle card
The story opens with the Corsica-born Napoléon as a young teenager boarding at a monastery-like military academy in northern France. The boys are playing wargames in the snow, with each team trying to take the other’s ‘castle’. Napoléon is an outsider – sullen, moody, contained, but also smart and assertive. As he leads his side to victory through a mix of ingenuity (using a polished belt buckle as a mirror) and aggression, Gance shows off his own skill through a series of astonishingly fluid and inventive camera moves. We follow Napoléon as he runs, cut away to other scenes, find ourselves jammed into the action through hand-held shooting. The first of Gance’s carefully-considered split screen effects also appears, which the screen divided into more and more panels until a three-by-three grid holds multiple viewpoints. A blizzard of superimposed shots, almost stroboscopic in their intensity at the end, heighten the action and Davis’s theme for the future leader of men recalls Wagner’s death of Siegfried in its power and sweep. Both script and style serve the incredible playing of Vladimir Roudenko as the wilful, frowning, 14-year-old Napoléon; 18 at the time (he died in 1976), Roudenko is magnetic whether he sits, struts or simply thinks.
Exiled to a freezing garret by the tutors after a pillow fight (whose blinding whiteness echoes the snowy scenes of earlier), Napoléon reclines on an abandoned cannon, covered in a coat brought by a friend, and is joined by his pet eagle. The symbolism is obvious but so too, it becomes clear, is the foreshadowing.
“Your hymn will save many a cannon” – Napoléon to Rouget de Lisle
Cut to nine years later, and the Revolution is underway. Robespierre, in his round-lensed sunglasses, sits in a chair with an eagle as its back. A young officer arrives with a new song, which might do for an anthem. Soon, an entire church full of citizens is taught La Marseillaise, and to celebrate Gance his deploys his next trick – the entire frame shifts to a golden tone for the rest of the rousing sequence, ‘trigerred’ by light streaming through a stained glass window and ended again by a hypnotic flutter of superimpositions.
Napoléon, now a young artillery officer and played by Albert Dieudonné (born 1889, also died 1976) looks on before retiring to his first floor apartment. Here, the colour shifts again to red as bloody Revolution continues quite literally outside Napoléon’s door. Hardly glancing up as a forest of pikes jostles past leaving crazed shadows on the ceiling, even when one supports a severed head, Napoléon bends to his own plans. He also remains unmoved as two men clamber along the ironwork balcony, straining at ropes and with bloodied hands; Gance cuts away to the street below, where a man’s booted feet leave the ground, kicking. It is a shocking sequence, but one of several to come. The red tint remains as a call to arms is expounded to the people in a blacksmith’s forge, but in a more sophisticated iteration of the effect shifts to green when cutting to the people outside. As Napoléon dreams and the Senate falls, gold and red are intercut.
Throughout, Davis’s score is spellbinding. Borrowing, by his own admission yet also fully in line with how silent scores were always made, from others he manages still to create original leitmotifs of his own, and the live experience – thundering drums, pizzicato strings, a tubular bell for a school bell – is second to none.
“A future Emperor, three kings and a queen in only a few metres of sea and sky” – intertitle
In a pause, Napoléon visits his family in rural Corsica, an almost voyeuristic sequence that plays as though we are peering over the shoulder of snapshots in the process of being taken. Three shuttered windows opening prefigure the final triptych, and a new tint emerges – a soft purple. This is contrasted with a golden-lit sojourn in Casone’s grotto and when Napoléon poses in thought, Rodin-like, on a headland – shots are taken from further and further way until he is a mere dot against a pink sun.
Flashbacks, a pale blue moonlight and an escape by dinghy – using the Tricolore as a sail – lead to the ‘Double Storm’, a masterfully dynamic intercutting between a jittery, nervy camera at sea and a sweeping, energetic one in the rafters of a hall as the Convention is tossed with words just as Napoléon fights his way forward in waterlogged silence. Make no mistake, this is no pathetic millpond, but a thoroughly convincing ocean. Tight framing also helps this illusion, something Gance will use again.
Later, the camera moves backward as Napoléon walks toward us, into the Siege of Toulon, scanning the skies and the land and the sea with the topographic sensitivity of the artillery tactician. His plans to break the English are audaciously visualised by a rapidly-edited montage of plans – complete with animated symbols, a la Dad’s Army – flickering through his mind. His inspection of the exhausted French troops themselves, dusty, starved, poorly clothed, growing flowers in their artillery, introduces a level of humanity that is continued through a poignant sketch of a seven-year-old drummer boy who is thrilled that he has six more years to live when told that his predecessor died at 13 and sustained through what follows.
The Toulon battle is one of the most remarkable filmic depictions of conflict I have ever seen. Hundreds of soldiers troop past a locked-off camera, demonstrating the scope of Gance’s vision; cannons are laboriously manoeuvred and realistically recoil, this last action sometimes followed by the camera itself. Napoléon stands firm, yet is active across the field, his green-tinted flashback to those innocent days at the academy inserted between the red-toned war. Two aesthetic aspects jump out immediately; the controlled chaos of each tightly-packed frame, stuffed with incident and depth in all directions, and the exceptionally truthful portrayal of rain, wind and smoke. This is a choking smog of blood and grime, into which men drown, gasp and die. It is, perhaps, informed by the filmed and photographed horrors of the Great War, less than ten years past.
Small, far less spectacular details are found throughout that also speak to Gance’s concerns for those he illustrates: generals burn their boots for firewood, rain pours from the tricorn hat of an English officer inside a building as he reports, a wagon wheel rolls inexorably over an ankle, hailstones beat drums after their drummers have died.
But Gance’s epic vision returns for the finale, which occurs against a blue-tinged dawn with a superb burned-out sun. Exhausted, asleep across a cannon, Napoléon rests as his men pile the flags of the defeated nations – Spain, Italy, England – around him.
The terror of the Terror abides, however, enhanced through a surreal set of scenes in which various grotesques – a man in a self-driving wheelchair, a coffin full of execution orders, a man playing a hurdy gurdey – crowd around Robespierre and his cronies as they assign names to life or death.
“What is that noise?”
“It is Napoléon entering history again, Madame” - Joseph Fouché to Joséphine
Napoléon is humbled only when awkwardly courting his future love. A very ‘twenties interpretation of an 18th century ball, at which he appears like a Goth rock star or Darth Vader, sets the scene.
But he like me prefers action and as Napoléon prepares to enter Italy at the head of the French army, Gance unveils his trump card – the triptych.
Last night, the single square screen on which the entire film had until now been projected expanded to triple its width, allowing the visionary spectacle of three-screen wideangle views to emerge. Napoléon’s review of his men spread across the full span of the stage, sparking, too, a faster and more stylised cutting method and rhythm in which the side panels show the same image but reflected, or all three present something different. Delivering an oratory from an arroyo, all three images tilt up slightly. Napoléon is pushed to the left whilst his forces are arrayed across the centre and right; a reverse angle allows us to pick him out, a tiny speck in black. The men muster, riding across all three screens. The pace now quickens, the shot choice, cutting and colouring becoming hallucinogenic. A different shot staccatos across each screen in turn, left, middle, right; a phenomenal stroboscopic melange fills the eye, the eagle rises, and the three screens are tinted blue, white, red as, boosted by the Hall’s organ, the score soars to a triumphal conclusion.
This was mind-blowing stuff. Costumes aside, it could be shown to an audience today labelled as having been made in 1967 and few would bat an eyelid. An extract from Gance’s notes, translated, shows how directly he carried his thoughts:
It’s impossible to guess how many film-makers have been influenced by this work, just as Gance copied the Old Masters – you might guess a few from the above. That Gance planned seven films in all, to cover the man’s entire life, must surely have inspired George Lucas, for example, even without the idea of a black-clad anti-hero stalking grimly through white sets. And reading of how Gance was “urging his cameramen to exploit all conceivable tricks. The camera has to march with the troops, gallop with the horses, slide with the sledge, drop, spin, somersault. He even asks Simon Feldman, his technical director, to build him a camera which turns through 360 degrees and which can be operated from long distance, a kind of improvised crane and first ancestor of the highly sophisticated dolly of today” with the camera also mounted or horseback, bicycle, boat, Leni Riefenstahl and Stanley Kubrick are just two others who might have been inspired by Gance’s film. Others might be Saul Bass and Maurice Binder.
An epic feat of cinema demands, it seems an equivalent from the viewer. But it was worth it.
‘Napoleon’ is released in cinemas on 11 November and on Blu-ray and DVD on 21 November. The score is available on CD.
By Chris Rogers, Oct 13 2016 2:11PM
It’s a truism that making good speculative fiction for the screen – big or small – can ignore flashy visual effects, expansive vistas or a massive budget as long as it has good ideas. The 1999 TV movie (yes, they were still making them back then) The Last Man on Planet Earth (the awkward title seemingly designed to avoid confusion with the 1964 Vincent Price I Am Legion adaptation) is a case in point. Under director Les Landau, in charge of dozens of episodes of the Star Trek universe, there are few visual pyrotechnics and the minimal expenditure is clear, but writer Kenneth Biller, another Trek veteran yet also responsible for scripting 'Eve', one of the better X Files episodes, sets out some bold and provocative ideas in his tale of a future where the male of the species has been almost entirely eliminated and women have embraced each other – literally, for the most part.
As with the best of the genre, near-future events are explained only as far as the characters would need to to each other in real life – the audience must fill in the gaps. Thus we learn only that a war with “the Afghanis” spurred development of weapon that targeted the male-only Y chromosome in a well-meaning attempt to bring the conflict to an end. Its unforeseen spread across the world, however, eventually wipes out all but 3% of the male population. Under the matriarchy that develops thereafter, its misandrist leanings both amplified and justified by a welcome absence of war, even this tiny number is – officially, at least – legally and culturally ostracised. With lesbian relationships widespread, cloning allowing the race to continue (albeit with daughters only) and peace reigning, all seems well. Until one woman – quietly heterosexual – decides, like Pygmalion, to create not only a perfect companion (though male here of course) but one with the violence gene removed.
What follows deploys a number of predictable tropes, including the prototype on the run, the oppressive ruler seeking to destroy it and the initially hostile lieutenant who eventually sides with the protagonist, but also some challenging ideas, clever subversions and genuine intelligence.
Two of the most effective concepts are the underground club for closet hetero woman called The Lysistrata, where the last remaining (and thus older) men serve their clients, and streetwalking female escorts cross-dressed as men. A United Womens Bank, a hypocritical FBI chief campaigning for Congress and a virulently man-hating would-be President are also part of this mix, which is gratifyingly couched in that other absolute requirement, to my mind, of a decent slice of spec fic – a casually convincing vocabulary of in-world terms, jargon and slang. Thus Biller’s characters talk of the Y-bomb and The Time Before, whilst the resistance movement seeking to re-establish a male population refer to their struggle as The Reclamation. Neatly, teenage girls express value judgement with the words ‘Burnt’ and ‘Frozen’ (think about it for a minute).
Of the actors, Julie Bowen – so good in romantic comedy drama series Ed – appears miscast as the genetic engineer, the rather obviously-named Hope Chayse (‘chaste’?), and Paul Francis is frustratingly wooden as the equally-signposted Adam, but all is not lost; Tamlyn Tomita, fondly remembered from Babylon 5, is excellent as the FBI agent who ‘turns’, and the reliable Cliff de Young enjoys himself as Reclaimer John Doe (slightly cleverer naming, there).
But what really stands out is the attempt to say something about how such a society might, given the scenario, genuinely develop. The principal question posed by that scenario – is violence genetic and sexually predetermined, or latent within all of us? – is freely but not carelessly discussed as each character finds themselves acting against type. Doe’s climatic taunt that Adam isn't "man enough" to shoot sums things up nicely.
References can be detected to diverse other works, including James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day, especially Sarah Connor’s impassioned “Men like you thought it up” speech in the Dyson home; John Carpenter's Ghost of Mars; Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War; the script of Demolition Man by Peter M. Lenkov, Daniel Waters, Robert Reneau; P.D. James’s Children of Men; and Katharine Burdekin’s Swastika Night, originally published under the pseudonym Murray Constantine, but overall this is a thought-provoking and worthwhile film that succeeds on its own merits, despite its obvious faults. Track it down.
By Chris Rogers, Oct 3 2016 4:18PM
The British post-apocalyptic drama has a rich and fascinating history in literature, film, television and radio. Books from the last half of the twentieth century alone include John Christopher’s The Tripods (1967-68) and P.D. James’s Children of Men (1992). All observe the impact of a given disaster on a small group of people via a peculiarly national set of filters including class, tolerance and – less obviously – the natural landscape. Unusually but satisfyingly this new release, written by M.R. Carey simultaneously with his novel of the same name and directed by Colm McCarthy, builds on that legacy by taking an intelligent and original approach to a concept that has avowedly transatlantic roots: the zombie thriller.
In a windowless, concrete, prison-like building, two dozen children are roused each morning, strapped into wheelchairs and mustered in a room, all under armed guard. A woman, Miss Justineau (Gemma Arterton), appears and begins what seems to be a school lesson. One of the children, Melanie (Sennia Nanua), is clearly the star pupil – bright and funny, she has obviously formed a bond with Justineau and the link is mutual. But when Parks (Paddy Consadine), the sergeant in charge of the detachment of soldiers, demonstrates why even the children’s heads are immobilised, the real nature the situation begins to become apparent. The exact goal of the coolly efficient Dr Caldwell (Glenn Close) is also a revelation.
These juxtapositions and the confined setting immediately spark the interest and sows the seeds of tension, making the sudden move to the outside a form of release. It is also a way of expanding the story, with a pumping, chaotic sequence when the location comes under attack. With Melanie, Justineau, Parks and a couple of privates escaping into the country to find refuge, the canvas is extended once again and indeed the film becomes a road movie.
With Britain lacking the endless expanses of the American deserts and prairies this might be thought of as an unwise move but the trope is in fact firmly embedded in many of those domestic genre works – think of Matthew Graham’s The Last Train (1999), Peter Dickinson’s The Changes (1968-70), The Death of Grass (1956) again by Christopher and H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds (1897), all of which set individuals on a journey across a green and pleasant land transformed in search of salvation.
The trek here allows for another skirmish deep in a wood before the outskirts of London are reached. An atmospheric vista of the deserted, vine-clad city glimpsed through binoculars and a huddle beneath a similarly overgrown motorway flyover bode well for this depiction of a desolated metropolis, and indeed the scenes that follow, as the group arrives at a derelict shopping precinct and makes its way carefully through a forest of a different kind but also one swaying and loaded with menace is brilliantly handled. Rooftop scenes surveying the surrounding abandonment are also absorbing, with trees growing where they shouldn’t and an utter lack of humanity. The difficulty is that this clearly isn’t London, as anyone familiar with the capital will realise; instead it resembles the blighted town of Pripiyat, and the reader will have to trust me when I say that only when researching the film for this write-up did I discover than that is exactly where the aerial photography for these shots took place (by drone). That wobble of believability became a topple as the story advanced into London proper, or rather a ‘London’ obviously composed of streets from a rather different town and photographic panoramas that show London buildings that no longer exist, no matter how hard the prominence of the Gherkin tries to convince us otherwise. Such a jolt removes one from the film quite considerably, unhelpful generally but especially when the plot takes a step in an important new direction and the focus should this be there.
That said, the final destination of the narrative should not be spoiled. Suffice it to say that the title of the film – derived from an ancient myth that is explained early on – proves neatly, if subversively, appropriate, and if you’ve experienced Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend (1954), seen Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) or
The performances are all good, with 12-year-old Nanua superb in a very difficult role. McCarthy creates a background texture that is unsettling and hypnotic, though it is very unfortunate that the ruined London fails to persuade. But as ever with sci-fi it is the ideas that matter, and just as
By Chris Rogers, Sep 22 2016 1:33PM
There’s a degree of retrospection in all of us. To what extent we engage with it, though, depends not just on the individual but on the field in which they work. The past is, perhaps, of less importance to an athlete or a teacher than it is to a historian or an architect. For artists the past can be a place not often visited, for fear of both confronting failures and repeating previous works, but Richard Walker has found the experience a positive one. He has selected pieces from a career that began in 1976 for his new exhibition, and asked if he still likes his earlier material, he is clear: “Yes. My interests haven’t changed. I never really changed. There is a continuity.” The show at the Curwen Gallery reflects this, with a mix of old and new yet connections to be made across all.
Always specialising in printmaking, which he studied at Kingston, Camberwell and Chelsea, and influenced initially by Pop-Art, Walker’s early productions were, he says, “like ready-mades.” The idea was set and it emerged quickly, and unchanged. The freedom to experiment, however, that he learned and which the processes of screenprinting with wet inks allowed, was fully embraced as his subjects grew. He came to relish concepts that showed a moment “just when things are about to fall apart”, using what he had discovered to make something could be “slapped down” to represent that point in time. This included adjusting things as needed; would powder stay on a print of Patti Smith, he asked his tutor? Yes, he replied, once it’s dry. Smearing and smudging, adding layers and materials – such fluidity, as he puts it, all helped Wallker achieve this goal.
Printing also permitted Walker to become a serial offender. All of his work shows a fondness for multiples, repeats of a general theme or template but with variation inside each. “You return to things,” Walker explains, “and printmaking allows that.” A given frame or outline, he says, becomes “a tune, with lots of different versions”.
Walker’s later urban landscapes, of London, New York, Los Angeles and elsewhere, arose from an interest in architecture that he knew from childhood and his visits to those places when older. In these can be most easily seen what Walker sets out as the single defining driver of any piece of his – that it comes from “the time, the place, the situation” in which he finds himself. With the urban realm witnessing increased stress and strain over recent years, both internal and externally imposed, Walker admits that his utopian visions have now “slightly turned” and “got darker”.
Time, though, has also allowed him to reach a point where he can state – confidently rather than defiantly, it feels – “This is what I am; this is what I do”. It is from this solid ground that the introspection necessary to assemble such a show has been summoned without fear. If there is a recognition of self in the work, then, it is one that Walker is utterly comfortable with.
This relaxed attitude includes his continuing employment of traditional methods. Though he has used digital media, Walker remains a declared believer in and adherent of the physicality and the actuality of making. A fascination with watching other artists work, his own painstaking simulation of masking tape purely with screenprinting techniques for one piece and the equally detailed divining and transcribing of instructions to put together another to form a personal devotional shrine (to Bianca Jagger) surely also manifest this.
All of the above come together in the two latest groups of works, both of which feature in the show.
A series of prints based on a police mugshot of David Bowie form not a tribute but an illustration of the singer’s importance to the student Walker, who found the clear evidence of another creative person’s continually fresh output a comfort and regular albums a soundtrack to life in the 1970s.
The outline of the eponymous Camberwell Beauty butterfly – a rarity in Britain – serves as a master pattern for individual works of great difference, twenty in total that together symbolise a “showcase of the textures, colours and dynamics that I do, like a repertoire. It’s MY repertoire.” By having one fixed element with this particular series, it seems to this writer, Walker was freed to look into his own past in an unconscious way and may indeed have come up something even he hadn’t expected; “I thought there’d only be half a dozen but there’s more!” Each is an original, executed on the basic paper print, after pressure of time forced Walker to abandon his initial idea of producing monoprints. “But in the end I did them LIKE a screenprint would have been, using it as a stencil.”
The results are fascinating and fragile, light but loaded with meaning. Walker quips that a butterfly is simply a moth in drag, but of course it also emerges fresh from a chrysalis. That seems appropriate to begin his next forty years.
The show continues, free of charge, at the Curwen & New Academy Gallery, Windmill Street, London W1 until 30 September 2016.
By Chris Rogers, Sep 15 2016 6:50PM
Combining elements of the western, the road movie and the crime thriller, this new film by Scottish director David Mackenzie and American writer Taylor Sheridan sees brothers Tanner and Toby Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) carry out a string of bank robberies in order to pay off the bank loans on their late mother’s ranch. Two Texas Rangers, Marcus Hamilton and Alberto Parker (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham), investigate the first robbery and find themselves on the brothers’ trail. The result is a film that is alternately funny, moving and poignant, presenting two sets of opposing characters and placing them in a landscape that both confirms and subverts the American dream.
The tone is established in the opening scene, as the brothers’ first robbery takes place. The deserted main street is explained in the script by their strategy, hitting targets in the early morning when they are quiet, but in truth this is a pretext for Sheridan’s other principal concern – laying out a state that has been devastated by the financial crisis and where everyone is suffering. The lack of people, the shuttered shops and the dusty streets are repeated throughout the film, whilst the Howards drive between jobs past roadside signs advertising debt relief and emergency loans. That almost every incidental character they or the Rangers meet contributes his or her own story of hardship, from a waitress fiercely guarding her 200 dollar tip in stolen banknotes so that she can pay her creditors to a cowboy herding cattle bemoaning what his sons will inherit, does slightly overegg the theme, but all are played well by a succession of unknown faces and it would be churlish to deny Sheridan his point.
Past and future are also important. Toby is a career criminal, and doesn’t want to change; Tanner, who is a divorcé, has plans to safeguard his sons’ welfare. He used to work at a gas well but oil, seemingly the sole source of economic salvation, becomes important as the plot develops. Hamilton is days away from retirement, and obviously hating the thought; in an epilogue, his successor is a woman. His “half-breed” partner Parker, with a bitterness not evidenced elsewhere, notes how “These people’s grandparents took our land, and now they’ve had it taken from them, by the banks.” An elderly man at a diner bemoans the fact that the days are gone when a lawbreaker could be shot; another bystander, only half in jest, proposes hanging them. “That’d mean trouble for you,” cautions Hamilton. “Only if they find the tree,” replies the man. In this milieu, the casino where the brothers launder and boost their proceeds reads as a neutral space in which both timeframes come together and anything might be
The dynamic between each pair of men is crucial, allowing a range of differential viewpoints on age, responsibility, loyalty and love to be explored gently but powerfully from a number of angles beyond the obvious.
Sheridan’s dialogue drives this with great skill, from one-liners that zing to more contemplative passages.
Hamilton’s constant ribbing of Parker’s ethnicity and competence generates the majority of the humour and invisibly sets up a moment of true pathos toward the end, even if the mechanics of this relationship are quite clearly derived from that of Schrader and Gomez in Breaking Bad (2008-13). Hamilton’s turnaround from awaiting to anticipating the brothers’ next move is subtly done and links with the issues of past and future/active and reactive seen earlier. Bridges is superb in a role that has obvious similarities with that of Sheriff Bell in No Country for Old Men (2007), though exaggeration of his natural enunciation combined with a Texan accent does make a few lines hard to decipher. His wordless performance of a man swept by successive waves of feeling at the principal climax is, though, outstanding.
The Howards are just as carefully drawn. Tanner’s clear desire to make amends with his family contrasts with Toby’s wild self-indulgences, though some might have a hard time accepting that the sensible Tanner should have proposed their risky plan. Importantly neither man is crudely sketched – both have a depth. Pine – not the most expressive actor – is solid but it’s Foster who shines here. His banter, mood swings, horse-play and underlying commitment to his brother are beautifully essayed, and it’s his film as much as it’s Bridges’ – not least in that he shares that actor’s occasionally unclear speech patterns.
The open spaces of the Texan prairie (though filmed, as was Breaking Bad, in New Mexico) are of course key, to mood as well as plot, and here the foreigner Mackenzie both adopts and adapts accepted framings. The long, straight roads expected by viewers familiar with Two Lane Blacktop or Vanishing Point (both 1971) are counterpointed by those that wind and twist around hills and mesas, superbly captured by aerial drone footage overseen by cinematographer Giles Nuttgens. The final shot, rather than craning up to follow a car disappearing into the distance, cranes down, into the grass.
As the above makes clear, the film is also shot through with a distinct 1970s sensibility, from the setting and the ideas to the absence of any real technology. Mackenzie admits as much and it is refreshing to see such a vital period in American cinema once more acknowledged.
Of that time, too, is the plotting – simple, yes, but not simplistic, engineering a coming-together of the two sides that is just as balanced in its aftermath as it was in that lead-up.
This is not an action movie, despite what the trailers and poster would have you believe. When the action and the violence comes it is necessary and effectively handled but the film’s real value in in creating a rounded, believable, interesting group of people who one actually cares about, and in forming an elegy for a passed age. In those respects Sheridan and Mackenzie have created a small gem.
By Chris Rogers, Sep 12 2016 10:48PM
It is both ironic and entirely explicable that the annual commemoration of 9/11 on television has seen little that is new in recent years, either in terms of content or presentation. The very medium that allowed the horror of that day to be experienced instantly by millions and revisited repeatedly by tens of millions has beaten those few seconds of footage so hard and so thin that they are almost transparent, worn out, worked out. Inevitably, too, the most powerful assemblages of image and testimony appeared early, in the first few months or years. Now, though, Jason Sklaver’s exceptional 90-minute film 15 Septembers Later, screened on The History Channel last night, proves to be one of the most absorbing and affecting films about that day ever seen.
The unique set of circumstances that produced the events of 9/11 has also shaped our perception of them. Yes, they occurred live on television for the most part, but they also happened when the culture was just on the cusp of the social media and digital capture revolution. Google had only been running for three years. Facebook would not launch for another two, Twitter not for another four. Mobile phones were familiar but by no means universal; pagers were still common, especially as their signal could reach places the still-expanding cell network could not.
Sklaver’s structure is simple – in two dozen or so segments, each introduced by a simple caption over a relevant image, interviewees recall key aspects of the day. They speak either to an unseen interviewer, conventionally enough, or – more disconcerting – directly to camera, in the style pioneered by Erroll Morris with his interrotron. There is no intrusive score, no crass effects, no voiceover. The people simply talk. They range across the full spectrum of those involved on the day, but crucially a focus on the top political, media and military figures conveys a real sense of the shock and confusion that sunny September Tuesday. Vital, too, to the freshness of this production is its use of recently declassified photographs and other information that yield genuinely new insights for even the most sated student of that day. This includes the pager messages that are scattered throughout Skalver’s film like electronic ash. Taken together, the two elements are compelling.
Thus we see for the first time some of over a thousand stills taken by a press photographer AFTER the infamous Florida school event at which former President George W Bush was told of the second plane to hit the World Trade Center, and also hear from Bush himself. That same photographer, shooting all the time, was allowed into the President’s office on Air Force One as a panicked security team sought to escape and take Bush to safety on the famous jet – which, his former chief of staff recalls, was so keen to depart that its pilot breached protocol by starting engines well before the leader was on board. Bush relates with practiced calm, now, the airbase-hopping journey that took seven hours to get him back to a Washington, DC that, even then, was not felt safe (that same chief of staff, ordered by his President to go there right away, remembers that he was given orders, but chose not to carry them out).
This sequence dovetailed nicely with that involving former Vice President Dick Cheney, who we now see – again, for the first time – in a set of similar images taken six floors under the White House in the PEOC bunker so beloved of action film makers everywhere.
For me the most emotional moment came when two fighter pilots of the Air National Guard, scrambled to intercept the rogue airliners, told their stories. One, despite having his target literally in sight, was forced to land as his fuel was too low. The other, Heather Penney, reminded us that none of the fighters were actually armed. She didn’t recall any order to ram the hijacked planes, she said, but it was understood that that was the only option. “I decided to go for the tail,” she explained. “I did think I could eject [after], but then wondered, what if I missed?”
We also find out that the gates that would have allowed at least some of those trapped in the twin towers to get to the roof where an NYPD helicopter was ready to risk a rescue were discovered to have been chained shut for fear of suicides; that former mayor Rudy Giuliani and his team were trapped in a collapsed building at one point and only escaped by travelling below ground to a neighbouring structure; that Marine Jason Thomas, who helped rescue two trapped police officers, simply walked away from the site afterward, never spoke to anyone about what he had done and was not even identified until years later; that pieces of twisted steel from the towers now reside in every state in the US, mainly as memorials to firefighters; and that Cantor Fitzgerald, the brokerage firm that lost a staggering 658 of its employees in the attack, continues to collect millions in donations to charity to this day after making good on its chairman’s promise to take care of the families of those who died.
Sklaver’s piece is elegant, restrained and fascinating. No-one should seek to assign blame for a lack of originality in such a field, but when that new approach appears, it should be recognised.
By Chris Rogers, Aug 19 2016 1:43PM
A violent crime thriller in which two men on opposite sides of the law circle each other in an unromantic Los Angeles of freeways, industrial lots and cheap diners until a fateful, existential confrontation… No, not the acclaimed Heat (1995), but William Friedkin’s underrated To Live and Die in L.A. (1985), which anticipated Michael Mann’s film by a full ten years even whilst borrowing elements of its look from that director’s television series Miami Vice (1984-89) and which is still fresh and meaningful today.
At the time of its release, Friedkin’s story of US Treasury Secret Service agents pursuing a master counterfeiter was criticised for a lack of substance, epitomised by stylised visuals and a score by British New Wave group Wang Chung. The contrast with Friedkin’s blockbusters from the previous decade, The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973), both of which were praised for their realistic settings, seemed to prove the point.
If fact this represents a fundamental misreading of To Live and Die in L.A., which takes that same concern for a grounded foundation on which to build a story and blends it seamlessly with a look (and sound) that go beyond surface gloss and mere imitation to achieve something greater.
The work began with the experiences of Gerald Petievich, who had spent fifteen years in the Secret Service tackling counterfeiters and protecting the President (years later the Secret Service would be transferred to the newly-formed Department of Homeland Security to concentrate exclusively on this more famous function) before embarking on a writing career. His novel formed the core of the script.
In realising this for the screen Friedkin added another layer of authenticity by engaging actual forgers as consultants, something Mann had done with safecrackers for Thief (1981). Finally, extensive use was made of locations, firmly avoiding those associated with the glamour and glitz of Hollywood. A genuine strip club, ordinary warehouses and homes and the LA river storm drain system feature heavily, and it is notable that about the most recognisable – the twin wedges of Century Plaza Towers – are glimpsed only at night as part of a helicopter fly-over. By shooting in these gritty, workaday places, and doing so with little rehearsal time and occasionally without any formal blocking, Friedkin generated a freshness and presence that contributes significantly to the final atmosphere.
The dialogue, with its blunt one-liners, speaks of the streets, too, a legacy of Petievich’s co-writing. Actors who were on the verge of coming fame also, mostly obviously William L. Petersen and Willem Dafoe but also John Turturro, aided believability. That established actor and film-maker Robert Downey appears without the ‘Snr’ suffix that became necessary when his son achieved his own breakthrough in Less Than Zero two years later confirms what a vital time this was for new talent.
It was with the assembly of his footage that the visual flair and sonic dissonance that so enraged critics appeared. Crucially Friedkin did not subject the entire production with its inherent verisimilitude to a shallow coating of polish, applied without thought. Rather, this was applied with real care, consideration being given as to how a given music track or editing technique would drive or enhance the pace and mood latent in the rushes.
The success of this approach is seen in the two dazzling montages that appear at the start of the film, cut to Wang Chung’s pounding score. Astonishingly economically, they set out its fundamentals – the use of fake banknotes and the making of them – whilst also forming self-contained mini movies in themselves. The first serves also as a title credit sequence, its matted cut-outs referring back to Bullitt (1968) – the same designer, Pablo Ferro, made both – but incorporating an animated blood spatter that becomes a palm tree, a kind of brilliant, brutal haiku for a film that is even more truthfully visceral than Yates’s. Crucially, this sequence also includes multiple flash forwards in the form of shots that will appear in the next two hours, a narrative technique that Friedkin uses repeatedly but subtly throughout the film to emphasise its principal, and opposing, themes: determination and fate. The degree to which the principal characters’ actions reflect these alternates forms the essence of the plot.
Masters, as his name suggests, is cool, controlled and in charge of his destiny, manipulating lawyers, informers and others to maintain the criminal life he chooses right to the (and its) very end. Chance, on the other hand, lives us to his name, being reckless, dangerous, and, ultimately, desperate – so desperate that he thinks nothing of kidnapping a stranger to aid his revenge. But there are similarities between them too. Both are unusual examples of their trade, Masters a fine artist as well as a forger, Chance an unconventional extreme sports enthusiast. Both have remarkably similar-looking slim, long-legged, blonde girlfriends. Both have near-identical first names. Both are unable to foresee their ends.
Importantly, the sickly-hued Los Angeles they inhabit is itself cynical, indifferent, a city of dust and steel and water and glass that can play you as well as any opponent can. As Chance’s reluctant, fretful new partner – and through him, the audience – eventually discovers, if To Live and Die in L.A. is about surface, it’s a surface that refracts as well as reflects, bending you inexorably to its will.
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