Articles Film Square Eyes USA

Black Hawk Down – TGF

Tuesday, January 22, 2002

There was a moment in the middle of Black Hawk Down when it dawned on me what I was watching – it was a TGF.

Those of you unfamiliar with US military slang will have to take my word for this, but it wasn’t that Friday feeling I was getting as I watched this grim depiction what it’s like to be stranded in a city where everyone’s got a gun and they all want to kill you.

What I was watching was a Total Goat Fuck. Everything that could go wrong in the film does go wrong, and it’s told without the usual sentimentality and tub-thumping bravado. We’re presented with a two-hour anti-recruiting commercial as Ridley Scott brings his technical mastery to bear on outlining the chaos of a disastrous mission to seize lieutenants of the warlord Muhammad Farah Aidid from Mogadishu in 1993

Watching this film, you know in advance that bad things are going to happen and that there’s no happy ending, so when you’re introduced to all the soldiers in the first twenty minutes, you’re already trying to work out which ones won’t be coming back.

But there’s little enough time for character development before everyone’s off into the city, afraid but committed. It’s a daylight raid into a hostile environment by a lightly-armed force with no armoured backup. The US authorities didn’t even tell the UN troops in the ‘safe’ part of the city what was planned.

The whole film gives us the point of view of the US soldiers on the ground, who as one of the militia men points out later, have no responsibility for being there, but are free to kill people.

And be killed. Things quickly fall apart as rocket propelled grenades and AK47 fire fills the sky, and from here on it’s a bloody mess. In the midst of it there are individual acts of bravery, but a much greater sense of everyone just trying to survive.

It takes a long time to come up with a plan to rescue the stranded troops, and meanwhile Tom Sizemore shines as the increasingly disillusioned lieutenant colonel who keeps being sent back and forth in his bullet-ridden Hummers in the middle of the chaos.

Most of the other members of the cast are interchangeably desperate and bloody (I bet Ewan McGregor and Ewen Bremner from Trainspotting never thought they’d be reuniting to don fatigues and get shot at for Ridley Scott), but that’s fine because this isn’t about heroes, and it’s clear that chance decides who’s going to live and die amongst the Americans.

You can level criticism at the movie for not exploring the context for the attack in more detail, and you can certainly argue that the US army shouldn’t have been there in the first place, but that’s not the concern of the troops on the ground, nor of the film.

When the exhausted survivors make it to safety, there’s no time for explanations or apportioning blame, except when General Garrison goes to visit some of the wounded. One of the young soldiers he sent into the city is bleeding all over the floor, and the general bends down to wipe it up. He’s got blood on his hands.

We all know that war is about killing people, but this film is a cold-eyed and unpleasant look at what that actually means if you’re some of the people involved. Especially when you’re asked to participate in a total goat fuck.

Posted by David in • Square EyesUSAFilm

Articles Film Square Eyes USA

Too cool – The Man Who Wasn’t There reviewed

Thursday, January 10, 2002

The Man Who Wasn’t There is a cool film – a moody period film noir about blackmail and murder – and the Coen brothers can always be relied upon to deliver something interesting, but is that enough this time?

Billy Bob Thornton plays the title character with such reserve and quiet intensity that he’s transformed from his other more showboating roles. He says very little, and drifts through scenes breathing, smoking and doing very little else.

His growing disdain for his own life and the misguided attempt he makes to break out of it powers the film. Frances McDormand and James Gandolfini put in their usual solid performances, and Tony Shalhoub threatens to steal the movie as the unctuous lawyer Freddy Riedenschneider.

The film is a tribute to movies such as Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, and creates the same sense of passionate menace under the surface of constricted lives in a respectable town.  Shot in black and white (or more accurately, shot on colour film stock but printed in black and white), it looks beautiful, and the plot unfolds with a certain tragic inevitability.

It’s very cool, but perhaps a little too cold to be engaging. It has the Coen brothers’ trademark cleverness – look at us, we’re making a film noir full of hip film references – and this distances you from the drama, making it feel like an expensive and elaborate fake.

The danger of having so passive a character as the lead in the film is that it’s hard to care what happens to him when he doesn’t care himself. The suggestion that he’s a representative of ‘modern man’ is to tie him to a deliberately dated idea, distancing him still further from us – there’s nothing so weird as an old-fashioned vision of the future.

And Riedenschneider’s version of the Uncertainty Principle is wittily done, but playing pick and mix from the big ideas of the 1940s only goes so far.

That’s not to say that The Man Who Wasn’t There isn’t worth watching (Scarlett Johansson is excellent as the teenager Birdy Abundas who’s old beyond her years), it’s just that you’d like the Coens to turn their considerable talents away from making smart films about film, and instead to making moving films about people.

A little less cool, and a bit more warm.

Posted by David in • Square EyesUSAFilm

Articles Square Eyes Television USA

Full-on integrity – Jackass reviewed

Sunday, January 06, 2002

Attentive readers will be familiar with my enthusiasm for watching people fall over. From Kirsty’s Home Videos to You’ve Been Framed, I’m right there if someone’s going to do a face plant, and so today I bow before the sick wonder that is Jackass.

The film of the MTV show is due here soon, and with a new season on the telly, it’s time for a look at why Johnny Knoxville and the boys are so damn watchable, as they find new ways to hurt themselves and gross us out.

Partly it’s because they are fully aware of the absolute stupidity of what they’re doing. It’s not called Jackass for nothing, and when they’re being knocked over by oranges being rocketed from jai-alai slingshots, you’re reminded of that country song, ‘If you’re going to be dumb, you’ve got to be tough.’

Another part of the appeal is that they clearly enjoy doing this shit. Knoxville himself says that they were doing it before they got the show, so they might as well get paid. The defining moment of most stunts sees at least one of them (usually Steve-O) rolling around in agony, laughing like a drain.

And while the guys share a predilection for hurting themselves in imaginative ways, and a scatological approach to life, they’re also quite different people. Knoxville is the something of the straight man – he rides bulls and gets classfuls of kids to kick him in the nads, but he actually seems the most sane.

Steve-O is clearly stone mad – he’s the one who had his arse cheeks pierced together, and had all his hair (everywhere) removed with waxing. Ryan Dunn and Bam Margera do more of the purely physical stuff, and Chris Pontius adopts some bizarre characters and gets naked whenever he can.

Add in Wee Man, Rab Himself and a few other bit players and you’re presented with an unlikely assortment of delinquency and strangely charming insanity. Yes, it’s all incredibly juvenile, and I really should know better, but when compared with other recent TV successes, Jackass also has some integrity.

There’s a purity to the foolishness feels much better than the bitter immorality of Temptation Island, and the clumsy voyeurism of Ibiza Uncovered and the like. The Jackass boys, as it says in the health warning at the beginning of the show, are professionals, paid for acting the maggot.

They’re not teenagers who volunteer to be pimped by unctuous music industry hags, or desperate wannabes who lock themselves in the Big Brother house. They’re not Jerry Springer guests or Survivor candidates or even materially-obsessed would-be interior desecrators on Changing Rooms.

They’re just big kids doing good-humoured stupid stuff and loving it. More power to them.

Posted by David in • Square EyesUSATelevision