Well fuck me it’s darn weird being back here again, after many, many months of neglect. I could barely remember my password let alone the functions of writing a blog post, so please bear with me as I reconnect with an old but terminal exercise. The good news (I guess) is that I’m going to commit to a few year closedown posts of timid length and analysis, the bad news (if anyone really cares) is that this will lead to a final execution of this ten year project once and for all as the day job has officially overtaken this now redundant blog. What have I been doing? Phase 2 of this. What am I involved in from January 2018? This. As such I need to be spectacularly careful of my digital footprint, wary of the press for reasons myriad and numerous, especially since I’m more than positive that some of the comments and jokes I have made on here could easily be located and exploited out of context with horrific consequences. Anyway, back to the matter at hand, here is the usual December montage which isn’t particularly transcendent, and as such representative of a rather average year;
I have been relatively active over the axial orbit movie going wise, but due to project pressures I completely missed the LFF this year (didn’t see a single screening or event) as my schedule simply didn’t gel with other priorities. Ironically I am on target for seeing over 500 films this year on various eyeball assaulting formats, and have managed to cram in some mini seasons on Eric Rohmer, all of Soderbergh’s 21st century material, a revisit of Kieślowski’s Three Colours trilogy, all of the Jarmusch films on Amazon Prime, Ōkami’s Lone Wolf & Cub series and even a revisit of a John Cassavettes box-set. I still don’t chime with the love for him, as much as I can appreciate his ground-breaking achievements in championing independent American filmmaking before Sundance was a faltering glint in Robert Redford’s azure eyes. More montage mischievousness here;
So in order to temper expectations here are my films of the year thus far, presented without commentary or debate and in no particular order – make of this what you will ; Wind River, Personal Shopper, Get Out, Blade Runner 2049, Thor: Ragnarok, Moonlight, mother!, Lady Macbeth, The Death Of Stalin, Logan and maybe Malick’s Song To Song and the eerily prescient Nocturama. Alas I didn’t see The Florida Project, You Were Never Really Here, Brawl In Cell Block 99, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, Good Time, The Killing Of A Sacred Deer nor The Shape Of Water, some of which I’m sure could have arisen to the 2017 Menagerie pantheon if I’d seen them at the LFF. As it stands the ultimate event of 2017 was of course David Lynch’s spectacular bookend to his incredible career, maybe there more there will be more on that……later;
I think, after nine months of Werner Herzog I deserve a bit of a laugh don’t I? So as we timidly enter the studios graveyard season, the August and September of the movie calendar where hesitant production houses unceremoniously dump their products and wares that they haven’t quite worked out how to market or sell, like a shamefully discarded bastard Victorian child. Some of the alternative blockbuster programing is hanging on in there, and for a change of pace I thought I’d give a comedy a try, a genre that has always been woefully unrepresented here at the Menagerie. Judd Apatow’s latest springs from the pen of writer & actress Amy Schumer, a star in the ascendant whom seems to be America’s new favourite funny lady. She stars as twenty-something New Yorker Amy who is enjoying the single life, sleeping around, getting wasted while juggiling her stressful magazine journalism career, as it seems that every twenty-something woman in every rom-com always works in the media don’t they? When she hooks up with successful doctor Aaron Connors (Bill Hader) the usual contraptions of the rom-com spring into position, the standard complications and obstacles to the path of true love, with just a little character background of family drama to frame a life which needs to evolve and transform if transcendent happiness is to be achieved – in this case a pregnant younger sister (Brie Larson) and increasingly frail father (Colin Quinn) whom is wasting away in a care home.
Broadly speaking this works, there are enough laughs sprinkled throughout the airy romance to propel it through the rather clichéd dramatic longueurs, a path enjoyably endured mostly due to Schumer’s playful performance and intimate knowledge of the material given she is the sole screenwriter. There is a curious pastiche of a Sundance film within the film which oddly doesn’t resemble anything made since the era of Living In Oblivion or more recent mumblecore musings, and they even pay homage to Annie Hall toward the end of one city celebrating montage, a reverent moment given that movie is still widely considered as the apotheosis of the genre. So many of the scenes fall completely flat, without a single laugh being tickled out, but then a few big laughs can make you overlook some rather poor comedic dimensions – a homeless guy as recurrent comic-relief character? Really? The film relies on a number of American specific sports knowledge and cameos including an extended performance from Basketball legend LeBron James as Aaron ethnically diverse best friend, and that’s where I think some of the humour has been abandoned in the trip across the Atlantic. There is one scene where I’m guessing the American equivalent of John Motson is humorously commentating on the action between characters, which feels like an idea that would have surfaced around the Zucker movies of the 1980’s, not a bad gag on its own but the tone just doesn’t fit with the rest of this movies observational and character driven chuckles. But I don’t want to be relentlessly negative, there are about a dozen good laughs in here, mostly from the side characters which always seem to be the way with Apatow films. Amy Schmauer is a fine comedienne with a great sense of timing and a cherubic portfolio of serenely executed facial expressions, compared to the spectacularly unfunny The Interview which I also saw this weekend Train Wreck is like Life Of Brian or Duck Soup in comparison. Maybe also worth a look for an almost unrecognisable Tilda Swinton as some antipodean, bronze perma-tan magazine harpy who makes Anna Wintour look like Mother Teresa, and a final physical gag which although you can sense coming a mile away had me and my fellow patrons roaring with laughter.
So from modern promiscuous New York of the 2010’s to the sordid debauchery of New York of the 1980’s, a sadly lost time before the Disneyfication of the Big Apple, when an enterprising young gentleman could see a blaxpoliation triple bill in Times Square, score a sweet needle of Dominican black tar heroin and purloin a back-alley blow job from a toothless transsexual and still have enough pocket-money left to catch the last A-train home. So welcome to Mike Dowd, one of the cities most depraved and corrupt drug dealing thieves, a fella who takes to embezzlement, blackmail, deceit and deception like a duck to water. There is one mild complication to this life of crime, primarily being that Mike is a cop, stationed at the notorious 75th District just South East of Manhattan. As an early context setting section imprints this was an extraordinarily dangerous environment, which in the 1980’s was awash in thousands of homicides a year as hundreds of millions of dollars of crack cocaine laid waste to entire communities and districts. This is one of those deft documentaries which is cut like a kinetic thriller, with a thundering action packed score punctuated with delirious montages, as talking head footage of a machine gun voiced Mike and his quieter partner Ken Eurell is cut between fascinating period specific photos and archival footage of their notorious crimes and the IAD investigations into their spiralling transgressions. As a keen purveyor of this type of urban depravity, as a degenerate dime-store denizen who digs the digressions of desperate dogs and worships at the altar of James Ellroy this is of course right up my graffiti choked alley, so if you find such material fascinating then this is a documentary for you. This is the kind of story that demands a fictional translation as it was born for the big-screen, although sadly Sidney Lumet has left us maybe draft in James Gray or Spike Lee to craft this tense urban thriller, as some of the scenes and scams that these guys got into are straight out of a Hollywood handbook, including international drug cartels, secret surveillance in the back of white vans, wild car chases across the East river bridge as the coke and booze flowed like a tarnished tsunami. The film would write itself with the cops own internal sense of omertà a powerful dramatic foil, as even if you know a colleague is up to no good you, never, ever, ever turn rat regardless of the circumstances. This is a solid rap-sheet, and is rather disquieting in the background of this years police brutality and institutional illness seen in Ferguson and Cleveland and North Charleston and Cincinnati and on and on…….
Guilt can be a powerful tool. There I was, forlornly idling through recent activity on the menagerie, cursing my lack of recent opportunities to manage all things movie. Then, like a flash of lightning inspiration struck – why not pull an old fashioned double-bill weekend, featuring films unknown and unseen? Well, through the luck of the draw a quick search of the local cinema schedule yielded two potential targets, a duplex of movies whose outline premise and cast were known to me, yet whose overall dimensions remained still vague enough for me not to have even caught a trailer or an outline inking of their relative merits or mistakes. So, as is my idiom on possibly the sunniest day of the year I wearily meandered over to the Cineworld to spend the day hiding from the sun, embarking on a devilish roll of the dice with the next four hours hurled down as the ante on the poker table of life. Now I know what you’re thinking – alert the authorities, he’s out of control, and surely like Icarus such reckless behaviour is bound to cause him to crash down to earth in a humbling, pride-defying heap. Well fret not gentle reader I have this all under control, even if I still haven’t quite found the impetus to visit either of London’s two newest and prestigious cinemas. I do have a programmed agenda for July which should set us back on track with previously viewed and guaranteed material, and part of the reasoning for this exercise was to set myself a speed-writing goal as we get into training for a potential international festival which is looming on the horizon. But for now let’s see what this recent folly has excavated, and as a preview of coming events I wouldn’t call either interrogation a particularly unfruitful activity.
The first to obtain access was Knock Knock, the Eli Roth directed horror thriller starring Keanu Reeves as LA valley dwelling architect Evan Webber. Never knowingly missing the chance to bludgeon a scene into his audiences cranium the first twenty minutes of this film clearly establish that Evan LOVES HIS WIFE and adores HIS TWO CHILDREN, as a one scene requirement to erect backstory is ham-fistedly drawn out to twenty minutes of EXPLAINING JUST HOW MUCH A NICE GUY KEANU IS AND HOW MUCH HE LOVES HIS WIFE AND CHILDREN. After the family retire to the beach for the weekend Evan has to stay home and finish an urgent project, his doorbell ringing at a midnight hour during a particularly ominous rainstorm. Standing there bedraggled yet bewitching are Genesis (Lorenza Izzo) and Bel (Ana de Armas), two shall we say feisty young women whom take a liking to Keanu, the seductive sirens swiftly overcoming his futile sexual defences of faithfulness and fidelity. The next morning his mournful regret turns more hellish as Evan realizes that both seductresses are not entirely mentally stable, and he soon finds himself on a rocky road to blackmail, vengeance and a marriage threatening maelstrom of violence, torture and tendentious trysts.
Home invasion movies always pivot on an outside force entering and disrupting the domestic equilibrium, usually due to some small moral failure on behalf of our hapless and doomed protagonist, it’s a formula that Roth gleefully flays as he formulates this exploitation picture that would not be adverse to squalidly limp squealing out from to the scuzzy picture houses of 1970’s Times Square or Soho. In fact Roth is on record as saying the film is a loose remake of 1977’s Death Game, it’s certainly got that old fashioned moral quandary of a fundamentally decent chap paying heavily for one moment of weakness or social transgression, and even Roth’s rather clumsy direction can’t blight what elementally remains a gruesomely fascinating premise – hell hath no fury like a woman, or indeed women scorned. You’ve got to hand this one to Keanu though, I can’t imagine many actors accepting a rather risky project which doesn’t project him in a particularly effervescent light, with even a suggestion that the two temptresses could be underage throwing a very uncomfortable pallor of paedophilic potential – how many ‘A’ listers are gonna get even remotely close to that? The uncomfortable aura is replicated in a few scenes where you can almost hear Roth cackling with unbridled glee, but he doesn’t quite have the satiric skill that say a terse provocateur like Verhoeven or Von Trier would invest in the actual chain of cause and effect, with opportunities squandered to really turn the thumb screws while ignoring some plot contrivences like barely concealed cadavers.. All that said I rather enjoyed this, especially for the moments of horrific hilarity, the women’s lunatic cruelty and Keanu’s tortured yells, even assimilating the moments of unintended hilarity from his rather robotic performance – Keanu is many things, a most excellent dude whom is usually entertaining to spend some time with, but a great actor he is not.
Second on the sojourn was Slow West, a film which when I utter the phrase ‘a Sundance festival western’ may get all sorts of genre synapses ricocheting around your sun-poached cerebellum. Quirky, off-beat characters and segregated scene momentum? Quality, studious character actors known for their attraction to offbeat material? Attention demanding compositions and landscape photography aligned with a folktronic and frenetic score? All these things and more reside in the purlieus of writer director John Maclean (of Beta Band fame no less) debut movie, and never has a film screamed ‘this is my debut so I’m going to throw in everything I possibly can’ since Raimi and Campbell haunted the Michigan woods in 1979. Following a trademark Western journey narrative our slightly hapless hero Jay Cavendish (the raccoon eyed Kodi Smit McPhee) is self-exiled from his Scotland home, travelling to the badlands of Missouri to seek his beloved Rose (Caren Pistorius) after her and her father fled the thistle drenched homestead due to some serious, unspecified infraction which is slowly revealed as the narrative ambles along. Through chance and fate Jay is befriended by the roguish Silas (Fassbender who also served as producer so he obviously was charmed by the material), a scoundrel who is also seeking Rose for more financially secretive measures, with the $2000 bounty on her head causing his old criminal fraternity led by the perennially filthy Ben Mendelsohn to nip at both their avaricious heels.
I mostly admired Slow West incredulous strain for artistic authenticity, the film veers from pretentious to primitive but there is certainly a valid voice trying to be heard over the clattering horseshoes and starling pistol fire. It’s the kind of film where the two leads stumble across three African dudes deep in the Minnesota’s veldt, crooning some tribal songs to each other, a incongruous mix of setting and scenario which is unremarked upon as Silas and jay continue on their horse opera odyssey. The closest comparison I can draw upon is Jim Jarmusch’s wonderfully melancholy Dead Man although Slow West simply isn’t in the same symbolic stratosphere, with just a dash of the dark humour of the Coens at their most playful the film manages to charm you over with its snake oil scaled elixir of oblique observations and bone crunching violence. Some of the photography of the teeming prairies is breath-taking and actually feels fresh for this long suffering 120 year vintage movie genre, but this is slightly undermined by a hacksaw editing pattern which has all the discipline of a sun-addled squaw, seemingly unable to hold a shot or moment for longer than a few seconds which prompts a lack of confidence in the material. The principals are as good as you’d expect and there are a few genuine laughs along the way, although life is a cheap commodity in these unyielding geographies, a sobering fact that Maclean brings to the foreground with a body count worthy of Stallone or Ahnoldt at their most blood thirsty. The title suggests the generic conventions decelerated to a tick-tock, slowing of time and movement reminiscent of the great 19th century Muybridge wager, a primer on cinema itself as a bastion of truth buried among the flickering hallucination of multiple overlapping images. Slow West is a promising enough debut of a potential new talent, at a brisk pace of 83 minutes it knows not to outstay its welcome, an ode to better things to come for Silas and his hopeful path to redemption.
It’s been a tough year, hasn’t it? Massacres of children in Gaza and Pakistan, CIA torture apologists and racial unrest across America as the civil rights dream falters and fumbles, Ukraine and UKIP more closer to home – and I’m not sure which one of the last duo is more terrifying. Normally a critic would make some spurious attempt to link these wider events into the cultural narrative of the cinema, cherry-picking examples of ‘dark’ movies to make the claim of art reflecting life, but I’m not gonna fall down that rabbit hole as for every troubling piece that seems to have touched a cultural nerve (Nightcrawler, Gone Girl, The Rover, Leviathan, Under The Skin, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, Nymphomaniac) there is an equal volume of joyous, optimistic and brightly colored triumphant adventures (Guardians Of The Galaxy, Frank, The Lego Movie, Lucy, X-Men Days Of Future Past, Interstellar and the usual glut of animated incidentals) to balance out the light with the dark. My overall impression is of a rather average year with some odd pearls glittering among the swine, my biggest regret the unconscious emphasis on American fare as you will see from the compilations. Now it’s not as if I deliberately attempt to be a pretentious film critic (that just comes naturally) and actively seek out only European art house fare or an obscure directors most avant-garde offering or anything, but in putting this together the heavy bias of North American material is glaring this year, a symptom of my lack of international film festival coverage perhaps. I do deeply regret not seeing Leviathan or Force Majeure yet but by the same token I find the works of, say, Nuri Bilge Ceylon (Winter Sleep has topped numerous polls) rather tedious, and other celebrated fare such as the new Godard and Ida were admirable but a little self-consciously art-house and obtuse, almost working to a formula as well defined and enshrined as any cookie-cutter Hollywood product.
Still we managed to power through Sundance London and the LFF as usual but I was hoping for some foreign viewing, but as always the rather chaotic day job presented the usual scheduling difficulties. We also made an intergalactic effort with the BFI’s SF season which enabled me to meet some key Kubrick collaborators, and as usual we gunned down a few older classics, including The Good, The Bad & The Ugly, Paths Of Glory, An Autumn Afternoon as well as Night of The Hunter and Belle Et La Bete under the waning winter slush of the Gothic season. I didn’t devote as much time to my Fritz Lang series as I’d liked but we did consider some classic material, from The Big Heat to the indigenous expressionism of Metropolis, this will continue in 2015 as there are a few more noirs I’m desperate to cover. I’m deeply disappointed that Snowpiercer never got a cinema release here and will pick up the Blu-Ray now it has thawed to a reasonable price, TV wise I’ve also covered enormous ground, finally finishing the long trek through Buffy Seasons 3 to 6 consequentially alongside all five seasons of Angel – that was quite a feat. Then there was season 2 of the amusingly schlocky Bates Motel, Fargo was freezing fun (I particularly enjoyed the expansive time period that the season meandered through) while Menagerie favorite Boardwalk Empire faltered a little before pulling it out of the bag with a season closer that saw a beloved character bow out in appropriate grace. The most genre fun was probably Penny Dreadful and the increasingly bonkers American Horror Story, the last season of which has more dutch angles than a Flemish cubist convention. Finally though the highlight was the Mammon that was True Detective, sure some of the final plot contortions were a little ridiculous but overall this was the small screens greatest capture, and yes I will once again reference that astounding sequence. But we’re here for the movies aren’t we, so as always here are the guys and gals top picks over at Sound On Sight (my meek contribution is at No.12), as usual my top ten is in no specific order and are my personal favorites as opposed to the most acclaimed, evolutionary or envelope-pushing works, so let’s kick off with what was surprisingly the updated Sight & Sound top film of the year as well;
The Menagerie Films Of 2014
Boyhood (Richard Linklater, USA, 2014) – Whilst we all know the premise of the film isn’t entirely original with both the Truffaut Antoine Doniel cycle and the UK documentary series 7 Up utilizing the same device Richard Linklater’s wonderful, affectionate ode to growth and maturation is brilliant on an emotional and character level, and that’s why critics and passing civilians have taken the film to heart. Here’s a nice long appreciation of the films patient production model, quite how Linklater made such an affecting film with so little of narrative nourishment is a testament to his laid back skill, in this film made of little moments which aggregate into a soliloquy on aging and the fleeting transparency of time.
The Wolf Of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, USA, 2013) – There’s always one isn’t there, one film released so far back in the dimly conceived mists of time that we can barely conceive it was released in the same lunar cycle. Scorsese coaxed (or is that coked?) in the year with this exuberant, unapologetic lancing of the American dream, a savage sermon against the perils and pernicious plague of excess of the past thirty years. The DNA chain through his greatest films reveals men wallowing in a labyrinthine moral and psychic abyss, from Travis Bickle to Jake La Motta, from Rupert Pupkin to Henry Hill, now Jordan Belfort joins the tribe of testosterone tussled anti-heroes who achieve some redemption when they confront the error of their ways. The film has the energy and chutzpah of a man half Scorsese’s age, proof positive that as that great generation of Movie Brats slowly creep toward retirement (as I write this in November Marty’s just turned 72) they have a savage bite in them yet.
Guardians Of The Galaxy (James Gunn, USA, 2014) – It’s been a reasonable year on the blockbuster front, despite gargantuan reservations I still rather enjoyed Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, Godzilla and Edge Of Tomorrow AKA Live, Die, Repeat AKA The Cruiser Carks It, but the most entertaining time I had under the tent-pole tarpaulin was the Marvelous Guardians Of The Galaxy. It’s fun to see a superstar in the making and I think Chris Pratt will go out of this world, I loved the Howard Hawksian motley camaraderie of characters on a desperate mission translated through Jack Kirby storyboards, and James Gunn’s loose CGI sprinkling of subversive humor and staging gave the film a refreshing little bite. Sheer, state of the art formulaic franchise entertainment, ideal escapism to evade your woes for a couple of hours.
The Tribe (Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy, Ukraine, 2014) – It doesn’t happen often but every few years a film comes along and turns a supposedly stale and degraded art form upside down, leading the very language of the form into fresh waters, bruising a lasting legacy in the mind. I still shudder a little when recalling The Tribe, its shattering trio of outré scenes aside it is a remarkable testament to the fluidity of screen communication and artistic economics. The visual aesthetic of distancing, static long takes are intimately married to its aural audacity – no score, no dialogue, just simple and searing diagetic dread. I loved the commentators who have likened it to silent cinema, the emotions and drama blazing across the screen despite the absence of dialogue, subtitles, or overt language, as scandalous as Scum and as brutal as Kubrick’s stylised droogs, The Tribe must be this years mute masterpiece.
Blue Ruin (Jeremy Saulnier, USA, 2013) – The absolute highlight of a reasonable quality Sundance London Film Festival Blue Ruin exceeded my azure expectations, a taut and tense neo-noir with it’s crosshairs on one of America’s less attractive obsessions – firearms and fury.The sense of mystery that is preserved is superb as you wonder what could have driven this itinerant Radaghast to such desperate measures, with the gallows black humor oozing from every sweaty pore. I expect we’ll be seeing more of debut director Saulnier and his moon eyed leading man, with a final Coenesque perfect payoff coda this film is vengeance laced perfection.
Her (Spike Jonze, USA, 2013) – In keeping with this years theme of SF assimilating other genres – in this case the Rom-Com – this gently moving film starts with a warm heart of gold in the algorithm, before it severs the cerebellum in the single singularity. Quite how Jonze and his crew managed to take an absurd, almost comical premise and made you care for everyman Twombly (Phoenix in his quietest performance for years) romantic inclinations still scuppers my cynical CPU. With it’s pastel palette Hoyte van Hoytema is certainly building his reputation as one of the worlds leading cinematographers to watch after coming to international attention with Let The Right One In and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and a small, modest Chris Nolan film which seems to have soared to success in cinemas. Like Interstellar the film is SF as speculation, holding a digitized mirror to current social experiences and developments, and musing in those areas of the place of our species interrelationships with technology, with economics, with love and loss. Oh, and this might be the oddest and funniest observation of the year.
Gone Girl (David Fincher, USA, 2014) – It’s actually been quite a year for fans of the great American assimilated auteur, we’ve had new films from Scorsese, Jonze, Anderson, Aronofsky, Nolan and Fincher, and casting my eyes forward there is a potential bounty for the imminent year ahead. Any film which provokes such debate on the nature of current sexual politics is the mark of a period defining film, but I don’t think that should shadow just what a beautifully crafted and deliciously executed piece of pure, unadulterated cinema that Gone Girl represents. Being an apathetic pussy or limp dick I think you’ll bring your own thoughts to this movie, and forge your own beliefs on whom might be wright or wrong. Vaguely related but Richard Kelly almost atones for his mediocre cinematic output since Donnie Darko here, a reasonably argued comparison piece between Gone Girl and none other than Eyes Wide Shut. This comparison between Finch and the portly master of suspense is tasty, while The Dissolve makes a case for itself as one of the top dozen film sites here. Me? Well, upon further reflection the more I admire how the film manipulates structure, how it feints and parries the viewers expectations it demands a third revision, alongside another muted acknowledgement of the mischievous perversion of the untrustworthy narrator, all echoed with Trent’s pulversing score.
Nightcrawler – (Dan Gilroy, USA, 2014) – I love it when something scuttles out of the depths of the dark and confronts you, as someone who quietly prides themselves on their horizon scanning for new great movies this nebulous little nasty took me completely by surprise – and I love that. Criticizing media ethics is a little like shooting fish in a barrel, but Dan Gilroy’s nocturnal odyssey heightens the stakes to an overarching screech at modern society, all in thrall to Gyllenhaal’s slithering performance as the next breed of Wall Street impresarios. Like Lou Bloom I’m also being a selfish bastard as I think this was my best review of the year thus the film has lingered in the Menagerie memory, it was a bastard to write but when the words suddenly fell into place I thought I came closest to straddling that gulf between the impression in the mind and the words on-screen. This is a nasty, immediate and ugly mirror of modern media society, with a conclusion that would have Australian oligarchs beaming with pride.
Interstellar (Christopher Nolan, USA, 2014)- Is it all a big metaphor for the collapse of film? What a surprise, the Nolan man-crush continues, cinematically speaking with his most ambitious and on occasion most frustrating film to date. That ecclesiastical soundtrack high in the mix has been on heavy rotation here at Menagerie towers, and certain moments – the messages playing out over McConaughey’s face during that scene, the fraught docking maneuver, the queries that arise during that stage of the odyssey – well, yes it’s flawed but it unquestionably has some marvelous moments. A second viewing diminishes some of the problems with the picture, overall it’s a film that has generated debate and discussions (see some of the robot design evolution here), and it’s just goddamn inspiring to see a film maker genuinely attempting to wrestle and evolve the blockbuster form. Maybe it’s my advancing age but any film with such optimism and genuine celebration of progress emanating from our earthly plane is welcome around this quiet quadrant of alpha centuri, plot worm-holes and all. Anecdotally I’ve been charting the film’s trajectory and it really seems to have resonated with a younger generation (as opposed to my jaded peers who have trotted out the scientific snark and sneered at the sentimentality), virally spreading beyond its confines to inspire and influence viewers around science, physics and astronomy – how many films can genuinely boast that reaction?
Whiplash (Damien Chazelle, USA, 2014) – If you that assume that jazz was all dark berets, moodily mouthed Gitanes and nocturnal turtleneck posturing then think again. This electric debut from the disgustingly talented debut writer-director Damien Chazelle has it all – an involving storyline, immensely powerful performances, ecstatic sequences that revel in the joys of performance of motion in this detailed aria on the painful pursuit of perfection. The editing is phenomenal and it’s riveting to see Miles Teller hold his own against J.K Simmons ferocious Oscar-winning performance (yup, I’m calling it here), sure it might stretch credulity at one point which feels like a slight misstep, but then a thundering final act blasts over the screen with a stunning encore which leaves you pirouetting out into the night.
Honorable mentions to the Grand Budapest Hotel, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Fruitvale Station (fuck me was that a prescient film), White God, Foxcatcher, White Bird In A Blizzard, Only Lovers Left Alive, A Most Wanted Man, Black Coal, Thin Ice and for pure cinephile celebration Peter Strickland has once again made the most meta 2014 film with his sensuous The Duke Of Burgundy. In terms of genre fare moments John Dies At The End was hilariously bizarre, Sin City 2 was unfairly maligned and The Raid 2 was bone-shatteringly brilliant, although I must admit that a small screen revisit does highlight some of the films more evident flaws – great set pieces, but too many longueurs between the lacerations. Ah I hear you scream, but where is Scarlett Johannson’s carnivorous cenopod? Well, while it has materialized on many ‘best of 2014’ lists and had its UK release this year do remember that Under The Skin was acquired in Toronto, so it has already featured in last year’s extravaganza. I didn’t really embark on any small screen seasons other than a passing glimpse at some of the controversial Kim-Ki-Duk’s earlier pictures, and I’m quite surprised to see a lack of any truly memorable documentaries in my coverage this year, The Case Against Eight was good but not great enough to make the cut, and although the Cannon Films autopsy was fun it didn’t warrant more than a passing fist-bump of appreciation. I will however nominate Tim’s Vermeer, Particle Fever and Future Shock as non-fiction fields worth exploring.
As befitting a turbulent and ominous year the films which have sorely stuck in my cranium are similarly challenging and risqué fare,
Christiane F (Ulrich Edel, Germany, 1981) – I was turned on to this film by the wonderful House Of Psychotic Women that I covered here, maybe it’s the preponderance of CGI saturated vision quests these days but the stark vérité of this rather harrowing little tale really stuck in my arm. Based on the real life memoirs of the titular character its a fascinating snapshot of 1970’s Berlin, all drab fashions and brick brutalist architecture, and a wonderful score by Bowie at his absolute peak as far as I’m concerned. Given that we sadly lost the street-poet Lou Reed this year I can’t imagine a more fitting tribute to a dangerous walk on the wild side.
The Visitor – (Giulio Paradisi, Italy, 1979) So I have finally seen The Visitor, and that was what it is. That cryptic arrangement is my feeble attempt to ape the film under discussion, a long-lost cult curio which the Alamo Drafthouse recently resurrected with a Blu-Ray transfer, one of those insane coalitions of every popular film of the time that the Italians loved to throw into a celluloid stew and see what bubble to the surface. Lance Henrikson, Franco Nero, Glenn Ford, Shelly Winters and John Huston star in this Jodorowski styled melange of The Exorcist, Lifeforce, The Lady From Shanghai, The Omen, CE3K and Eraserhead, together it makes precisely zero sense but operates on a level of individual sequences, an aperitif of the era which yields a few distinctive flavors. I detected a Moorcock influence from his Dancers At The End Of Time series, then the camera is seized by what one assumes is an epileptic toddler as the narrative bizarrely shifts to footage of a basketball game, it veers wildly between tones and technique and I enjoyed it throughly. It might be an ideal double bill / companion piece with Candy which has a similarly pharmaceutical enhanced feel, a crazy cast and nonsensical plotlines = glorious cult insanity.
Ne Te Retourne Pas (Marina de Van, France, 2009) – The sacrifices I make for you people, and the thanks I get. Honestly, you think I haven’t got better things to do? Two hours of staring at Sophie Marceau and Monica Bellucci was a real chore let me tell you, in this dark French psychological thriller from the underappreciated Marina de Van of Dans Ma Peu body-horror fame. The doppelgänger plot is pure bourgeois dread, as a successful middle-aged professional & homemaker slowly begins to suffer strange interludes where objects appear to move around her families elegant Parisian apartment, before her cognitive condition degenerates with more disturbing alterations to her physical form. To say any more would be to venture into spoiler territory, but this is a discretely crafted little chiller which keeps you guessing of its internal or external malignant source,
Body Double (Brian De Palma, USA, 1984) – If you’re surprised to see a De Palma film on my best list of the films of the year list then think just how surprised I was when ten minutes into the picture on a Film4 screening I slowly realised I’d never seen this film before. I think I’ve always conflated Body Double with De Palma’s similar Hitchcockian ‘homage’ Dressed To Kill, so from a purely academic standpoint this was quite an experience for the Menagerie as we don’t stumble across missing texts that often. Brian is a director distinguished with some great, dare I see it meta sequences in his films that refer and refract the very operation of cinema itself, his wider texts failing to gel into a coherent whole just like his protégé Tarantino. In this film there’s lots of prowling POV, gliding steadicam and feints of sexual jealousy, and some terrific period interiors and design which remind you of just how gorged and execrated the 1980’s were. I quite surprised myself as someone who usually has little time for De Palma and his tedious hysterics, but something about this pierced the spot as something new and a historic piece of a jigsaw puzzle finally being completed, plus it coincided with remembering some perfectly delightful trivia that it’s also Patrick Bateman’s favourite film in American Psycho. This film couldn’t be more eighties if our designer stubble, Ray-Ban aviator sporting anti-hero didn’t get into a brutal gunfight down at the docks with some Miami based Colombian coke-fiends after witnessing an impromptu breakdance battle down at the new Space Invaders Arcade (takes a breath……..), before Frankie Goes To Hollwood turn up for a musical interlude number – and then they fucking do. It’s hilariously, completely and blatantly derivative of Rear Window, Dial M For Murder and Vertigo which is fucking rich from De Palma given he’s already molested that ground with 1977’s Obsession, while the chain of events and indiscretions in the films last half hour is utterly ridiculous and absurd. I loved it.
Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldritch, USA, 1955) – From its opening corrupted title sequence this is a seminal film of the 1950’s and one of the absolute key film noirs, I watched this on a double bill with a 1940’s Lang and the differences were as stark as the jagged chiaroscuro lighting. Aldritch unshackled his camera from the chains of the studio to provoke a nebulous reality to this dark drama, and the fluid visual work makes the film feel much more modern that a lot of its peers. I’ve seen it before a few times but the sheer craft was a revelation, with troubling little surreal inserts and cantilevered compositions marking a new evolution of this most murky of sub-genres. Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) isn’t quite the noble crushed Bogart or Dana Andrews of earlier noir, in fact he’s quite the brutal bastard anti-hero, while the women are all playing an angle and manipulating their marks, with a nuclear paranoia pulsing in the films radioactive core. Kiss Me Deadly creeps like a troubling claustrophobic dream, I’ll slug any cinephile who wouldn’t include this dark little dame in their top dozen noirs of all time list, not least for the influence on the likes of Lost Highway and Repo Man which honor the film in their own quiet way. Any film with the muted threat ‘Stay away from the windows Mike, someone might blow you a….kiss’ is aces in my book.
Films To See In 2015
Inherent Vice (P.T. Anderson, USA, 2014) – No surprises here of course, except that PTA turned up to personally introduce the charity screening at the Prince Of Wales cinema back in November – why no, I’m not in the least absolutely furious that I missed that opportunity. After the very serious and sour tones of his last two movies it should be fascinating to see PTA groove back to Boogie Nights territory, and it’s interesting to consider that this is the first time that any of Thomas Pynchon’s books have been adapted for the screen, large or small, by anyone, ever. Early word is exceptionally good so I reckon this could be an instant cult classic, with that The Big Lebowski meets The Long Goodbye Californian burned-out vibe another addition to PTA’s west coast fascination.
Black Hat – (Michael Mann, USA, 2015) – Yes, of I concede that this could go either way. Shudderingly ugly Chris Hemsworth as the worlds most talented superhacker? Hmm. A seventy-one year old director uploading his vision of modern cyber-crime in a realm of technological advance exponentially advancing to render any event ancient in six months? Ahh, just as an example I wrote that sentence a month ago and already there has been a rather significant cyber-crime hasn’t there? If however you are contingent of the exhaustive research and fidelity that Mann amasses during his perfectionist preproduction process then I’m certain he would have consulted the worlds leading futurists, scholars and think-tanks on the shady subject of cyber-espionage, and on a rather more testosterone flavored kick is there anyone better at crafting a shoot-out or action beat? Of course the film has taken on a whole new dimension in Tinsel Town every since the crippling Sony Hack, should be interesting to assess the films reaction in the shadow of terrified executives suddenly spending millions on IT defenses – more on that below. I’m an enormous Mann fan so any new film of his is an event around these parts, this hits in February so not long to wait.
Knight Of Cups (Terence Malick, USA, 2015) – After a traditionally slow gestation period Terence Malick’s Knight Of Cups was finally announced for a Berlin 2015 festival premiere, and maybe I’ll be there to see it – I’ve always wanted to visit Berlin. In his old age Terry is becoming positively prolific with two other films on the horizon, this trailer is quite odd I thought as it looks like a Malick film with a modern setting which is not his usual spiritual playground. Nevertheless it is a further hymn from the American alcehmist and is therefore unmissable, even if his last effort was slightly disappointing.
Midnight Special (Jeff Nichols, USA, 2015) – ‘I really wanted to make a 1980’s John Carpenter film like Starman. I love the way those films look.’ said Mr. Nichols, and there was much rejoicing. Filming commenced in back in April but the movie isn’t scheduled until November of next year, I have absolutely no further details than that nor shall I be seeking any until a trailer ambles along. Alongside the likes of Sean Durkin and J.C. Chandor I consider Mr. Nichols as one of the most promising of American directors of that recent generation, and anyone who references obscure Carpenter and makes his own skillful and intelligent movies is obviously a friend of the Menagerie. The picture has a cast – presumably Adam Driver and Kirsten Dunst are the star crossed lovers fleeing another collaboration with Nichol’s frequent muse Michael Shannon, so maybe a more muted SF piece can fight back again the more feeble franchises.
Ruling the roost for first viewing of 2015 is Birdman which opens on New Years day, fortunately the rest of the year has plenty of other treasures to explore. The American auteurs maintain their vice like grip on my cinema consciousness as we have a new Scorsese, potentially his penultimate film before retirement which is a gloomy proposition as he continues his late career peak. There’s also a new Spielberg who is directing a Coen brothers script which could be quite the clandestine combination and I’m slightly terrified that Gasper Noe is back with a film called Love, the subject matter of which promises more fluid dispersal than the most splatter heavy slasher. Closer to home there’s High Rise as domestic favorite Ben Wheatley translates the brilliant J.G. Ballard’s better known urban nightmares, Tomorrowland looks like a mystery worth solving (is it based on a book, a YA novel or comic or anything? I know nothing about this project and intend to keep it that way) while Del Toro gets back to his spooky roots with Crimson Peak. Speaking of genre not only is an absolutely incandescent Max back with an exciting looking film (and proof that the art of the movie trailer isn’t necessarily dead as everyone went fucking nuts about that teaser) but It Follows seems to be the sleeper horror hit before Ultron finally takes on The Avengers. I don’t care for the look of Jurassic World but I’ll see go see it, who knows it might be tasty and Ahnoldt is back in what is shaping up to be the worst entry in an increasingly rusty franchise. Jupiter Ascending looks increasingly lame following some juvenile trailers and a mysteriously axed release date (usually a sign that something is significantly rotten in Denmark) and toward the end of the year some trifling space opera franchise gets a new iteration, with Mission Impossible 5 facing an impossible box office mission by opening a mere week later – that’s braver than any high-altitude heist.
So we finally cast our gaze to the future. As always a glut of sequels infested movie theaters in 2014, including A Haunted House 2, 300: Rise Of An Empire, Paranormal Activity 4, Captain America 2, The Expendables 3, X-Men: Days Of Future Past, Dolphin Tale 2, Rio 2, Sin City 2 and Dumb & Dumber 2, How To Train Your Dragon 2, The Hobbit 3, and the third The Hunger Games film which I simply couldn’t face. Milking franchise cows for three, four or more installments of product has been an established film business since the dawn of technology when the likes of Biograph, Pathe and Mack Sennet supplied a hungry audience with a constant tsunami of two-reelers. But mere repetition and formula isn’t the whole picture as illustrated in this article, the gulf between the two arcs of the industry is becoming more hideously apparent, as spineless executives seek to ‘cross-pollenate franchise possibilities’ or ‘fully exploit the cultural profile of intellectual properties to vertically penetrate the four segment demographic’ – parts of this commentary from Universal’s CEO honestly made me want to retch. I didn’t take a genius to predict that both I, Frankenstein and Dracula Untold would curdle at the box-office without a single molecule of horror in them, the latter just about breaking even with a $212 take on a $70 million budget when you factor in P&A and the exhibitors cut of the gross. Wider issues aside there also wasn’t much sympathy around these parts for the Sony hacking scandal (even if the world continues to turn into a simulacra of a William Gibson novel) with the genius ideas of a Men In Black and 21 Jump Street fustercluck being brought to screens – is there a single original thought left in Hollywood? The powerpoints alone are the funniest thing the studio has produced in the 21st century.
The disintegration of the middle ground is unnerving and remind me of the 1950’s, when the studios desperately fought the new threat television with widescreen, 3-D and other theatre gimmicks. The difference in this decade is stubble but no less desperate , as maybe this proliferation of franchised programming is the frantic industry reaction to the so called rise of Serious Television© and the arc of long form seasons and character development to fully explore potent tales and themes. It’s only with TV that we seem to consume those ‘water-cooler’ events such as that gory episode of Game Of Thrones or that intoxicating finale of Breaking Bad, but from a pure storytelling perspective did The Hobbit need to three movies? Does The Stand need to be four movies? Was the last Hunger Games novel deserving of being split into two films? It’s pure economics of plateauing theatre attendance and the new kids nipping at the dinosaur studio’s heels, Showcase, Netflix and Amazon seem much more likely to take risks and commission material that would have Time Warner or 20th Century Fox executives reaching for their psychiatrists emergency speed-dial. The way I look at it is that quality always seems to rise to the top, of course I cast my net wide but I never struggle to find ten pictures that are exemplars of the form, so these claims of TV ‘beating’ movies is rather absurd – it’s on a par with claiming an apple is a better fruit than a banana. In any case the film industry has always defied expectation and prediction as a recent article has just blown apart insiders predictions, as William Goldman said in Hollywood ‘nobody knows anything‘;
On the third and final day I tried to make up for lost time with a final trio of screenings, taking in a picture which I hadn’t originally intended to see but decided to give a chance, followed by a terrific documentary and probably the most anticipated screening of the festival – Blue Ruin. At this stage of a festival you pretty much click into a rhythm, arrive at venue, coffee, movie, twenty minute break, coffee, movie, circle and repeat. It’s so revitalising to see these films without the associated half hour of adverts which plague civilian movie screenings, or sitting through the same damn trailers you’ve seen a half dozen times before, pure unmediated movies because as Truffaut said ‘Three films a day, three books a week and records of great music would be enough to make me happy to the day I die.’ Well, I’m not quite that voracious a bookworm as I’m lucky if I manage three books a month but enough of these distractions, lets close this down for another year with a final successful tranche of screenings which may just harbour the first sleeper major critical smash of the year;
First up on the final day was Obvious Child, a twentysomething comedy drama featuring struggling stand-up Donna Stern (Jenny Slate) and the pitfalls of her career and love life. Things have hit a turbulent patch with her bookstore day-job coming to a close due to the rising New York commercial rents,, her comedy career has stalled by playing the same routines at the same dank clubs, her long term boyfriend has just dumped her and then a one night stand results in an unexpected pregnancy. Ten minutes in and initially thought was going to be a real chore as the central character of Sophie could easily go one of two ways, an irritating narcissist with a poor line in humour, or a charming young woman with a devastating screen charisma – the reality is somewhere in the middle. It’s a character driven film and is at times neatly observed of that uncertain period of your life when you feel things like your dream career and meeting ‘the one’ should be coalescing, and when that doesn’t happen terror and despair can set-in. I didn’t laugh much as it didn’t strike my particular funny bone, but as it ambles along it slowly works a subtle little charm, not one to dwell in the memory but a pleasant enough one a half hour diversion.
A little political context first I think. Although same-sex marriage was enacted in California for a short while the legality was reversed by the proponents of Proposition 8 which was brought to a referendum in 2008, on the same ballot as the voting choice of either McCain and Obama during that historic election. Whilst millions celebrated the election of the first African American president gay and lesbian dudes were devastated by the passing of the Proposition 8 mandate on a slim 53% majority which invalidated and reversed hundreds of marriages, prompting two brave gay couples – one lesbian, the other two gay guys – decide to challenge the decision in the Californian Supreme Court. Filmed over a gruelling six years this civic minded piece is a terrific documentary which follows the traditional paradigm of fly on the wall filming as the story develops and the case is fought in the legal offices, the courts and the homes of the plaintiffs, all sublimated with the traditional form of talking head recollections and reflections. Anyone interested in civil rights will be riveted by the battle and its personal effects on the legal team and the two couples, it’s also fascinating by having your prejudices challenged quite brilliantly when the team hire severe right-wing republican constitutional lawyer Theodore Olson as their lead lawyer , on political paper he is utterly opposed to everything anyone who stands even remotely left of centre and has been at the vanguard of some abhorrent decisions (he was George Bush’s counsel and he effectively won the constitional fight for the White House back in 2000), but he sees the case as a Civil Rights abomination, a constitutional violation to prevent one sector of society to access the state functions that others enjoy, and as a supporter of the concept of marriage he genuinely feels this is the most important case of his prestigious career. As a left-winger you should loathe the guy but the genuine affection he feels for his clients and their case is palpable – naturally you’d expect him to loathe LGBT people as a religious aberration or something – and it’s in these grey areas that the documentary operates which mark it as elevated and fascinating in the form. Like a extended episode of The West Wing this documentary its a fascinating story if you enjoy legal intrigue as I do, with a few twists and turns which keep the energy levels high, all the way through to the deeply moving resolutions.
My most anticipated film of the festival was Blue Ruin so I’m enormously relived to report that it exceeded its lofty expectations, if you in any way enjoy nasty, uncompromising neo-noirs then you’re in for a absolute treat. I’ve not got much to add to my full review here, other than to say its procedural black comedy is obsidian pitch-perfect, the violence is earned and appropriately shocking and affecting, and I think we’ll be seeing much more of main actor Macon Blair who turns in a terrific performance – the film could comfortably be pitched as the Coen brothers remaking Death Wish. So that’s that for another year, overall a strong programme with a couple of four star fantastic movies (Fruitvale Station, Blue Ruin), a clutch of perfectly serviceable if unremarkable fare, and one stinker (Hits) – a pretty good ratio out of ten screenings – myself and my esteemed colleagues coverage is here.. But there’s no rest for the wicked as I’ve already committed to another festival, a less prestigious or publicised event which gets going in a couple of weeks, before then I suppose I should make an effort to see Transcendence (despite the atrocious reviews I think it’s only fair to give it a chance) and the intriguing sounding Locke…..
A slightly less strenuous programme for Day Two, with a mere three films to inflate the haul – tempo and temperance wins the race. Fortunately the line-up was a little stronger with three for three today, not necessarily any classics but a trio of imperfect but engaging films, but already we can detect a couple of trends across the programme. First of all maybe it’s not a trait restricted to American independent cinema but three pictures so far have relied heavily on social media and internet culture not just as background static but actual plot drivers and narrative goals, with occasional extracts from a characters communication device or their twitter feed scrolling across the screen – curious. Secondly most of these films seem to emerge from a quirky or unusual premise not necessarily attuned to mainstream cinema audiences – par for the course for smaller scale, miniscule budgeted projects across the globe – but there does seem to be some difficulty with taking these unusual ideas and frameworks through to a natural, organic and most importantly satisfying conclusion, with the steam running out at a script and imagination level as the movies shift into their final act. Hopefully I can quantify these traits in more specialised reviews but lets get going with the capsule overviews, beginning with the most anticipated film of the festival from the Menagerie’s perspective;
Fruitvale Station is the non-fiction inspired story of Oscar Grant, a young African-American guy and his tragic experience at the hands of the brutal San Francisco BART unit, one of the higher profile festival movies making waves across the Atlantic. Whilst I always attempt to evade the dreaded ‘spoilers’ it’s a bit stupid to attempt such irrelevancies given the facts of the case and it’s notoriety across the web, it is much more interesting to talk about how this film is told. It’s a debut from a recent Sundance alumni and a scorching film which doesn’t pull its punches, refusing to hagiograph the guy and his problematic history, and that even-handed approach doesn’t invalidate the injustice pulsing at the films core. I’ll just say that its immediately gripping as it takes into areas devoid in mainstream American cinema – not just from a racial but also a social and class perspective – which despite a few minor metaphoric missteps is overall a scorching piece of work – highly recommended and the best of the festival so far.
This one shot out of the blue, you’d have thought that a sick fuck like moi would be on top of any horror/comic hybrid but here we mischievously are. An unfortunately miscast Ryan Reynolds (Anthony Perkins or Christian Bale he is not) is a post-psychotic weirdo plagued with the barked instructions of his pets to follow his murderous urges, his local dog playing the angelic foil to a satanic tabby urging him to surrender to his blood drenched desires. There’s a few dangerously framed actresses flitting around the downscale toy factory (Anna Kendrick, Gemma Arterton,) where Reynolds works, while Jacqui Weaver plays his increasingly concerned psychiatrist. Comedy/Horror is a very difficult mixture to embalm and unfortunately the film is unsure just which way and just how far it should go, the jokes don’t quite strike while the gruesome pantomime also has the dexterity of a Shergar stuffed cadaver. It’s a little unfair of me as I really wanted the film to go much darker and edgier territory than the filmmakers were willing to pursue, it needed more of a John Waters edge to the malevolent mix, but I’ll admit that it did hold the attention until the aforementioned one hour plus mark when my attention started to drift. Still, the cat’s voiceover was quite funny (and checking out IMDB I’m surprised to see that Reynolds did the voiceover for both animals, the cat in particular sounded exactly like Peter Mullan) and generated quite a few laughs among the audience, but please people, pay more attention to the climax of your pictures if you really want to make something memorable.
While I’ll be skipping The Trip To Italy having seen the first three half hour episodes on UK terrestrial TV (wasn’t the last one a severe slip in quality? Enough with the same impressions already!) but I couldn’t ‘face myself’ in the mirror if I missed Frank, the other entry of the UK specific strand of the festival. Utilising the idiosyncratic life and career of cult British eccentric Frank Sidebottom the film is less the expected bio-pic of this unique figure than it is a musical muse on the artistic method, framed through the quiet frustration of Jon’s (Dornhnall Glesson) suburban ennui. He’s a frustrated keyboard player press-ganged into Franks eccentric band of musician oddities, most notably Maggie Gyllenhaal ‘s Yoko Ono / Nico from the Velvet Underground hybrid, squirreled away with similar nutcases at a remote Irish holiday cottage to record the worlds greatest rock record. This is much more gentle comedy that anticipated which sidelines Frank in favour of Jon’s artistic odyssey, yet you’ve got to admire Fassbender’s acceptance of performing an entire film behind an immovable paper-Mache mask – now that man’s got a sense of constrained humour. Once again when the film stumbles into its final stretch the composition loses its nerve and starts to run out of ideas, but it has the good graces to close on a lovely encore which should send the audiences toe-tapping out of the auditorium. But what you really want to know is if like that other masked UK cult figure Judge Dredd you will actually see the man behind the mask – and I’m staying schtum….