Thursday 31 March 2011

A Blonde In Love (Lásky jedné plavovlásky) (Miloš Forman, 1965) DVD Review

Hana Brejchová and Vladimír Pucholt in A Blonde In Love (1965)

Note: I ought to start up a sub-feature called 'Seriously Late Reviews', as this is another release I'm terribly behind on. Loves Of A Blonde was released through Second Run DVD on 24th January 2011.

Miloš Forman's A Blonde In Love ends as it begins; to the tones of a girl singing. In the beginning it is upbeat; an acoustic Beatles-esque pop song with catchy hooks and lyrics about true love. The song is optimistic and hopeful of romance. In the end it is more mournful; a hymn-type song, almost ethereal. The song is mourning the impossibility and deception of young love, and its sadness is disarming. What happens inbetween these songs is a profoundly bittersweet drama about young courtship and sexual machinations. In the industrial town of Zruc there is an unbalance in the ratio of men to women. In fact, there are 16 girls to every one man. So when it is announced that soldiers will be coming in to provide comfort for the girls they are dismayed to find a platoon of balding, grumpy, middle-aged men who march into town singing "through smoking ruins and rivers of blood the avenging armies march on..." What follows is an extended party sequence and a portrait of mannered embarrassment, recalling Forman's 1967 follow-up feature The Fireman's Ball. There is another link between these films - they are shaded stabs at bureaucracy. Famously the Czech government took against The Fireman's Ball and banned it "forever", but the superior A Blonde In Love is much more subtle in its approach, and has more raw honesty in the arcs of its characters.

Actually, if it weren't for the sociopolitical subtext the film would have a timeless quality. The beautiful black and white photography by Miroslav Ondrícek makes the story seem like a framed memory - a picture of youth we can all look on to reflect our own lives. As it is the outdated bureaucratic jabbing stagnates the film somewhat; not as badly as The Fireman's Ball though, which to me now feels more like a political essay than a story of human kindness. So what ensures that the film is worth recommending is Forman's typically adept and humanistic approach to his characters, who are flawed but endearing. The three bumbling middle-aged soldiers who take a shine to three teenage girls could come across as leery and desperate, but in fact they're quite sympathetic. They accidentally order champagne to the wrong table, attracting the attentions of less attractive middle-aged women who they then have to hide from. One of the men tries to hide his wedding ring but it slips out of his pocket when he gets up to dance. He chases it across the room, much to the embarrassment of his comrades and amusement of the teenage girls, as he ends up at the table of women to whom he accidentally sent the champagne. Later on he gets tired, as we all would, of the girls chatting in the ladies toilet. He goes home, and we never see him again. The other two men fare equally as badly, but it's to the credit of Forman, who paints his characters with pathos and warmth, that they are never creepy. Central girl Andula (Hana Brejchová) could also be seen in a bad light; a naïve tease who easily gives into the whim of her young male suitor, and soon ends up following the empty invitation of coming to his home. When she does it sparks a hilarious (but quite caustic) marital row, which only escalates when the boy (Vladimír Pucholt) - himself a troubling womanizer - returns home to be scolded by his mother. He is made to sleep in the same bed as his parents. What follows is like a comedic sketch, but played with the same deft compassion that makes Forman's work so great.

I really enjoyed A Blonde In Love, for all of its flaws. In 2011 the film is slightly bogged down by its broader messaging and sneering at political policy; the characters are definitely painted as victims of the system - consequences of a broken country. But at its heart A Blonde In Love is a tale of fraught and deceitful romance, a tale of lies and empathy. If you look past Forman's implicative nature you'll be rewarded by the talents in him which became most prevalent in his American work; his skills as a craftsman and dramatist. Terrific performances, cringe-inducing humour and beautiful imagery combine to one of the most purely enjoyable films in the Czech New Wave canon. Seek it out...

Wednesday 30 March 2011

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010) Blu Ray Review

Spirits co-exist with the living in Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)

Facing the jungle, the hills and vales, my past lives as an animal and other beings rise up before me.

The opening prologue to Uncle Boonmee ends on the image of a shadowed animalistic creature staring out from the humid forrest, its glowing red eyes penetrating the soul of the viewer. It's an image unlike any the cinema has seen before, and will likely never be seen again. In the accompanying sleeve notes The Memory Of Nubia, by Weerasethakul himself, the filmmaker recalls the teachings of a monk he once met who had to say of ghosts that they will only appear under certain conditions - "when it is not quite dark and not quite light." These are the conditions of Uncle Boonmee's world, and the space it unfolds in. Time as a specific does not matter (ghosts have no concept of it), but spiritual happenings occur at "the break of dawn and twilight." They happen at a time when the world lays still and listens, for only the creations of mother nature are alive at this time - the wind blowing through the trees, and the sound of crickets reverberating through a dense landscape. It's almost as if Uncle Boonmee takes place on a parallel plane of existence... its depth of feeling reaches beyond the understanding of humans, and the existential themes of the film are scarily complex, questioning a core belief system. "Heaven is overrated" says Huay, a returning ghost. And why wouldn't it be? What is there to do for eternity?

So many films that tackle the subject of death do so with matter-of-fact bleakness, and deal with the emotions of the surrounding characters whose lives we will continue watching. Uncle Boonmee is a film which embraces death conceptually and celebrates its future possibilities; the story of the dying man does not end in a casket, for this is where another life begins. How can such a subject be treated so matter-of-factly, Weerasethakul seems to be asking, when there are no proven lines between this life and the next, or if such an otherworld exists? Uncle Boonmee introduces us to characters who have lived past lives, or are currently dead. Boonmee himself, who passes away in the final third of the film, reappears to his family and friends. He did not fear his demise. In fact, traveling to the starry caves in the forrest ("it's like a womb"), he has wished for it. "It's time" he says, and his passing is just as beautiful and hypnotic as his earlier recollection of life as a princess, whose questions of eternity are answered in a semi-religious experience with a wise catfish. She offers her jewelry to him in return for answers. She makes love to the catfish and as her body pulses in the water, moving to his rhythms, one gets the sense that she is transcending this world.

But thematic critical essaying is really the last thing Uncle Boonmee needs, for the experience of watching it is a spiritual one, and one which relies on atmosphere. Diegetic sound informs the painterly landscape of this world, and there is a rhythm formed in the score (the slow beating of a tribal drum), the sound of crickets, and the breathing of the characters in isolated moments of silence. It's a meditative film; one which absorbs you. It's not a film which ponders great themes, and I get the feeling Weerasethakul is not interested in intellectual deconstruction. Indeed, I attended an existentialism lecture at 2010's LFF, and although the subject interests him it does so in a humanist way. He is concerned with the preciousness and fragility of life, and the importance of the individuals place in this world. He never lectures, but presents ideas to the viewer. As I said in my original review (and my initial assessment, so forgive the repetition), the film consists of "questions arisen through symbols that propel you into universes - the visual language of Weerasethakul's cinema is extraordinarily assured, personal and poetic." It's a film which requires patience and intelligence, empathy and faith. Keep an open mind and you'll likely be rewarded... cinema rarely presents such an enlightened path.

The Disc/Extras
The film looks gorgeous on Blu Ray, capturing the light of dawn and twilight perfectly. You can literally see the heat rising in an early scene, and the glittering cave towards the finale is a sight to behold. At certain points you can actually see the sweat on the brow of the characters, and the radiant daytime sun feels so natural you can almost feel the heat. It's probably the most impressive film I've seen on the format so far. In 5.1 Surround Sound you also get the most out of the layered sound design. At one point I heard the noise of insects coming from the corner of my room, and the steady breeze fluttering from the other side. Ironically, considering how cinematic the film is, it may be best watched in the warmth and confines of your own living room. Watch it in the dead of night with the volume turned up and just allow yourself to be absorbed by its atmospheric world...

There are three extras on the disc, alongside the accompanying booklet and obligatory trailer. They consist of a typically informative 16-minute interview with Weerasethakul (spoken in English), 26 minutes of deleted scenes and a short film entitled A Letter To Uncle Boonmee (2009), running at 17 minutes. This final feature is perhaps the most interesting of all. It's not really as fleshed out as you'd like but it serves as an interesting companion piece to the main film, mainly comprised of monologged fictional letters based on Weerasethakul's experience looking for the real Uncle Boonmee, as the film is based on a semi-real story documented in the book A Man Who Can Recall His Past Lives. There are plenty of uncut long shots and beautiful images, but it feels undercooked as a concept.

Bring Back Bridget Fonda: Review #3. The Assassin (John Badham, 1993)

Luc Besson's La Femme Nikita (1990) is one of those iconic movies which is better remembered than watched. Back when he was a real filmmaker, making stylish thrillers like Léon (1994), Besson was a force to be reckoned with. A boldly imaginative auteur, his films took creative risks and have endured all the better for it. His faux-feminist fable, however, hasn't aged at all well and now feels like the substance vacuum that it really is. It's colourful enough, filled with directorial flourishes and is quite inventive in its execution of action sequences - indeed, the film looks more like a John Woo flick than anything, recalling the aesthetic and pace of his 1989 masterwork The Killer. But what's really looking sour in Nikita is the central performance by Anne Parillaud. Her turn is punkish and anarchic, but often annoying, and it also derails any sympathy we may have had with her - it's just too broadly hysterical and violent. She's believably tough in the action sequences but doesn't really resemble a human being, at least not one with feelings. It's the one major way in which John Badham's 1993 remake eclipses its predecessor - because Bridget Fonda is terrific in the part.

Upon a recent re-watch I've also come to the conclusion that it's quite an underrated, albeit highly flawed little action flick. The plot is as follows: Maggie Hayward (Fonda) is a criminal-turned-government assassin who, after being caught in a chemist raid which turned into a police shootout, learns bourgeoisie etiquette and how to kill in cold blood. That she learns this in the sort of 90s montage that was eye-rollingly cheesy even upon release is what adds to the dated charm of the film. She is trained by Bob (Gabriel Byrne) who inevitably falls in love with her. It's much better paced than La Femme Nikita, and grittier. The problem with the film mainly lies in the script which, in one key moment, went with this exchange in the final draft:
Bob: Ask me why I'm so serious.
Maggie: Why are you so serious?
Bob: Because I've got serious stuff to tell you, Maggie for Margaret.
It's embarrassing, and not even two accomplished talents like Fonda and Byrne can make the lines work. But generally Fonda invests the role with the not just the warmth I've been celebrating her for so far, but also with a despondent cynicism and ferocious brutality...

When we first see Maggie she's strung out, peeking hate from under her tempered brow. With greasy black hair she's every bit the junkie criminal, and when she adds a curled lip to her trademark smile - just before shooting a cop at point blank range - we know this isn't the usual Bridget Fonda performance. "How about you kiss my ass right in the crack?" she asks Bob at one point, gleefully embracing the anarchic side of her character. She derives equal enjoyment from the rock music afforded to her by government trading. She's street smart gal and at one point K.O's a karate instructor by taking the piss out of him - as he turns away, she delivers a low-blow and flips him on his back. So it's almost completely unbelievable when she makes the transformation into an educated, beautiful assassin. It's hard to take seriously - such is the level of realism in her portrayal of the down-and-out. But Fonda turns desperation into determination and commands the screen with her physical presence; the low-cut dress makes her sexy, but the sleeveless top exhibits her muscles. She's charming and charismatic, and it always comes naturally to her. I can only imagine how unusual her casting must have seemed back in 1993 but now there's just nobody else I can envision in the role - not even Parillaud. She lends gravity and feeling, which is what such an OTT film needs.

There's not much else to recommend in the film, save for one terrific Mardi Gras sequence which cross-cuts between an emotional conversation and tense assassination attempt. It's a beautifully lit set-piece; one which shows real artistry and depth behind the dulled cheese, but it's a fleeting moment. Edited by Frank Morriss it builds a level of tension sorely missing from the rest of the film, and it's rooted with an emotional anchor - Maggie's boyfriend J.P. (Dermot Mulroney; wasted as the handsome surfer dude) proposing to her. At the end of the day the film consists more of silly moments and cameos, including Anne Bancroft, who seems to be doing a bad impression of Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada(Frankel, 2006) a good decade before Streep did it herself. So once again Fonda is left to walk away with the film, in one of her boldest and best performances. Not that it was difficult. She could lift this sort of material in her sleep...

Monday 28 March 2011

You May Have Missed... Afterschool (Antonio Campos, 2008)

Ezra Miller stars in the controversial high school drama Afterschool (2008)

Synopsis: A lonely, depressed prep school student named Robert is addicted to the Internet and media; consequently his social skills are minimal. One day he's filming locations around the school for a media project and catches on film the overdose and death of two of the schools most popular and respected students - a pair of much-loved twins. Robert is given the job of making a memorial video, but as he struggles with his feelings for fellow student Amy his dark side starts to unfurl and manifests itself in dangerous ways...

Falling somewhere between Michael Haneke's Benny's Video (1992) and Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park (2007), Antonio Campos' debut feature is the sort of film America generally isn't brave enough to make anymore. His is a cynical brand of filmmaking, an exposé of our corrupt youth and overexposure to online access. There's a line in David Fincher's The Social Network (2010) where Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) says to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), "We lived on farms, then we lived in cities, and now we're gonna live on the Internet." Well the students of Afterschool are those people - although networking isn't so much the concern of Campos as an all too easy exposure to violence and sexuality. One of the very first shots in the film is the handheld phone footage of the hanging of Saddam Hussein, which sets the tone for the entire piece. Campos made his name in short films, and this is closest in tone to his 2005 outing Buy It Now, about a 16-year-old girl who sells her virginity on Ebay. It's sharp as a tack, suspicious of the online/technological revolution and an unbiased indictment of its misuse. And here's where we begin...

If it lacks the caustic bite and sardonic wit of Haneke's best work, that's because Afterschool unfolds in subdued emotion and spiked silences, sporadically observing acts of random violence with the potential to break into its own. The film essays various forms of voyeurism; within the world of cyberspace and also in terms of cinematic text. The film opens with Robert (Ezra Miller) masturbating to porn on the Internet. The derision of sexual pleasure from images is scopophilia, which the film somewhat pretentiously nods back to throughout the running time of the film. The prime voyeuristic pleasure is intra-diegetic; characters 'gazing' upon other characters within the framework of the film. There is also a distinct difference, in the composition of shots, between what Robert films and what Campos is observing for himself.

That's not to say it isn't tough though, because it is. Damn tough in places. An early scene sees Robert with the object of his affection Amy (Addison Timlin) as they video each other, talking about virginity. He feels awkward, almost picked on, so turns the camera on her, probing into her sex life. As he gets closer to her face we see fear run across it. He reaches down to stroke her cheek before moving his hand to her throat and tightening around it like he'd seen in an earlier porn video. He later tells the school psychologist that he likes those videos because "the girls get really scared" - it's the porn he jerks off to. He also repeats a line from that video to his psychologist, "your mom gets fucked for money", which in some ways shows how much the Internet has fed into his persona and ability in social situations. Later on in the film Robert and Amy lose their virginity to each other in the woods... it's so awkward that it's almost terrifying. The calm, complacent look on Robert's face remains as he hands her his shirt to stop the bleeding... he will later tell his psychologist that he's "peeling. the skin is coming off in some places"... it's almost as if he's evolving, rapidly, becoming aware of the part he plays in a cesspool dressed as a private prep-school. The young snake sheds his skin.

It is also, obviously, a film about addiction: the twins to cocaine, Robert to the Internet. It's a film that portrays addiction in a lonely silence, for the film has no score, and basically says that drugs and pornography have become such a large part of consumerism that it has infected our youth culture and schools. We never spend one scene with the twins alone, we never get to judge their character for ourselves, but everyone always speaks of their beauty, intelligence, class and respectability - indeed, the psychologist knew of their drug problem, brought it to the school committee and was ignored, being told that the girls represent too much of the schools esteemed reputation. It is telling then that Campos chooses them to die from cocaine cut with rat poison. If they are the upstanding model, what is left in their wake? Robert? That's a worrying thought...

The final shot of the film is extra-diegetic; Robert staring into his own frame, disconcerted by the image he sees back. Who is filming him? It scarcely matters, but the fun answer would be to say that in the last frame Campos has escaped from the (admirably) restrained, calm and collected real world that he has created and the person filming Robert is himself. As Sight & Sound's Lisa Mullen says, (in reference to who's to blame) "Or the uninvolved bystander who can't watch and can't not watch - who steps into his own frame and then can't cope with what he finds there?" Perhaps this is Robert confronting himself, as the audience suddenly learns his involvement may have been a little more than he makes out...

Clearly living in a post-Heathers (Lehmann, 1988) world, Afterschool is sublime, haunting, abrasive and mesmeric. Filled with terrific performances, the film is well aware of the history of contemporary High School cinema, starting with The Breakfast Club (Hughes, 1985), and deliciously enjoys turning its conventions on their head. Seek it out. You'll be talking about it for days afterwards...

Bring Back Bridget Fonda: Review #2. City Hall (Harold Becker, 1996)

The political ladder is a slippery ascent, says City Hall, and snakes inhabit its rungs. Becker's film tells of two men on that ladder, albeit at different heights; Mayor John Pappas (Al Pacino) and Deputy Mayor Kevin Calhoun (John Cusack), the latter more honest than the former. Is that because he's not a city boy, or because he's a wide-eyed optimist, or because he hasn't experienced the "thousand trades and one deal too many" which rubs out the line between realism and idealism? Do you take a bad deal, or turn the other cheek in order to do a greater good? It's obvious from the get-go of City Hall that the conspiracy trail surrounding a downtown shooting between a cop and a criminal, and the 6-year-old boy who got caught in the firing line, will lead all the way up to Mayor Pappas - such is the nature of power.

It's by no means a perfect film - for one it contains an irritatingly grandstanding performance from Pacino, who in one scene uses the funeral of a young boy to deliver the sort of political rally that only happens in the movies. Of course it's meant to be a grandstanding, but it feels too much like an acting pro getting his jaws around some meaty dialogue and forgetting to invest the humanity. It's Monologue 101, and it stinks. Cusack (eternally boyish) fares better as the sort of character who would be the down-on-his-luck private dick cliché in a 50s noir movie. At times the film takes on the mould of a chase thriller, and for that he makes a compelling lead. After all, for all the intricacies and nuances the film has it functions best as a straightforward intrigue vehicle. The political scope of the film is respectably wide, taking in all aspects of the Mayor/Deputy Mayor's duties. Press conferences, breakfast meetings and hush-hush trade-offs - we're not just restricted to the procedural around the shooting. There's also economic concerns at work, and the building of a new subway system. This is all respectable, but too compacted into a movie which runs at 100 minutes. What keeps it paced like a firecracker is the investigation launched by Deputy Calhoun and the lawyer representing the family of the dead cop - Marybeth Cogan (Bridget Fonda).

She's only in three scenes for the first half of the film, playing second fiddle to the emerging relationship between Pappas and Calhoun. But when mystery oversteps the 'issues' drama Pacino's histrionics take a step back to allow Fonda the pedestal, and she delivers the most grounded, confident performance in the film. She's a tough, no-nonsense sort of lawyer; the sort who gets the Deputy Mayor to call her, and not the other way around. One exchange, when she confronts a shady probation officer, goes thusly:
Officer: You lookin' to grow a pair of brass balls Miss?
Cogan: No thank you, I'm doing well enough without them.
It could so easily fall into the kind of unbelievable strong-woman cliché like the one played by Jodie Foster in Inside Man (Spike Lee, 2006), but it never does. I'm all for having tough, independent female characters onscreen, because we really don't have enough of them, but they're so often written with broad strokes. Dress in a suit, talk in a deep voice and employ witty put-downs that have clearly been through several script redrafts. That seems to be the way. But not here. Cogan is just a real city girl - strong willed, resilient and determined. Sure she has a couple of one-liners but Fonda paints an honest background behind her blue eyes. She ensures that strength comes from the place of a life lived in, rather than the pages of a screenplay - which, while we're at it, has four credited writers.

Once again I find myself saying that Fonda is the heart of the film. Not that City Hall has a heart, per se, but she's the person you recognize, the one you relate to and the one you have the most warmth towards. She's the voice of reason and truth, who points out even Calhoun's hypocrisy - and he's the good guy. It's a shame that she's not in the film more because it's when she disappears that it kind of falls apart. Take, for example, the final scene between Pappas and Calhoun, which should be a fascinating political smackdown but ends on a sentimental hug. City Hall isn't a bad film - it's a smart and often gripping one. It's just that it doesn't recognize the ace card in its own deck and so often plays her away...

Marwencol (Jeff Malmberg, 2010) Flatpack Review

Imagination therapy... Mark Hogancamp builds a new world in Marwencol (2010)

On April 8th, 2000, NY photographer Mark Hogancamp was attacked and left for dead outside a bar in his hometown, resulting in a nine day coma from which many feared he would not return. After regaining consciousness this former alcoholic had lost all memory of who he was or had ever been, examining and re-examining wedding videos and photographs in an attempt to regain any scrap of an identity. In order to rebuild his life Mark was instructed to first work on his imagination, and so set about building Marwencol, a WWII-era Belgian village, 1/6th-scale, in his backyard. Every citizen of Marwencol is an alter ego for somebody in Mark's reality, and they share relationships he no longer knows how to have. All the anger he suppresses is unleashed in firefights with the SS, who in one scene are ambushed by covert Barbies. Marwencol is imagination therapy, but thanks to editor-turned-director Jeff Malmberg the village has also become an acclaimed work of outsider art, and this fantastic documentary can sit comfortably alongside recent bedfellows Exit Through The Gift Shop (Banksy, 2010) and Waste Land (Walker, 2010).

As kooky as it may appear on the surface, Marwencol is actually a deeply involving and affecting film, and many viewers will be left with great admiration for Mark's struggle. After the attack he underwent reconstructive facial surgery, and had to learn how to walk and talk again, as if being reborn. We learn that whenever he goes for a stroll around the neighborhood (usually dragging behind a little army jeep), Mark has to look down and watch his feet to avoid wandering off the path and into the road. This is a man with such a big heart, but when asked about the thugs who tore his world apart he is consumed with rage, almost transforming into a different person before our eyes. This is where Marwencol comes in...

What's immediately striking about the town is how detailed it is, from the stitching on a handbag to the inner-workings of a military vehicle. The houses are not just hollow constructions - their doors and windows open to a unique and personal world, each relative to a place in reality. Mark owns a restaurant in Marwencol (Hogancamp's) and the tables are all set out with chairs, tablecloth, utensils and glasses. The seating is carefully arranged, and somehow I found myself wondering what the food might taste like. Plastic, of course. The soldier's weapons are also fully functional, each with their own ammo store (magazine cartridges are built to fit their corresponding firearm). This is what gives Marwencol such an incredible sense of feeling, and what makes it such an effective form of therapy for Mark. Everything is real. Everything works. It's memory reconstructed through fiction. As we are introduced to the members of the village we meet a witch who possesses a most valuable item: a time machine which can change fate. Perhaps this is Hogancamp's own wish - to turn back time and rectify every wrong he ever made. An attempt to save his own life.

The world of Marwencol is so meticulously constructed that only multiple viewings will allow viewers to fully absorb it, but sadly the film remains without a UK release date, and I've made little progress in finding out when it's due for distribution. I really hope you get to see this one soon. It's been the highlight of Flatpack 2011.

Saturday 26 March 2011

All Flowers In Time (Jonathan Caouette, 2010) Flatpack Mini-Review

Chloë Sevigny stars in the surrealistic short All Flowers In Time (2010)

The review for All Flowers In Time may be the hardest one I ever write. A 14-minute short, the film unexpectedly played before my Flatpack screening of Rubber (Dupieux, 2010) and generally blew the socks off of every audience member in the full house. It's a complex and sinister work, bursting with surreal images. At first I was confused - disoriented even. It took me a few minutes to get my head around it, and now I can't get it out of my head. I can't really discuss the plot because A) I don't think it has one, and B) I was so surprised by this unannounced nightmare of a film that I wasn't able to fully comprehend or absorb it. I checked out the official website this morning, and the synopsis there reads thusly:

"I am not from this place," declares a French cowboy. An old toothless man asks, "Do you know why you're here?" These shape-shifting personalities infect young children with an evil signal in the form of a Dutch TV show. The red-eyed girls and boys now believe they can become other people and monsters, much to their delight."

You'd be forgiven for not recognizing this as the new film by Tarnation (2003) director Jonathan Caouette, as it is mostly reminiscent of the works of David Lynch. Indeed, the cowboy character reminded me of the one in Mulholland Drive (2001), and an odd TV advert recalled the opening of that film, and also Inland Empire (2006) - which this shares terrifying shape-shifting objects and a DV hand-held style with. Even the music wouldn't seem out of place, which is at times a kind of incessant droning, the likes of which first made an appearance in Lynch's Eraserhead (1977). That TV advert is actually the most Lynchian element, also recalling the fade-in/outs of the sex scenes in Wild At Heart (1990), but bearing greater resemblance to the actual Gucci adverts Lynch shot a few years ago.

So, it's probably something of an homage to the oddball filmmaker, and the IMDB plot summation which reads 'A guided tour through the shattered remains of memory and identity' could also summarize half of Lynch's oeuvre. But All Flowers In Time is also very much its own film, especially in the sequence between a young boy and an older woman, played by Chloë Sevigny. With red-eyes they decide to play a game - the boy will peek out through his hands and the woman will pull the scariest face she can think of. A P.O.V. shot from the boys peephole perspective expertly builds tension, and the face Sevigny pulls (with the help of makeup artists and some CGI) is a truly terrifying one, looking more like the Predator than anything human. The audience I was with jumped back in their seats. Some looked away but I was captivated by the unique horror. It's a really peculiar moment, and provides the climax to a sense of relentless creepiness that streaks throughout the entire film, particularly sequences shot on Super 8 cameras, which have a ghost-like quality.

It's a jagged, thought-provoking piece of cinema, equal parts horror and drama, but also with a tinge of sci-fi conspiracy (When the anti red-eye-cameras came out, I was afraid that the government was trying to cover up something). It is, without doubt, one of the best films of the year so far. I've tried to add as much information and promotion to this mini-review as possible, so below you'll find links to the official website, the trailer on YouTube and a gallery of three images to browse. Look out for this one... it's quite a treat.


Rubber (Quentin Dupieux, 2010) Flatpack Review

Robert the tyre finds his dark side in the self-knowing horror flick Rubber (2010)

And there you have it. With the arrival of Rubber we have the ultimate carsploitation trilogy. Let me break it down for you: The Hitcher (Harmon, 1986) is about the guy in the car. Christine (Carpenter, 1983) is about the car. And Rubber is simply about the tyre. Except that, actually, we kind of don't have the ultimate carsploitation trilogy. Despite what the grindhouse-style marketing would have you believe Rubber is actually more of a meta, ironic, tongue-in-cheek character study. It opens on a road in the middle of the desert; scattered across it are chairs. A car appears and in a protracted long shot proceeds to knock over each and every one of the chairs before coming to a halt. Then the Sheriff clambers out of the boot and walks toward the camera. Breaking the fourth wall he essays a series of plot holes or questions that may arise from watching horror and fantasy movies. Why do these things happen, he asks? "No reason" is his answer. He widens the argument. "Why do some people love sausages, and some people hate them?" he demands. "No fucking reason." He then walks back to the car, clambers back into the boot and the shot pulls back to reveal an audience of people. The car drives off. Why did any of this just happen? No reason. As the Sheriff says, this movie is an "homage to the 'no reason'." You just go with it - and it's strangely fascinating...

I never expected to be saying this about Rubber but it's actually a post-modern work of art. Sure, there are plenty of exploding heads and the audience I was with cracked up at the sight of bunny getting splattered. But gore-hounds expecting, say, Treevenge (Eisener, 2008) with a tyre will be sorely disappointed. This is a mostly silent film consisting of long tracking shots following Robert (the tyre) across a desolate landscape. There's a really minimalist score too, by Gaspard Augé and Mr. Oizo which is largely used as the punchline to some carefully crafted visual gags. There are two things that surprised me about Rubber. Firstly was the fact that the best thing about it is the screenplay, also by Dupieux. There's a really strange subplot which also acts as the central storytelling device, which is that the events of the film are actually being staged for an audience watching through binoculars; they are camping out in the wilderness nearby. This means that everyone in the film is consciously acting, but there's a streak of dark drama which enters this plot strand. I don't want to spoil anything here, but I'll say one thing: beware the turkey. The script is layered and intelligent. I think there may be some kind of genre deconstruction in there somewhere and while I understood some of it I think only some more prepared re-watches will uncover what the film really has to offer. On a first watch it's the gags which really hit home, the best of which are delivered by the Sheriff (Stephen Spinella; utterly hilarious) and his police team. There's a terrific entrapment scene where a highly detailed mannequin strapped with dynamite is employed to try and fool Robert - who, it should be said, kills his victims with telepathic powers. There is a speaker attached to the mannequin and on the other end is the gorgeous Roxanne Mesquida. "You've been a bad boy. Kill me, I want it!" The challenge is set now: find me a funnier sting operation scene in the history of cinema.

The second thing which surprised me is just how much emotion Dupieux evokes from Robert. We first see him as if being born; trembling in the ground and eventually rising. He rolls for a little bit and then falls over. He's like a toddler taking it's first steps, and we laugh. He falls over again; we snigger. Then he falls a third time and a tinge of sadness enters the scene. As he rolls through the desert for what feels like forever we feel sadness. When he sits in his hotel room watching documentaries about tortoises (yes, we're still talking about the tyre, yes, he has killed the maid) we get a true sense of isolation. The photography has a naturalistic, almost elegiac quality to it. Great shots of mountains and clouds provide the backdrop for Rubber, and set over a hot week the lighting is quite lovely. The most poignant moment comes in a scene where Robert stumbles across a yard where men are throwing tyres on a fire. Smoke rises from the flames. Could Robert have communicated with them? Made friends? He stares on, blank as ever. It sounds absurd - somewhat pretentious even - for me to be explaining the film to you in this fashion, but it really has to be seen to be believed. Rubber is self aware in a way that no other movie is. It's funny, poignant and very intelligent, as well as a little absurdist. Why? No reason. But I'm so glad it's not just another trashy exploitation homage - that trend died long ago, and movies this fresh are a rare delight...

Rubber is released on DVD and Blu Ray on April 11th.

Friday 25 March 2011

The Screening Room: Episode 4

Listen to my appearance on the MultiMediaMouth podcast The Screening Room here:

The Shortlist: 10 Best Directorial Debuts

Wake Wood (David Keating, 2011) Review

Timothy Spall, Aidan Gillen and Eva Birthistle in Wake Wood (2011)

A dark folkloric horror about resurrection, Wake Wood is an occult chiller in the vein of Hammer's classic 60s/70s output. Indeed, it might be their most classical film to date since relaunching in 2008 with films like Let Me In (Reeves, 2010) and The Resident (Jokinen, 2011) - slick mainstream horrors intended for mass audiences. The true reference points here though are not Hammer films, but rather two acclaimed British classics of the 70s - The Wicker Man (Hardy, 1973) and Don't Look Now (Roeg, 1973), which revolve around sacrificial cults and dead children respectively. But the most interesting aspect of Wake Wood is its subversion of genre tropes - especially the clichéd creepy child with glassed-over eyes and whispered threats (see: The Ring, The Grudge, Orphan, Case 39). It's a very trite genre hook which has pretty much exorcized any potential menace through its overexposure in the mainstream for the past ten years, but here the child is a different kind of presence. The parents are to blame for her crimes. They tell one little lie and the rebirth of their daughter Alice (Ella Connolly) goes terribly wrong. The child is allowed to live again for three days but Alice soon becomes aware that she is dead and that the townsfolk will want to put her back in the ground. Slowly she appears different and is forced into acts of unimaginable violence...

There's a moment in Antichrist (von Trier, 2009) when She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) refers to nature as "Satan's church." The occult practice seen in Wake Wood is not intrinsically religious or even supernatural. Keating makes a wise choice never to explain either how the rituals came to be or how they work; he asks us to buy into the magical phenomenon as the parents do - with blind faith. But he does definitely propose a link between evil and nature - when they suffer the loss of their daughter Patrick (Aidan Gillen) and Louise (Eva Birthistle) move to the countryside, and the rules of their daughters return is very clear; she cannot leave town, or go past the wind turbines on its outskirts. There is something quite terrifying in the woods that we subconsciously link back to childhood - perhaps it is because of Red Riding Hood? Perhaps it is more general than that? Lewis Carroll's Alice fell down the rabbit hole by the riverbank. Either way, we instantly associate it with evil and the unknown, a fact which Keating plays up for the wonderfully silly finale. And it should be said now that the final twenty minutes are utterly absurd - beginning with the skinning of a dog, Alice's murders become more elaborate and silly by the second. But that's no bad thing - after an hour of steady build up, emotional investment and sporadic flashes of (wonderfully gooey) gore, it's great to see Keating just let loose with some bone crunching, bloodletting violence.

The performances are a mixed bag. Timothy Spall is the best he's been in years as the village elder Arthur who leads the bloody, mystical ceremonies in his garden. Rotund as always and now sporting a tartan jacket/hat combo and a walking stick, he's every inch the menacing countryman, and when his features are illuminated by flickering candlelight his perfect delivery sends shivers down the spine ("Louise, You'd better bring her now."). Ella Connolly is terrific as Alice, imbuing her with both a sense of childlike wonder and joy but also a slowly creeping menace, and the reason her slip into murderous madness isn't totally eye-rolling is because she never overplays it, instead restraining her impulses and delivering something quite deliciously macabre. She's a real talent and it'll be interesting to see where the young actress goes from here. It's not that Gillen and Birthistle are bad; they're just a little pale compared to the broader genre-playing performances.

One element that should not be undersold is exactly how gory Wake Wood is. The opening scene is particularly gruesome and disturbing as Alice is mauled and killed by a dog. It'll be uncomfortable for anyone to sit through but viewers with young children will likely be very distressed by the unflinching scene, which is all the more powerful for displaying flesh ripping and bone crunching in uncensored detail. The Faustian ceremony itself is equally squirm-inducing as Arthur rips the spine from a dead mans body. The sound will ring around your mind for hours afterwards. Make no mistake - this is full-on heart-stopping horror which makes 100% use of practical effects. That may be a result of limited budget - indeed, the film can look quite cheap - but it seems to be more out of a love for the way the studio worked in its heyday.

Hammer were once referred to as the studio that dripped blood. Finally, and thankfully, we can make that claim again... moody, cultish and dripping with syrup, Wake Wood is a terrifying treat and one of the best films of the year so far. It's cinema run is going to be small and quite limited, so be sure to make the effort while you can - you won't be disappointed.

Wake Wood receives a limited run in UK cinemas starting today, and will be released on DVD on Monday 28th March.

Thursday 24 March 2011

Bring Back Bridget Fonda: Review #1. South Of Heaven, West Of Hell (Dwight Yoakam, 2000)

Women very rarely hold their own in Westerns. So much of the time they are either A) damsels in distress, B) whores at the disposal of wandering vigilantes, or C) caricatured heroes in the masculine mould. There are very few strong women in the Western genre, and it's largely because filmmakers try to put them in the intrinsically male role. Sam Raimi succeeded with The Quick And The Dead (1995) but there are significantly more failures - Cat Ballou (Silverstein, 1965) and Bandidas (Rønning, Sandberg, 2006) I'm looking at you, even if that latter film is a parody of sorts. It's not that women can't handle the roles - quite the opposite, as Sharon Stone proved in Raimi's aforementioned slapdash Spaghetti homage. There's also something to be said for Mattie Ross in True Grit - especially the latest incarnation by the Coen Brothers (2010). So thank the lord we have a film like South Of Heaven, West Of Hell. It's true that Fonda is probably only in the film because she was, at the time, dating country star Dwight Yoakam, a wonderfully talented musician who here takes writer/director/composer/lead actor credits. A little self indulgent? Yes, but this critically panned revisionist tale has more to offer than just vanity...

It was one of the most critically panned films of 2000 and sank without a trace on VHS, resurfacing on an all but ignored DVD transfer a few years ago. The film currently sits at 17% on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, but it's really much more worthy of your time than most would have you believe. For one it's a smart blend of classic genre tropes and revisionist ideas which, like the best Westerns, takes time to unfold. It's Tucson, 1900, and the film opens on Christmas Eve with Marshall Valentine Casey (Yoakam) being shot and left for dead by his old adoptive family - a vagabond group of outlaws which he used to be a part of. He recovers and a year later moves with his law partner to a small town where he falls in love with the mysterious Adalyne (Fonda). But his ex-family, The Henry Clan, return and that assortment of robbers and murderers led by Taylor (Vince Vaughn) threaten the safety of Casey and his new love. He realizes what he must do to protect those close to him, and retribution becomes a necessity.

There are some really lovely and unique moments in the film, not least the sight of a downtrodden ghost town in blazing heat being adorned by decorative banners and a Christmas tree. It's a peculiar image, which Yoakam never overplays. His brand of country guitar plucking also serves the tone of the piece, and while the main suite of the score (a simple piano melody) couldn't be further from Morricone, it seems just as at home in the naked landscape of good vs. evil and the blurred line inbetween. Yoakam also indulges his personal sensibilities and gives a film a kind of oddball hillbilly quality, especially in the look of sharp suited drifter Brig. Smalls (Billy Bob Thornton). With a blue suit and long blonde hair he's the sort of character who ponders a sentence as he protractedly chews on it, and would seem just as at home on the set of Crazy Heart (Cooper, 2009). The dialogue is lyrically structured to the point that the film feels almost like an album - it consists of several vignettes which comprise the tracks. In this sense South Of Heaven, West Of Hell is a concept album, and as a director Yoakam becomes auteur. Some of the vignettes are long and packed with character - they may seem pointless but they paint the landscape and explore themes and character types in the way that a song would; poetically. Some are broader and more comical - like the highly amusing farce involving Bud Cort, which for me is the highlight of the film, ending on an amusing teeth pulling set-piece. And the film, shot by DoP James Glennon (who also lensed episodes of Deadwood), looks beautiful, as does the lady of the feature herself, and the reason why you've read this far...

The reason I discussed the role of women in Westerns at the beginning of this review was for one simple reason: South Of Heaven, West Of Hell does not adhere to cliché or formula and broadly portray a female caricature; the damsel, whore or posturing male clone. Adalyne is just a real person - a person of heart and goodness, and human flaws. And that makes Casey's affections for her all the more grounded and understandable. As with all of her performances Fonda shows an incredible warmth and depth of feeling in her portrayal of Adalyne. She doesn't have the best of material to work with and many of her scenes are spent playing off other actors, but she is undeniably the heart of the piece. Casey's only ever known violence in his life - at first he inflicted it, and now he seeks to punish it. He's a lonely soul; the classic quiet man, who has a sense of place and duty. All around him there is bloodshed. Adalyne gives him a sense of purpose, and genuine romance. She is soft spoken and mannered, and Fonda instills her with a sense of pride - but also hides a dark past behind her eyes. Her best scene comes in a balloon ride with Casey at the midway point. He's afraid of heights and cowers in the corner of the balloon - but her radiant smile ensures he never wants to come down. She's meek and charming, and painted with delicate strokes. Her physical presence is also powerful in a film of striding macho performances - the clicking of heels, kicking of dirt and cocking of revolvers is not a sound that surrounds her. Hers is a path of grace, but for that she stands out. It also means that when she is forced to hold her own in a hostage situation her actions are all the more powerful - when she stabs Uncle Jude (Michael Jeter) in the groin with a broken lamp, a determined ferocity consumes her. Underplayed is the word that comes to mind, but then, when was Fonda one for overplaying? There are subtleties and nuances to her turn, and in the final scenes where she looks over the Arizona mountains she is not a victim but a fractured woman - and that's a rare sight in the Western.

It's not the best Western of the last twenty years (the action scenes could have done with some brushing up) but as a kind of post-Tarantino, concept album revisionist Western, it stands as a unique and often captivating experience. It's heavy on language and mood; conversation set-pieces drifting in and out of acts of unconscious violence. Some of it is a little ripe, some of it is plain bad, and it's certainly overlong. But Fonda (a diverse actress at the very least) shines in the role of a strong woman trying her hardest to survive and protect in a barren wasteland of violence. Without her, the whole thing sinks. With her, it has heart...

Tuesday 22 March 2011

VHS Quest #5. Zero Tolerance (Joseph Merhi, 1994)

Robert Patrick gets rough in Zero Tolerance (1994)

Zero Tolerance - which on my VHS copy has the tagline 'One man. A thousand bullets... It's gonna be a long weekend.' - is one of the most incoherent, laughably scripted action vehicles of the 1990s - the decade of Jean-Claude Van Damme. Forget plot holes - this hopeless exercise in cliché is so staggeringly stupid it's hard not to take it as the work of an ironic, tongue-in-cheek art terrorist. For example - F.B.I. agent Jeff Douglas (Robert Patrick), after being involved in an explosion that knocks him at least twenty feet in the air and hit by a car moving at least 35mph, manages to walk from Las Vegas to Washington D.C. overnight - and without the surrounding bad guys noticing, or even seeming to care. Which is odd, given that they miraculously organized an ambush in the middle of the New Mexico desert, learnt the location of Douglas' family and then forced him to escort chief bad guy Manta (Titus Welliver) to Vegas for a drug deal in pure neon-light. Incompetent? Ain't the word...

Of course this kind of trashy, bargain bin star vehicle should probably be taken with a pinch of salt anyway - it was never trying to be Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941) - but when you look at the pedigree of Patrick's action credentials (T2, Cameron, 1991) it's hard not to be offended by how regressive and boring this is. The setup is as follows: Jeff Douglas is in New Mexico to transport drug kingpin Manta to federal prison - he is believed to be part of the White Hand gang. Things go awry, Manta escapes, kills Douglas' family and so the embittered agent goes rouge and attempts to kill the gang one by one. The problem is that there's absolutely no character development whatsoever; Douglas is just a seemingly invincible killing machine so there's no reason to root for him, or feel any sense of danger. It's also not explained how he tracks down each of the drug lords, or keeps finding new weapons and ammo. Not that guns are his first weapon of choice - in one scene he punctures the gas tank of his car, throws a lighter outside and drives the car into the base of the bad guys, niftily escaping just as it blows up. He should have been dead ten times by now, but there's another totally self-contained action sequence to shoot, so the filmmakers choose to keep our bland protagonist alive. There's no continuity or coherence between the set-pieces either. In one scene Douglas hitchhikes to Manta's secret location and just walks through a little forest path to assassinate the entire building - how does this make any narrative sense? It's like nobody's even trying! There's no dialogue between scenes either, just a definite rhythm. Douglas turns up, shoots six or seven henchmen (one with a grenade launcher), kills the head honcho, catches a plane to the next location and repeats.

The screenplay is witless and embarrassing. An example: Manta: "Yeah, yeah, yeah. I learned all that in Drug Dealing 101." Is that supposed to be funny? Manta is an over-achiever in the gnarling tough-guy stakes to the point of being a laughable caricature. Seriously, he's more like a character from a parody or a sketch, and overplays a level of charisma that clearly doesn't come naturally to him... it's awkward. And then Mick Fleetwood turns up for a while! What for? To get shot, like everyone else in this movie. Somehow there's zero consequence to Douglas' actions - he lays waste to entire states, flipping cars and blowing up buildings. But whatever, as long as he gets the bad guys, right? The one scene that does attempt philosophical debate (right vs. wrong, who has the power to judge) just comes across as false moralizing; it's almost like the filmmakers did this in reshoots because test audiences were so baffled by the (unimpressive, blandly choreographed and shot) relentless violence. It just rolls on and on making 88 minutes seem like a lifetime, and Patrick is clearly in it for the money.

In summation: this is a movie which literally ends with Douglas throwing Manta out of a window and saying "it's over." On that condescending note we cut to him riding through the desert to a cheesy rock tune, and the credits roll over the screen. It's shoddily written, directed, acted and edited - in fact, I can't think of a single positive thing to say about it. Zero Tolerance is what I have for an action film this clichéd, lazy and boring... Van Damme, I take it all back!

Monday 21 March 2011

VHS Quest #4. Leviathan (George P. Cosmatos, 1989)

Alien (Scott, 1979) is relocated underwater for Leviathan (1989)

I don't remember the exact quote, but I believe somebody once asked why anyone would ever want to explore space when there's still so much territory left unexplored and unexplained here on Earth - especially in the deepest regions of our oceans? It's part of the reason why I could never get along with the bland, uncharacteristic deep-space setting of Alien (Scott, 1979) - which this film basically remakes underwater - and why filmmakers around this time were starting to shift their ideas to the deep-sea; James Cameron's The Abyss (1989) was released the same year, and both come off the back of Deep Star Six (Cunningham, 1989). Sadly though, Leviathan is a very routine affair with an awful screenplay and some wooden performances from a B-movie cast - Peter Weller, Daniel Stern and Ernie Hudson are all likable, but won't be troubling the Academy anytime soon. It's a pretty entertaining flick, and certainly builds atmosphere and establishes relationships better than most of todays slick, wham-bam popcorn entertainments, but there's really no excuse for Leviathan being quite as unremarkable and trite as it is.

For one the group dynamic is nowhere near as interesting as it should be, mostly consisting of clichéd cutouts - the disenchanted skipper, American eye candy, bombastic ladies man and the token black guy - and like Alien the film turns the 'last girl' standing genre trope on its head to force the once enfeebled female into an all-action heroine; here though she's decidedly less blue collar and takes the form of a hot English toff, who gets her own obligatory shower sequence in white undies - less feminist then, and more just posh totty. It's not as if Ripley didn't spend the last act in her underwear either and the character here (played by Amanda Pays) isn't exactly exploited - it's just that she seems more like a swimsuit model than a deep-sea miner. She's not alone in the last act but Leviathan is clearly nodding its head to better, more successful blockbusters. But the biggest flaw is that the film is just a little dull when we get to the action stakes...

The creature effects are done by Stan Winston Studios, so the pedigree is good:. Indeed practical effects will always have the advantage over CGI for actually existing within the frame and having a physical presence - slime will always beat pixels, I don't care what you say. And the effects here, while not as good as those in Alien, are really effective for the most part. But Rambo II (1985) director Cosmatos just doesn't have the visual flair or control to handle the derivative action material, which also greatly references (read: steals from) James Cameron's Aliens (1986). And despite the quality of the effects work when the creature is revealed it just looks silly; like a fish hybrid with human heads poking from its body, recalling Freddy Krueger's nightmarish chest at the finale of The Dream Master (Harlin, 1988). The prawnish monster is only glimpsed in brief flashes of 'terror' and is defeated all too easily in the ultimate double-anticlimax also involving some sharks, and one of the laziest one-liners I've ever heard ("say ahhh motherfucker!"). Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of Leviathan is the score by master composer Jerry Goldsmith who turns in some rousing, memorable tracks that underpin the action with a sense of atmosphere and adventure that Cosmatos can't muster as director. Skip the film and buy the soundtrack album then - you'll be richly rewarded.

Sunday 20 March 2011

Cave Of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog, 2010) Review

Full review at

The Screening Room: Episode 3

Listen to my appearance on the MultiMediaMouth podcast The Screening Room here: