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Inside Out (2015)

io1I realise I’m not going to be the most original reviewer in modern history by opening with this remark, but like most when I divined the unusual ethos of new Pixar film Inside Out my first thought was ‘huh, just like that sketch in the Woody Allen movie Everything You Wanted To Know About Sex (But Were Afraid To Ask) then eh?’ Like that sequence this magical new film* posits that our consciousness can be personified as a control room of an ocean liner or nuclear reactor, populated by a panoply of colourful characters representing a portfolio of emotional states. The golden hued Joy leads the film with her eternally positive, can-do attitude voiced by the spritely Amy Poehler, supported in the feminine anthropomorphisation stakes by the green hued status obsessed teenager Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and the portly, cerise hued maudlin momentum of Sadness (Phyllis Smith, or the quiet one from the American version of The Office). With his crimson crew cut shop-steward rage Lewis Black bellows as Anger, while the contorted frenzy of Fear is supplied by Bill Hader, in quivering comic relief figurine formations. From their cognitive control room the team oversee the physical structures of the mind, presiding over the distant evolved edifices of the permanent memory centres, clustered around the all important priorities of the subjects life to date – Family, Honesty, Hockey, Friendship and, erm  ‘Goofball’ – each threatened with destruction and replacement as the subjects emotional state wax and wanes through the days trials and tribulations. Permanent memories, once formed and solidified are contained within mystical glowing spheres that the controllers have to harvest and situate in the pertinent sectors of the mind, tinged with a corresponding colour which besets their relation to the holistic – a fond memory of a family day will be yellow, the memory of a childhood circus interaction with a clown shaded purple for fear. If this all sounds confusing then fret not, the next section should move from the macro to the micro, I just wanted to contextually set the scene for this films remarkable psychic environment so let me be clear – having slept on it this is pretty much up there with Fury Road, It Follows and Ex Machina as the one of the best and ingenious films of the year.

io3But whose consciousness are our odd little avatars inhabiting? Say hello to Riley, an 11-year-old, single sibling ice-hockey fanatic whose father and mother have uprooted her from her friends and hobbies in wintry Minnesota, decanting to a strangely menacing San Francisco, setting the stage for her emotional and spiritual upheaval. As Riley struggles with the perils of a young girl hustled into unfamiliar surroundings – the uncertainty of a new school and fear of making new friends, her loving yet (to her) neglectful parents causing anger and rage – her internal analogues are launched on an internal rollercoaster journey, to preserve her core memories from an earlier, happier time, and preserve her root consciousness from collapse into melancholic depression and despair – if that isn’t conceptually ambitious for a film overtly aimed at a young prepubescent demographic then I’ll eat my figurative hat. After a string of sorely sub-par efforts such as Monsters University, Brave and the truly tepid Cars films it is a blessing to shout of Pixar’s blazing return to form. The success rests on the ambitious premise and exquisite execution that director Pete Docter (who was also behind Up and Monsters Inc.) pushes to a conceptual ceiling, chronologically not confusing in its internal logic and psychiatric sympathies, an Inception for infants if you will. Unlike that movies threat of Freudian assassins lurking in the shadows Inside Out is revolutionary with a total lack of a villain, of a primary antagonist to pollute Riley’s evolving psyche, some frenzied figure to interfere and sabotage her emotional bunch of brain dwelling bodachs. Given that Docter even resorted to the ‘baddie’ explorer in Up as someone to drive the final act climax his evolution mirrors the advanced techniques that Pixar are piloting, as the lack of psychological philanderer parses with the story themes of accepting  and understanding that a balance of states is as healthy and desirable as being constantly upbeat and joyous, with equilibrium being reached through a melancholy modal mix.

ino2One of the beauties of Pixar performing at their peak is the almost effortless way they manage to align movies for kids and adults alike, without patronising turns, characters or instantly degrading pop-culture references to wider media trends or products – ‘hey, that talking dolphin just referenced Lady Gaga’s latest controversial video, how adorable’. Instead in their best films they embroider their narratives with something genuine and thoughtful to say about life, regardless of what stage of evolution the individual audience member finds themselves. I don’t know what sorcery their boffins have secretly enshrined in their silicon valley HQ but it propels their movies as empathic engines, with a genuine heart that almost immediately generates sympathic connections for what is essentially a high density collection of polygons and pathos. Inside Out really struts its inventive instincts when we are transported into an identical central nervous systems in other characters heads, most notably Riley’s mother (Diane Lane) and father (Kyle MacLachlan), a concept that belches gasoline on the comedic possibilities that the giggling writers mine to the fore. Wisely though the design is restricted for key moments as the vast majority of the tale takes place in Riley’s mind, not diluting her core adventure and evolution as the films primary path. The film reaches early heights when Joy and her companions traverse through ‘dream land’ and the ‘place of ideas’, including a quite brilliant aside in abstract thinking which sees the empathic avatars transmogrified into cubist abstractions, before pushing the concept even further with a manipulation of cinematic planes of axis which would make Chuck Jones and Tex Avery proud. Cinephiles will whelp with delight with the conceptual dimensions of ‘dream land’ being personified as a 1930’s Hollywood studio (what else?), the production team re-enacting the days key events in order to manage their subconscious digestion. The sequence is peppered with marketing posters of past attractions such as ‘I’m Falling Down A Well’ and ‘Someone Is Following Me’, a density of visual bricolage which will enhance enjoyment of the picture through repeat revisits. There is also something to be mused about the day-glo gremlins operating Riley’s emotional states observing her reactions on what could be considered a cinema screen, complete with memory defused projector (that will make more sense when you see the film) and the forms and formula that cinema grammar and techniques use to manipulate an audiences emotional and even physical states. But that, I think, is a tale for another time.

io4I have to say the initial marketing of the films concept elicited a bare perceptible shrug from cynical ole me, so I admit to going into this rather cold, in fact it was only the glowing twitter reviewers which actually led me to the multiplex. I’m glad I did as this is top-tier Pixar, the purveyors of the greatest 21st century American animation, elegant and timeless the film is right up there with The Incredibles, Up and the Toy Story pictures. As you’d expect the craft is simply spectacular, the colours as vivid and glorious as a Christmas Day morning, with a tensile definition to prismatic spongy skin tones, soulful, orbital eyes, and the delicate bounce of individual strands of  holographic hair. Through some podcast interviews I have learned that the project went through the usual crisis phase over its six-year gestation period, it seems that every one of the studios modern classics has suffered a similar baptism of fire (was it the original or second Toy Story that was completely scuppered and begun over with a ridiculous nine month release deadline or something?), yet somehow they manage to pull a superb film of the potential smouldering wreckage and just shame the output of the other studios animation arms. The voice acting is as perfectly cast as always, with perhaps Poehler investing her role with the perfect balance of energetic enthusiasm and delicate emotional development. I have no doubt that Inside Out will invite psychoanalytic readings worthy of Lacan or Freudian fanatics, with the floating id islands self-disintegrating & reforming in new superstructures as our pubescent protagonist moves through the various stages of ego development, where even a obligatory deja vu gag falls on appreciative ears. Finally, a deathly warning – if you have children then beware, in certain scenes this film will fucking obliterate you into a quivering mass of protoplasmic, weeping mush, a cathartic celebration of childhood in this magnificent and moving return to form;

*As for the traditional short Lava that plays before the main feature here is the most trenchant observation of the year ‘It was OK, but it would have been even cuter if both the volcanos had been lumpy and weird looking. It was like Michael Elphick getting together with Lethal Weapon 3 era Rene Russo or something…..’

Night Moves (1975)

nm1Ah, the ancient 1970’s, the last great gasp of Hollywood aesthetic superiority, a halcyon period when studios, executives and directors made movies explicitly for adults and (gasp) the public flocked to see them. The core films of the era before Jaws and Star Wars gripped the box office imagination are probably the likes of Taxi Driver, both Godfathers, Badlands and the centrifugal vomiting of The Exorcist, while the directors behind those enduring classics also crafted well respected and influential texts such as The French Connection, The Conversation, Apocalypse Now and Days Of Heaven. Bona-fide cinephiles tend to dig a little deeper with their appreciation of the era, celebrating the cult kudos of The Driver and Vanishing PointThe Warriors, Eraserhead or Harold & Maude, I could go on with numerous works from Altman and Bogdanovich, Lumet or Polanski, but space is something of a premium, and I haven’t even glanced at the science fiction launch-pads Westworld, Soylent Green or Dark Star, or the horror film mausoleums Halloween, The Omen, Last House On The Left, Dawn Of The Dead, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Shivers and on and on and on…..

nm2But the real truffle hunters sniff out the obscure relics, the recherché oddities culled from shredded, mutilated and curtailed careers, films  that are rarely screened or were released in any widely accessible format, a scarcity which awards them an almost celestial assignation to the devoted and pious. I’m referring of course to a period prior to streaming services and internet access, a golden hued age of film-lore when eagle-eyed  scouts scoured through late night movie schedules, sneezed in the back rooms of dusty VHS arcades and interrogated the  classified lists of genre press periodicals, just to acquire that eagerly anticipated Japanese subtitled fifth-generation Betamax print of  They Call Her One Eye or an insomniac 3:30am accursed pan-&-scan screening of Deadhead Miles.  I’m talking about the likes of Prime Cut, Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia, 3 Women (just released on Blu after a long period of deletion) Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and The Last Embrace. Maybe we could also churn in The Friends Of Eddie Coyle, QuintetThe Last Detail and Charley Varrick which I saw on a 2:00am ITV screening circa 1986.  Yeah, sure I know these aren’t exactly hens teeth when it comes to the current proliferation of material old and new, but back in the day a new Moviedrome schedule or Channel 4 ‘Xtreme’ season was enough to get us cinephiles retiring to our fainting couches like overheated debutantes at a Saharan July 4th ball. So within that period specific context I was delighted to see that the BFI were screening a rare 35mm print of the 1975 neo-noir Night Moves, Arthur Penn’s companion piece to the post Watergate exhausted blues of Klute, All The Presidents Men and The Parallax View, the American body politic ridden with the cancer of corruption and scourged with a post 1960’s ennui, where the fading dreams of the counter-culture were crushed by a resurgent  capitalist selfishness and sycophantic social control.

nm5There has always been an underlying threat by the cinematic intelligentsia to reassess Arthur Penn’s achievements, he was after all the creator of one of post-war American cinemas most seminal films, Bonnie & Clyde, a New Wave influenced picture which ushered in a mature era of screen violence and submerged sexuality. It may look a little quaint now but compare and contrast this to the stilted 1950’s studio idiom and this was the Natural Born Killers of its day. I’ve lost count of the articles and opinion pieces in the likes of Sight & Sound which have demanded a new effort of analysis, in a fashion not to dissimilar to how Hal Ashby was resurrected by Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls tome in the late 1990’s. Penn does have a singular thread of individuals struggling against indiscriminate ‘alien’ forces throughout his work, politically left wing he exposes the corruption and power as the nucleus of the capitalist system, while directing a impressive roster of talent including Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson, Anne Bancroft, Gene Hackman, Faye Dunaway, Paul Newman, Jane Fonda, Warren Beatty, Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman and Angie Dickinson. In Night Moves these arcs are supported by a nebulous character study dressed in the genre trenchcoat of noir, a hazy companion piece with Altman’s The Long Goodbye, with some contemporary body politicking perambulating around the genre staple of a missing persons investigation. Weary gumshoe Harry (a garrulous Gene Hackman) ply’s his slightly squalid trade in the blazing California sun, juggling his voyeuristic assignments with a disintegrating marriage, balancing the weary demands of his moral professionalism with a sympathetic yet unfaithful wife (Susan Clark). Harry is tasked to retrieve the daughter of an aging Hollywood B movie actress Arlene Iverson (a gin soaked Janet Ward), her free-love, hippy hangover influenced offspring Delly fleeing the nest to reunite with her stepfather in the Florida quays, a dangerous peninsula where it’s not just the reptiles who may shed a  illusory welter of crocodile tears…

nm4Firstly it has to be said that Inherent Vice is absolutely traced from this film, even down to the aura and atmosphere of certain specific scenes and interlocutions, complete with the same listless, somnambulant threat lurking in the barely intangible distance. It’s just one of those wonderfully jaded, bleak yet summer saturated hard-boiled thrillers, with a terrific cast of vivid characters and venomous vices. For me the real treasure was actress Jennifer Warren as the golden-haired, Californian toned femme fatale Paula, I didn’t recognise her from anything else so this was quite a surprising discovery. She is simply terrific as a sparky yet vulnerable creature with a resigned optimism, her garrulous posture shielding a  tired of the lies, tired of the – this also has urged me to give Slap Shot a hip-check as I haven’t seen that for ages. As the plot absorbs a rogues gallery of lecherous stuntmen, stoned executives and defeated thespians the Hollywood backdrop angles new light and shadows on the human urges of lust and  love, we cinephiles always embrace some meta-narrative complexity, with films within films straining at the boundaries of the illusory, the hidden and the haunted.

nm3The film is notable for early appearances from Jimmy Woods playing – yup, you guessed it – a sleazy, sex-greased scumbag which would go to largely define the rest of his career, and quite controversially a 17-year-old Melanie Griffith as the Lolitaesque siren Delly whose activities would not be permitted today. Like Iris in Taxi Driver her naïve application of her sexuality to easily swayed men is a dangerous sacrifice, an unwitting implication of free-love and consequence free copulation But its Hackman’s movie through and through, he plays Harry with , just shading enough Popeye Doyle was a cyclone,  . I’d be blackballed from the next cinephile meeting down at the docks if I didn’t reference the amusing jibe in the film, as Harry mischievously  dismisses his wife’s invitation to go and see the latest film from the French New Wave auteur whose pictures were charming the critical intelligentsia of the period, blithely rejecting the proposal with the line  ‘I saw a Rohmer film once. It was like watching paint dry’.

night9Modestly directed with zero in the way of attention screaming technique, and framed from the viewpoint of an ambling dog the film is resolutely low-key, with a muted palette and sense of framing that almost buckles under the weight of its exhausted ennui, of Harry’s dissatisfaction and striving for a moral righteousness in the face of indiscriminate apathy and narcissism. These dour designs award the film with a genuine sense of emotional charge, with two key bedroom set scenes distinguishing themselves as the empathic engine of the entire movie. Only at the end does Penn allow for a cathartic burst of violence, some half-cocked nod to the usual guidelines of moral alignment and punishment for ones sins, drowning such naivety with one of those delicious  ambiguous endings which refuse to pander to any political or psychological simplicity. But it’s that narcotic, half-drunk seduction scene between Harry and Paula which lingers in the mind, the sequence which fully expresses the indigo souled of the weary wretches washed up on life’s broken beaches, especially when we’re in cahoots with the future revelations and betrayals of the plot. Prefiguring this is a scene with one of the decades most devastating lines, instantly among the best summations of the era, up there with ‘Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown’ or ‘You talking to me?’, when Paula queries Harry on ‘Where were you when Kennedy was shot?’, he pauses then coldly replies ‘……which one?’;

Happy Birthday Stanley…..

Thought I’d forgot did you? Well, no, given the fact that he was trending on twitter that wasn’t likely, 87 years young today. In my odd way I’ve unconsciously paid tribute with a double bill of movies I charged around London to see today, neither of them his but both were ground-breaking and grotesque in their own, special way – you’ll just have to wait and see what I’m talking about. There is a whole cottage industry of montages and tributes out there to utilise, this is perhaps one of the more poetic examples;

I realise I’ve been negligent recently in failing to pay tribute to the weasely memorable Aubrey Morris, so let’s all correct that here;

Buckle Up….

So there I was, wondering if the editor of this fun little montage would be wise enough to include less obvious examples such as C’etait un rendezvous alongside Ronin, Bullitt. The Blues Brothers and all the other usual suspects, and then he did and I was satisfied;

Well, OK, if you insist;

Werner Herzog Season: Herzog’s HBO

herz I love to share. As previously mentioned I’ve recently started this mammoth Herzog career retrospective / ideological primer on how one should live their life, and I’m kind of kicking myself for not immediately aligning my screening of the BFI programme with a simultaneous digestion of the book – roughly speaking it also moves chronologically through the great man’s career. It is, in a word, magnificent, a hilariously amusing patchwork of career anecdotes, observations on the art and industry of film, the pursuit of an indestructible  code to structure ones behaviour, all of which is punctuated with his philosophical musings on our pathetic species and our fruitless scrabble for meaning and purpose in the vast and infinite universe. Specifically I just felt I had to share with you Werner’s view on TV which had me crying with laughter on the train this morning;

herz3‘One of the great achievements of communal life is our ability to create narratives, something we have been doing since Neanderthal times. We should cherish this flame we have inside all of us and get on our knees and thank the creator for having endowed us with the gift of storytelling, something caveman huddled around campfires understood and appreciated. Instead, today, Television with its incessant commercials, our consumer culture has destroyed any semblance of dignity we might have once had. We are fragmenting and fracturing stories for the sake of business. We grow up enveloped by fifteen second storytelling and are conditioned by filmmaking at breakneck pace. Decades from now, our great-great grandchildren will look back in amazement at how we could have allowed a precious achievement of human culture like storytelling to be so disrespected, infected, then shredded by advertising. It will be the same amazement we see today, when we look at our ancestors, for whom slavery, the burning of witches, capital punishment and the inquisition were everyday acceptable events. We will be blamed for not throwing hand grenades into Television stations and laying waste to their institutionalised cowardice, for not taking up arms and occupying such debased places which venerate that single, pernicious god; the Einschaltquote, the ratings. It has always been their golden calf. It has nothing to do with me or my films.

To be fair he is prone to intentional hyperbole and he does go on to say this, but he still, y’know, has a point; ‘I sound so negative about this, but fortunately there is another side to it. Television specialises in those early morning satellite experiences, like the Ali / Foreman fight of the moon landing. I was so excited I nearly had a heart attack over those. Over the last decade standards have risen when it comes storytelling on Television. It is wonderful to see audiences immersing themselves in such intelligent narratives that play out over a period of years. Many of these series are expertly written, acted and directed, with a great sense of pace and long-running timing.’ I wonder if he prefers Breaking Bad or Sex & The City?

I could construct a whole side-blog of Herzogisms, in fact I wonder if anyone else has, there must be a faux-twitter account, right? Finally, before we move on with the season with the difficult to decipher Woyzeck this made me chortle ‘It is frustrating that astronauts never take advantage of the photographic possibilities available to them. On one of the Apollo missions they left a camera on the moon, slowly panning from left to right, then right to left for days. I yearned to grab the damn thing. There are so many possibilities up there for fresh images, and I always thought it would be better to send up a poet rather than an astronaut…..’

Spectre (2015) Trailer

For someone who has little interest in all things Bond I must admit that this new movie has pricked my curiosity, if only to see how they are approaching a 21st century update of evil secret serpentine SPECTRE;

BFI Cult Season – Society (1989)

society1I think I’ve been a little too easy on you of late gentle reader, there has been far too much emphasis on family friendly blockbusters and prestigious cinema classics over the past few months, this sweaty summer weather makes me feel like getting dirty and dragging you all down with me. The impetus to see Brian Yuzna’s body horror satire Society copulates from three sources, the first imperative a strange appetite I had for seeing some horror of any ilk, like I said I’ve become a little exasperated with wholesome storytelling and heroics of late and with the next films on my agenda being the Fantastic Four reboot, Pixar’s Inside Out (or ‘oh, is that the bio-pic of the dog from The Thing? as the CHUD guys amusingly queried) and MI:V this innocent trend is set to continue. The materialization of the film on the BFI’s cult movie programme therefore pricked my curiosity, aligned with the fact that the GGtMC guys, the hosts of one of the most respected and long-running cult movie podcasts serendipitously covered the film as part of last weeks broadcast, and their musings and observations further intensified my terrible intent. Finally I’ve just started reading this and while Herzog may seem an incongruous choice allow me to elaborate – I’ll cover the book in detail as part of my continuing season but one core element of the 700+ page tome is the urge to follow your instincts and inquisitive drive, so after an unproductive weekend lounging around the flat I just thought sod it, I’m gonna take in a double bill at the BFI and all sense and sensibility be damned. That’s just how I roll sometimes man, like some turbo-charged maverick who simply doesn’t follow the rules, throwing caution to the wind like some delinquent debutante.

societyAs a misshapen antidote to the preening emotional insecurities of John Hughes oeuvre Society follows the neurosis of preppy and privileged  high school student Bill Whitney, played with incredulous inefficiency by the sorcerously monikored Billy Warlock, acting the son to an extraordinarily wealthy Los Angeles family. Although he wants for no financial strain and sports the best threads, vehicles and sporting equipment a young man could want poor Billy is deeply unsatisfied, feeling like an outsider and alien to his inordinately satisfied parents and cheerleading siren sister (Connie Danese). These neurotic malfunctions begin to manifest as strange, contorted hallucinations of his peers and kin being warped and melded creatures from a Lovecraftian nightmare, a surreal vision of contortionist catastrophe beyond any sanity supporting limit of human endurance. The paranoia intensifies as some of his less privileged school friends mutter darkly of strange rituals and transgressive séances within the community, only for them to end up dead in some strangely convoluted accidents. It’s Cronenberg goes to high school,  or maybe Heathers goes to hell, although the latter is a much finer expose of the rituals and insecurities of teenage turbulence. Instead Society is impregnated within a wider picture of social horror, the urge to fit in and function while one’s hormones are ‘jack-hammering like a Jock’s heart on prom night’ as Ash might say, to confirm within one’s own class and strata or be damned for the consequences…..


society5If I do say so myself (and fuck any false modesty) I’ve probably made the film sound far more slithering and effective than it actually is, but given the circumstances of its production the movie  gets a modest pass. Society is striving for the Lyncian nightmare nestling beneath the white picket fences and warm apple pies cooling on the window sill, almost Ballardian in its intent if not in tone, as this is a film with a potent premise which is hamstrung by some budgetary blunders and directorial inexperience. There’s a kernel of a good film here but the execution is more ‘C’ movie than even ‘B’ movie, but you can’t fault debutante Brian Yuzna as his mischievous heart is in the right place – he’s playing this one for gruesome grins rather than ghastly groans. For crepuscular chills you’ll need to look further afield for a genuine pricking of the hackles, as Yuzna’s approach seems to be to ladle some dark and moody lighting, dutch-angled camera displacement and a ‘menacing’ soundtrack to equal spine-chilling terror, when in fact the only horror is some truly insipid and nonsensical dialogue tumbling from the teenage casts woeful mouths. It would be charitable to suggest that these affectations are intended, that the film is designed as a wooden parody of your Beverley Hills 90210, Saved By The Bell and other late Eighties teen-dramas, but quite frankly I just think that the filmmakers just didn’t have the sophistication for witty writing or for moulding a competent acting performance, but as with many cult films these failures seed the film with a strange, amateurish charm. When the film lurches into its final notorious contortions then it does, well, burst into life, with some gloopy prosthetics and slime designs supplied by the amusingly named Screaming Mad George. Even with that colourful name he ain’t no Rob Bottin or Rick Baker but the sequence largely holds up, it is this metaphorical massacre which has echoed throughout the ages and awarded the film some sort of  noxious notoriety, serving as the main marketing hook when it was publicised in the likes of Fangoria, Starburst and the rest of the entrail attuned press back in the day.

society4The film is absolutely ripe for a remake, and I’m sure I heard rumours of such predictable activity, however a quick scourge of the interwebs yields little evidence. Is there a more pregnant contemporary horror metaphor that the rich leeching from the poor, or of the young sacrificed to maintain the status quo? Throw in some Bohemian Grove, Skull & Bones Ivy League conspiracy theorist texture and the damn thing writes itself, and you could easily raise, what, $5 to $10 million seed funding I reckon. Maybe hire Bret Eastern Ellis to take a screenplay pass for some elite school debauchery kudos, hire Greg Nicotero for costume and creature SFX and rope in Eli Roth or Ti West on helmsman duties. If you wanna real stir the controversy up then hire some wholesome mouseketeer types (or the modern equivalent), young fresh-faced starlets of the sort that were in Spring Breakers and you’ve got yourself a modest little hit as long as you maintain the 1% metaphor to keep the intellectuals happy, and expose enough bare flesh and pulsating protrusions to keep the teenagers and gore hounds satiated. Although Society has dated fairly badly and was never entirely corpulent to begin with I still recommend a Blu-Ray watch, it has just been reissued in a handsome set  which is dripping with ichorous extras, and as the GGTMC guys observed it’s an ideal double-bill with Larry Cohen’s The Stuff or maybe even Carpenters They Live for a duo-fix of consumerist charged commentary. Next up I’ll be plumping the depths of 1970’s Hollywood neo-noir, until then you’d best get prepared for the ‘shunting’, the absolute summit soirée of the season;

Ant-Man (2015)

ant1First of all I’m calling a moratorium on any amusing wordplay around ‘diminishing returns’, ‘microscopic interest’ or ‘miniscule ambition’, as every review has the potential to defer to whimsy around what has to be one of the least anticipated superhero movies of the recent renaissance. Nevertheless the Marvel juggernaut continues with the peripheral figures of the multiverse stealing their personal two hours as the center of attention, although Hank Pym is an important figure for his creations and relations I think it’s fair to say the character of Ant-Man was never a top-tier titan. The film is also burdened with the inevitable albatross of ‘well, it’s not as good as Edgar Wright’s version would have been’, as after many years of development difficulties he evidently couldn’t reconcile his vision with the omnipresent will of uber-producer Kevin Feigh, with dramedy director Peyton Reed swiftly recruited for tyrannical Jodhpur and riding crop duties. So the second MCU film of the year  anxiously infiltrates cinemas amidst a climate of superhero fatigue,  even before the plethora of San Diego Comic Con material was dragged blinking into the sun, with many observers predicting that this will be the film where Marvel finally falters. It doesn’t falter but it doesn’t exactly soar either, as this is another distracting and faintly amusing addition to the canon which won’t set box office or fan assisted flame wars ablaze, but there are worse ways to lose a couple of hours in a multiplex this summer.

ant3Our hero this time is incarnated by the ever avuncular (and seemingly immortal) Paul Rudd as Scott Lang, a roguish and harmless ne’er do well who has a regrettable habit of burglary and theft but its OK – he only steals from billionaires whom are ripping off their customers so he’s not, like, a total dick or anything. His criminal path covertly crosses with Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), the retired CEO of Pym Enterprises which now rests in the control of his  former protégé turned megalomaniac chairman Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), another unfortunate addition to the rather  diminutive rogues gallery of Marvel super villains. Cross has secretly plundered the companies resources into the development of the Yellowjacket weapon, a super-suit designed to shrink combatants to lethally miniscule dimensions. Fortunately Pym’s daughter Hope (a Louise Brooks bobbed Evangeline Lilly) still has some insider insight into these sleazy shenanigans, so they hatch a plan to recruit Lang to their world saving mission, utilizing Pym’s original Ant-Man machinery  to infiltrate the well guarded HQ and prevent the technology from falling into multi-appended dangerous hands….

ant2Ant-Man is everything you expect from its trailer tinted carapace – certainly no more, defiantly no less. It’s formulaic to the modern superhero synchronization, the broad brush archetypes of motivation and mobilization – all Lang wants to do his prove himself as a good guy given his tarnished past and win back the praise of his faintly estranged young daughter. If that sounds like damning with faint praise then I’m not being entirely fair, as this is a reasonable enough throwaway roller coaster ride of gentle humor, hectic heroics and breathless pacing, with just about the appropriate mix of lightweight whimsy and confederated combat to underpin the perfunctory plot.  There is a theory doing the rounds that the MCU genetically engineers sub-genres onto its superheroic cladding, with the Thor movies being subversive family dramas, the Captain America films being period romps and paranoid thrillers respectively, with The Avengers being the traditional blockbuster team-up apotheosis of the franchise that urgently ups the ante to Armageddon threatening theatre. If so then Ant-Man is the heist film entry, a corporate espionage picture which shades the simulacrum within a macro level ambition, and for once it’s actually quite refreshing not to indulge in yet another cataclysmic fate of the omniverse and instead play on a canvass mapped to a much more personalized playing field.

ant4For me the film was salvaged from the predictable plotting and that standardized Marvel phosphorescent visual sheen which associates all the films as being struck from the same digital cloth,  rescued from another exasperated cinema visit by a compelling treatment of the titular heroes uniquely insignificant powers and the telepathic mastery of his Hymenopterian allies.  Ant-Man is mildly ambitious with its cerebral invention of Pym’s dimension warping powers and quite clever in  toying with the intrinsic possibilities of Pym molecular manipulating technology, especially in the context of infiltration, and there is much fun to be had with taking on a phalanx of henchmen whose size doesn’t equal a threatening stature. There are core sequences that scream of Joe Cornish’s and Edgar Wrights original influence, including a few dexterous whip -pan montages and one musical comedy moment which is pure joy from my generations Goth generated glee – you’ll know it when you Siri-it. The finale shrinks to a climax of The Incredible Shrinking Man dimensions but then pulls away from any quantum quizzical queries, it’s a shame as this is where the film could have struggled free of its four quadrant appeasing shackles, and you can almost hear the executives complaints of alienating the soccer mom and unimaginative teenage crowd echoing around the picture, downplaying any of that ‘weird stuff’ in favor of traditional equilibrium reaffirming techniques. As usual be sure to stick around for a post credit sting, and never was the phrase ‘sting’ more appropriately apt, but if you didn’t see this development coming from the trailer alone then you haven’t been paying attention to the constant urge to introduce further characters from Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s multifaceted multiverse*. Ant-Man is no classic but in a summer stained with franchise failures (Jurassic World, Terminator Genysis) this a competent if not completely celebratory addition to the worlds most populous franchise, so roll-on with 2016’s phase three and that Dr. Strange movie – by the crimson bands of cyttorak its gonna take some maleficent magic to pull that project off;

* *Ok, now I’ve finished my review and can trawl the web for other opinions apparently there are two ‘extras’, one mid-credit and one right at the end. This affectation is really getting tedious now…..

The Revenant (2015) Trailer

Hot of his Birdman Academy Award blessing Inarratu is back, no doubt igniting a tsunami of opinion pieces on whether the Western is dead or not;

I think the word might be ‘intense’. With this and Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight and its Morricone soundtrack Horse Opera fans should be in for a fine Christmas….

Touch Of Evil (1958)

toe1Just like the movie, we’ve gotta start with that shot. Over the past thirty years we’ve become acutely accustomed to the dexterous long take, heck I’d even assert that the effect is overdone and is something of a clichéd instrument in the directors contemporary box of tricks. Back when camera housing and magazines needed big burly grips to hurl them around the set the thought of programming penetrating camera moves was rarely attempted, although Murnau is noteworthy for his oblique approach to get us into the minds of his protagonists. When equipment become more lightweight and flexible in the 1940’s production incorporated locations rather than just tightly controlled sets, and from the 1950’s a mixture of both has been deployed in order to jigsaw a movie, although the pendulum has swung back to the green screen artificiality of recent blockbuster bores. Ever the great innovator Welles delivered one of the great early tracking shots, understanding that technique and craft reinforces theme and atmosphere, as a bustling and energetic Mexican border incorporates both a physical location ambiance with a technically ambitious opening gambit – and this is crucial. There has to be a story and character purpose for such flagrant grasps for attention, some subliminal force which demands such manipulation of spatial dimensions within a 2D frame, rather than merely cutting up a sequence to build moments and motive through the intrinsic form of film grammar itself. The celebrated Copacabana sequence for example seduces us just as it incorporates Karen’s bewildered state of mind, ushered us both into this woozy world of prestige and pampering, quite literally a back door into the gangsters world where they cut corners to achieve their exalted position – legal corners, moral corners, mortal corners. Sometimes the tracking shot is deployed for sheer kinetics, for sheer pulse pounding pyrotechnics as seen in The Protector or maybe Oldboy, but Welles being Welles he manages to garrote both intentions, setting the restless and anxious tone and pace of the picture while also literally having his plot explode in the first few minutes;

As you may have guessed we’re discussing Touch Of Evil, Orson Welles 1958’s simmering film noir classic, one of his final triumphs in a career scattered with mutilated masterpieces and thwarted visions. The centenary of his birth is being celebrated by the BFI with a season entitled The Great Disruptor, an apt description for one of the innovative geniuses whose touch graced the silver screen in the 20th century, an immortal presence both in front and behind the camera. I’ve been planning to see this for many years having taken down Kane,The Magnificent Ambersons and The Lady From Shanghai in the past, leaving jut the The Trial for another day. Yes, I know I should devote some attention to his Shakespeare adaptions and maybe one day I will, but it’s really only Kafka’s nightmare which still tickles my celluloid bones.

oE2It is the opening tick-tock mechanism, furtively scurried into the vehicle and transported across the US / Mexican border  that literally detonates the movie, driving as it does the subsequent investigation into the crime as legal crusader Miguel Vargis (Charlton Heston) and his spritely new wife Susie (Janet Leigh) are plunged into a morass of praetorian plotting and mutinous murder. Welles dominates the screen as the bloated Police Captain Hank Quinlan, a precursor to every screen Bad Lieutenant from Keitel to Cage, squatting like a venerable spider at the schemes corrupt core. It’s been cited as a key noir of the 1950’s and on the surface the moniker seems apt – it orbits an urban murder investigation, there are street hoods, moody lighting, violence and social intrigue – but with Welles the veils of deception and subterfuge are the key, and I read it as less a direct crime story than a distorted shadow-play on power and moral authority.

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There are no less than three versions of the film floating around due to the usual butchering that Welles suffered after his imperious debut, and naturally the BFI have opted to screen the late 1990’s restoration as part of this comprehensive retrospective. Originally the film suffered seventeen minutes of cuts due to its perceived uncommercial dimensions by the Universal dolts, adding insult to injury they then released a preview version they unearthed in the vaults in 1976, billing it as the ‘restored and original’ version which is most certainly was not. After the studio originally seized his original master print Welles tearfully issued a 58 page memo urging what elements must be included in the picture, a blueprint that the great editor Walter Murch used as his bible for the post autopsy reconstruction of both image and sound. I’m not enough of an expert to tell you what was omitted and regenerated, but I am certain that this is now the canonical version of the film, given that it respects the man’s original, pre-mutilated vision strengthened by guidance from his very own hand, and gatekeepers such as Bogdanovich have anointed it with their blessing. Now if anyone can finally exhume that missing print of Ambersons you’d be doing us all a legendary favour…..

Toe4From the opening refrain of Henry Mancini’s jagged, jazzy score the film has a restless, urgent energy, and even after that spectacular opening gambit the cantering pace is maintained throughout. What I think I find most fascinating about Welles pictures is that it is simply impossible to be bored by them as there is always something interesting happening in every single scene, there is always a fascinating element or decision to detect, whether it’s the lighting or camera movement, the composition or the performances, or the framing and focus planes selected to tell his indiscriminate and indomitable version of his story. Even nominally tedious exposition sequences where two characters have to impart story information are played along a new angle, with new structures of staging, with the friction of innovation ricocheting across scenes and sequences in an almost alarmingly abundant fashion. In Touch Of Evil Welles displays a fondness for grotesques, both physically and spiritually, lurking in the limbo border town that signals transition from one state to another. The duality’s that echo throughout the film – corrupt / incorruptible, love / loss, nostalgia / regret is quite remarkable and marks Welles truly as a ceaselessly inquisitive filmmaker, constantly experimenting with and exploding the boundaries of the form. Crucially for me it also taps into the intrinsic beauty in movies versus other visual forms, the use of deep focus staging is just aesthetically wonderful for the eye to behold, they rarely attempt such planar positioning even on TV these days and as a cinephile you can simply let go and let the images and inspiration overwhelm you.

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Although Orson was playing a rather disgusting slug of a man its worth noting that Touch Of Evil was moulded before his own weight and girth ballooned later in his life, where he became the velvet voiced interrogator of sherry adverts, peas and Transformers movies. The classic story of the production is that Welles, long exiled from the Hollywood inner circle was nevertheless invited to a nearby studio hosted party. Being in such a rush for a drink after a long days shooting that he didn’t bother to ditch the Quinlan make-up or padding he arrives at the soiree, saturated with Tinseltown types, only to be greeted with false air-kisses and proclamations from the assembled patronage that ‘Oh Orson, its so lovely to see you – you look fabulous‘. For Hollywood connoisseurs  it’s also fun to see who cameos in the movie to give their old friend some star encrusted support, from Joseph Cotton’s bespectacled bureaucrat to Mercedes McCambridge’s flick-knife sporting lesbian, but the film is best known for one of the immortal Marlene Dietrich’s finest final roles. In just two scenes she steals the entire picture as the swarthy fortune teller cum brothel madam  with a performance of smouldering eyes and  coiled charisma, as Quinlan’s old flame Tanya. Deviating from the noir plotting once the crime has been solved and the puppet master unmasked the film reaches for a wider pathos with Dietrich’s delicious pay-off line – ‘He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?’ Exit stage left, her eyes alone suggesting a lifetime of regret and melancholic mystery, a poisoned valentine and perhaps the final apropos word on Welles turbulent relationship with the studios;

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