Netflix’s Making A Murderer – He Fought the Law and the Law Won

Watching this gripping, gruelling addition to the ‘Crime Machine’ genre is like entering an American nightmare where the police have absolute power to pick on a specific target and turn him over in the most unashamed, dramatic way possible.

Steven Avery is that man, a lowly scrapyard worker who, when the 10-part documentary begins, is released from jail after serving 18 years for a crime he didn’t commit.

Admittedly, he’s a bit annoyed so he begins a lawsuit against the police and it’s, from there, things get messy as he’s charged with another gruesome murder (along with his newphew Brendan Massey) on his patch, which naturally he denies.

But it’s Dassey, a teenager at the time, who becomes the prosecution’s main witness, and it looks as if it’s going to be curtains for Avery again, and he’ll be banged up for a second time.

The reason why this documentary works is because it peeps into the American criminal justice system and finds something rotten underneath, an inhumane streak that police find irrestible when the going gets tough and culprit’s fingerprints might not be on the weapon.

But it is also valuable because it’s probably a seminal example of the ‘Crime Machine’ genre, that is a real-life documentary that explores a huge period of time, perhaps decades, but stretches, shrinks it and chops it into small chunks so we can piece together the present, hour by hour, day by day, month by month. Some other recent examples of this genre would include ITV’s The Investigator: A British Crime Story and Channel Four’s excellent Interview with a Murderer which covered the notorious Carl Bridgewater case.

The main difference between these documentaries, of course, is that cameras are allowed in the courtroom for Making a Murderer and this ensures a compelling, if terrifying, edge to proceedings as the main players begin to resemble puppets in a higher drama.

The only downside would be that some episodes in the middle sag a little when we have too many lawyers talking and too much exposition.

But apart from that, Making a Murderer is eye-poppingly authentic.

At the time of writing, Brendan Dassey could be released soon – but Steven Avery? Unlikely.

Maybe a second series, which has been mooted, could tell us more.

Reflections on Tarkovsky, the meandering magician

Twenty years after his death in 1986, Andrei Tarkovsky’s films still have the power to captivate, illuminate and mesmerise as if a static, messianic eye swoops down from the sky urging you to look deeper, think harder and act wiser.

The Russian film-maker’s world is generally a place of lost souls and heavy hearts with nature offering the only solace to humanity’s dreadful descent into war, capitalism and greed.

His first film Ivan’s Childhood is probably his most narrative-friendly as a 12-year-old boy sees his family killed by the Nazis and is then hired as a scout by the Russian army to infiltrate enemy lines. It has a poetic, minimalist quality and some stunning imagery – but also acts as a perfect introduction to his later, more challenging, work.

Then we have the majestic Andrei Rublev, a colossal, three-hour epic which explores Russia’s early 15th century and is laced with spectacular setpieces like the Tartar invasion, the Pagan stampede and the casting of the Bell. Many critics feel this is Tarkovsky’s best film because it has a purity and authenticity about it – and although it is great, there’s something about the ‘inner world’ of his later films that give them the edge.

Solaris, a cult classic, began this intriguing descent. It’s a dizzying, headbusting sci-fi that’s all about conscience, time and the unending quest for knowledge. It’s remains strong on repeated viewings but perhaps Tarkovsky was hampered by the sets, which meant he couldn’t explore the characters as deeply as he wished. ‘The rockets and space stations were interesting,’ he said. ‘But it seems to me now that the idea of the film would have stood out more vividly and boldly had we managed to dispense with these things altogether.’

Now things really get interesting with Mirror, a highly personal meditation on Russia, humanity, nature, time and family. It’s a film of profound emotional depth or utterly baffling depending on how generous you are in your cultural appreciation but I’d go for the former as it has some of the memorable images ever put up on screen.

Tarkovsky followed that up with his last film in the Soviet Union, the hypnotic Stalker, a film that I believe is his finest work because everything – the script, the soundscape, the industrial sets, the comedy (yes, it is funny) and the performances – are almost note perfect to create a slow-burning, intoxicating piece of art that gets deep under your skin and stays there. It’s mysterious ‘Zone’ has been much discussed and much celebrated but there’s so much more going on here – about science, faith and desire – that even a book wouldn’t do it justice (although Geoff Dyer in his book Zona did try!).

The Russian film-makers last two films Nostalgia and The Sacrifice were made in exile – but they are no worse for it as Nostalgia in particular is, I feel, one of his best films. It tells the story of a Russian poet in exile in Italy (a bit like himself) who longs for his old country and, therefore, find it difficult to engage with anyone or anything that would remotely constitute ‘normal life;. It’s a wildly haunting dreamscape with a richness and intimacy that is difficult to shrug off. The Sacrifice too, is a strong, final picture, which sees a man bargain with God to avert a nuclear disaster. Or does he? This is the thing with most of Tarkovsky’s works: the narrative is always secondary to the character’s spiritual crisis.

Ultimately, Tarkovsky’s films can all be said to be ‘time machines’ and ‘artworks’ because that was how his philosophy on cinema and creativity worked. It was a dismissal of anything extraneous or extraordinary as his lengthened frames saw the ‘magic’ in real life: nature, water, fire, rain, animals,, trees, humanity and so on. That’s what makes them special – because he demands the highest form of intellectual engagement from the viewer and the ‘spectacle’ – which would generally mean to excite or entertain – didn’t interest him.

Which may be a problem for some film lovers. But add in the staggering beautiful poetry of his father, Arseny Tarkovsky – which is read out in some of the films I’ve mentioned – and you have an all-round package of stunning, illuminating work that still has plenty to say on existence, love, faith and all the other intractable problems that make up our daily lives.

Those problems will never go away.

Nor will Tarkovsky’s films.

Geography as important as comedy to Sacha Baron Cohen

Kazakhstan, Austria, North Africa, Staines, Mid-west America – and now Grimsby. Welcome to Sacha Baron Cohen’s globus maximus, a bulging, burping landscape ripe for exploitation as the performer, formerly known as the one who might play Freddie Mercury, tears up another neighbourhood.

The cherrypicking of geographical locations has always been a fascinating sideshow of Cohen’s flamboyant, and at times, outrageous comic performances.

As Ali G, he chose Staines as his comedic crutch, generally with outstanding results, sharp observations and some devilish tanking of well-known celebrities and stars.

Then we came to Borat – very funny, yes – but not so much for the people left in his slipstream like the Romanian villagers who claim they were duped and filed a lawsuit against the slippery chameleon.

Austria was next to get in the neck. Bruno, a gay fashion icon, was a funny, engaging character most of the time until a full-blown Sacha component in all his films – meanness – started to overwhelm the storytelling ability and create a whiff of bad taste that hasn’t since dispersed.

The Dictator – though achingly contemporary – was more of the same. Strong gags and laugh-out loud moments camouflaged a story that drifted off to nowhere in particular and left viewers wondering if SBC really had anything new to say, apart from ride in, humiliate and depart.

And now we have Grimbsy, a curious blend of spy saga and northern swagger that again has some decent gags but generally morphs into a queasy viewing experience with its lazy accents, tiresome working-class references and dead-end narrative.

The point about all the subjects and characters of these films is they can be seen as easy targets. Does that matter? Not really, if Cohen can convince you that he is a comedian, first and foremost, and his duty is to entertain us for 90 or so minutes (the fact that Grimsby barely makes the 80-minute mark suggests he may not have the storytelling stamina to do so in the future). But on the flip side, there have been a number of ‘victims’ counting the cost of Sacha’s entry on their turf and neighbourhood – a Palestinian man duped in Bruno for example – and this can create the impression that SBC likes to use his power against the weak, naive and defenceless

In fact, if you take these few words: Austria, Palestine, Romania, Grimbsy, Rapper, African leader – and say comedy – there’s an eye-rolling predictability about what a sixth-form student might come up with, never mind a world-renowned comedian.

But what differentiates Cohen from that debating arena is his genuine talent as a character actor. As in Hugo, for example, he’s shown that he can take on challenging acting roles and even flourish in them.

Long-term that may be how he settles down but it was for a film that wasn’t made – the Freddie Mercury biopic I referred to earlier – that seems to give the game away in terms of what makes Sacha Baron Cohen tick.

Queen drummer Roger Taylor said he didn’t want the film to be a joke but wanted to be ‘moved’. So in essence he was saying ‘I don’t want Freddie the tabloid creation: a preening, pompous frontman with a questionable lifestyle but I want the story of a true artist whose legendary status is secured not only because of his music but also his fragility and vulnerability’.

Judging by Grimsby’s final cut, Taylor might have got the tabloid cinema he was so afraid of.

And that simply wouldn’t do as a fitting legacy for a serious artist like Freddie Mercury.

But it might have been sufficient for Sacha Baron Cohen…

Line of Beauty (7)

“There may be a great fire in our soul, but no-one ever comes to warm himself at it, and the passers-by see only a little bit of smoke coming through the chimney, and pass on their way.”

Vincent Van Gogh, July 1880, from The Letters of Vincent Gogh, edited by Mark Roskill

Time ripe for Islam to spin its tale in the High Castle

With Philip K Dick’s The Man in The High Castle currently doing the rounds on Amazon and the BBC in the process of adapting Len Deighton’s SS-GB, it’s clear there’s a thirst for alternative history fiction that tackles big themes and even bigger, loopier narratives.

Invasion is obviously at the centre of most of these stories. In Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, Japan and Germany have won the war and carved up America between them. The novel has a mystical, elusive quality and is perhaps the best example of a covert, insidious pact being made by the authorities which leads the subjects under them to ask spiritual rather than brutal questions.

In SS-GB, the Nazi’s have invaded Britain and are in total control. This is more of a police procedural – similar to Robert Harris’s Fatherland – and subsequently, perhaps, doesn’t tackle the deeper questions like Dick’s mysterious opus. Dominion by CJ Sansom is in a similar vein and then there’s The Plot Against America by Philip Roth and numerous works by Harry Turtledove.

What many of these works have in common is a comforting notion that ‘the enemy’ is naturally evil ie the Nazis – and that all narrative roads are subsequently open and nothing is out of bounds in terms of exploration, examination and downright ridicule.

But then we have last year’s release of Michel Houellebecq’s Submission which told the story, among many other things, of a Muslim President in charge of France and the tensions that brings.

Of course, this is hardly a fantasy and may even become reality sometime this century given the influence and growth of Islam in Europe. In that respect, Submission is quite timid and restrained in that it doesn’t get to the heart of the fears and anxiety that are unquestionably lodged deep in Western minds at the start of the 21st century. Perhaps, that was Houellebecq’s intention.

But it’s clear from how Submission was received – a Muslim ruler in Europe was the story – that there is a thirst and hunger for more acute examination of the Islamic resurgence than just stories of terrorists, family strife and forced marriages and so on (although those have their place).

Writers and artists have a duty to engage with the big subjects of a troubled era – and Islamic power or lack of it – is one of the biggest in our enlightened but neurotic continent right now.

Of course, there’d be pitfalls: how would you deal with the Prophet Muhammad or the Quran if they were mentioned in contexts other than sacred ones?

Those are deeply personal questions and almost irrelevant because an ambitious, alternative history tale with Islam at its heart it would be external factors that drive the story; namely, conquest, power, control and subjugation. That is the meat of what we’re dealing with today, not the sacred rituals dear to every Muslim on the planet. Where’s the story in praying five times a day? There isn’t one.

So let’s hope someone’s brave enough to dive in where others have feared to tread. Because to be feared, jeered but never truly examined on a big scale or a grand canvas is a waste of fiction’s endless capacity to enthrall and fascinate.

Not to mention, speculate…

How George Lucas awakened Kurosowa’s Hidden force

With the hype surrounding Star Wars: The Force Awakens reaching fever pitch, it’s instructive to remember that a viewing in a US cinema in the 1950s by a young George Lucas led directly to the monster franchise we’re bludgeoned with today.

Lucas was watching The Hidden Fortress, directed by Akira Kurosawa (pictured), and the main narrative device he propelled into Star Wars was choosing to tell the story from the perspective from the ‘lowest’ characters, in this case C-3PO and R2-D2.

These two annoying droids are either a masterstroke or a travesty depending on your Jedi leanings but the really interesting thing about this ‘duo’ is their gentleness and timidity compared to the outright bitterness and greed on show from the two Fortress peasants who are so compelling you could watch them all day.

Other intriguing elements from The Hidden Fortress which may wormed their way into Star Wars include (of course) the Princess, who in Kurosawa’s film, is so other-worldly and aloof that you can’t help but think of Carrie Fisher in A New Hope. In Kurosawa’s film she actually doesn’t feel ‘human’ at all and perhaps this is another subliminal signpost that registered in then fertile mind of the soon-to-be King George – or perhaps not.

And then there’s the towering presence of Toshiro Mifune, an actor so strapping, imposing and provocative that you feel he might jump through the screen and demand that you start paying more attention. He’s a general in Fortress and plays the part with such nobility and poise that Obi-Wan Kenobi comes to mind. Until that is, he lets rip again and a weary Han Solo shines through.

Okay, all speculation of course – but taken in sum The Hidden Fortress does have so many similarities to Star Wars that a revisit should be mandatory, particularly when The Force Awakens is doing such a fine job of getting tills rolling and bums on seats.

And we haven’t even got to the swords (in The Hidden Fortress) looking like lightsabers, the robes looking like, well, robes, and the horizontal screen ‘wipes’ which gives both films a smooth, casual veneer.

Yet there’s a serious point to be made about George’s Lucas’ promising film career and whether Star Wars enhanced it killed it. His earlier films like American Graffiti and, particularly, THX 1138, had a style and flourish of their own, something which sadly wasn’t seen when the Stars Wars juggernaut took off.

It may have been what he wanted all along, of course, but thinking back to the young Lucas watching a Kurosawa in that cinema all those years ago, you wonder why the director he ‘admired’ became so prolific and acclaimed while Lucas became so pigeon-holed.

The underrated THX 1130 showed he much more to offer than robes, droids and lightsabers.

That’s not to knock those things.

Particularly those taken from The Hidden Fortress.