After all, it's just a ride….


I, Daniel Blake (2016)

blake1 I wasn’t planning on going to see I, Daniel Blake in fact I’m still not entirely sure why I did. Sure, it surprisingly took home this years glittering Palme d’Or, a perfect summation of anti-establishment firebrand Ken Loach’s lengthy career, but I wasn’t sure I was in the mood for a lengthy diatribe against some of the deep-rooted social failures of the modern world. You only have to look at the front page of your particular news periodical of choice to be stricken with a deep and unyielding existential dread, a frantic howl at the way our country and the wider world seems to be lurching further and further into suicidal insanity, regardless of your position on the political spectrum and whether you read The Guardian or The Times, The Express or The Morning Star. Arrayed against the fragile prayers for a stable future there’s a new, more erratic Cold War, the slowly congealing Brexit economic holocaust, a pan Atlantic insane demagogue within grasp of the launch codes of a behemoth superpower, or just the overarching Sword of Damocles known as accelerating and inevitable climate catastrophe to reckon with. Have I cheered you up yet? No, well in a week the clocks back and it will be dark and cold when you get up in the morning and miserable and exhausting by the time you get home, and don’t for one second think that you can find any solace in the cinema, judging by this weeks oppressive entry.

blake2To quickly summarize this is Ken Loach’s final acerbic assault on the neo-liberal agenda, an investigation of two characters caught on the serrated point of the politics of austerity, and a final eulogy on Thatcher’s mantra that ‘there is no such thing as society’ and we are all our own selfish, self-perpetuating drones. We first meet Daniel (stand-up comedian Daniel Johns), a bereaved geordie joiner whilst he is undergoing an absurd DwP assessment interview. He has recently suffered a heart attack, and has been strictly instructed by his doctors to on no account stress himself or engage in any strenuous activity, given his serious medical condition. Through a tangled web of bureaucracy a picture of a system that is intentionally designed to oppress and punish its citizens emerges. Through a genuine misunderstanding Daniel is caught in a twilight zone where he is supposedly not entitled to a social care system he has spent his entire adult life supporting, due to the new private sector outsourced rules and regulations which crush any challenge or sense of human decency. An altercation at the Job Centre between the frayed Katie (Hayley Squires – just brilliant), her two children and an officious DwP official brings her family into compassionate contact with Daniel – she has been decanted from London to Newcastle by the authorities due to the social housing crisis, and now has to raise, clothe and feed her family without the support structure of her wider family and friends, in an unfamiliar city while struggling to navigate the byzantine and cash-starved  ‘support’ system. Slightly lonely, Daniel supports the struggling trio by fixing the utilities in her decrepit new home, doing some odd jobs, and offering some childcare support while Katie anxiously seeks a modicum of low-skilled employment, not realizing that his own financial position is becoming even more precarious despite his redoubled efforts to claim the assistance that as a 40 year rate paying citizen is legally and morally his.

blake3Make no mistake, if you have anything of a molecule of compassion, or sense of equality and social equilibrium then this film will deeply upset you, it left me literally shaking in incandescent rage, all the more galling from learning that Loach actually toned the film down from some of the feedback he and his team have yielded from Department of Work & Pensions whistle-blowers. In terms of bleakness be warned, I Daniel Blake is like some anti-matter conflagration of a depressed Shane Meadows and Threads tearing a rift into a parallel dimension of desolation along the space-time continuum, it is relentless in its submerged fury, only occasionally leaved with a particularly British brand of observational humor. Loach is careful to show that the people caught in these situations are not the snarling working class skivers that the Daily Heil would have you believe, they are genuine people with pride and mouths to feed, struggling in a system which reduces them to numbers on a spreadsheet or cogs in a wheel, while the officials bark their robotic mantra of starvation sanctions for the mildest and mistaken infraction of the indecipherable rules. Mandy is shown anxiously pushing cards through peoples letterboxes and in newsagent’s windows in order to get any cleaning work, while Daniel yomps around Newcastle’s industrial estate to get any manual work which he can’t even accept, trapped in the unbelievable position of having to seek work he can’t take for medical reasons, wasting his, the States and the potential employers time in a grimly absurd limbo. Some of the plot turns seem a little contrived and fail to map to the overall agenda but these are small mis-steps when considered against the larger portrait of 2016 Britain – I’m still not sure why we dovetailed down Daniel’s neighbors and their entrepreneurial mission of importing trainers from China, other than a general point of how even young, energetic and ambitious members of the workforce are being forced into illegal areas by the prevalence of zero hour contracts and slave-wage commerce.

blake4It is, however, also a film which excels in the smaller, more gentle details. The smallest acts of generosity or selflessness become incrementally intensified to the point of, showing a collective strength in a common humanity, with . Some supporters have suggested that the film should be projected on a loop against the side of the DwP’s Whitehall HQ, given its savage revelations. Me, I’d go one further. I’d suggest taking every single politician, every civil servant, and more importantly every outsourced, profit led contractor involved in the implementation of these policies and strap them down, Ludvico style, and play them a loop of the film to their excruciatingly prised open irises for about as long as it takes for a starving person trapped in the system to actually get a decision notice or an appeal to their sanction heard by an independent tribunal – so something akin to six to nine months. On the more technical front the output is vertite framed as you’d expect from Loach, a non-obtrusive camera which records the action at a respectful distance, utterly absent of any intrusive score and a indistinguishable blend of professional actors and actual people who operate in this roles, all igniting the work with a sense of furious authenticity. Unfortunately I have to urge you to avoid reviews and see this cold, as many critics seem to be gleefully and spoilerifically discussing one of the films most powerful scenes, debating whether or not it is fact one of the most powerful scenes of all genre or country produced in the past decade. That’s not hyperbole, the immediately notorious ‘food-bank’ sequence is just……it’s obliterating, it’s devastating, with more power and punch than the combined CGI production roster of Warner Brothers and Disney combined. In this perfectly observed and tempered moment and it’s aftermath Loach revitalizes the power of cinema to put you in the lives of other people, with an umbilical empathy to their plight, when I saw it there was a ripple of audible gasps from the audience which I’m told is replicated across numerous screening experiences all over the country. The ultimate accolade is this – I’ve written this review in a furious burst over maybe an hour to ninety minutes, which I hope proves how I, Daniel Blake gets deeply under the skin, in one of the most essential and electrifying films of the year;

Virtual Movies

Several million kudos points for getting Fassbinders World On A Wire in there, someone has done their homework…..

Logan (2017) Trailer

Hmm, I suppose I should post this, as it does look like a slightly different approach to the usual epoch-shattering super heroic nonsense, and I am intrigued by the vague, grimy, earthy feel of this instalment just as I liked the self contained feel of the last Wolverine one-shot picture. I was never a particular fan of this character but I must admit that this approach seems more interesting, as opposed to the splintering of the characters across various media multiverses. Is it me, or was the Luke Cage series just dreadfully dull? OK, whatever;

Of course, I am still hoping that the Marvel/Disney boffins are working through a ROM: SpaceKnight appearance in the next Guardians picture, ’cause that’s gonna happen….right?

BFI London Film Festival 2016 – Lo And Behold, Reveries Of The Connected World (2016)

lo1That’s quite the inelegant title, isn’t it? To start by solving that first mystery Lo & Behold Reveries Of The Connected World opens with Werner Herzog’s distinct Teutonic purr, as he takes us to a sacred site – California, October 29th, 1969. At 22:30hrs the first message was sent over the ARPANET from computer science Professor Leonard Kleinrock’s laboratory at  the University of California in Los Angeles to the second network node at Stanford Research Institute, Menlo Park, San Francisco. This seismic event was the first interaction of two computers speaking to each other across a interlinked communication network, with the first two transmitted and received digits in that initial correspondence being the symbols L and O, before the system crashed. Thus, the herald of this was the almost biblical sounding LO, harkening to a flash of inspirational transcendence, or perhaps the eruption and permeation of the very bowels of Hell. It’s these two instincts that steer Herzog’s latest documentary, exploring the benefits and bellicosity of our modern umbilically surveiled world, and the various omens, both positive and negative, that augur the future. The commission follows Herzog’s incredible global success with a series of public information films regarding the dangers of driving and texting from a few years ago, a powerful piece that have been widely implemented as mandatory viewing part as part of getting your driving licence in North America, thus rendering the largest audience that Herzog has garnered in his half century career. After this success Herzog was approached by the web development company WebScout with a modest cheque and a brief to make something about the modern technological world, and in a mirror to that intergalactically broad he has delivered a inconsistent and stuttering work, with occasional flashes of deep insight among it’s ADS afflicted ambulations.

lo2On paper, this should be one of the greatest documentaries of all time for the Menagerie, concerning itself as it does with a panoply of techno-cultural issues and threads which I am and will always be deeply fascinated – internet culture, digital evolution, robotic industrialization, artificial intelligence, and the Venn diagrams as to how these new horizons of the human experience overlap with more traditional forms of discourse and control – politics, economics, sociology, medicine, communication, commerce, the entertainment and media spheres. Unfortunately the lasting impression of Lo & Behold is a diverse but diffused selection of stuttering gifs which never manage to unearth more than the most ethereal sketches on a specific subject, and that I think is the films main obstacle to harboring any lasting value. Despite interviewing such evolutionary luminaries as Bob KahnElon MuskSebastian Thrun,and Ted Nelson Herzog is not interested in welding any connective tissue, of crafting any overarching narrative, a prospect which is further partitioned by the decision to compartmentalize the pieces into a dozen or so chapters which have little capacity to interact with reach other – this kind of defeats the central premise of the piece, evident in the title. Individually, as you’d expect, some of the sections are stronger than others, usually depending on the oratory and strategic vision of the interview subject, and we do at least have another addition to the Herzogian quote pantheon when he offers his services as a passenger on Elon Musk’s inaugural and almost certain suicidal mission to Mars. Also, I just found this which is quite amusing.

lo3By sheer virtue of the subject matter some diamonds are excavated from the deep mines of mediocrity, if you think you’ve plumped the depths of human depravity with the voluminous racism, misogyny and cowardly bile that the likes of Twitter and loosely moderated comment boards has enabled then be prepared to get even more disgusted, as in one section a family tells of how their daughter was killed in a car accident, and one of the EMT technicians somehow thought it appropriate and amusing to snap a few pictures of her near decapitated corpse. For some reason this idiot subsequently sent the images on to some colleagues for a laugh, which eventually – yes you guessed it – some thoroughly decent specimen of humanity decided to send on to her grieving family with all the vomit inducing commentary you can imagine from any terrifying scrawl through a youtube comments section. ‘I think the Internet has released the devil into this world’ the mother solemnly intones, and even an avowed atheist such as yours truly found myself nodding in mild agreement. At another point the film does touch upon our embedded interactivity and reliance on self mediated machinery which effectively leaves critical systems such as utility infrastructure and power, food production and    at a catastrophic risk of failure, that old adage of civilization being only three square meals away from anarchy easily tested  by the inevitable EMP emitting solar flare which our planet is currently due. The ubiquitous image of the 2010’s, of everyone in public with their face buried in a screen also finds a exemplary visual commentary, with some images of Buddhist monks clad in their apricot finery silently tapping and  in what may or may not be some zen like tranquility. Following the screening, and in tune with the films technological treatise we were privileged with a nationwide broadcast Q&A with Herzog, hosted by Richard Adoyade. This was a skilled affair, the latter serving some well considered and illuminating questions, which Werner fielded with his customary ease. I ducked out halfway through but you can revisit a similar session – for some reason this particular event doesn’t seem to be on-line – here.

lo4This would really have worked much better as a series of commissions, perhaps with each element of the patchwork of our still glistening millennium given appropriate consideration, to build a full tapestry of what these changes and prospects mean for current and future civilizations in our increasingly connected, yet seemingly more chaotic world. If memory serves there is no mention of virtual reality which just this year is finally breaching the domestic entertainment market, nor  any space provided for the wider growth of augmented reality systems and pastimes, nothing on Surveillance technologies nor of recent advances in bio-medical interactions, and not a single tendril linking out to the carbon choked elephant in the room – catastrophic climate change. Perhaps it’s a little unfair to judge the piece by something it is not, but the overall impression is of a dainty stones skip across a vast and voluminous ocean of cultural and evolutionary implications which penetrate every layer of human existence, worth 100 minutes of your time, just don’t expect  any nourishing intellectual insight. Just a quick aside, I was chatting with some fellow civil servants recently, some smart, ambitious, worldly wise young whippersnappers, and for some reason I raised the subject of Gamergate as an illustrative example for something or other – I can’t recall the details. My referral raised nothing but blank looks from these keen social media, gaming and entertainment consumers, which just goes to show sometimes how far these digital typhoons can seem blown out of all proportion, at least in respect of their influence and reach into our doughy meat-space. Amway, so that’s that for LFF 2016, a very modest spectrum this year but that’s what happens when you are having to be professionally assimilated into the Whitehall bubble and its associated cultural rhythms, and maintain something resembling a social calendar with friends celebrations – look, I’ve been  busy, OK?. Whilst I can’t say I didn’t wish I saw more I did manage to assault two of the best films of the year, and a handful of reasonable, three-star placeholders – Raw was also pretty good but nowhere near as gruesome as anticipated, and whilst I enjoyed it I was soured by a clumsy ending which didn’t do the rest of the piece justice. Fortunately for us Herzog is a profligate drone, and we only have to wait a week or so until his next, thunderous thrilling epic, even if its only getting a release on the small screen. Before then however I have a special treat, through the South Bank hosted Menagerie time machine we shall be travelling back to the dystonian criminal wasteland of New York circa 1997, to finally extricate one of my all time favorite genre movies from its big-screen banishment – extravagant excitement is an understatement;

BFI London Film Festival 2016 – Certain Women (2016)

women1There are a few filmmakers whose work I will go and see when I excitedly hear of a new project, regardless of trailer quality, plot synopsis or cast manifest. Naturally anyone who has been following this quiet corner of the internet won’t be surprised to hear that the likes of Spielberg and Scorsese, Fincher and Nolan, Malick and Mann fall into this exalted category (among others), but away from those imposing high-profile figures there are also the other, smaller scale filmmakers whom have quietly earned the Menageries continued support. If I throw some names like Sean Durkin, Sofia Coppola, Peter Strickland, Jeff Nichols or Sion Sono out there you should get the drift, although I’m sure there are a dozen or more others whose names escapes me now*. What can I say, there’s just something about the demeanor and approach of these creatives to the art form that gels with my sensibilities, I can’t really articulate this other than some sort of affinity in terms of the ‘feel’ or the ‘aura’ of their films, as opposed to any specific themes or concerns which are threaded through their work. One of the more recent elevations to the pantheon is Kelly Reichardt, an undisputed master of the ‘slow burn’ form of cinema, with her penchant for long takes, minimal dialogue, functional camera placement and empathy for realistically troubled, blue-collar characters. Her admiration seems to have steadily grown over the past decade or so, my initial exposure was forged during an unexpected viewing of Wendy & Lucy, where I was literally  and figuratively blown away with a simple tale of a young hitchhiker and her dog, wandering to a heartbreaking conclusion through the economic aftermath of the global depression. Since then her stock has been raised through the well-distributed Meek’s Cutoff and to a smaller extent 2013’s Night Moves, one of my favorite films of that years Toronto Festival where I saw it in a packed house of North American devotees. Now she’s back with another acclaimed drama with a slightly ambitious twist, intertwining the lives of four women in small town Montana, in another brilliant and keenly observed drama.

women2The initial instinct is to frame this as a portmanteau film, a series of story strands through which the lives of four resourceful women intersect and are coolly and charitably examined. In the opening sequence small town lawyer Laura Wells (the criminally underrated Laura Dern) wallows in a slightly melancholic post-coital bliss, following a mid-day adulterous encounter with her illicit lover Ryan Lewis (James LeGros), in an opening sequence which feels like an unconscious nod to the opening of Psycho. Returning to work she patiently manages the expectations of her frustrated client (Jared Harris) whom is suing his ex-employer for a negligent termination claim. Next, and in the films weakest section Gina Lewis (Michelle Williams) visits a dementia dwindled relative with her husband Ryan (the already seen LeGros), she is in the midst of building a new home for her young family and senses an opportunity in reliving her uncle of some valuable raw materials he has lying dormant on his rural estate. Finally, in a quietly heartbreaking movement newly graduated lawyer Beth Travis (Kristen Stewart) is teaching an evening legal course to newly inducted state school educational staff, suffering a punishing, weekly, four-hour commute routine from her local up-state practice. Almost imperceptibly an affectionate relationship begins with one of her accidental students Jamie (a breakthrough performance from new-comer Lily Gladstone), a young woman of native ancestry who manages a remote farm and is evidently seeking some solace from a void of human interaction. Through slight, barely perceptible encounters and coincidences the lives of the four women cross and weave, in this muted yet affectionate celebration of small town lives and modest dreams.

women3Now, first things first – if you’re one for dramatic revelations and conclusions, for clear transformative three-act character arcs and resolutions then be warned – this is simply not the film for you. It’s the kind of story which is akin to curling up on a fire-warmed winter afternoon with a heavy-weave blanket, nursing a mug of steaming cocoa with a well-thumbed novel by Steinbeck or Cormac McCarthy to hand, minus the latter’s prevalence of ruthless violence. Like McCarthy it is ruthlessly confident in its pacing and structure, it certainly has a well-defined and curated overarching vision, championing a fidelity to the genuine dramatic lives of its participants, with all the quiet incidents and frustrations intact. Like all of Recihardt’s former work there is also an austere rejection of the standard dramatic model of engineered confrontation or resolution, including a resistance to any common weapons in the filmmakers arsenal, including a rejection of any hand-holding non-diagetic music until one final movement toward the end. So it’s the American equivalent of the Dardennes, of Ken Loach thankfully minus the political hectoring, all sprouting historically from the well-spring of Italian Neo-Realism, a holistic collection of the minor struggles and triumphs of live across these quietly captivating characters,  or as one fellow movie-goer muttered to his partner as the credits rolled ‘life goes on, I guess’. I can’t in all honestly claim that all the threads are as gratifyingly stirring as the others, for me the highlight was clearly the Kirsten Stewart storyline while the weakest was the Michelle Williams interaction, her character and tale strangely amorphous and immaterial compared to what Laura Dern conveys with a lightly mannered sigh or Lily Gladstone signals with a darting glance of her mournful eyes.

women4I don’t know who sanctioned that hideous movie poster seen above, but I guess they have to push the established cast in a vain attempt to stir the docile masses out of their reality TV induced stupor eh? This year’s other quiet critical depth charge Hell Or High Water had its own specific beating undercurrent of economic malaise and frustration powering the story engine, empowering the protagonists to violate the law in that cathartic viewing way. Although you could consider them as companion pieces as Certain Women treads the same iconography of the forgotten by-ways and highways of small town America the energy arises from the internalized instincts of the characters, a reassuring shared glimpse into the lives of others, through which we can see some mirrored fragments of our trials and tribulations. I just love the sheer chutzpah of the film-making, in its own submerged, peculiar and idiosyncratic way. In the most moving section of the film Lily goes through the rituals of her day to day existence, conducting animal husbandry, estate management and domestic duties on her ranch, before seeing her new acquaintance Beth back at the evening class which is clearly at this point is the highlight of her life. Reichardt adamantly refuses to take shortcuts, ensuring that every liaison between the two is punctuated with the a montage of these daily rituals, and it is through this patience and fidelity to the real metronome of all our lives that a magical sense of connection emerges. Any other film, particularly those with any mandated Studio Executive interference would have those longueurs eliminated immediately, when in fact they are almost the entire point of the picture, building the rhythm of day-to-day routine which are elegically charged with unforeseen and unexpected interventions – a potential new partner, a financial success, a bereavement, a birth. I can’t really speak from any authority as I quite literally only saw a handful of films at this years festival out of the 250+ projects in the programme, but I am happy to see this wonderful film awarded some kudos from the festival panel, a well deserved plaudit and another step forward toward a quiet masterpiece that I’m sure Reichardt can deliver in the years to come;

* OK,you want a list? Then let’s do a list. How about we include Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Del Toro despite his recent disappointments, Lynne Ramsey, Noe and Refn of course, Haneke, Trapero, Shane Carruth, P.T. Anderson (despite the disappointment of the last mis-fire), Mungiu, Bigelow, the Coens, Lanthimos, McQueen, Alex Garland, Cuaron, the big screen MIA Soderbergh and on and on and on before we get into animation, current TV or documentary which aren’t exactly my forte….

Into The Inferno (2016) Trailer

Hell, even ole Werner is getting his act together with the whole streaming distrubution model, with his new documentary hitting Netflix at the end of the month;

I hope to get a review of his other latest documentary Lo & Behold etc. up by the end of the week. It was, alas, pretty average and lacked direction, but as always I can’t say it was unwatchable.This on the other hand looks far more Herzogian doesn’t it? And perhaps a spiritual successor to his haunting 1977 piece La Soufrière….

London Film Festival 2016 – Phase II

This year, as you may have noticed, I have been pacing myself when it comes to the LFF. I would term my engagement with this years festival as more a rearguard defence than full frontal assault, such are the pressures of balancing the movie material with other commitments which must and indeed have taken priority. An increasing acceleration of day job activities and other social entertainments have caused me to sacrifice viewings of potential treasures – The Handmaiden and Manchester By The Sea have already been dismissed – my reasoning being that both of these well acclaimed features are bound to receive domestic distribution in 2017, so I’m not feeling that guilty. However, I can’t lie that I wish I was seeing more material given the echo chamber of social media chatter, but when I do get to a screening my choices seem to be solid as I haven’t been bored, offended, or listlessly wondered at what I could be better doing with my time, as thankfully there have been no duds as yet. Geling various elements of my professional and amateur realms I am in full appreciation of this new feature of this years festival, a pop-up cinema which recently sprouted up on the banks of the Thames;

As someone involved very recently with the complexities of project managing a so called ‘pop-up’ event/structure this new cinema on the Embankment yields double Menagerie fascination, as I acknowledge the backroom complexities of even considering such an entity (planning applications, technical requirements, licences, finances, construction & FM complexities, managing agents, safety, etc. etc.) let alone it’s programming linkages to a wider cultural event – behind the scenes I’m sure this new proposal was a risk, and it seems to have triumphed. Thus far I’ve seen most of my screenings in this venue, and it enjoys fantastic sight lines, an excellent, expansive screen, a contained sound environment and well organised staffing – the seats are a little uncomfortable but you can’t have everything I guess. OK, I’m being unreasonable at wanting everything, as I’m slightly miffed at missing this SFX attuned event which I’d really liked to have witnessed;

As it stands I have a couple of reviews in development from some Menagerie directorial favourites whom have turned in solid if passable work, but as I mentioned before the anticipated highlights of LFF 2016 were always going to be the Q&A opportunities for this year, given my reduced capacity in joining the rest of the press corp hunkering down for three or four, sunlight shunning sessions. Looking forward all ‘Laura’ eyes remain on the Carpenter and his Halloween ho-down, but until then please enjoy Mr. Verhoeven waxing lyrical in truncated fashion from his rather brilliant South Bank Q&A;

London Film Festival 2016 – Voyage à Travers Le Cinéma Français (2016)

france1One of the myriad joys of a well curated film festival is not simply the non-fiction, documentary strands of programming, but also the chance to see some new, detailed and affectionate documentary on a potent aspect of cinema itself, usually focusing upon a specific section of its long and illustrious history. Such material can set the tone for the overall feast of the form, where some hungry participants gorge on two, maybe three or more screenings a day, staggering out of the various West End screening venues into the Autumn sunlight, bloated with a visual cacophony of different worlds, characters, incidents and adventures. If you think that’s a vaguely pretentious fashion to continue our coverage of this years London Film Festival then I would remind the honorable gentlemen and ladies that we are talking about French cinema, arguably the most important nation to have  ever contributed to the Seventh Art, beginning with its embryonic inception with the Lumiere’s and Melies in the late 19th century. Arguably no other nation has moved through so many artistic movements and forms, from the Poetic Realism of the 1930’s personified in the cinematic titan Jean Renoir, through to the colorful, self-aware explosion of the radical New Wave of the 1950’s and 1960’s, generating the early pangs of formalist post-modernism which still casts its long tricolor shaded shadow over European and American independent cinema to this day. This is the path, with a variety of detours, that our host Bernard Tavernier follows in Voyage à Travers Le Cinéma Français, a lavish love letter & viscous valentine to the cinema of his birthland, through this affectionate and exhaustive three hour documentary.

belleThe LFF always seem to pick the cream of the crop when it comes to select on film, last year’s Hitchcock/Truffaut was another vaguely academic but accessible piece on one of the key print media treatises on cinema. This piece occupies the same intellectual space, concentrating from a historical perspective on a structured appreciation of French cinema, interspersed with long, detailed extracts from the texts themselves which are illuminated with Tavernier’s academic analysis – editing strategies, camera compositions, content versus style – and how these all fit into the contemporaneous political and cultural temperatures of their period. An immediate touchstone is Scorsese’s 1990’s Personal Journey series where he explored both American and Italian cinema, functioning as teacher, lecturer and interpreter, a feat which Tavernier equals with his similarly affectionate and passionate overview across French figures and incidents both obscure and established. As well as grazing such seminal moments as the 1969 Sorbonne riots or the Second World War occupation for all you anti-auterists out there Tavenrier doesn’t just restrict his attention to the monocle sporting riding crop tyrants, he also lavishes time and attention on certain performers on either side of the camera, including the musical composers of the early sound days, and figures such as Jean Gabin, and his tragic rise to the crest of the form with La Grande Ilusion and subsequent, post-war slip into B-Movie obscurity.

france3As well as simply relaxing back into a long, luxurious celebration of the art form which is always a beguiling concept the main joy of the journey is discovering new names like Claude Sautet for example, whilst the name Jacques Becker has crossed my path I can’t say I could mention a single film of his, yet Tavernier makes a passionate case for his elevation to the great pantheon, primarily how he quietly blazed a tail for his comrades to come. At the other end of the scale the titans receive their supplicant offerings, perhaps most generously in the case of archetypical humanist Jean Renoir. He is arguably France’s most cherished film-maker who receives a detailed examination but no mere simple hagiography, with our narrator not shying away from his alleged acquiescence to the Vichy regime during the occupation. In other sections Tavernier favours those colleagues whose path he crossed earlier in his career, from publicity advisor to Godard around the release of Le Mepris, or early flirtations with production assistance with one of his great mentors Jean-Pierre Melville during the latter phases of his life. The personal enters the picture when Tavernier recants a youth beset by illness and periods of physical inactivity, leavened by visits to the cinema where his imagination could soar into the silver screen. Knowledgeable scholars may recall that similar reflections have been offered by Francis Coppola who suffered from a serious bout of polio as a child, or Scorsese and his breath-raking asthma, and as someone who was also something of a sickly child, suffering from similar ailments you can’t help but wonder on the psychological coincidence…..

regieAlthough the run-time is a generous three and a pinch hours with such a broad church to cover they couldn’t possibly have time to appreciate everything. Personally I could have weathered much material on both Bresson and Truffaut whom are name checked but hardly examined, as I’d argue their influence as being as instructive and influential as it ever was, from Boyhood to the entire career of Wes Anderson, and the whole sparse efficiency of recent world cinema’s decade long deference to austere, slow-cinema. Still, it was also fantastic to learn of the career of Eddie Constantine, perhaps his most famous role as the trench-coated in Godard’s SF hybrid Alphaville, as he has appeared in an entire, long run of French noir-influenced policier which look fantastic, and serve as an ideal companion piece to jean Pierre-Melville’s oeuvre which receives its rightful and respectful liberation in the final hour of the project. A postscript reveals this is the first of two pieces which should have the aggravated cinephiles whose French fancies haven’t received adoration, it closes roughly around the late 1960’s before the advent of Deneuve or Depardieu, Huppert, Adjani or the rising young starlets of the cinema du look, although given Tavernier’s penchant for more classical, immediate pre-and-post war instincts I very much doubt they will get anything more than some immediately short thrift – he’s clearly more connected to Carne than Carax, more Bresson than Besson. For the next segment we can expect more emphasis on Jacques Tati, Cocteau, Louis Malle and Henri-George Clouzot among I’m sure other figures I’m currently ignorant of, something for any  cinephile to salivate for in Cannes, Venice or London ahead in 2018;

BFI London Film Festival 2016 – Elle (2016)

elle11What’s the funniest rape joke you know? No, c’mon now, don’t look all offended, that’s a provocative start for a provocative film, the welcome return to the theatrical screen of the uncompromising Paul Verhoeven who has been missing in action since 2006’s Second World War drama Black Books. Of course there are perhaps only three crimes seen as more abhorrent that rape, namely pedophilia, murder and UKIP membership, and as a sad aspect of our species existence it is in no way a laughing or joking matter. It is, however, one of the great mysteries of the human condition how we can jest and mock the most horrendous of crimes and incidents, without (and I want to be quite explicit here) celebrating the crime, without endorsing the activity, and also crucially without denigrating or belittling the victims of such a horrific and disturbing assault. This is the posture of Elle, Verhoeven’s new French language film, starring the glorious Isabelle Huppert in the titular role as a woman suffering the aftermath of a horrendous and brutal sexual assault. Her bourgeois Parisian life is already in various states of turmoil, as the CEO of a successful video-game publisher her company is facing a looming deadline for their latest AAA product. Her son has become engaged to a distasteful bohemian whom Elle suspects is using for financial leverage, seeking out expensive accommodation in successful and trendy arrondissement’s despite their income and ambition not matching their commitments. Finally, although relations remain friendly and cordial with her ex-husband Richard (Charles Berling) he has recently hooked up with a partner half her age, an event which may or may not have driven her into a sexual affair with her best friend Anna’s (Anne Cogninsy) husband Robert (Christian Berkel) which is now cooling in the dying embers of passion.

elle2Opening with the nauseous assault in the kitchen of Elle’s spacious townhouse the film soon curdles like a diluted giallo, setting up a litany of potential suspects, fermenting from what has been widely marketed as a rape-revenge picture into a coolly detached character study. This is what surprised me most about Elle, it is not a film which is content to simply follow in the wake of the traditional rape-revenge movies which began in the exploitation sewers of the 1970’s, while retaining fidelity to the narrative structure of a cat-and-mouse whodunit, coated with just a light lacquer of film noir. Was Elle’s assailant the surly programmer at her company whom is eager to publicly challenge her authority and question her capacity, or the more reserved young CGI technician  who quietly harbors a crush on our heroine and her spirited demeanor? Then there’s her next door neighbor Patrick (Laurent Lafitte) with whom she has been exchanging longing glances to the ignorance of his religiously fervent wife, or maybe her ex-husband still retains some misplaced feelings for Elle following their still simmering separation? Alongside these slowly uncoiling mysteries Verhoeven gleefully drapes the film with a sly and dark punches of situational comedy, reveling in the inconsistencies and hypocrisies of Elle’s bourgeois privilege and the muted reactions of her friends and acquaintances,  with occasional savage punctures of contemporary polite decorum that would make Chris Morris blush like a 18th century debutante on her wedding night.

elle3It is the position of some cultural commentators that the mere representation of an act of violence, sexual or otherwise, is in and of itself an endorsement and I disagree vehemently, and just to be perfectly clear the sexual assault in the film is shot perfunctorily, it  is in no way glamourized or sexualized, and is presented as the pathetic, nauseating assault that these crimes always are. No, where the film becomes truly provocative and seems certain to generate a firestorm of furious indignation – something that Verhoeven has been no stranger throughout his career – is Elle’s response to the molestation, oscillating through a spectrum of reactions and plans, which is where the film becomes truly fascinating. Most rape-revenge films in the mould of They Called Her One EyeHandgun or the notorious I Spit On Your Grave are really quite conservative when you think about them, despite their empowered feminist facade. In all these films a female protagonist is subjected to a horrific sexual assault, spurred on to conduct a cathartic, frequently castrating themed revenge, a reassembly of moral justice and a clear narrative closure which give the audience a simultaneous frisson of the taboo and a satisfying loop of equilibrium restoring justice. Not to state the obvious but the real world doesn’t work that, these crimes are not absolved by a carnage strewn burst of vengeance, for a variety of reasons they are not reported let alone convicted, a shameful incitement of so called rape culture which the film gently impresses through its presentation of various cultural entities – the entertainment media, the church, polite social conventions, familial shame. In this very precarious grey zone Verhoeven really brings the film to life, Elle is not for one second a particularly sympathetic person given her infidelities, the dismissive treatment of members of her family and past and current paramours, while we slowly understand how some dark and unresolved secrets of her psyche and heritage have slowly coalesced into a confident but damaged woman whom is now wrestling with yet another distressing chapter in her life.

elle4When I saw Verhoeven at his Q&A session at the weekend one of the observations that the interviewer excavated was that his films are pregnant with so-called strong, independent women who know exactly what they want in terms of their careers, friendships and sexual interactions, and this film is certainty another addition to this welcome inversion of traditional gender roles and representations. As the suspense plot matures and Elle is cyber-stalked by her aggressor some clever narrative feints occur, keeping her ambitions and longer term goals in a clandestine closet, which ensures that the film remains dramatically and psychologically riveting right until its gruesome and unexpected closure. Huppert proves again why she is one of if not the best actresses in the world, imperceptibly emitting a performance of quiet yet humorous intensity, in a film which is carefully structured around her appearance in every scene and every moment viewed from her perspective. Without a word of dialogue you can sense the   in her eyes, while her interior turbulent journey remains mysterious and . As you may guessed this is provocative and challenging film making at its very best, with the feminized cannibal horror Raw which I saw on Monday, Room, Ghostbusters, The Witch and The Neon Demon a couple of months ago 2016 is a fertile year for gender studies at the cinema, timed to perfect coincidence with a presidential candidate whose frequent sexual assaults on women have been self-affirmed, yet somehow has not resulted in an absolute annihilation and exile from the public sphere. If that is so-called ‘locker-room banter’ then let’s not forget that this is ‘banter’ of a 59 year old man, not a ignorant and immature teenager, who boasts about ‘grabbing women by the pussy’ and forcing himself on them, yet still retains the ravenous support from millions of his political peers and supporters. In that shadow Elle stands as a beacon of nuance in reason that burns bright within that patriarchal shadow, one of the most essential and defining films of the year;

London Film Festival 2016 – Paul Verhoeven In Conversation

verhoevenWell, I think we’ve finally hit our peak event of the season, as my delighted impish instincts were molested by uber-satirist Paul Verhoeven in Q&A mode at this years London Film Festival. Paul’s in town to promote his festival favorite rape-comedy Elle, and please believe me when I do not collide the words ‘rape’ and ‘comedy’ lightly, but once you have seen the film and understand its corrosive intent you can’t fail to be impressed by what is one of the most daring and selfless films of recent years. It opens here in January, but to begin let’s ease ourselves gently into the cinema of Mr. Verhoeven with a little  montage culled from across his career, while the  South Bank event opened with the first three minutes of 1973’s  Turkish Delight, still the most successful Dutch film of all time. In that scene (which I can’t source, luckily for you puritans out there) we witness a young Rutger Hauer fantasizing about brutally murdering and killing his ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend, before he furiously jerks over a picture of her in his squalid, filthy, decrepit Amsterdam apartment;

PAUL VERHOEVEN FİLMLERİ / FILMS from Modern Sinema on Vimeo.

The first words out of his mouth was to jocularly complain that the subtitles in the clip we saw were not accurate, and what Hauer was actually muttering in that scene was ‘I want to eat the shit out of your ass.’ Yes, welcome to Paul Verhoeven ladies and gentlemen, and after the crowd had regained its composure we were treated to a lengthy and intelligent cantor through his bi-Atlantic career, with an equal emphasis on his early, ‘funnier’ work which naturally had him loathed and pilloried by the right wing press in Holland, just as he was attacked for the sex and violence in his controversial films Showgirls, Basic Instinct and Total Recall after he decanted to Hollywood in the early 1980’s. He is quite candid when inevitably pressed on the sex in his films, where he kinda shrugged his shoulders and explained that he presents it accurately, with genuine passion and sweaty friction, rather than the airbrushed veneer of the puritanical vetting system, as well as it being a useful character tool as we are all, to one degree or another, sexual beings ourselves – he has a point. Then of course we had to tackle the violence sized elephant in the room, and the curator decided to air a perfectly selected clip to move into his American period;

If it wasn’t for his wife who talked him into making the film we would never had had the treasures to come, as he didn’t care for the Robocop script which had none of the deeper, darker manipulation of the 1980’s Reganite American psyche at the time, and had been artistically burnt by the poor reception and his directorial performance of his first English language and studio funded picture Flesh & Blood. What followed with a few detours is  the unholy SF brutalist trinity of Robocop, Total Recall and Starship Troopers, all strong candidates for the best genre films of their time. I didn’t realize that he had directly lifted imagery from Riefenstahl’s Triumph Of The Will for arguably his best film, and never let it be forgotten that he earns playing in such controversial areas because as a young boy who remembers the close of the second World War and the destructive bombing runs of the Allied forces, the corpses in the streets, and the existential, brooding ambient terror that you could be annihilated at any time from a rogue bomb or vicious retreating Wehrmacht warrior. Ever the true gentlemen he continually insisted that the real praise lies with the producers and screenwriters he collaborated with over these years, as they were just as hungry and driven to make the films as darkly satirical as he desired, pushing him to go further, and apparently falling over each other laughing during long, coffee-fueled development sessions on Starship Troopers;

He kinda went into one when pressed further on the violence, explaining that it is a inherently violent universe, before going even further and expanding out to distant galaxies that collide with and everything is obliterated,  all sentient potential life and million epoch eras civilizations annihilated in the blink of an eye – although yes of course he does loathe real-world violence, with some sobering allusions to Syria which all gave us a moments pause for thought. As usual with these sessions the talk diverted to the unrealized and dream projects He still lives in L.A., and has a neo-noir script ready and raring to go which he can’t get funded because the hero dies in the final reel – it doesn’t seem to matter that he would craft a fantastic, stylistic thriller, it’s the powers that be which refuse to fund such an allegedly audience downer, showing how far the creative instinct has curdled even since his heyday of the late 1990’s. More pertinently his long gestating Jesus bio-pic was raised, and it seems that even through exhausting three writers and exploring numerous approaches he just can’t get a script in a satisfactory position, even before he goes to try and finance what might well be the most controversial film of all time – think Jesus as more of a Che Guevara revolutionary figure, none of this illusory divine heritage or powers, and certainly none of this resurrection nonsense which as a member he Jesus Seminar whom has studied scripture and biblical history for decades he smilingly explained was all a total marketing job. A standing ovation ensued, and justly deserved, so as far as I’m concerned if everything else this year at the LFF is poor this would still be a fundamental success, would you like to know more?;

Verhoeven in Hollywood from Martin Kessler on Vimeo.