0207 | Ida

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When a film arrives in cinemas that has been lauded on the international festival circuit as a modern masterpiece it’s tempting to think there’s something wrong with your own personal taste if you don’t fall to your knees to kiss the floor at the end of a screening. I’m not alone, of course: the Guardian newspaper website has recently been running a series in which its writers assassinate several popular cinematic sacred cows, and all involved seem joyously relieved to finally have the public platform on which they can state their disagreement with the masses. Sometimes, it seems, it’s healthy to go against the grain if you feel like you need to, even if there’s just a slight amount of friction as a result.

Ida arrived in the UK a couple of months ago, though it first appeared in festivals a year earlier, to the exact kind of unanimously-positive huffing and puffing that I’m talking about: the kind where reviewers will use the word ‘haunting’ and ‘mesmerising’ with abandon without ever actually being haunted or mesmerised by the film in question (hey, I admit I’m not above a spot of hyperbole myself). Newspaper reviews praised the work of UK-based Polish director Paweł Pawlikowski as well as that of cinematographers Ryszard Lenczewski and Łukasz Żal, and every review I read at the time went wild over the performances of the two lead actors, Agata Trzebuchowska and Agata Kulesza. It’s enough to make you feel like a cultural leper for thinking that the film is merely ‘good’, as opposed to ‘great’.

It’s not that I’m utterly oblivious to the artistry at work here: For starters Trzebuchowska and Kulesza are indeed impressive. The former appears in her first major role here as Anna (though her real name is later revealed to be Ida), a novice nun in 1960s Poland who is sent by her (mother) superior to visit her family before she completes her vows. The latter is utterly convincing as Ida’s only living relative, An Aunt Called Wanda, an imposing, heavy-drinking former judge and prosecutor with ties to the country’s earlier Stalinist regime who has suffered a demotion to the level of magistrate. Both of their performances are often understated and meticulous, with the two actors intelligently and intuitively allowing the other space and time in the majority of their scenes together. I’d like to see more of both of them in the future.

Nor am I ignorant of the difficulties associated with holding an audience’s attention during a slow-paced film, which is something Pawlikowski (who co-wrote the story with the British playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz) manages to do, though admittedly this is the kind of work that will probably only attract a certain type of patient viewer anyway. Ida is a short film – just under an-hour-and-a-half – and it is measured, with occasional quietly-delivered revelations relating to Ida’s Jewish ancestry and the fate of her family during the Second World War affecting the characters and propelling the story forward. The filmmaker also manages to successfully juggle subjects that are essentially very different, analysing the actions of Polish citizens during the war rather than those of the Nazis, for example, while simultaneously exploring the sexual desires and psyches of two women of different ages.

Wanda looks to be in her mid-to-late 40s, and thus has lasting memories of the Holocaust and Nazi collaborators, as well as direct experience of the bitter, acrimonious period that followed. She is understandably cynical, lonely and somewhat disillusioned by the wartime actions of her countrymen, and she is understandably unable to move on from the past, while Ida has a more youthful innocence and a developing hunger for new experiences: this is shown most obviously by the way a young jazz saxophonist named Lis (Dawid Ogrodnik), himself representing a mildly-exotic brand of western freedom, rejects the advances of the confident, aging aunt and shows greater interest in her young niece. Ida’s first sexual experience with a man is shown as a poetic, sensual experience, while in an early contrasting scene Wanda is unromantically-pictured with a house guest who has clearly outstayed his welcome. Where Wanda is permanently wed to the country’s history through her profession, Ida is part of the first generation of Polish people without specific memories of their own about the mass slaughter that took place in the 1940s. Despite her ties to the Catholic church the young nun is able to make choices of her own free will in the final act, and it’s easy to associate the character with a more optimistic, forward-looking outlook, even though the ability to exercise such freedom has clearly come at a price for Poland and the majority of its people.

While the subject matter is fascinating, watching Ida is like watching a film that has been manufactured by sinister focus groups intent on wowing the festival circuit and the film world’s most earnest critics. Shot entirely in black-and-white, it feels so formal, so rigid, and so calculating in the way it looks that I began to long for a rough edge or two way before the end was in sight. The cinematography, while initially impressing, begins to feel contrived after 20 or 30 minutes or so. Of course all cinematography is contrived, if we’re going to split hairs, but shot after shot here seems too perfectly-constructed or over-thought to me. It may seem churlish to raise such a criticism, or to suggest that a film is ‘too perfect’ in the way it looks, but several framing techniques are used far too much and they tend to feel gimmicky after a while as a result. Subjects are often small and nearly always in the same position of the frame, appearing in the bottom 25% of the screen. With the outdoor scenes in this 6 x 7 aspect ratio – redolent of medium format photography – this means a lot of sky: does the filmmaker want to constantly remind us about the presence of God? I’m not entirely sure; if that was the intention then it’s arguably a very creative move, but if it isn’t then the minimal look, with all that empty space, is selected far too often for my liking for no good reason.

Perhaps I’m being too harsh. It’s impressive that two different DoPs were employed and that the second – Żal – managed to carry on the work of his predecessor when promoted from camera operator duties. As detailed by the director in this fascinating article things weren’t clicking with regular collaborator Lenczewski, who left the project early on, and Żal had no previous experience of shooting feature films. For a first-time effort this is certainly striking, and voices of dissent like mine are in the minority – the cinematography has been praised elsewhere, as mentioned earlier.

Ultimately Ida has plenty of substance to back up this flood of style, and after weeks and weeks of watching films primarily about male protagonists its core femininity – albeit cold and distant at times – makes for a welcome change. It’s an involving, interesting story that is well-acted and although I have some reservations about the cinematography I appreciate that it’s distinctive and can certainly see why so many people have been bowled over by it. Despite the heavy subject matter – guilty consciences, suicide, gravedigging, property theft – the film has a lightness of touch that recalls the New Wave films of the decade it is set in, and there is as much tenderness in the story as there is bleakness. The subject matter is confidently addressed by Pawlikowski and Lenkiewicz, and although I don’t quite share the enthusiasm of others I do think it’s very good indeed; a total of 54 awards (to date) suggests that I’m being overly-critical and should be shouting from the rooftops, but I can’t shake the feeling that Ida is almost too meticulously-designed and icily still at times, despite its many qualities.

The Basics:
Directed by: Paweł Pawlikowski
Written by: Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Paweł Pawlikowski
Starring: Agata Trzebuchowska, Agata Kulesza
Certificate: 12A
Running Time: 82 minutes
Year: 2014
Rating: 7.9

Trailer Thursdays: Spaceballs

Even as a long-term Star Wars fan I’m not really sure what to make of the hype surrounding an 88-second teaser trailer for a movie that isn’t actually released for another year (in case you’ve been under a rock for the past few days apparently the teaser for Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens will be shown to the public tomorrow). I’m even less sure what to make of people suggesting that they’ve bought a ticket for a random movie just so that they can see this particular teaser and will leave before the main feature actually plays. But I guess I’m just an old fashioned curmudgeon who thinks the hype machine has been cranked up way too much of late, and that things like trailers shouldn’t have this level of fuss attached to them. So despite the fact I’m one of the millions of overgrown kids that’s looking forward to seeing a minute’s worth of footage from JJ Abrams, I’m posting the trailer for the 1987 parody Spaceballs here today. Y’know it’s a shame Mel Brooks retired twenty years ago, especially when you consider that Spaceballs is actually the third best Star Wars film after Empire and A New Hope.

0206 | SoulBoy

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In the late 1960s a new music and dance movement emerged out of the mod scene in northern England, the Midlands and parts of Wales and Scotland. Dubbed ‘northern soul’ because northern English football fans were buying particularly obscure American soul singles on their trips to London, most of the scene’s important dance clubs were located in the north-west of England, and it proved to be so popular that some of these venues remained packed every weekend right through to the early 1980s, with revellers travelling from afar to experience the unique all-night atmospheres. The likes of Manchester’s Twisted Wheel and the famous Wigan Casino were the clubs with the highest profiles, though the scene flourished for years without ever becoming commercialised and without attracting much interest from a media obsessed with glam rock and, later, punk. Northern soul fans championed scores of unheralded American artists that were influenced by the Motown sound (though the more popular Motown hits themselves were largely ignored) and record stands in the clubs sold hard-to-find gems by the likes of The Steve Karmen Big Band, Al Wilson, Gloria Jones, Jimmy Radcliffe and The Marvelettes. Meanwhile the DJs with the best and most obscure sounds were worshipped like pop stars, and many would go on to be key figures in the music industry in the UK.

With northern soul the style of dancing was a key element: the music was fast and uptempo, and the moves on the dancefloor reflected this, becoming ever more athletic as the years wore on. High kicks, spins, drops and flips were the order of the day, and interestingly many similar moves would later surface in both disco dancing and breakdancing. The sweaty all-night club sessions also dictated the attire of northern soul fans: the tighter, sharper suits favoured by the mods gave way to loose-fitting clothes that allowed for more freedom of movement, such as high-waisted baggy Oxford trousers and vests, while club-goers would rarely be without essential accessories like talcum powder (which was thrown on the floor before dancing to help dancers to glide across the surface).

This film by Shimmy Marcus – at times a fairly bland and predictable love story, at others an energetic clubland comedy-drama – attempts to recreate the early-ish days of the northern soul scene as well as the sense of boredom and the bleak outlook faced by unqualified school-leavers in the early 1970s. Highlighting the need at the time for such musical escapism, it is mainly set in the towns that make up Stoke-on-Trent (and filmed entirely on location in that area), and Marcus manages to capture the sense of euphoria associated with clubbing as well as in any film since Human Traffic, and will no doubt leave old soul fans misty-eyed with its portrayal of the scene.

The likeable Martin Compston plays a teenager named Joe with an uninspiring 9-5 job delivering potatoes; his weekends revolve around a dreary looking pub called the Purple Onion until he stumbles by chance upon the northern soul scene when he follows hairdresser Jane (Nichola Burley) into a local record store … and then on to Wigan. Amid all the dancing and the pining that follows there’s lightweight and unobtrusive support from pre-Game Of Thrones Alfie Allen, playing Joe’s best friend Russ, Pat Shortt as Joe’s colleague Brendan, and Felicity Jones as Mandy, the ‘invisible other girl’ who seeks the leading man’s attention. There are also cameos for Huey Morgan, DJ and singer with the act Fun Lovin’ Criminals – don’t give up the day job, Huey – and Bruce Jones, better known to UK readers as Coronation Street’s Les Battersby.

Despite some of the characters offering light relief, Marcus and writer Jeff Williams also attempt to inject some gritty drama into the film with a couple of sub-plots: one kind of revolves around the drugs scene at the Wigan Casino (Craig Parkinson, a reliably impressive supporting actor who has appeared in Control, Brighton Rock and Four Lions, plays ace face / dealer Alan with menace) and the other focuses on a local chip shop owner’s abusive relationship with his wife (Brian McCardie and Jo Hartley, whose performances clash when McCardie is required to ham-it-up in the pantomime villain tradition).

There’s a commitment to balancing humour and blossoming romance with the darker side of life in SoulBoy, but unfortunately it does at times feel very studied, perhaps even forced; all black-and-white with no shades of grey in between. The ‘bad’ characters are utterly unsympathetic, the ‘good’ characters shown almost entirely in a positive light, although the interesting exception is Joe himself: ostensibly the hero of the piece, we’re first introduced to him as he robs items of clothing and jewellery from a lock-up, though even this is legitimised somewhat by the fact that the man Joe is stealing from is a wife-beating bully.

The film only really explodes into life during the largely excellent scenes filmed at the re-created Wigan Casino (the original club was closed down in 1981 and later bulldozed to make way for a shopping arcade, so a venue in Stoke was used for the purposes of this film). The slow-mo moves of the dancers look great, and the extras – presumably those who ‘keep the faith’ with regard to northern soul today – do a tremendous job in helping to stage a typical 1970s soul all-nighter. Presumably these were filmed during the day, but it’s utterly convincing as a snapshot of a sweaty, amphetamine-fuelled club at 4 or 5 in the morning. Compston’s Joe doesn’t really experience a fabled ‘hallelujah’ moment, though, and instead he develops a love-hate relationship with the Casino and the scene in general: he is wise enough to sense that something special is happening, but his own dancing limitations and the antics of Russ hold him back from becoming one of the key faces. Joe repeatedly leaves the club (in fear, in anger and in embarrassment before he is eventually thrown out by the staff), but he keeps on returning, unable to let it slip out of his life, and by the end he has practiced enough for the inevitable dance-off against Alan.

Just over a decade ago a director named Justin McArdle made an enjoyable short called Function At The Junction, a 17-minute film that centred around a dance-off at a northern soul club in the 1970s. Concise and to the point, Function At The Junction manages to successfully establish the same sense of excitement around northern soul as SoulBoy while the earlier short’s dance off – a competition that the promoters attempt to rig – is a tad more enjoyable. Similar themes and soundtrack choices mean it’s likely that Marcus watched Function At The Junction at some point, and while watching SoulBoy it’s hard to shake the feeling that McArdle got there first and was more concise, although Marcus has more time in which to develop his characters and keep other threads going. (A new film about the scene by Elaine Constantine, Northern Soul, was recently released in the UK with some success.)

Ultimately, while Marcus’s film is at times enjoyable, it’s a relatively straightforward exercise in coming-of-age nostalgia that is always moving towards an obvious, and very predictable, conclusion. The problem lies perhaps with the romance contained in Jeff Williams’ screenplay, the main crux of which will be way too familiar to the majority of film fans, though in fairness the darker side to the writer’s story almost makes up for it. Still, Compston is a likeable star, there’s plenty of energy in the dancehall scenes and the director does justice to the northern soul legacy, no doubt pleasing the legion of fans that have waited decades to see their youth enshrined in such a way.

The Basics:
Directed by: Shimmy Marcus
Written by: Jeff Williams
Starring: Martin Compston, Felicity Jones, Nichola Burley, Alfie Allen
Certificate: 15
Running Time: 82 minutes
Year: 2010
Rating: 5.1

Photo Essay: The Future Of Superhero Movies

Recently Marvel set out Phases 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 and 14-27 of its post-millennial movie output at some Comic Con or other, while arch rivals DC set out Phases 1-3 of its ‘Let’s Do What Marvel’s Been Doing, Only With More Seriousness’ plan. So what does this all mean for fans of superhero movies? Well, thankfully it’ll result in your average 10-screen multiplex dedicating all of its screens to superhero films from May 2015 onwards, with occasional one-day breaks in the schedule to cater for the arthouse set whenever Tom Cruise has a new blockbuster out. But with so many superhero films on the horizon, even the true believers out there may be a little confused as to what is coming next. It’s time for Popcorn Nights to step into the breach and provide a handy little guide to the treats that lay ahead …

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Pow! After the 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018 re-boots of the Spider-Man franchise starring Daniel Radcliffe, Nicholas Hoult, Jack O’Connell and Ben Whishaw respectively as Peter Parker / Spidey, it has been confirmed that 2019 will see outside bet Tobey Maguire taking on the role with Sam Raimi confirmed to direct. ‘We’re really intending to go back to basics and really show the origins of Spider-Man and the Green Goblin’ said an excited Raimi, who claimed he hadn’t felt like this good since ‘about 2001 or 2002′.

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Bam! This exclusive storyboard is lifted from the planned 2021 movie Avengers: Age Of The Dawning Of Infinity, in which the intrepid heroes must take on a whole host of supervillains in order to save the Earth. It has already got Marvel fans chattering thanks to Joss Whedon’s announcement that A:AOTDOI will incorporate 131 cameo appearances by characters from the other Marvel movies. ‘Unfortunately it means we’re going to have to cut Thor’s time on screen down to 3 minutes, while Hawkeye’s only going to appear after the end credits’ said a pale-looking Whedon. Robert Downey, Jr, meanwhile, appeared to be smirking when a reporter at Comic Con asked him how much he was set to earn for less than 3 days’ work.

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Shazam! The real star of DC’s forthcoming Batman vs Superman vs The Flash vs Wonder Woman vs Batgirl vs Robin vs Catwoman vs The Flash vs Superman vs Batgirl vs Batman vs Robin vs Wonder Woman vs Catwoman: Armageddon is the little-known villain He-She, who may well end up being the most offensive baddie we have ever seen on screen. Early drafts of the script were rumoured to include the line ‘Holy gender re-assignment Batman! He just spent eight years turning into a woman before our very eyes. I mean she turned into a woman.’

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Kaboom! This superhero may not be familiar to the general public, but The Fence-eater has long been a favourite of comic book fans, and he’ll be getting his own movie in 2024, after being introduced in a supporting role in the first eight Suicide Squad films (plus any unplanned spin-offs). The Fence-eater’s main rival is Construction Man, who builds fences by shooting wire out of specially-adapted wrist guns before leaving his work unfinished and ignoring the subsequent phone calls from irate customers. Gerard Depardieu and Daniel Day-Lewis have been pencilled in for the two starring roles.

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Marvel turned a few heads when it announced that the next X-Men film would be a mind-bending time-travelling movie specifically designed to annoy anyone that wasn’t left confused and irritated by Days Of Future Past. ‘We can’t give out too many details at the moment,’ said a spokesman at Comic Con, but we’re quite excited about developments and we will be introducing 17 new mutant characters’. Rumours have already circulated that the plot sees Storm and Wolverine travelling back in time to 1971 to pick up younger versions of Magneto and Mystique before returning to even earlier points in the past to try and save Cyclops and Kitty Pryde from a different version of Mystique who has arrived from even further in the future. The entire group then travels forward together to 1984 to engage in combat with another version of Magneto, who has travelled back in time in order to start a new military program that will wipe out the X-Men for good. Afterwards the two Magnetos and the two Mystiques join force and travel back to the present, where Professor X’s brain has started to hurt as he tries to figure out what the fuck is going on.

0205 | The Bourne Legacy

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There are few movie franchises that are able to sustain audience interest as far as a fourth instalment, and although The Bourne Legacy manages to pack in the same amount of excitement and action as the three recent movies based on Robert Ludlum’s signature character Jason Bourne, the occasional feeling of déjà vu makes you wonder whether a semi-reboot like this was really necessary at all (though Tinseltown’s bean counters will argue that $270 million dollars says it was extremely necessary). Still, considering the behind-the-scenes events during the initial stages of the movie’s development, it’s something of an achievement that the film itself is fairly enjoyable even if it doesn’t pull up any trees.

After the director Paul Greengrass decided he wanted to move on from the franchise Matt Damon, who played rogue CIA special agent Bourne in the previous three films, also stated that he did not wish to return for The Bourne Legacy. With a script already in development since late 2008 this was something of a blow for Universal Pictures, but Tony Gilroy – who co-wrote the earlier Bourne screenplays – was employed to develop a script with his brother Dan, who has himself recently been in the headlines due to the success of his film Nightcrawler. Eventually Tony Gilroy was announced as the director of ‘Bourne 4’ and Jeremy Renner was cast as a rogue CIA agent named Aaron Cross, whose story bears some similarities to that of Bourne.

While the public announcements made by Greengrass and Damon in order to distance themselves from the project hogged the headlines, the largely-unreported move to keep Tony Gilroy involved was a shrewd one, and both his writing and direction successfully continue the themes, traditions and tone of the earlier films; he manages to simultaneously dissociate the new story from the three prior efforts while keeping some background continuity that ties The Bourne Legacy to the earlier Greengrass and Doug Liman movies. The steps that are taken in a new direction are clearly tentative, but Gilroy and his cast and crew have kept the franchise alive: both Damon and Greengrass have confirmed they will return for a fifth film, though Renner will not appear in it; however a second Aaron Cross-related film is still in development.

The plot will seem familiar to Bourne fans, although The Bourne Legacy actually bears little resemblance to Eric von Lustbader’s 2004 novel of the same name. Cross, who is part of a covert black ops team of special agents collectively known as ‘Operation Outcome’, is first seen training in Alaska while events depicted in the previous film, The Bourne Ultimatum, play out in the background. That earlier movie ended with several high flying CIA staff – played by Albert Finney, Joan Allen, David Strathairn and Scott Glenn, all of whom return here briefly – facing investigation after the illegal adaptations of two covert CIA operations named Blackbriar and Treadstone were exposed by Bourne. In The Bourne Legacy a YouTube video ties Operation Outcome to the already-compromised Blackbriar and Treadstone and the director of the former, Eric Byer (Edward Norton), decides to shut down Outcome before it can be investigated. Naturally ‘shut down’ in this series is CIA shorthand for ‘cover your tracks by killing everyone involved’.

What follows is basically a re-tread of the earlier trilogy with a few added bells and whistles: Cross must go on the run while the CIA attempts to locate and kill him, though the main difference here is the presence of experimental pills, called ‘chems’, that the agent must take in order to enhance his physical and mental abilities. Where Damon’s Bourne grappled with on-going amnesia, Cross must fight his addiction to the tablets, and Renner’s junkie-style desperation is convincing, although it’s a side of his performance that eventually gets lost amid all the flying fists. Eventually the agent hooks up with a travelling companion, a biochemist involved in the Outcome programme named Dr Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), who has also become a target of the Agency.

The Bourne Legacy globe-trots like its predecessors, with the action shifting from Alaska across the USA and finally ending up in the Philippines, where Cross and Shearing are targeted by a chemically-brainwashed CIA sleeper agent (played by Louis Ozawa Changchien). The main problem with the film is that aside from two or three very well-executed set pieces much of it looks utterly familiar, and at times while watching the film it’s a bit like having amnesia yourself, with vague misty memories of the earlier movies occasionally becoming clear thanks to repetition here. There’s yet another high-octane rooftop chase scene, for example, and a cat-and-mouse fight at a rural house that recalls the showdown between Clive Owen and Matt Damon in The Bourne Identity. A car and motorbike chase finale – despite being as thrilling as it is technically impressive – also brings to mind the similar feats of driving in the earlier films, and when the movie concludes on the exact same note as The Bourne Identity it’s hard not to feel a little short-changed.

Still, as action films go, this does have a lot going for it: the chases may be overly-familiar but they’re still good, the quickfire hand-to-hand combat remains pulsating, and there are a few early moments that suggest there’s a bit of life in the franchise yet: Oscar Isaac shines as a cautious super-agent early on, there is some exciting footage involving a military drone and there is a gripping scene involving a pack of predatory Alaskan wolves. The Bourne Legacy even manages to genuinely shock with a disturbing cold-blooded massacre sequence, a sequence that trumps the surprise death of a major character in The Bourne Supremacy.

Unfortunately, though, it looks as if Gilroy ran out of ideas when it came to the CIA. Following a host of duplicitous characters and back-stabbing incidents in the other films it’s hardly a surprise to witness further ruthless behaviour by high-ranking Agency officials as they seek to wipe out all traces of Operation Outcome, and sympathetic CIA figures are notably absent here. Norton is fine, as is Stacy Keach (playing a retired Navy admiral), but there’s a seemingly endless supply of those panicky, pressure-cooker control room scenes where orders are barked and reports arrive that reveal Cross has once again escaped with his life. After a while they all blend into one another and it’s too easy to tune out as the dialogue spoken barely matters at all.

As a cinematic spy hero Jason Bourne has often been compared with James Bond, despite the many differences between the two characters, and the success of Damon’s original effort with Doug Liman, The Bourne Identity, is famously credited as being the reason for the subsequent tougher change of direction in the Bond franchise. It would seem that the Bourne series now has its own equivalent of the 1967 version of Casino Royale, or the return of Sean Connery in Never Say Never Again, an oddity that sits apart from everything else but remains enjoyable enough nonetheless. Despite the fact it regurgitates old ideas and characters The Bourne Legacy is a decent action thriller, but when all is said and done … can you imagine a James Bond film that doesn’t feature James Bond? That’d be pointless, right?

The Basics:
Directed by: Tony Gilroy
Written by: Tony Gilroy, Dan Gilroy
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Rachel Weisz, Edward Norton, Albert Finney, Joan Allen, David Strathairn, Stacy Keach, Oscar Isaac, Scott Glenn
Certificate: 12A
Running Time: 135 minutes
Year: 2012
Rating: 6.1

Classic Scene: Boogie Nights (1997)

Boogie Nights, Paul Thomas Anderson’s sprawling tale of LA’s porn industry in the late 1970s and early 1980s, is very much a two-sided coin: the film has a much lighter, upbeat first half while the darker second half, which begins with the turn of the decade, is ushered in by a double murder and a suicide.

Here, in the build up to the film’s tonal switch, assistant director ‘Little’ Bill Thompson (William H. Macy) discovers his wife, an aging porn actress played by real-life ’80s adult video star Nina Hartley, having sex with an unknown man on a driveway in front of a group of onlookers. Even within this ridiculous premise there are further moments of absurdity: first she chastises her husband for embarrassing her, before the cuckold is accosted as he walks away from the scene by colleague Kurt Longjohn (Ricky Jay), who wishes to discuss the finer technicalities of a future video shoot.

Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best, and Anderson’s composition here, keeping the watching crowd in the background between the mouths of the two characters in dialogue, is a great move. It accentuates the fact that Kurt is oblivious to Bill’s simmering fury, and allows for two great comic payoffs at the end: first Bill getting the words ‘cock’ and ‘ass’ mixed up, and then Kurt’s nonchalant decision to join the watching party at the end of the conversation.

Scenes like this one highlight Anderson’s commitment to the relatively-minor characters in Boogie Nights as well as his ambivalence to sexuality during the film. The movie is full of well-drawn, interesting characters like Bill, and they all have different problems to grapple with: unfortunately he isn’t able to deal with his wife’s ongoing infidelity too well…

(Warning: due to a little bit of swearing the video is NSFW.)

0204 | Much Ado About Nothing

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This low-key adaptation of William Shakespeare’s comedy Much Ado About Nothing caught plenty of people off guard when it appeared in film festivals a little over two years ago, primarily because of director Joss Whedon’s association with a string of fantasy, sci-fi and comic book-related hits on both the small and the big screen. A black and white take on one of the playwright’s more joyful comedies is one of the last things I would have expected from the man behind The Avengers and Buffy The Vampire Slayer, too, but thankfully the surprise is a pleasant one: Whedon has a keen ear for Shakespeare’s jokes and oversees an enjoyable and energetic cinematic translation.

A light, humorous play with occasional flashes of darkness, Much Ado About Nothing focuses on the burgeoning relationships between squabbling lovers Beatrice and Benedick, as well as the impending nuptials of Beatrice’s cousin Hero and Benedick’s companion Claudio. Benedick and Claudio are travelling with Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon, and are staying at the residence of Leonato, Beatrice’s father, for a week. Various characters connive behind the scenes to engineer a romance between Benedick and Beatrice while Don John, Don Pedro’s scheming bastard brother, attempts to sabotage the other couple’s wedding plans for his own nefarious and spiteful reasons. Much of the humour in the original work arrives courtesy of the character Dogberry, a constable and a favourite among fans of Shakespeare thanks to his ability to fashion malapropisms out of thin heir.

The director calls upon regular colleagues from his previous excursions in TV and cinema to act in this film: Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Reed Diamond, Fran Kranz and Nathan Fillion will all be familiar to Whedon’s fans and each is given a prominent role, while there are also smaller parts for the likes of Tom Lenk and Ashley Johnson. The cast’s familiarity with each other (as well as the two-way link with the director) is evident from the off, with excellent chemistry between the actors and, it would seem, a general sense of collective ease with the aims of the project itself; perhaps this shouldn’t be all that surprising given that we are essentially watching the TV/film equivalent of a theatre company that has worked together for many years, but there is a sense of togetherness here that is worth mentioning. The chemistry between Acker (Beatrice) and Denisof (Benedick) is particularly enjoyable, with flirty insults traded throughout much of the film before their fabricated love takes on a more serious edge. It’s also interesting to note the assured performance by Jillian Morgese, who was employed as an extra on The Avengers as a waitress fleeing a typical scene of utter carnage, and was picked out by Whedon for the important role of Hero here.

Whedon shot the film during a two-week break from The Avengers in 2011 (he had finished filming Marvel’s hit-in-the-making but had yet to begin work on the post-production). Increasing the sense of familiarity for all involved, and perhaps ensuring a welcome dose of relaxation, Whedon used his own Hollywood mansion, built by his wife Kai Cole, as the location for the adaptation; its open spaces and beautiful exterior double for the Sicilian city of Messina, and it never feels for one second as if the film is an extended brag of the couple’s wealth and status, or an ill-judged episode of Through Ye Olde Keyhole.

In fact the incongruous choice of location works very well indeed. The kitchen is packed with modern equipment, while amusingly the characters of Benedick and Claudio (Kranz) must sleep in a young girl’s bedroom, replete with dolls and other toys (naturally they are oblivious to their surroundings and actually interact well with them). The garden and outdoor pool area are large enough to stage the story’s grand parties, while the director’s knowledge of the best spots in and around his house for light ensure that the contrast is crisp when needed; every time the duplicitous Don John appears, watching over events inside the house, the chiaroscuro is redolent of that used on criminals or during dramatic moments in 1940s and 1950s crime thrillers, but the blacks are never crushed.

Despite being performed in the original English the play is set in the modern day, so the suits and cocktail dresses reflect sharp, current fashions while the guests drink tequila and nonchalantly use modern technology (a list of soldiers returning from battle is checked on a smartphone, for example, while laptops are also employed). In one scene a couple of characters even share a joint, but importantly these glimpses into the good life enjoyed by Hollywood A-listers actually feel natural, and the use of such props does not dominate or come across as being gimmicky. In fact at times it is easy to forget that the house interiors and fashions are from the 21st Century, such is the cast’s poker-face ability to speak their lines in a natural and convincing way whilst ignoring the fact that the language they use doesn’t tally with their surroundings.

Whedon’s direction is sure, and he coaxes good performances from the assembled cast; the lines are delivered and captured clearly, and as a result it’s quite an easy adaptation to get into, even if you are unaware of the plot beforehand or if you (like me) find Shakespeare’s dialogue tough to follow. There are exaggerated moments of farce here that still remain funny today, an incredible feat given such scenes were written over 400 years ago, and Whedon captures the intended spirit very well. Occasionally the director’s background in TV drama shows through – a quick prologue hinting at a one night stand between Beatrice and Benedick that falls outside of the original story, for example, is informed by countless cheesy jewellery adverts as much as anything else – but again much of his input is welcome, and the task of staging the play so that it is accessible to a modern audience (particularly one that may not be too familiar with Shakespeare) is one that Whedon clearly approached with relish. He even went as far as scoring the film as a result of budget constraints, creating modern versions of two songs Shakespeare included in the play that are performed by his brother Jed Whedon and Jed’s wife Maurissa Tancharoen with ever-so-slight hip-hop stylings.

It’s hard to think of a more successful recent cinematic adaptation of Shakespeare’s work, certainly out of the ones that I’ve seen anyway; I’d have to go back as far as Baz Luhrmann’s camp and extravagant MTV-style take on Romeo And Juliet if I wanted to find a better film, though this is like an earnest mumblecore effort by comparison. Shot crisply, engagingly-performed and creatively-staged, this is well worth a try if you’re a fan of Shakespeare (or even just Bard-curious) and a sign that Whedon may have started down an interesting and broad mid-career path. The production company he shares with his wife has already made and distributed this year’s low-budget paranormal rom-com In Your Eyes, so it’s nice to see the huge sums of money generated by The Avengers series trickling down to smaller, personal projects. Much Ado About Nothing appears to be a good example of it, too.

The Basics:
Directed by: Joss Whedon
Written by: William Shakespeare, Joss Whedon (screenplay)
Starring: Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Jillian Morgese, Fran Kranz, Clark Gregg, Nathan Fillion, Reed Diamond, Sean Maher, Spencer Treat Clark, Riki Lindhome
Certificate: 12A
Running Time: 106 minutes
Year: 2012
Rating: 7.1

Trailer Thursdays: Every Which Way But Loose

“Hey babe, what do you think of Clint Eastwood?” “Mmmm…I think about him a lot…”

A classic trailer this week – here’s Clint in Every Which Way But Loose, that finely-plotted tale of a man, his fists, his addiction to country music and his pet orang-utan. For some reason the trailer includes a couple of people discussing Clint and the things he gets up to in the movie. “What do you think of Clint confiding his deepest thoughts to an orang-utan?” asks the man, before qualifying it with “it’s Eastwood as you’ve never seen him before”. You’re not wrong there, cocker.

0203 | Interstellar

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Seeing as this is the millionth review of Interstellar to appear online it’s highly likely that you won’t bother reading past this first paragraph. In fact it’s entirely possible you may have read the word ‘Interstellar’ and mentally switched off straight away, which means you’re not even reading these words even if you think that you are. Confused? Welcome to the high-concept world of Popcorn Nights. And if you are actually still here – and I must at this point assume that you are – perhaps I should state my feelings about Christopher Nolan’s latest high-concept film as quickly and as succinctly as possible, just in case your reaction to the word ‘Interstellar’ is delayed and you do end up clicking away to somewhere more pleasant after the first paragraph: it’s overblown, overlong, overhyped, overly-sentimental and occasionally-confusing horseshit, but as horseshit goes it certainly looks pretty good.

Christopher Nolan’s biggest blockbuster to date has been out for a couple of weeks now, and is one of those rare films that feels like an unstoppable juggernaut, a devastating and uncontrollable force of marketing that has convinced all of us feeble-minded fools to pay and see it regardless of any reviews carried out in its name. It has received the kind of push that makes the marketing campaigns of other blockbusters – let’s say Transformers: Age Or Revenge Of Something Or Other – look as if they are designed to appeal to miniscule collections of polo-neck-sporting Werner Herzog enthusiasts. This is studio promotion at its most aggressive and in-your-face, and it’s hard to be objective when advertising alters the way you feel about a film two or three times before it is even released. If you haven’t obeyed the marketing directive to go and see Interstellar by now you’d best be looking over your shoulder with a worried expression on your face: do you think Paramount and Warner Bros pay out this kind of money to suffer your disobedience?

There comes a point when debating whether something is good or bad (or neither good nor bad but somewhere in the middle) becomes pointless. Interstellar is such a ‘thing’ and its release into the wild is such a ‘point’: it’s not a film, it’s a big hovering blob, a new friend or relative in your life that you suddenly see lots of before they skip out after a month or so, a moneysucking vampire, a Rick Wakeman keyboard solo, a fake con of an instant cultural monolith, a giant 5,000 ft long floating wotsit with Matthew McConaughey’s face cheerily whistling away at one end. All those things and more. It’s not a film cast out for public analysis and judgement in the way that, say, Nightcrawler is a film cast out for public analysis and judgement. Yet here’s even more pointless public analysis and judgement that will, unfortunately, affect nothing.

The individual parts are, as you would expect, all present and correct. Let’s take the performances first. Event movies this big rarely include performances that mesmerise or delight, but the assembled talent is (mumbles, stares at floor) sort of OK, I guess. I mean I don’t know what the cast earned for their work. $50 million, collectively? More? What does a McConaughey get paid for an Interstellar in 2014? And how do you judge the value of these acting performances against such ridiculous, inflated sums anyway? Does the remuneration they receive actually matter? If you don’t think so, perhaps we should instead be questioning why we’re living in a world where a bunch of actors can charge such huge amounts and the question of whether that money is well spent or not doesn’t actually matter.

Hmm. McConaughey is certainly fine as Cooper, the honest everyman farmer-dad of the future who just happens to be the greatest test pilot NASA ever had (oh please, come the fuck on), but this certainly isn’t his finest work and it certainly isn’t his worst either. Anne Hathaway is his lesser (and compliant) space partner, her role simply to support / enforce Hollywood’s bullshit age-old ‘leading man leads the leading lady’ hierarchy. She is given 1% of the backstory time that McConaughey’s character is afforded, an imbalance which stands out in a film of this length. Hathaway is also fine, but this isn’t her best or her worst work, either. Same goes for Casey Affleck – Cooper’s grown-up son, Jessica Chastain – the grown-up daughter, Michael Caine – the perennial Nolan father figure and Actor X in the ill-judged cameo slot. Actor X gets the best deal of all: he’s on-screen for about ten or fifteen minutes and he doesn’t have to establish his character at all, except to give out a couple of signals about the state of his mental health. In fact I think that we are supposed to be impressed by the mere appearance of Actor X’s face here, as if it’s some kind of momentous 21st Century ‘I was there when…’ happening. Why not give the part to a capable actor who needs the money or who needs the big break? In fairness Actor X’s emergence from a plastic bag is one the finest emergences from a plastic bag that I’ve ever witnessed, so maybe it will stay in the minder longer than … nope … it’s gone.

Together this handful of characters represents humanity, along with Ellen Burstyn and John Lithgow as old people, Mackenzie Foy (good) and Timothée Chalamet as young people, and a couple of lesser known adult actors thrown in as death fodder. Hollywood’s propensity for filtering the end of the world through the perspective of a tiny number of Americans is something that irritates me immensely, and it’s a device that usually patronises people who happen to live in rural areas by portraying them as simple, unlikely heroes, although I should point out that the writers who have chosen to do this are both English (Jonathan Nolan, the director’s brother, penned the script with his sibling) and we’re not exactly talking Randy Quaid in Independence Day here. There are shades of M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs, though, in the way that we only get to see how a global event  – a crop blight, in this instance – affects the inhabitants of a farmstead who appear to be miles from the nearest town or city. For a film purportedly concerned about the future of the human race there’s a very narrow focus here on the make-up of it.

Interstellar bursts into life when Cooper and co are launched into space along with the film’s most interesting character, a blocky and witty robot that goes by the name of TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin). Their task is to boldly go where no Nolan plot has gone before, which is basically to the backyard of bonkers and back again (via Saturn, that most picturesque of planets). The plan is to find other explorers who have ventured out there before them and / or to locate an inhabitable planet that can be colonised before we perish on our own ravaged, ruined Earth. To exit our own solar system the group must travel through a wormhole that has apparently been left for us by an alien civilisation; this hole leads to three planets closely orbiting the giant black hole Gargantuan.

Interstellar may be big and brash from here on in, but it is not completely devoid of restraint. The crew visits two planets and I dare say the Nolan brothers may have considered the introduction of alien life forms into their story at one point or other, or some other fantastical crowd-and-studio-pleasing aspect, but instead the writers stay with the nature thread and it works well. The decision to use the landscape of Iceland as a double for these distant planets pays off and the country’s unusual, spectacular geography ensures that any CGI that is incorporated on top of it – giant waves, frozen cloud structures – looks believable. Thankfully when there is a human-on-human fight in the film Nolan is equally restrained; the scrap is fairly exciting but it isn’t milked for every last drop of dramatic tension, and gravitational concerns ensure that it resembles two drunks fighting in a bar rather than two overly-choreographed Hollywood heroes.

Much hoo-ha has been hoo-ha’d about the involvement of theoretical physicist Kip Thorne as an Executive Producer and technical advisor, and certainly all of the detailed, complicated exposition sounds grand, realistic and impenetrable to these lay ears (although the script is often abruptly simplified to the level of “So if we go here, and travel through here, we’ll end up here? That’ll work!” while one actor or another earns their rationed corn by staring intently at a doodle pad or whiteboard). Let’s not get carried away though: there’s a ‘fiction’ in the phrase ‘science fiction’ for a reason, and without wishing to diminish the considerable achievements of Mr Thorne I’m pretty sure he’s only involved in the scientific exposition side of the movie, so let’s not lose sight of the fact that he and the Nolan brothers have the same amount of experience of travelling through wormholes and into black holes as you and I. Nolan therefore has as much creative freedom as he imagines outer space as the many other sci-fi filmmakers that have ventured into the great beyond before him, and his take on it looks good; as a result I personally don’t care whether his images or his characters’ expositions are scientifically-accurate or not. Interstellar successfully brings to mind both the beautiful abstractions of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and the more recent ‘cor, wow’ footage of spinning space station parts in Cuaron’s Gravity, though I should add the caveat it is not as awe-inducing as either of those films. Scientifically-speaking, it gets your endorphins all jiggy without ever blowing your pickle.

This aspect of Interstellar – the exploration of our galaxy and others, plus all the attendant hopes and fears and ideas about time and space and things that can transcend space and time, such as love – I enjoyed. The film distances itself from the less-cerebral sci-fi blockbusters out there and clearly aims for those lofty peaks once scaled by Kubrick and Tarkovsky, even though it does fall disappointingly short. For much of the film there’s an admirable balance of action, philosophy and emotion, even if the more gut-wrenching family moments (for example when Cooper is relayed twenty-odd years’ worth of messages from his kids) are typically heavily-delivered and somewhat cynical by design. The presence of these forced teary interludes and Hans Zimmer’s bombastic, distracting ‘this-one-goes-up-to-eleven’ score failed to completely ruin my sense of blissed-out awe and wonder, but please add my name to the growing list of traditionalist squares that likes to hear what the characters are actually saying to each other. (It’s a shame that reviewers have fixated on the volume and lack of subtlety of this music, though: I absolutely agree with the criticism, but it’s also worth mentioning that Nolan’s film has some beautiful silent moments too.)

I think a lot of the good work carried out in the middle section of this film is undone by the extended, occasionally-baffling ending. Parts of it feel rushed and parts of it feel like a step too far, the unexpected test of the audience’s faith that occurs near the end being a case in point, which is included to neatly tie the story together. I also have my reservations about the use of the gravity-defying effects that were previously seen in Nolan’s excellent mind-bender Inception, the last of which feels awkwardly shoe-horned in here despite the fact that the movie has been building to such a scientific leap forward all the way through. The least said about Jessica Chastain’s shrieks of ‘Eureka!’ the better.

At the end of the film I sat in my chair for a few minutes, trying to make sense of the experience, wondering if I could look at the work objectively given the fact that I was sick to death of hearing about Interstellar (and of seeing many of the film’s best images) by the time it actually arrived in my multiplex. By ‘experience’ above I don’t simply mean the near-three hour running time of the movie itself, but also the months and months of trailers and hype and interviews and advertising; I left thinking that the film industry needs saving from itself … it needs its own equivalent of the 1970s punk rock scene, something that comes along with the intention of blowing away all the pompous, self-important, bigger-and-louder-and-longer-is-better noodly prog rock-esque bullshit like this. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t hate the film – a solid five-out-of-ten-er, with a bonus mark for effort – but it is overlong, overblown and overhyped, and I hate the forced sense of its release representing some kind of life-changing event of international importance. Stop building this shit up so much, it’s just a bloody film.

The Basics:
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Written by: Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, Bill Irwin, Jessica Chastain, Casey Affleck, John Lithgow, Ellen Burstyn, Mackenzie Foy, Timothée Chalamet
Certificate: 12A
Running Time: 166 minutes
Year: 2014
Rating: 6.0

Casting The Net: Orson Welles

A triple Tuesday treat for any Orson Welles fans out there. First up is a brilliant BBC documentary from the 1980s about Citizen Kane that includes interviews with the filmmaker / actor conducted in 1982 and 1960, as well as Pauline Kael, who wrote this famous article on the film.

The second video below is a 45-minute documentary Welles made for the BBC in 1955 called The Land Of The Basques, which examines life in Euskal Herria (the Basque Country). Welles has a pleasant, jolly interview style and speaks to a bunch of locals in this film. It’s fascinating.

Last, and this one is really for the hardcore Welles fans out there, is a 50-minute talk given by the director and writer Peter Bogdanovich before a screening of Touch Of Evil at the Indianapolis Museum Of Art in 2012.

0202 | Rounders

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John Dahl’s Rounders has picked up a cult following since its release in the late 1990s, primarily among poker enthusiasts, but even if you don’t know your flop from your river there’s still some enjoyment to be had from this over-the-top modern noir.

Dahl’s reputation as one the most overlooked American directors of the 1990s is really due to the quality of two other films he made during that decade, Red Rock West and The Last Seduction, but Rounders is a reasonably captivating finish to this trilogy of noirs. (Dahl also made the ironically-named sci-fi flick Unforgettable in 1996, which was a commercial and critical flop, and the director returned to his preferred genre afterwards with apparent alacrity.) The Last Seduction and Red Rock West are excellent twisty, turny crime thrillers that feature – at the heart of each story – two different types of anti-hero with some shared characteristics: a hangdog ex-forces drifter and a calculating city dweller on the run; both have dubious morals and both are looking to make some quick, easy money.

The same can be said of the two rounders (expert players who travel around seeking out high stakes games) that are central to this film’s plot of. The squeakier, cleaner one is Matt Damon’s Mike, a brilliant (yeah, whatever) law student who is also a well-known face (yeah, whatever) in New York’s high stakes underground poker scene; the other is a fast-talking card shark named Worm (Ed Norton in what was accurately described at the time of release as ‘the Sean Penn role: … hideous shirts, screw-you attitude’ by the critic Owen Gleiberman). Childhood friends and long-time poker buddies they may be, but the straight-playing Mike is tiring of bailing his old cheating pal out of trouble, and their friendship is tested to the limit when Worm runs up a debt of $15,000 to John Malkovich’s ludicrous Russian gangster Teddy KGB via a sleazy pimp named Grama (Michael Rispoli). Conveniently for everyone involved Mike agrees to help Worm raise the money in a race against time, as he also wants to get one over on the arrogant Teddy: the Russian beats the prodigy during an illegal poker match in the film’s opening scene and pockets his savings of $30,000. Thus much of the film plays out in the classic sports movie style we’ve all seen countless times before: the hero is beaten at the beginning of the story, spends the rest of the time getting back up to his former level (with a few ups and downs along the way) and then gets another shot at the reigning champ at the end. If it was boxing rather than poker we’d be watching Rocky. If it was arm wrestling we’d be watching Over The Top. And so on.

Though the story is set in the modern day, Damon’s narration – which helpfully explains some of the finer points and manoeuvres of the poker matches that are shown on screen for the uninitiated – is straight out of a Dalshiel Hammett hard-boiled detective novel. It certainly helps Rounders to stand out from the pack, but as a stylistic device it’s nowhere near as convincing as the dialogue of, say, the Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing, a film that was partly inspired by Hammett’s work and crucially set in the relevant era. Several years after Rounders was released Rian Johnson attempted something similar with his idiosyncratic debut Brick, with greater success, though in fairness Damon does pretty well with the lines he must read. Unfortunately it jars a little with the way the character interacts with others in the story; narration aside Mike is a distant cousin to Damon’s Will in Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting, so the sudden impersonations of Bogart on the soundtrack feel a little incongruous, and forced.

Unfortunately Rounders is fairly predictable fayre, and the most disappointing aspect of the story is the number of one-dimensional characters, which begin to stack up like poker chips. Poor old Gretchen Mol is given little to work with as Mike’s long-suffering girlfriend Jo, a fellow law student whose sole duty in the film is to express her disappointment and frustration with his poker-playing ways: he insists the game is a skill and luck isn’t involved, while she rightly points out that losing $30,000 on one hand isn’t very skilful at all (and bizarrely when she does eventually leave him it’s because he bails on a study group, as opposed to fact he gives up a small fortune to someone called ‘Teddy KGB’ in an underground Russian gangster-sponsored poker game).

Famke Janssen fares even worse in a role that could have easily been a much more interesting femme fatale type (especially given that Dahl had previously made films that included fascinating characters played by Linda Fiorentino and Lara Flynn Boyle). A cashier / manager at one of Mike’s regular poker haunts named Petra, Janssen’s performance seems understandably lethargic, and she is given almost nothing to do until the entirely foreseeable lunge at the leading man’s lips. It’s a shame that the screenplay by Brian Koppelman and David Levien doesn’t really offer much in the way of interesting female roles.

Elsewhere John Turturro pops up from time-to-time as Mike’s friendly poker mentor Joey Knish, appearing regularly in poker clubs and university canteens to dispense sage-like advice which is rarely followed (this despite him being introduced as a wise man who has been there and done that in the narration). Martin Landau plays the film’s most sympathetic male character, an elderly law school professor and father figure who is so kind he even lends Mike $10,000 for a poker stake at one point with very few questions asked.

The villain of the piece – Malkovich’s mobster – isn’t really in the story all that much, appearing in two long scenes that booked the movie, although given the actor’s scenery-chewing here perhaps that is no bad thing. If you thought Malkovich was over the top in Con Air as ‘Cyrus The Virus’ then you should watch his performance in Rounders: with nothing but stacks of Oreo cookies and poker chips to work with he takes ‘I am the designated bad guy here’ signposting to new, previously-unseen levels, all unsubtly underlined with a terrible accent: ‘Mr. Zon ov a bitch, letz play some cardz!’ will give you a rough idea of what to expect. It is fun, though.

For the most part the film focuses on the bromance between Mike and Worm. Although both leads have been better they do supply the requisite energy (Norton) and charisma (Damon), and they have some good scenes together (although both over-do the ‘let’s establish the strength and longevity of our friendship by trading insults and reminiscing about some casually-tossed in names from back in the day’ moments). Neither character is particularly believable: Damon just about convinces as a high-stakes poker player but looks out of place in the city’s sleazier joints and the actor struggles with the supposedly easier boyfriend / law student duties, whereas Norton’s Worm never strays far away from being one of those typical smart-arses that only exists in the movies. The pair suffer occasionally from poor writing at times, though: a scene in which Worm is waved out of prison by tough-looking fellow inmates and later describes the experience to Mike as ‘a piece of cake’ is truly awful.

So far so bad, but overall Rounders is an enjoyable film to lose yourself in, and that’s primarily because of the poker scenes. Here the writing is better and Dahl’s direction lets us in on the plays: we get to see what the hero is holding, the bluffs and surprises in single games feel like genuine mini plot twists and we get a good sense of what this whole underground scene is like. The glitz and glamour of Vegas is far away, and the speakeasy dives where games take place aren’t particularly pleasant, but they do make for interesting sets populated with interesting-looking extras. With definite winners and losers the matches are actually quite exciting to follow; little wonder the film is liked by so many poker fans. The one shame is that the film’s best scene – in which Norton attempts to rip off a bunch of off-duty cops – comes just before the final high stakes game between Oreo-snapping Teddy and legal eagle Mike.

This may be Dahl’s most commercially-successful movie to date but it isn’t anywhere near the quality of his best two. The noir elements are implemented with genuine affection for the genre but unfortunately they don’t translate smoothly to late 1990s New York in this instance. As such Rounders never quite feels right, never feels as though it has fully kicked into gear, but there are enough regular blips of action in the poker sequences to warrant a viewing. Decent throwaway fun, and that’s no bad thing.

The Basics:
Directed by: John Dahl
Written by: David Levien, Brian Koppelman
Starring: Matt Damon, Ed Norton, Gretchen Mol, John Malkovich, John Turturro, Famke Janssen, Martin Landau
Certificate: 15
Running Time: 121 minutes
Year: 1998
Rating: 6.1

Trailer Thursdays: Men, Women & Children

The popular line at the moment with regard to Jason Reitman is that the young Canadian director has lost his way a little bit since 2009’s Up In The Air, although both Young Adult and Labor Day did receive some good reviews. Reitman’s new film Men, Women & Children has already opened in the US with heavy criticism, but I like the look of it and will probably give it a whirl at some point. My interest has been piqued this week by the second of the two trailers above, which kind of emphasises the social media / disconnect angle of the film. I’m not sure if that’s actually misleading, but I thought I’d include both trailers for purposes of comparison. The second one is definitely the more intriguing.

(I know it’s Friday today, but just pretend it’s Thursday, OK?)

Underrated: 50 Films Of The 1990s Pt III

Continuing the completely pointless countdown of 50 underrated movies of the 1990s – the decade that pretty much defined the space between the 1980s and the 2000s – here are the final 10 entries. If you want to see the previous posts click here for 50-30 and here for 29-11.

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10. Bound (1996)

The 1996 debut film by Andy and Larry (later Lana) Wachowski is a magnificent crime thriller that tanked at the box office. One of the best modern day noirs around, Bound follows the blossoming lesbian relationship of plumber Corky (Gina Gershon) and her client Violet (Jennifer Tilly), who just happens to be married to mob boss Caesar (Joe Pantoliano). The two lovers hatch a plot to rip off Ceasar but, naturally, things don’t quite go to plan. Interestingly, the Wachowski’s used Frank Miller’s Sin City comics as inspiration and employed a sex educator and feminist writer, Susie Bright, to assist with the sex scenes.

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9. Election (1999)

Alexander Payne’s amusing allegory of the US political system features excellent performances by Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon: she is the monstrous political wannabe running for school president while he is the teacher determined to stop her. A cutting satire that – in the opinions of many – reflected events in the following year’s real life presidential election the, Election makes fine use of freezeframes, flashbacks and voiceovers to tell the story, with Payne delighting in piling the misery on Broderick’s hapless vote-rigger.

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8. Miller’s Crossing (1990)

No list of underrated movies is complete without reference to Miller’s Crossing, the Coen Brothers’ slow, masterful take on the gangster film genre set during the prohibition era (the setting is never revealed in the movie, but most of the filming took place in New Orleans). John Turturro, Steve Buscemi and Frances McDormand make their 95th, 84th and 71st appearances in this list respectively, which is mightily impressive. I was going to pick Barton Fink for a change – which is also underrated and should really have been included on this list somewhere – until I realised it also stars John Turturro, Steve Buscemi and Frances McDormand and began to weep. Still unappreciated despite everyone spending the past 20 years repeatedly saying that it’s unappreciated.

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7. Nil By Mouth (1997)

If it’s laughs you want, then you probably ought to give Nil By Mouth a miss. Gary Oldman’s directorial debut, which he also wrote, is a gritty, uncompromising look at a tough subject, focusing on abuse in a working class London family. Ray Winstone’s Ray piles the misery on his wife, Kathy Burke’s Val, in this relentlessly downbeat, depressing but incredibly powerful film. Nil By Mouth was critically acclaimed but made only $270,000 against a budget of $9 million and Oldman hasn’t made a film since, although he has recently announced his intention to direct the 2016 film Flying Horse, a biopic of pioneer photographer Eadweard Muybridge.

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6. The Last Seduction (1994)

Linda Fiorentino should have won an Oscar for her performance in John Dahl’s noir The Last Seduction, but she was disqualified after it was shown on HBO before the ceremony. Booo! It’s a shame her work hasn’t been recognized, as this is a terrific turn as the manipulative and calculating Bridget, who first rips off her drug-dealing doctor husband Clay (Bill Pullman) before wrapping Buffalo boy Mike (Peter Berg) around her little finger as she hatches a scheme to get even richer. One of those films where you can’t help but root for the villain, brilliantly directed by Dahl.

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5. The Straight Story (1999)

David Lynch veered into unfamiliar territory with this biographical film about Alvin Straight’s journey across Iowa and Wisconsin on a lawn mower. A slow, meditative treat the reflects the vehicles 5mph top speed, Richard Farnsworth earned an Oscar nomination for his role as Alvin while there is excellent support from Sissy Spacek and Harry Dean Stanton, two magnificent talents that seemed to be marginalised throughout the decade. Straightforward, sentimental and moving, The Straight Story is one of Lynch’s finest films, though oddly unlike anything else he has made.

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4. Lone Star (1996)

Though a box office success of sorts, as well as a critical smash, Lone Star seems all but forgotten today. It’s a real shame, because this is John Sayles’s masterpiece: a long, meticulously-paced examination of abused power and murder in Texas that includes magnificent cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh. Chris Cooper is the sheriff investigating the death of his brutal and corrupt predecessor, portrayed in flashbacks by Kris Kristofferson, while there is solid support from Clifton James, Matthew McConaughey and Elizabeth Peña. Deserves to be spoken of in the same breath as No Country For Old Men.

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3. Red Rock West (1993)

Another John Dahl film in the top ten; this was written by Dahl and his brother Rick, but unfortunately suffered at the box office as it appeared several times on TV after an initial run through the festival circuit. Another excellent modern film noir, Nicolas Cage stars as a drifter looking for work in the small Arizona town of Red Rock, where he is mistakenly identified as a hitman by a feuding couple played by Lara Flynn Boyle and JT Walsh. This straightforward tale of double crossing sparks into life when the real hitman – played with psychotic verve by Dennis Hopper – shows up in town. A great thriller.

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2. A Simple Plan (1998)

Sorry horror fans, but this is Sam Raimi’s best film to date, bar none. Raimi asked his friends Joel and Ethan Coen for tips on shooting in the snow when making this Minnesota-based tale of greed and betrayal, and the result is a fine work that does not suffer when compared to that duo’s more celebrated Fargo. Billy Bob Thornton is on terrific form as an idiot savant, while Bill Paxton excels as his increasingly pressured brother. Along with their friend Lou the pair find a crashed plane and $4.4 million of unmarked bills in the woods, but it doesn’t take long for the owners and the police to come looking for the money. A lost classic.

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1. Naked (1993)

Mike Leigh won Best Director at Cannes for Naked, a fascinating tragi-comic study of Mancunian anti-hero Johnny as he rants his way around London, essentially hiding in plain sight after raping a woman in Manchester. It’s a tough ask to sympathise with such a character, but David Thewlis’s remarkable performance of this scattergun manic depressive is outstanding, investing the character with occasional flickers of warmth and kindness amidst all the spat out vitriol and self-loathing. A kind of post-punk, post-Thatcher, permanently-damaged version of Alfie, Johnny is a well-educated fatalist and arguably the most interesting of all Leigh’s characters to date. You can’t take your eyes off him in this brilliant, hugely underrated masterpiece.

It’s been pretty tough to leave some films out of this list, so I’m going to list a bunch of worthy mentions that just missed the cut: Ulee’s Gold, To Die For, Career Girls, Chasing Amy, Affliction, Pi, American History X, Topsy Turvy, Ghost Dog (The Way Of The Samurai), Barton Fink, Once Were Warriors, Pecker, Human Traffic, Spanking The Monkey, So I Married An Axe Murderer, Slacker, Cry Baby, Crumb, Jungle Fever, Pump Up The Volume, Go and Jacob’s Ladder were all considered as good underrated films of the 1990s but quite a few of these films were critically acclaimed at the time and did OK at the box office. My rules for choosing weren’t really set in stone, though!

A little bit of research has also led me to four films that are repeatedly mentioned online as underrated that I have never seen: One False Move, Following, Exotica and Citizen Ruth. I’ll be checking them out in the future.

So – there’s bound to be something I’ve left off – what’s your favourite underrated movie of the 1990s?

50 Underrated Films Of The 1990s Pt I
50 Underrated Films Of The 1990s Pt II

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It should not be a surprise that Jake Gyllenhaal has turned in a performance of this quality, given the consistency he has achieved throughout his acting career to date and his penchant for seeking out unusual stories, up-and-coming directors and interesting roles. His Lou Bloom – a petty thief turned freelance news cameraman who is as ruthless and determined as he is morally and ethically bankrupt – is a memorable and repellent sociopath, and Gyllenhaal’s work here will probably be described as ‘iconic’ in the future. It reminded me at times of Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle – an angry outburst in front of a bathroom mirror suggests that writer-director Dan Gilroy also makes the connection between the two characters – while Nightcrawler more generally recalls the early-hours otherworldliness of Taxi Driver and another Martin Scorsese / Paul Schraeder collaboration, Bringing Out The Dead.

There’s a powerful creepiness to Bloom that completely dominates this picture. His appearance is as ghoulish as his intrusive camera footage, the latter the product of his unflinching persistence at freshly-minted crime scenes: all close-ups of bullet wounds, dying faces, crushed car crash bodies and other grisly sights. Gyllenhaal lost 30lb for the part, leaving him with a haunted, skeletal look that accentuates his big doe eyes and leaves him looking like Andy Kaufman playing the Grim Reaper. Though not quite as emaciated, his thin frame and wired demeanour also bring to mind the insomniac Trevor Reznik, as played by Christian Bale in The Machinist. The pale-skinned Bloom also looks like he is starved of the vitamins provided by fruit, vegetables and direct sunlight, spending his days researching online and his nights out and about instead of enjoying the California weather.

The performance, however, isn’t just about the appearance: Gyllenhaal’s delivery, gestures and reactions all add to the character’s considerable oddness, as does Gilroy’s penchant for having the character recycle lines from self-help books and online business courses. At the beginning he is a small-time (but apparently violent) criminal, mainly operating through the night as he robs and sells anything from scrap metal to watches and bicycles. He is, however, keen to find employment, but his persistence alone is unsettling – an appeal to a scrap yard manager for gainful employment ends with Bloom being told that his status as a thief renders him unemployable, a point which he accepts with a brief, strange laugh that suggests some recognition of his failings. By chance he drives past a recent accident scene and becomes instantly fascinated by the actions of and footage obtained by a news cameraman named Joe Loder (Bill Paxton): to Bloom it looks heroic, and instantly he sees a way to bring a new sense of purpose into his life. After selling stolen goods he is able to purchase a cheap camera and police scanner and sets about finding footage of his own, picking up the basics fast. ‘I’m a quick learner’ Bloom states as a thinly-veiled warning to TV news producer Nina (Rene Russo), who is happy to buy his shocking, lurid captures while batting away the ethical and legal concerns of her colleague Frank (Kevin Rahm).

Bloom sells more ratings-bumping footage to the TV network, and upgrades his car (to a Dodge Challenger) and equipment with the proceeds; he also takes on a desperate, low-paid assistant named Rick (Riz Ahmed), who he exploits. In order to increase the ‘quality’ of the material, and therefore his pay and his profile, Bloom begins to tamper with crime scenes: first shifting pictures of a family on a fridge so that they appear closer to some bullet holes and later arriving at a crash scene before the rescue services have been able to respond and moving a body for a better shot. At this point it is apparent that he has no moral code, no sense of ethical responsibilities, and no interest in the welfare of the victims of the crimes and accidents he chases across the city at night. After a while it also becomes clear that anyone who gets in Bloom’s way is going to be in serious trouble.

The character’s relationship with Nina is absolutely fascinating, and Russo’s supporting turn is very good. In one gripping scene, after pressuring the producer into a date, Bloom proceeds to try and blackmail her into the sack while they have dinner. Understandably she appears repulsed at first, but he is remarkably astute, and the film later hints that his methods have been successful without ever showing their relationship being consummated. Bloom approaches the subject of sex as if it’s just another business transaction, and he employs the same techniques with Nina that he uses to negotiate over the sale of his footage or Rick’s wages. Gradually the dynamic between Lou and Nina changes: at first when they discuss the price for Bloom’s footage Nina is firmly in charge and Bloom, who knows nothing about the industry, has no power and holds no cards; later on this is flipped, and he establishes a sinister kind of dominance, using information he finds out about Nina’s employment contract to leverage better terms for himself and more money. Despite the fact her position gets worse each time Nina accedes to Lou’s demands there is a suggestion that it turns her on to be beaten in negotiations, even though there’s a more publicly-stated reason for obtaining the footage (it increases the network’s ratings). Gradually it becomes apparent that Nina’s own moral compass is almost as skewed as Bloom’s.

Nightcrawler echoes the criticism of the media in Sidney Lumet’s Network, where anything goes in the quest for viewers. The buck stops with ratings and the channel’s interests come first, much to the irritation of the police and rescue services, who physically must move Bloom out the way at first before his obstructions become even more cunning and dangerous later on. What is apparent here is that he only has his own self-interest at heart. After arriving first at one murder scene the detestable Bloom films a number of dead bodies before it transpires, later on, that there was a survivor inside the house: perhaps this person didn’t attract Bloom as it would have ruined his video footage, or perhaps the information is revealed to show that Bloom simply doesn’t care whether these strangers live or die. Information about his character is gradually drip-fed to reveal a man that is completely lacking in remorse and compassion.

The beautifully-lit shots of LA by night by Paul Thomas Anderson’s regular cinematographer Robert Elswit recall his earlier work on Magnolia as well as Newton Thomas Sigel’s photography on Drive, and add considerably to the film’s overall stylishness. Dan Gilroy’s screenplay is fresh and clever, while his direction is sure: the performances of the cast are excellent, the tempo is well-judged and the decision to occasionally slip into the visual lexicon of early 70’s road movies like Vanishing Point and Two-Lane Blacktop lends his film an air of American cool. My only issue with his story – and my main problem with the film, in fact – is a misjudged and unnecessary coda that offers a kind of forced resolution to the story (although at least the final line of the film is in keeping with the overall creepiness). Other than that I do not have much criticism to offer: if I was feeling churlish I might add that it’s pretty obvious that all the supporting characters exist simply to highlight Bloom’s sociopathy, but they are still interesting enough despite the fact. This is a fantastic movie, and one of the year’s best by a country mile: dark, unsettling, gripping and with a point to make. Gyllenhaal dallied with summer blockbusters a few years ago, but throughout his career he has been consistently impressive when taking on challenging roles. For me this depiction of a well-written sociopath has elevated him even further, a leap forward by a prodigious talent, and a career high point to date. The performance gets the film it deserves, and vice versa.

The Basics:
Directed by: Dan Gilroy
Written by: Dan Gilroy
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, Bill Paxton
Certificate: 15
Running Time: 117 minutes
Year: 2014
Rating: 9.1

Underrated: 50 Films Of The 1990s Pt II

Yesterday we counted down from 50 to 30 in an utterly pointless list of underrated films from the 1990s, and today we continue that utterly pointless list by counting down from 29 to 11.  (Yes, I should have stopped at 31 yesterday, but rank amateur blogging is the proud calling card of this website and will continue to be so for some time.)

See also:
Underrated: 50 Films of the 1990s Pt III (10-1)
Underrated: 50 Films of the 1990s Pt I (50-30)

Without further ado and for your consideration…

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29. Hard Eight (1996)
Paul Thomas Anderson’s debut has been revisited by many of his curious fans in the interim years, but it only made a paltry $200,000 when it was first released at the cinema, despite the presence of some very big names in the cast. Those who have bothered to check it out have discovered a compelling gambling crime drama, with terrific lead performances by Philip Baker Hall and John C. Reilly. Gwyneth Paltrow shows up as a cocktail waitress who moonlights as a prostitute, while there are also roles for Samuel L Jackson and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Worth seeing if you like the director’s subsequent work, even though he is finding his voice here.

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28. Darkman (1990)
Sam Raimi’s dark superhero story is miles apart from his later Spider-Man efforts, which sit more comfortably with the rest of the ever-growing sub-genre. Unable to secure the rights for Batman or The Shadow, but keen to create an homage to Universal’s horror films of the 1930s and 1940s, Raimi set about creating his own superhero: a mentally-unstable burns victim whose hospital treatment accidentally gives him enhanced strength and stops him from feeling physical pain. Liam Neeson dons the … er … mask, beating Gary Oldman and Bill Paxton to the role, while Frances McDormand provides the love interest.

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27. Clubbed To Death (1996)
This French film, also known as Lola, follows a young girl (Élodie Bouchez) as she ditches her upper class Parisian neighbourhood for the techno clubs in the down-at-heel banlieues on the edge of the city, entering into a love triangle with two small-time criminal brothers. The clubbing scenes are shot beautifully, moving from the thumping techno of the Chemical Brothers to the dreamy soundtrack by Rob Dougan and Philippe Cohen-Solal, while Béatrice Dalle vamps it up as a patriarchal club dancer. A little too dreamy at times, but it is juxtaposed interestingly with a tough, urban edge.

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26. Smoke (1995)

Yet another mid-90s Miramax indie with a stellar cast, Wayne Wang and Paul Auster’s Smoke was a box office success, spawning a sequel of sorts (the less impressive but decent Blue In The Face). Largely revolving around Harvey Keitel’s Auggie, the proprietor of a Brooklyn tobacco shop, the film follows a number of locals as they drop in and out of Auggie’s days, and it’s a well-written character piece that gradually weaves together their collected stories into a snapshot of a community. William Hurt, Giancarlo Esposito, Stockard Channing, Forest Whitaker and Ashley Judd drop by.

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25. The Opposite Of Sex (1998)

This well-written and sharp comedy drama contains an excellent performance by Christina Ricci, playing the smart-mouthed pregnant teenage runaway DeDee Truitt (Ricci’s narration is just as good as her on-screen work) as she wreaks havoc in the life of half-brother Bill (Martin Donovan). A character-driven piece with some stinging lines, The Opposite Of Sex also features a terrific supporting turn by Lisa Kudrow, successfully showing that her range extends further than ‘Phoebe from Friends’.

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24. Brassed Off (1997)

Mark Herman’s stirring comedy drama about a colliery brass band during the miner’s strike of the 1980s is based on the struggles of the Grimethorpe Colliery Band during the same period, and the real life band provide the foot-stomping soundtrack. There’s a light touch as Ewan McGregor sets about wooing Tara Fitzgerald, while the film’s darker side – ill health, poverty and attempted suicide feature just as heavily as the feelgood moments – is very well-judged indeed, and extremely moving. Stephen Tomkinson and the much-missed Pete Postlethwaite add depth to this vibrant riposte to the policies of the Thatcher government.

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23. Fearless (1993)
Rosie Perez was Oscar-nominated for her turn as a plane crash survivor in this drama by Peter Weir, but Jeff Bridges was perplexingly overlooked by the Academy for his brilliant performance, which counts as one of the best of his career. Bridges plays an architect named Max who believes he is invulnerable to death after he also survives the accident, leading doctors and family members to assume he is delusional, and the film’s delicate storytelling covers the traumatic aftermath of such an incident in a fascinating way. Benicio del Toro appears in an early role, Isabella Rossellini is excellent as Max’s wife Laura, and John Turturro pops up once again, reinforcing the fact that he is one of the most underrated actors of the decade.

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22. Waiting For Guffman (1997)
An excellent companion piece to Living In Oblivion, Waiting For Guffman kickstarted a great run of Christopher Guest mockumentaries that continued into the next century with Best In Show, A Mighty Wind and For Your Consideration. Unfortunately it fared badly at the box office, but that’s no reflection on its finely-constructed humour and wry, observational style. Much of the cast that would continue working with Guest is present for this witty examination of small town amateur dramatics, including Eugene Levy, Fred Willard, Catherine O’Hara and Parker Posey. A gem that seems all but forgotten about today.

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21. Pushing Tin (1999)
Mike Newell had moved from Hugh Grant-starring romcoms to Donnie Brasco in the space of around three years before he made Pushing Tin, a box office failure from the late 1990s about two rival air traffic controllers obsessed with out-doing one another in order to prove their masculinity. Difficult to market, Pushing Tin received mixed reviews from critics but is well and truly ripe for re-appraisal thanks in part to the performances of charismatic performances by John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton, who are ably supported by on-screen wives Cate Blanchett and Angelina Jolie. Unfairly dismissed at the time.

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20. The Day Trippers (1996)
Greg Mottola’s indie debut is so good it’s perplexing as to why he wasn’t given another film to helm for over ten years (his next effort was Superbad). With a simple plot covering a family’s road trip as Eliza (Hope Davis) attempts to get philandering husband Louis (Stanley Tucci) to confess his infidelity, it focuses more on the characters and the dialogue is razor sharp. Parker Posey and Liev Schreiber shine, while the hugely underrated Campbell Scott also excels.

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19. Big Night (1996)

Around the same time as The Day Trippers, Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott made Big Night, a warm comedy-drama about two Italian brothers in 1950s New Jersey who try to make a success of their failing restaurant by seeking out loans and the patronage of Louis Prima. The film’s exploration of the cultural differences faced by immigrants, as well as the importance of identity and belonging, is thorough and – at times – thought-provoking. Tucci is magnificent.

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18. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993)

Leonardo DiCaprio announced himself to the world with this Oscar-nominated performance (the first of many) as Arnie, the mentally-handicapped kid brother of Gilbert Grape (Johnny Depp). A bittersweet and beautifully-shot drama set in small town Iowa but primarily filmed in Texas, it ruminates on absent father figures and depression but avoids falling into the trap of being too dreary and downbeat. Critical acclaim, yet again, did not translate into huge box office takings. Fun fact: director Lasse Hallström made nearly all of Abba’s promo videos.

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17. Beautiful Girls (1996)

Scott Rosenberg wrote this cracking tale of a high school reunion in small town New England while waiting to find out whether Disney intended to use his script for Con Air, and it’s also notable for being one of the few films made by Ted Demme before his death at the age of 38. Tim Hutton is Willie Conway, a fairly unsuccessful New York-based pianist, who returns home and befriends 13-year-old Marty (Natalie Portman, very good indeed). The men dither and moan about their lot in local bars while several female characters tell them to stop their dithering. and their moaning. Matt Dillon, Uma Thurman and Rosie O’ Donnell are among the stars.

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16. The Last Days Of Disco (1998)
This sardonic, witty Whit Stillman film examines Manhattan’s disco scene in the early 1980s, with Chloë Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale playing two Ivy League graduates who spend most of their spare time in New York’s more exclusive clubs. Stillman’s film is based on his own experiences of the scene and is notable for its excellent screenplay, which contains a believable group of self-important and serious characters. Released in the same year as the hacked-to-pieces 54, this is in a lower key but knocks spots off the competition. Guess which film made the most money?

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15. Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead (1995)
Heading up an excellent cast of oddballs in this luminous gangster film is Andy Garcia as Jimmy The Saint, a smooth-talking ex-con forced to take on the age-old ‘one last job’ by vindictive mob boss The Man With The Plan (a superb Christopher Walken). Unfairly lumped in with the post-Pulp Fiction rush of average and quirky crime films, Denver is much more fun than most of its contemporary crime thrillers and writer-director team Scott Rosenberg and Gary Fleder manage to create a well-realised, vaguely cartoonish world that sporadically explodes with violence. Incredibly it only took half a million at the box office despite great turns by Treat Williams, Bill Forsythe, Steve Buscemi and Christopher Lloyd, but it now has the status of being a cult classic, much loved by those that have seen it.

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14. Secrets & Lies (1996)
In a career filled with high points, this kitchen sink drama may be one the highest of them all for Mike Leigh. It seems silly to be including a film here that won three awards at Cannes, especially given that it was also nominated for five Oscars (including Best Picture and Best Director), but today mention of ‘Secrets & Lies’ will cause a lot of people to think initially about the admittedly very good Australian TV series. A magnificent, heart-wrenching melodrama about adoption and family relationships, it features standout performances by Timothy Spall and Brenda Blethyn.

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13. Palookaville (1995)
Hands down one of the best films of 1995, but finding people who have actually seen it is like finding a needle in a haystack; if you get a chance to track down this comic crime caper it is well worth any time and effort invested. At the heart of it is a trio of inept crooks and their dysfunctional families, but it’s also a heist film, and an original one to boot. Includes a breakthrough role for Vincent Gallo and two fine performances by Frances McDormand and William Forsythe.

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12. The Ice Storm (1997)
More dysfunction! A box office flop for Ang Lee but a critically-acclaimed film, The Ice Storm is a fascinating look at two families in the 1970s who collectively struggle with social and political change and use sex, booze and key parties as a means of coping. Based on Rick Moody’s excellent book, this is one of the great ensemble performances of the 1990s, with Joan Allen, Kevin Kline, Elijah Wood, Sigourney Weaver, Tobey Maguire and Christina Ricci all excelling. Slow and meticulous, it sucks you in and holds your attention throughout.

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11. Croupier (1998)
The film that launched Clive Owen’s acting career internationally, Croupier is a fine neo-noir by Mike Hodges, the man who directed Get Carter (and, er, Flash Gordon). Atmospheric, moody and gripping, casinos have rarely been this thrilling outside of a Martin Scorsese film, but unfortunately the movie could not be considered for the Academy Awards in 1999 as it had been shown on Dutch TV. A shame, as it may have been in with a shout for a couple. Owen has rarely been better.

Interested to see what makes the top 10? Tune in tomorrow for the final few.

Underrated: 50 Films Of The 1990s Pt I

The 1990s. You remember them, right? The Rubik’s Cube, flares, The Grateful Dead, prohibition, the gold rush … it’s the decade that you’ll never, ever forget. It’s also the decade that gave us Titanic, Forrest Gump, Armageddon and Batman & Robin – four movies that were almost certainly released at one point or other. But what about the underrated gems of the decade? Here are 50 of the very best that the 1990s has to offer, spread across three posts, of which this is the first. Some of these may well be critically acclaimed, some of them have even had Oscar nominations and wins, but they’re in this list for a variety of reasons: Miller’s Crossing, for example, remains one of the most well-regarded of Coen Brothers movies by their fans but it’s still little known and probably their second most underrated film (the first being 2001’s The Man Who Wasn’t There, a brilliant two hours of slow-burning noir that people still ignore today).

See also: Underrated: 50 Films of the 1990s Pt II (29-11)
Underrated: 50 Films of the 1990s Pt III (10-1)

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50. Rush (1991)
The prospect of watching a film about a tough undercover narcotics officer who is paired with a recent police academy graduate may have you reaching for the ‘off’ button, but Rush is a fine example of a gritty, uncompromising crime story. Jason Patric is the cop in question – he would go on to play a similar role a decade later in the underrated Joe Carnahan film Narc – while Jennifer Jason Leigh turns in a very impressive performance as the new partner who takes her undercover act a little too far. There’s also good support from the gravel-voiced Sam Elliott and, bizarrely, Gregg Allman as a drug lord.

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49. That Thing You Do! (1996)
That Thing You Do! was a moderate success at the box office, probably due to the fact that Tom Hanks was the biggest movie star in world when he directed it (he also wrote the film and appears in a supporting role). This tale of a one-hit-wonder band who enjoy fleeting success during the early 1960s pop explosion is rarely mentioned today, however, but it has a warm, feelgood spirit and the cast – which also includes Charlize Theron, Liv Tyler, Giovanni Ribisi, Chris Isaak, Steve Zahn and, fleetingly, Bryan Cranston – exudes charm.

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48. Mallrats (1995)
Kind of a prequel to Kevin Smith’s low budget indie breakthrough Clerks, Mallrats bombed upon release, recouping barely a third of its $6 million budget. Incorporating some characters from Clerks, Smith’s comic-referencing tale of slackers TS Quint (Jeremy London) and Brodie Bruce (a terrific, hyper-charged Jason Lee) and their attempts to woo back their girlfriends while avoiding brutal fathers and stoic mall security guards is actually great fun, with plenty of killer lines and a lot of amusing daftness. Smith apologized for it a year later, with tongue very possibly in cheek.

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47. Living In Oblivion (1995)
Tom DiCillo achieved some acclaim in the 1980s as a favoured cinematographer of Jim Jarmusch, but his career high point is arguably this superb satirical tale of low-budget filmmaking, made with a fine cast of 1990s indie regulars: Steve Buscemi excels as the intense but frustrated director trying to appease prima-donna cinematographer Wolf (Dermot Mulroney), unconfident actress Nicole (Catherine Keener) and angry, embittered dwarf Tito (Peter Dinklage). James LeGros is fantastic as Chad Palomino, a major Hollywood star slumming it in order to gain a little indie kudos. When pressed on why he has accepted the role he wails ‘because I thought you were tight with Quentin Tarantino!’.

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46. Night On Earth (1991)
A collection of short stories revolving around taxi rides in which driver and passenger bond at night, Jim Jarmusch’s Night On Earth is a globe-trotting indie featuring an array of diverse but excellent performances. It’s also very amusing indeed, and incorporates a standout soundtrack by Tom Waits. Winona Ryder, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Isaach De Bankolé, Roberto Benigni and Matti Pellonpää are the drivers (LA, New York, Paris, Rome and Helsinki respectively) while there are fine turns by Gena Rowlands, Giancarlo Esposito, Rosie Perez and Béatrice Dalle as some of the passengers. Benigni steals the film.

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45. A Midnight Clear (1992)
Without doubt one of the most perceptive and well-acted war films of the 1990s, A Midnight Clear was sadly a failure at the box office, despite the fact it featured an ensemble cast of then up-and-coming names and an excellent script. Set near the end of World War II, the story follows a small squad of American soldiers who must occupy a deserted chateau close to the German border during the Battle Of The Bulge. They come into contact with a similar group of weary German soldiers who are keen for a truce, and this well-observed and soulful tale of the mental pressure caused by war largely eschews brawn for brain as the two groups attempt to make peace.

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44. Land And Freedom (1995)
Ken Loach’s tale of a young Liverpudlian (played by Ian Hart) who travels to Catalonia to fight fascism as part of the POUM militia is a gripping work, part war film and part political and social drama. The film explores themes of idealism, collectivism and belonging and has been likened by many to George Orwell’s novel Homage To Catalonia.

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43. Cop Land (1997)
Although another moderate box office success, arguably Cop Land should have been a big hit, especially when considering its cast included Sylvester Stallone, Harvey Keitel, Robert Patrick, Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta, Peter Berg and Janeane Garofalo. Stallone piled on the pounds to play a local New Jersey sheriff taking on corrupt forces within the NYPD and turns in his best performance in years, but the film’s slow-ish pace and bleakness put a lot of people off at the time of release. A shame, as Cop Land stands up as a mature, brooding drama today.

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42. A Very Brady Sequel (1996)
I could have easily picked The Brady Bunch Movie (1995) instead; both that film and this sequel are surprisingly smart comedies that gently poke fun at the raft of 1990s movie remakes of classic TV shows of yore, and both Brady efforts are far funnier than you’d expect them to be. Placing the wholesome 1970s family in a 1990s setting and milking the resulting culture clash for all it’s worth, this second instalment has some great drugs and incest-related gags and well-judged tongue-in-cheek performances from Gary Cole and Shelley Long.

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41. Grace Of My Heart (1996)
Allison Anders (Gas, Food, Lodging) became another successful independent director who struggled to achieve mainstream success when given a larger budget to work with. Grace Of My Heart – another movie about the 1960s pop music industry that starts off in New York’s Brill Building before moving across to LA’s singer-songwriter scene – sadly only made $600,000 at the cinema, but it’s a solidly-made romantic drama with some fine performances: Ileana Douglas stars as a Carole King-style songwriter, Matt Dillon plays a character apparently based on Brian Wilson and John Turturro is excellent as the wild, driven producer that is Phil Spector in all but name.

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40. Gonin (1995)
Considering that Quentin Tarantino ripped off Asian crime cinema with his debut Reservoir Dogs it’s perhaps fitting that Japan’s Takashi Ishii took his own revenge and made this hard-boiled tale of a heist gone wrong that captures a little of the Dogs flavour. An occasionally-brutal thriller that eschews the ballet and bullets of Hong Kong cinema for a bleaker, more realistic violence, it’s still a stylish and at times a surreal film. It was misleadingly marketed as a Beat Takeshi movie when it was released (though Kitano does have a small role) but even that hasn’t stopped it from slipping into obscurity.

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39. Dead Presidents (1995)
The Hughes Brothers made their name with 1993’s Menace II Society but this follow up did well, despite earning mixed reviews. Following New Yorker friends Larenz Tate, Chris Tucker and Freddy Rodriguez as they graduate from high school in the late 1960s and head to Vietnam, the first half of the movie examines the brutality of their time at war while the second half concentrates on their return to the USA, where they find gratitude and help from both the government and their loved ones in short supply. Part heist movie, part family drama, part war film, it’s a little mixed up at times but well worth a watch. Great soundtrack too.

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38. Mystery Men (1999)
The anti-superhero comedy Mystery Men is another of this list’s box office bombs, only making back half of its estimated $68 million budget, but it’s a decent spoof that deserved better. A wry take on comic book cliches, part of the problem is it tries to shoehorn in too many famous faces, with Ben Stiller, Hank Azaria, Eddie Izzard, Greg Kinnear, Geoffrey Rush, William H Macy, Claire Forlani, Tom Waits, Paul Reubens and Janeane Garofalo among the names competing for space on the screen. That said, it hits the mark more than it misses, and there are plenty of laughs to be had at the array of pointless superpowers on display.

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37. The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
One of two 1990s Coen Brothers movies on this list, The Hudsucker Proxy is certainly worth a watch if you have never seen it before. A warm homage to Frank Capra, screwball comedy and 1950s cinema generally, it features some great production design and some inventive, retro-looking special effects, plus some fine observations on the machinations of big business. Tim Robbins is the star, Paul Newman the overacting corporate bad guy, and Jennifer Jason Leigh excels once again as a fast-talking reporter.

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36. The Basketball Diaries (1995)
Though admittedly not without faults, The Basketball Diaries is worth watching for the performances of a young Leonardo diCaprio, playing the real life poet and writer Jim Carroll, and Mark Wahlberg as his friend Mickey. Together the pair gradually lose focus on basketball – they begin the film as members of a seemingly-unbeatable high school squad – and descend into the world of drug addiction, which leads to a spell in Riker’s Island for Jim. Carroll’s real life story is turned into a straightforward tale of descent and redemption, but it has its hard-hitting and gritty moments.

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35. Pleasantville (1998)
Gary Ross is better known today as the director of The Hunger Games and Seabiscuit, but this late 1990s debut is an underrated gem, and one of the best movies of that year. Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon play a bickering teenage brother and sister who are magically transported into the world of Pleasantville, an idyllic 1950s sitcom. Gradually their actions begin to influence this black-and-white town, and Pleasantville and its residents slowly burst into colour; Ross uses this to play around with the idea of a perfect, innocent America and highlights the country’s recent history of racism in a subversive, inventive way.

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34. Trees Lounge (1996)
Written by, starring and directed by Steve Buscemi, this low-key, blackly-humorous indie also features a fine cast that includes Anthony LaPaglia, Samuel L Jackson, Debi Mazar, Mimi Rogers and Chloe Sevigny. Buscemi’s character Tommy is an alcoholic and a permanent fixture at his local bar (the ‘Trees Lounge’ of the title), and the actor’s performance has been widely praised as one of his best; Roger Ebert suggested that it ‘is the most accurate portrait of the daily saloon drinker I have ever seen’.

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33. The Cable Guy (1996)
Ben Stiller’s odd black comedy suffered as a result of being marketed as a typical Jim Carrey vehicle, which it most certainly wasn’t, but it still cleared the $100 million mark at the box office (Carrey pocketed a then-record $20 million for his work on the film). Though it is well-known I’d argue that this smart and subversive movie is critically underrated, with many reviewers bamboozled at the time by the mix of slapstick goofiness and Lou Holtz Jr’s dark script, which went through four drafts before producer Judd Apatow added a few final flourishes. Stiller apparently shot a ‘light’ and ‘dark’ version of every scene, but the studio was happy with the bleak results and violent ending. Matthew Broderick turns in a good performance as the straight foil for Carrey’s buffoonery.

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32. Buffalo ’66 (1998)
If you listened to writer-director-star Vincent Gallo at the time of its release, you’d think this indie tale of an ex-con who kidnaps a young tap dancer (Christina Ricci) was an even greater achievement than Citizen Kane. Hyperbole aside, it is a solid and convincing drama, and there’s little evidence on screen of the rows that flared up when the cameras stopped rolling: Gallo reportedly fell out with co-stars Ricci and Anjelica Huston, who he later accused of sabotaging the film’s chances at Cannes, and claimed the praised cinematographer Lance Acord ‘had no ideas, no conceptual ideas, no aesthetic point of view’. Ouch.

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31. The Sweet Hereafter (1997)
Despite huge critical acclaim Atom Egoyan’s adaptation of Russell Banks’ novel failed to attract a big audience when it was released. Perhaps the subject matter – the story focuses on the aftermath of a tragic bus accident in a small town in British Columbia in which several children die – put a lot of people off, which is a shame as it is a profound, moving and beautifully-filmed tale containing excellent performances by its two leads, Ian Holm and Sarah Polley.

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30. Quiz Show (1994)
It seems bizarre to be ending this part of the list with a film that received Academy Award nominations for Best Picture and Best Director, but Quiz Show seems to be all but forgotten twenty years later. Why? Robert Redford’s film is a masterful, sprawling take on a TV game show scandal that acts as a metaphor for an entire nation’s loss of innocence. It features sterling acting performances by John Turturro, Ralph Fiennes, Paul Scofield and Rob Morrow, but surprisingly it’s yet another box office bomb. What the hell is up with you people?!

So. That’s 50-30. Yes, it’s a pointless list, but I’ll post 29-11 tomorrow (hopefully) and then 10-1 will either be Thursday or Friday, depending on time. There are some killer films to come…

0200 | Idiocracy

Idiocracy2

In the mid-2000s Mike Judge could be forgiven for wondering what he had to do in order to get a film released properly. Fox dumped his excellent workplace satire Office Space in the late 1990s, but it became a huge hit on DVD, and was one of the studio’s biggest sellers in 1999. When he made the follow-up, the sardonic sci-fi comedy Idiocracy, the studio decided to ignore the previous success and released it in just 130 cinemas in the US, without any promotion or screenings for critics. Fox didn’t even bother with a trailer or print ads, either, and the film went straight to DVD in other territories.

Perhaps their reaction to Idiocracy can be understood in relation to the film’s content. In the present the distinctly average army clerk Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson) is frozen by the military. The experiment is forgotten about and he wakes up accidentally 500 years later, in 2505, to find that the intelligent and educated have been massively out-bred by stupid people. IQ levels have plummeted, TV appeals to the lowest common denominator (the top-rated show is The Violence Channel’s ‘Ow! My Balls!’ while the Masturbation Channel proudly proclaims it has been ‘Keepin’ America ‘batin’ for 300 years!’) and corporations have devolved at a similar pace: Carl’s Jr has changed its slogan to ‘Fuck you! I’m eating’, Starbucks offers handjobs as well as coffee and a Gatorade-style drink called Brawndo – ‘The Thirst Mutilator’ – has even replaced water. ‘It’s got electrolytes!’ proclaim happy consumers who have long lost the desire and ability to question what that actually means.

Naturally Bauers is shocked by what he finds. Thanks to dysgenics doctors in the future talk like Bill and Ted and are unable to offer any valuable medical advice while others communicate with a mix of grunts and hip hop slang. The President (Terry Crews) is an ex-wrestler and porn star who rides around on a giant customized Harley Davidson and wins debates in the ‘House Of Representin’’ by firing a machine gun in the air to silence critics. And in this world of digital clocktowers, Costco wholesale outlets that appear to be the size of small cities, and falling buildings tied together for support, the distinctly average Bauers is actually the smartest person on the entire planet (although it initially causes him a lot of trouble – people do not take kindly to the fact that he ‘talks like a fag’). Before long he is tasked with solving the USA’s most serious problems, from failing crops to nuclear meltdowns.

It’s a shame, although completely unsurprising, that Fox got cold feet as a result of Judge’s acerbic anti-corporate, anti-consumerist message; most of the organisations targeted in Idiocracy, if not all of them, buy lots of advertising time or space from the many subsidiaries and divisions of News Corp in real life and pissing them off in such a way could have proven costly. By distancing themselves from the film, though not quite burying it, Fox could stay in bed with the likes of Starbucks and Costco while still recouping some of the money they spent on the movie and fulfilling a contractual obligation to release it in cinemas, albeit two years after it was completed.

It has been suggested that the studio stiffed Judge repeatedly in terms of funding and, as a result, the director had to call in favours for some of the special effects shots in order to finish his film on time; Robert Rodriguez is one notable name who answered the call-to-arms. In a wry and witty act of revenge the TV news channel that is still most prevalent in Judge’s dystopian, ultra-dumbed down future is Fox News – a move that will have presumably angered the studio further, despite Fox’s history of allowing fun to be poked at its expense in The Simpsons.

When Judge really lets loose his satirical attack on modern day America, made through a cheaply-rendered futuristic vision, is absolutely spot on: we are currently living in a world where corporations are attempting to take over as many walks of life as they can, both private and public, and the exaggeration of this aggressive mode of operating highlights just how far these companies are currently going today. We laugh along knowingly because deep down we all know that Starbucks – or any of the other corporations that come in for a pummelling here – probably would offer handjobs to increase its profits if it could legally do so.

Our reliance on over-complicating automated systems also comes under fire, with a confused Bauers renamed ‘Not Sure’ at one point when a machine tasked with establishing his identity takes his answer to the question ‘what is your name?’ literally. And throughout the movie Judge’s favourite target, stupidity, gets both barrels. He delights when lampooning mob rule and general incompetence, and in one fantastic scene the newly-incarcerated Bauers convinces a dumb prison guard that he should in fact be released as he mistakenly joined the queue for new inmates.

It’s often very funny, but unfortunately the film runs out of puff, as most of the laughs come when we are first introduced to this dumb future and the initial potency of the gags gradually diminishes. After a while the overall dimness of our planet in 2505 begins to grate, while the presence of just a handful of mega-corporations doesn’t logically make much sense; even though it is less than ten years old the targets chosen by Judge are dating the film rapidly and there’s a distinct feeling that Judge’s true savagery has been tempered. The final act hinges on Bauers being able to save the country’s crops from failing, which leads to a tedious finale in which our hero must survive a monster truck arena battle against a Chuck Norris-esque character called Beef Supreme (Andrew Wilson) while an unconvincing love story with Maya Rudolph’s fellow defrostee Rita plays out.

It’s a shame that Rudolph’s character – the only female role of any note in the film – is a prostitute. Rather than betraying a hidden sexist agenda the job choice is merely a device to enable Judge to make some fairly weak jokes about pimps and pimping, but it isn’t really necessary and those gags don’t help the film at all. Judge has a predilection for including female characters that are little more than (stereo)typical male fantasies (see also Office Space and the patchy Extract), which is unfortunate when considering his apparent sharpness as a writer.

Still, Rudolph and the rest of the cast are committed and energetic, and they just about carry the movie over the finish line. The ever-likeable Wilson gets the tone just right – his frustrated character Joe constantly surprised at the stupidity of the world during an hour of scathing satire before gamely settling down for an odd life in the future at the end. The main problem is this final third drags, and generally the jokes fail to hit the heights of the early part of the film, but Idiocracy is still worth watching for its angrier, caustic moments and it’s remarkable enough that Judge sustains vitriol for an hour. The cheaply-rendered sets and effects give it a retro-cheesy Total Recall-style charm, too, and although it hasn’t quite attracted the same cult following as Office Space it does have a number of devoted fans … despite the best efforts of 20th Century Fox.

The Basics:
Directed by: Mike Judge
Written by: Mike Judge, Etan Cohen
Starring: Luke Wilson, Maya Rudolph, Dax Shepherd, Terry Crews
Certificate: 15
Running Time: 83 minutes
Year: 2006
Rating: 6.7

Cinematography Spotlight: Murder, Inc

Ten shots from Murder, Inc, a 1960 gangster film by Burt Balaban and Stuart Rosenberg. The film is based on the real life story of the Murder, Inc gang in Brooklyn, who operated during the 1930s, and was a remake of sorts (albeit with a few less bells and whistles) of The Enforcer, which starred Humphrey Bogart.

(Credit for the screencaps to the excellent Visions Of Light.)

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0199 | The Talented Mr Ripley

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Though atmospheric, rich in visual style and containing some excellent acting performances, the late Anthony Minghella’s 1999 adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Talented Mr Ripley is not without its critics. A thriller that attempts to flutter its eyelashes at both mainstream cinema audiences and the arthouse set, it probably disappoints both crowds equally, although there is still much to admire in this tale of forged identity and murder.

While it isn’t Minghella’s finest hour, it is perhaps his most striking: mention of the film’s name instantly conjures up images of the glistening azure Tyrrhenian Sea and the sun-kissed towns that overlook it, as well as opulent Roman and Venetian interiors and the oft-seen touristic locations of those cities. The grandiose and wealthy young characters are all kitted out with ivy league clothes, but many have a stylish Italian twist, and the costume design earned Ann Roth and Gary Jones an Oscar nomination. There are smoky jazz bars, café terraces with sweeping views and scooter-filled streets that recall the nighttime buzz of La Dolce Vita. Put simply, the film looks very good indeed, its style timeless: the preppy mid-20th Century Mediterranean look has even made a comeback in the UK in recent years.

Tom Ripley is the villain / anti-hero of the piece, a New York sociopath whose main talents are forgery and impersonation. A misunderstanding by shipping magnate Herbert Greenleaf (James Rebhorn) lands the deceitful Tom (Matt Damon) the job of tracking down Herbert’s wayward son Dickie (Jude Law), who has based himself in Italy with fiancée Marge Sherwood (Gwyneth Paltrow). Herbert, mistakenly believing that Tom knows Dickie from Princeton, pays Tom’s travel and expenses and offers him a further $1,000 – a hefty sum for the 1950s, the decade in which The Talented Mr Ripley is set – if he can persuade Dickie to come back to the USA. (It’s interesting to note, given everything that subsequently happens, that Ripley’s mission requires him to develop a certain duplicity in the first place, which is enhanced by Herbert’s encouragement.)

As he arrives in Italy Tom meets Meredith Logue (Cate Blanchett), another young wealthy socialite, and tells her that he is in fact Dickie Greenleaf, stating later that it is ‘better to be a fake somebody than a real nobody’. Before long he locates Dickie and Marge and lies to them, suggesting he met the bemused Dickie at college, before using ingratiation to befriend the pair; soon enough he ends up living comfortably at Dickie’s expense as a guest. Dickie’s friendship blows hot and cold, as does his devotion to Meredith, and the relationships between the three are sometimes strained as a result, especially when Tom begins to develop feelings for Dickie and Marge begins to resent Tom’s presence and the lack of attention she receives. Suspicion surrounding Tom’s motives increases, particularly when Dickie’s astute and confident friend Freddie Miles (Philip Seymour Hoffman) shows up.

Ripley does not naturally fit in with this crowd, and Minghella focuses on the character’s awkwardness, which is particularly well-realised in a scene where Tom is forced to sing along onstage to a song he doesn’t know very well (if at all). The threat of discovery, of being revealed as a charlatan, hangs over Tom at all times and it provides nearly all of the film’s tension. However, gradually he learns how to behave and how to carry himself around this perma-holidaying bunch, and when the opportunity presents itself he assumes Dickie’s identity in order to enjoy the lifestyle of a wealthy young man in Rome himself. As the net closes in on him, though, he is forced to take extreme action in order to keep his secret.

After the production design, the second most striking element of The Talented Mr Ripley is the cinematography. Minghella incorporates a number of shots that help to establish the film’s themes of hidden secrets and dual personas, and I lost count of the amount of mirrors that appear, which often highlight the fragmented nature of the main characters (and not just Tom Ripley, either). In one scene Dickie catches Tom trying on his clothes for size and the embarrassed Ripley dives behind the rear of a mirror to protest his innocence, with only his head visible and the reflection of Dickie’s entire body in plain sight. ‘I wish you’d get out of my clothes,’ says Dickie, blissfully unaware of the fate that awaits him. (Later on, when the net is closing in on the murderous Ripley, there is another striking image when we see his reflection in a piano; as he leans back the reflection splits, which tells us in no uncertain terms that Ripley is shedding the ‘Dickie’ persona he has been using and is returning to being Tom and Tom alone in order to evade capture. There are many ingenious shots like this in Minghella’s film.)

The photography by John Seale, who also worked with Minghella on The English Patient (and, after this, Cold Mountain), manages to maintain a focus on the principal characters even though they are often framed with glorious backgrounds in plain view. His work here is impressive, especially with regard to the gradual shifts of the colour palette and the lighting, moving slowly from sun-blasted blues and beiges to a washed out, grey-skied sunless ending.

By this point the character Ripley has supposedly fallen in love with – Jack Davenport’s Peter Smith-Kingsley – is also keeping his true nature hidden, with his sexuality very much a private matter (none of the men in Highsmith’s story are what they seem; Miles must also keep his sexual preferences under wraps, Dickie is having a secret affair and has impregnated a local Italian woman and Herbert’s success as a businessman masks his own failure as a father). While Peter’s musical tastes are more in line with Tom’s own than Dickie’s were, the relationship between the two never really convinces, perhaps because sufficient time isn’t allotted to its development. As such the film’s ending feels botched, lacking the dramatic impact it is clearly supposed to have. Similarly, Meredith’s infatuation with Tom never quite feels right, despite the best efforts of the talented Blanchett. The credibility of the story gradually slips away the longer the film goes on as a result.

Damon, who is onscreen for most of the film, plays Ripley well enough, his glances and false smiles effectively revealing the character’s complexity to the audience, as well as the presence of an inner thought system that we can but guess at. Ripley knows how to act in the situations he finds himself in – or learns very quickly – and Damon is very good at suggesting that the character isn’t genuinely feeling any of the emotions or thoughts he publicly expresses.

Unfortunately his thunder is stolen by the magnetic Law, who was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar the following year thanks to this breakthrough performance. A head of steam is built up while Law is on screen, and when his role in the film ends there’s a considerable gap in The Talented Mr Ripley that isn’t subsequently filled. Damon’s character, however, is presumably far more difficult to get exactly right. You could argue that Jude Law benefitted to an extent from the fact that Dickie is the more attractive part, the character who is wired into the jazzy 1950s Italian playboy lifestyle, whereas Damon is forced to jar with everything in order to portray Ripley accurately: the other actors, the setting, the idyllic lifestyles lived by rich, carefree youth and the flow and rhythm of Italian life. It’s as if the character is at odds with his own story, and if that was actually the intention Damon’s performance should be viewed in a new light.

This is a good ensemble cast – most of them promising actors at the time as opposed to the established names of today – and Paltrow also impresses as Marge, unleashing more and more (plausible) histrionics as her frustration surrounding Dickie’s appearance – not to mention her suspicion of Tom as a killer – grows. Her charitable warmth towards Tom at the start is convincing, as is her coldness and hatred at the end. Meanwhile Hoffman, that great, great lost talent, dominates his few scenes with such presence that even the charismatic Law must play second fiddle when they are on-screen together.

Plenty of elements come together successfully in Minghella’s film that point to a successful suspense thriller: the acting, the production design, the cinematography, the plethora of loaded lines in the screenplay that cause a wry smirk or ten; yet there’s something intangible missing, and I can’t quite decide what that is. It may be the pacing, as the film sags a little in the middle and the ending feels rushed. Its critics feel that Plein Soleil (aka Purple Noon), the original adaptation of Highsmith’s novel that starred Alain Delon as Ripley, is the better film, wasting no time as it begins with Ripley and ‘Philippe’ Greenleaf as established friends. Highsmith’s novel differs from both adaptations, containing an ending where Ripley ends up inheriting Dickie’s fortune thanks to a forged will, but the character feels a greater sense of paranoia and is concerned about the future. Damon once suggested he wished Minghella’s film could be made again with the same cast but as a faithful adaptation of Highsmith’s novel. Maybe that would have been better, but this is still a well-made thriller with an intriguingly creepy villain who, unusually for mainstream cinema, gets away with murder.

The Basics:
Directed by: Anthony Minghella
Written by: Patricia Highsmith, Anthony Minghella
Starring: Matt Damon, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jack Davenport
Certificate: 15
Running Time: 142 minutes
Year: 1999
Rating: 7.1

Competition Time: Guess The Film

OK, this is the first competition on Hyperfilm, and depending on how many responses I get it could well be the last. Listed below are ten very poorly-written haikus – purists will be frankly disgusted by the lack of references to nature – each of which refers to a particular film. Can you guess them all? Some of them are obvious, one or two of them less-so, but I’m sure discerning readers of this blog will be able to score maximum points.

The winner will receive an entire year’s subscription to the Hyperfilm blog FOR FREE (usual price: also free) and also gets to enjoy bragging rights as the most knowledgeable film buff on the entire Internet. So without further ado, guess the film…

1.
Crazy man abseils
Just as lightning strikes tower
Grey hair is upright

2.
Hitman at college
Rekindles old eighties flame
While dodging bullets

3.
She is a lady
Ah but is she though?
Johnson evident

4.
Hiding in closet
He watches a creepy man
Inhaling gases

5.
Man blocks forward path
He wields sword expertly so
Doctor will shoot him

6.
It is cold outside
Inside Jack types at a pace
Going crazier

7.
Little bear fighter
Helps win forest moon battle
Removing shield

8.
In land of haiku
Two are unhappy until
Hotel solace found

9.
Lady in diner
Is moaning out loud but what
Did she order

10.
Lone officer fights
A corrupt institution
In millinery

Put your answers in the box below!

Trailer Thursdays: Chinatown

OK unfortunately I haven’t got much time this evening to post, but I wanted to keep the Trailer Thursday tradition (which is all of four or five weeks old, so it isn’t really a tradition) going. This trailer for Chinatown caught my eye recently – for the 1970s it’s actually put together quite well; a lot of trailers around the same time are sloppily-edited, to say the least. And a nice, warm voiceover…

Classic Scene: McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)

Robert Altman’s anti-western McCabe & Mrs Miller is one of the most underrated films of all time, despite the fact the late, great Roger Ebert had it in his own personal top ten and referred to it as a ‘perfect’ film. A haunting, poetic look at the old west and the struggles of those who settled in the more unforgiving terrain, it stars Warren Beatty as professional gambler McCabe, a man who sets up a saloon and whorehouse in the town of Presbyterian Church and quickly becomes the richest man in the area. Julie Christie plays the madam running the brothel, and McCabe falls in love with her when she challenges his intellectual superiority.

This is the final scene. At this point McCabe has turned down generous offers for his land, which is rich in zinc, from the Harrison Shaughnessy mining corporation. In order to remove this stubborn obstacle the company sends three bounty hunters to kill McCabe. The cat-and-mouse fight rips apart the myth of the noble western gunslinger, and McCabe is mortally wounded. He struggles to make his way through the deep snow for help and the rest of the townsfolk are preoccupied with a fire in the local church anyway; meanwhile Mrs Miller lies semi-comatose in an opium den, far away.

The scene is indicative of the overall sadness of the film. Where most western heroes grow in courage or strength, McCabe goes the opposite way, gradually losing the power and confidence he has at the start of the film. He does not receive a hero’s death: the character slowly grinds to a halt with a lack of fanfare, has no final, poignant words, and doesn’t get to die in the arms of his lover. There is just the sound of the wind, and then Leonard Cohen’s plaintive voice, before Altman ends his movie with abstract visuals. This is a very well made movie and Altman’s refusal to bow to western conventions are evident here.

Your Questions Answered, With Gunnery Sergeant Hartman

Dear Gunnery Sergeant Hartman,
I think I may be addicted to adrenalin rushes – in fact you might even say that I regularly feel the need … the need for speed – but as I get older it’s becoming more and more obvious that I’m trying too hard to prove myself in front of actors and directors that are half my age. Just the other day, for example, I decided to stand outside of the door of a military plane as it ascended to 5,000 feet, even though the studio heads repeatedly told me that experienced stunt actors were available and keen to try it out for themselves. In the past I’ve dangled from the world’s tallest building, I’ve run over the top of cars that are actually moving and I’ve even leapt around like crazy on a chat show couch, but I’m concerned about where all this is leading. Am I going to attempt to jump over an active volcano crater? Will I end up walking a tightrope line suspended between the twin Petronas Towers of Kuala Lumpur? Am I going to be deemed ‘too crazy’ to even play Evil Knievel in the inevitable Evil Knievel biopic? I’m worried, and need some advice.
Best,
Tom C, Los Angeles

Dear Tom,
The deadliest weapon in the world is a Marine and his rifle. It is your killer instinct which must be harnessed if you expect to survive in combat. Your rifle is only a tool. It is a hard heart that kills. If your killer instincts are not clean and strong you will hesitate at the moment of truth. You will not kill. You will become dead marines and then you will be in a world of shit because marines are not allowed to die without permission. Do you maggots understand?
Hope that helps,
Gunnery Sergeant Hartman

Dear Gunnery Sergeant Hartman,
As a maker of tough, uncompromising and critically-lauded films about American military operations during the war on terror – as well as, er, surf-crime dramas with Keanu Reeves – I’m often on the lookout for advice from those who actually have current ties to the army. What I’d really like if possible is some inside information as to which country we’re going to … visit … next, so that I can start my research early. I’ve heard rumours that it’s going to either be North Korea or somewhere in South America. We haven’t been there in a while, I guess, but have you heard anything specific yourself?
Sincerely,
Kathryn B, Los Angeles

Dear Kathryn,
Today… is Christmas! There will be a magic show at zero-nine-thirty! Chaplain Charlie will tell you about how the free world will conquer Communism with the aid of God and a few Marines! God has a hard-on for Marines because we kill everything we see! He plays His games, we play ours! To show our appreciation for so much power, we keep heaven packed with fresh souls! God was here before the Marine Corps! So you can give your heart to Jesus, but your ass belongs to the Corps! Do you ladies understand?
Hope that helps,
Gunnery Sergeant Hartman

Dear Gunnery Sergeant Hartman,
I may well be paranoid but I think the Academy has it in for me. I’ve been nominated for four Oscars now but each time I’ve been beaten by complete hacks like Tommy Lee Jones, Forest Whitaker, Jamie Foxx and now fucking McConaughey. I mean, come on. The McConnaisance? Five years ago he was that Texan doofus from the Kate Hudson films that Linklater occasionally took pity on. And to cap it all I had to let him steal that scene from me in The Wolf Of Wall Street. And look, it’s not just recent years. If you want to go way back look at Titanic. 14 Oscar nominations and I’m the guy who misses out on one? Anyone would think it’s a conspiracy. Got any advice for me pal?
Warm regards,
Leo DC, Los Angeles

Dear Leo,
Are you quitting on me? Well, are you? Then quit, you slimy fucking walrus-looking piece of shit! Get the fuck off of my obstacle! Get the fuck down off of my obstacle! Now! Move it! Or I’m going to rip your balls off, so you cannot contaminate the rest of the world! I will motivate you, Private Pyle, if it short-dicks every cannibal on the Congo!
Hope that helps,
Gunnery Sergeant Hartman

imagesGunnery Sergeant Hartman is a syndicated columnist and fellow of the American Guild Of Agony Uncles. His advice column appears in 74 newspapers daily and he has a war face.

0198 | Reefer Madness

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Times have certainly changed since videos like this excitedly warned the masses about venereal diseases such as ‘Sex Madness’, the contraction of which apparently results in young women taking a fancy to each other at burlesque shows. Such public service education-exploitation films were commonplace following the adoption of the stricter version of the Motion Picture Production Code in 1934, and today we can look back on many of these pre-war films with more than a little embarrassment, while some of them cause us to chuckle away knowingly. However it’s worth bearing in mind just how powerful and dangerous they were when they first appeared; the more extreme efforts, such as this one, failed to educate and in a different climate – where such relationships were illegal – these films probably caused as much indirect pain and harm as direct amusement.

The most notorious of all, of course, is Reefer Madness, a hysterical tale from 1936 about the dangers of marijuana use and over-exposure to jazz. Also known as Tell Your Children, The Burning QuestionDope AddictDoped Youth and Love Madness, it often comes a close second to Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space in lists that attempt to identify the worst films ever made. It’s certainly has more than its fair share of cringeworthy moments, but is it actually that bad?

The Parisian director of Reefer Madness, Louis Gasnier, has avoided the notoriety of his angora-loving American colleague – no Tim Burton film for him –but like Wood he led an unusual and interesting life, and was far more prolific. Working first in France and later in the US, Gasnier was a member of the ‘Vincennes School’, a group of early French filmmakers which also included Gaston Velle, Georges Hatot, Lucien Nonguet, Lépine, Andre Heuré, Georges Monca and Albert Capellani, any one of which could possibly be the Martin Scorsese of his day, such is my knowledge of early 20th Century French productions. (For what it’s worth my money is on Monca.)

Gasnier was employed as a theatre actor and director in Paris before embarking on a long stint as a contracted filmmaker for Pathé. He made his name through his association with the silent era comedian Max Linder, and it has been suggested that Gasnier made over 100 films between the years of 1909-1914 alone, with the director failing to receive credit for a number of early works made in France and Italy. In 1913 he agreed to move to New Jersey to head-up Pathé’s new US production facility in Fort Lee, and the widespread acclaim he received as the co-director of the successful 1914 series The Perils Of Pauline (and the similar The Exploits Of Elaine) propelled Gasnier to the position of executive vice-president within the American division.

A couple of years later Gasnier resigned from the position in order to set up his own production company, and used his ties with Pathé to secure distribution for his new films. His career peaked during the following few years, and by the early 1920s he was well-known for his adventure serials set in exotic locales and as a purveyor of social melodrama. However things took a turn for the worse in the mid-20s and Gasnier had to file for bankruptcy, subsequently finding employment under a division of Paramount, where he guided the young Cary Grant through a couple of early roles. In 1935 Paramount decided they wouldn’t be renewing Gasnier’s contract, and after a long period without work he decided he would have to take the first picture that was offered to him. That was Reefer Madness, although at the time it was known as Tell Your Children.

Financed by a church group with the intention of educating parents concerned about cannabis, Tell Your Children was originally produced by George Hirliman, but shortly after completion it was purchased by the exploitation filmmaker Dwain Esper, who inserted a number of salacious shots and released it on the exploitation circuit. Films about marijuana were particularly popular around that time because of hysteria surrounding the Marihuana Tax Act, which was published in 1937, and as well as Tell Your Children other notable efforts included Esper’s own Marihuana and Elmer Clifton’s dramatically-titled Assassin Of Youth. The film was given different titles for different regions of the US, and the New England title of Reefer Madness eventually stuck after more than a decade of screenings. Neither Esper nor Hirliman bothered to protect the film’s copyright, and 30 years later Keith Stroup, founder of the pro-legalisation of marijuana group NORML, bought a print from the Library of Congress archives and began showing it on California college campuses. It came to the attention of Robert Shaye of New Line Cinema in New York, who noticed an improper copyright notice, and he began distributing it nationally – making a small fortune for the company. Since the 1970s re-release the film has been considered a cult classic, a camp production often described as being ‘so bad it’s good’ as well as routinely being referred to as the worst movie of all time (or at least one that runs Plan 9 pretty close). It has been adapted for the stage and a TV remake of the musical appeared in 2005 featuring Alan Cumming and Kristen Bell, and a colourised version has also appeared.

Reefer Madness is a fairly simple film, primarily revolving around Mae Coleman (Thelma White) and Jack Perry (Carleton Young), a couple – living in sin, to use the parlance of the day – who sell marijuana to local people; Mae prefers to sell to customers her own age, while Jack is happy selling to teenagers. Their apartment is home to a seemingly-continuous (but fairly tame-looking) party in the lounge, where jazz is played and mind alteration is practiced. However all usage of the demon weed by those who visit leads directly to various serious incidents: one man mows down a pedestrian in his car after smoking joint. Another couple, Blanche (Lillian Miles) and Bill (Kenneth Craig) start an affair while round at Mae and Jack’s. A guest named Ralph (Dave O’Brien) attempts to rape a young, stoned girl which leads to a fight and, eventually, the accidental killing of the woman in question. Ralph goes insane, which is attributed to his marijuana use, and then tells everyone he is going to the police to explain what happened. It gets worse. Jack attempts to kill Ralph, but Jack is instead beaten to death. The police arrest Ralph and Mae. Blanche is a witness, but instead of testifying she jumps out of a window, and falls to her death. By the end Mae’s fate is unknown while Ralph is sent to an asylum for the criminally insane for the rest of his life. And all because of a toke or two.

Obviously no-one should take Reefer Madness seriously. The depiction of the effects of marijuana here is ludicrous, and it looks as though no-one involved with the production ever thought to actually try the drug first. As such nearly all of the film’s events are so outlandish it’s hard to believe anyone ever thought this was an educational film; one of the funniest scenes, for example, sees Blanche playing the piano in order to take everyone’s mind off the terrible events – her playing becomes so fast it’s almost cartoon-like.

The acting is universally bad, the dialogue is awful (screenwriter Arthur Hoerl was responsible), and once you’ve had one or two giggles at the sheer ridiculousness of the plot it quickly becomes very boring indeed. But second-worst film of all time? Not a chance. At least the people making Reefer Madness were trying to make a decent film, even if they got it horribly wrong. I’d much rather watch this for an hour than any of those modern, cynical and noxiously ironic attempts at making a bad movie (hello Sharknado my old friend). Still, let’s be clear: I’m not about to argue that Reefer Madness is in need of a critical re-appraisal; it’s pretty dire, and even if you get completely baked it still isn’t very funny.

As for Gasnier, he continued to work with Hirliman, finishing out his directorial career with a couple of features at Monogram Pictures before retiring at the age of 65. He lived for another 22 years, and in a late interview he revealed that he was practically destitute; to make ends meet he returned to acting, in small parts, in mainstream features, usually playing an elderly Frenchman. Of all the hundreds of films he made, he’s remembered for the one he would have least liked to have been remembered for. Dude. What a bummer.

The Basics:
Directed by: Louis Gasnier
Written by: Arthur Hoerl
Starring: Kenneth Craig, Dorothy Short, Lilian Miles, Dave O’Brien, Thelma White, Carleton Young
Certificate: 15
Running Time: 66 minutes
Year: 1936
Rating: 0.8

Casting The Net: Elia Kazan

Though this blog contains its fair share of pointless piffle, from time to time there will be serious posts; in fact there have already been a couple. Anyway, although this doesn’t really require much work on my part, I thought I’d start a new series called ‘Casting The Net’ in which I will highlight interesting interviews and video footage that I find online. First up is this fascinating 1982 documentary examining the life and career of Elia Kazan. Enjoy!

0197 | The Act Of Killing

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Universally praised since its release in 2012 (it was named film of the year for 2013 by both Sight And Sound and The Guardian), Joshua Oppenheimer’s riveting and disturbing documentary The Act Of Killing is one of the most unusual releases I have seen in some time. Oppenheimer, an American filmmaker based in Copenhagen, gained the trust of several Indonesian politicians and gangsters (and some who you’d describe as having a foot in both camps) who were directly involved in the country’s purge of 1965-66, ostensibly an anti-communism drive that resulted in the extortion and killing of more than half a million people.

The main subjects here are Anwar Congo and Herman Koto, two men who were both small-time gangsters when Suharto overthrew Indonesia’s first President Sukarto in 1965 in the wake of a failed coup. Congo ran a successful black market movie racket at the time, but was promoted by Suharto when he gained control of the country, and subsequently led North Sumatra’s most powerful death squad. It’s suggested that he is personally responsible for the deaths of over 1,000 people, mostly by strangulation with wire. And yet here is, on-screen, in the exact place where the killings were carried out, dancing a little jig and extolling the virtues of a little marijuana, a little alcohol, a little ecstasy, all of which helps him to carry on with life as if nothing had happened.

At Oppenheimer’s invitation, Congo and Koto re-enact their involvement in this brutal history, staging increasingly bizarre recreations of the genocide which they themselves appear in and film, all filtered through the styles of their own favourite movie genres: gangster films, westerns, musicals and more. The suggestion that they do this may be both sensational and ridiculous but it appeals to the vanity of these arrogant, unrepentant killers, as well as their own love of the movies. Given a budget and creative freedom, Congo, Koto, their friends and neighbours begin by dramatising torture sequences before their delusions of artistry get the better of them; by the end of The Act Of Killing they’re indulging in a quite staggering musical rendition of ‘Born Free’ under a waterfall with a bunch of dancers who have walked out of the mouth of a giant fish. The victims appear at the bottom of the waterfall before thanking their killers for sending them to heaven. If that wasn’t surreal and ludicrous enough in itself, the despicable Koto – who we see extorting money from Chinese businessmen and setting out his corrupt money-making plans if elected onto a building committee during the documentary – is dressed in drag.

It’s difficult not to laugh at their garish and heavy-handed attempts at filmmaking, though any amusement resulting from Congo and Koto’s strange efforts is quickly tempered by the contemplation of their proficiency at cold-blooded murder. For much of Oppenheimer’s film few of those involved in these large-scale organised killings show any sign of remorse; only one journalist seems to be aware of the potential damage that this documentary could cause, though his protestations that he didn’t know about the genocide when it was happening right under his nose are unconvincing and ridiculed by his friends. When the men look through their own rushes they are more concerned with the detail than the gravity of their actions; Congo is horrified to see himself on-screen in white trousers. He’d never have worn them in real life because of all the blood, he says, without a hint of self-awareness.

Talk of the International Criminal Court in The Hague is scoffed at, and due to their links to the existing right-wing paramilitary organisation Pemuda Pancasila – which grew out of the death squads – Congo and Koto appear to be beyond punishment within Indonesia. Pemuda Pancasila includes high ranking government ministers among its most senior members, and they are open here about the organisation’s involvement in genocide, corruption, election-rigging and more. With friends in high places Congo can even afford to appear on a national TV chat show and discuss his role in the brutality. The way the killings and other crimes are discussed matter-of-factly is extremely disconcerting.

As the film wears on, as a result of his experiences re-creating the actions of his death squad, Congo is visibly moved and apparently haunted by the memories he has of the events of the mid-1960s. The narrative suggests that his genial all-singing, all-dancing bonhomie supposedly hides an inner torment, but is he truly horrified by what he did as a younger man? His guttural retching as he re-visits one death site suggests so, but in an earlier scene he watches his own recreation footage and is less convincing when he tells Oppenheimer that the penny has finally dropped. “Did the people I tortured feel the way I do here?” he asks. “I can feel what the people I tortured felt. Because here my dignity has been destroyed, and then fear come, right there and then. All the terror suddenly possessed my body. It surrounded me, and possessed me.” Oppenheimer calmly disguises his own disbelief when responding: “Actually, the people you tortured felt far worse, because you knew it’s only a film. They knew they were being killed.”

Oppenheimer has been criticised for not giving enough historical context, and no relatives of the deceased are interviewed in the documentary, but this documentary really is as unconventional as they come. I don’t think it’s necessary to hear such voices; we can probably guess what they would say, although it’s also likely many would turn down the opportunity to speak out for fear of recriminations anyway – there are 49 crew members listed in the credits here as ‘Anonymous’, which speaks volumes. By giving those involved in the genocide this platform Oppenheimer provides plenty of rope with which they gleefully hang themselves: they are more than capable of doing so on their own. The role of foreign powers in funding or supporting the killings is subtly highlighted by the director, too: a revolving McDonald’s logo at the start reveals that the US in particular had a lot to gain if the Indonesian market was opened up. The film provides plenty of context in my opinion.

Incredibly, Oppenheimer’s relationship with Congo, Koto et al appears to be the same as it was before The Act Of Killing was released. A companion documentary, The Look Of Silence, opened at the Venice Film Festival in August and will receive a wider release in the near future, although it is apparently a more conventional and confrontational work. I am keen to see it as this initial installment is as fascinating as it is original, as harrowing as it is shocking.

The Basics:
Directed by: Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, Anonymous
Certificate: 15
Running Time: 122 minutes
Year: 2012
Rating: 9.0

Reading List 31.10.2014

I didn’t actually post one of these last week, so this is a selection of articles, reviews and the like I’ve read and enjoyed during the past fortnight. Obviously today is Halloween and it seems as if nearly every blogger I follow has been writing about horror films recently, so there are quite a few links to reviews in the list below. While on the subject be sure to check out and bookmark Tyson Carter’s new site Talking Horror if you’re a fan of the genre; he has assembled a crack team of writers for the gory venture. (Caveat: at the time of posting this there’s no content on the site yet … so if it turns out to be dreadful don’t blame me.)

I’m kidding. It’ll be good.

If you have the time please give a few of these links the once-over!

0196 | Fury

Brad Pitt

Considering Fury is a film that clearly sets out to deglamorize war, and to a certain extent is successful in doing so, David Ayer’s tale of an American tank crew at the end of World War II spends an unfortunate amount of time attempting to attract a mainstream cinema audience by offering flashes of brightness. For every grim, troubling sight here – and there are many – there’s a gratuitous shot of Brad Pitt showing off his muscular torso or contemplating the square-jawness of it all while staring off thoughtfully into the middle distance (framed, of course, to accentuate his good looks). For every scene in which the characters played by Jon Bernthal and Michael Peña do or say something startling or morally questionable, shortly thereafter there’s another that paints them in a more sympathetic, reasonable light. For every captured, unarmed, ordinary German shot brutally in the back there’s an act of unexpected kindness by another SS soldier. And when the chips are down and the odds of survival must surely be in the tens-of-thousands-to-one, there is of course hope for the film’s heroes and a (slightly) happy ending, all scored with the kind of uplifting strings that make you want to punch the air and shout ‘GIT SOME’ (before realising that barely an hour earlier you were contemplating the courage, heroism and death of the masses who actually did fight in these battles … none of whom required an orchestra to make their lives appear more dramatic).

While you can certainly argue that an attempt to balance the dark of truth with the light of entertainment isn’t the worst of all cinematic crimes – and hey, first and foremost, I appreciate that the $68 million outlay has got to be recouped somehow – it unfortunately ends up costing Fury ever so slightly; when Ayer’s film is entirely focused on the harsh realities of combat it really is a powerful and gripping work, bringing to mind the intensity of the dramatisation of the Normandy landings in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, the relentless tension of Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down and the claustrophobic, impressive technicalities of Samuel Maoz’s less-well-known Lebanon. When it occasionally succumbs to the temptation of being A Brad Pitt Vehicle the film suffers by comparison, though I wouldn’t for one minute suggest it’s anywhere near as bad as escapist propaganda like, say, The Green Berets.

Not that Brad Pitt is at fault. Now in his sixth decade, he has gradually developed from a good actor with that movie star x-factor into a performer with more than enough gravitas to carry serious films like Fury, and he displays the requisite amount of troubled stoicism to render his character here believable. (He can’t help the fact that he still looks good even when he’s caked in filth and make-up artists have presumably spent hours trying to make him look as normal as they possibly can.) My cinema was packed, and undoubtedly some of the attendees were there because of the leading actor’s name, but at least he justifies the interest on a regular basis.

Pitt plays Staff Sergeant Don ‘Wardaddy’ Collier, a tank commander involved in the final push at the end of the war, his regiment running into heavy resistance in Nazi Germany. The crew of his lightly-armoured Sherman M4 – christened ‘Fury’ – are battle-weary and hardened by their time together in the North African campaign. In any other scenario these men probably wouldn’t give each other the time of day, and even here their relationships constantly threaten to buckle under pressure, but time and circumstance has ensured they have developed the strong bond necessary to carry them through the war; despite the relentless gravity of their situation they enjoy the usual soldier-to-soldier camaraderie, their traded jokes and drawled insults spilling out like an impenetrable slang or patois.

The film begins as it finishes, in the aftermath of a skirmish; we first see the crew of Fury, exhausted, catching their breath in a battlefield in which they appear to be the only survivors. Smoke rises from burnt-out vehicles and corpses all around them. They have lost their long-time gunner and friend in the battle, and he is replaced by a wet-behind-the-ears soldier named Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), who acts as our eyes and ears. Norman – a trained typist – does not want to kill and is understandably scared and horrified by what he sees amid the chaos of Hitler’s last stand. He is quickly and cruelly brought up to speed by the experienced Collier, whose extreme teaching methods are deemed necessary due to the dangers associated with hesitation. Collier needs all of his charges to be mentally strong, desensitized to the sights that greet them, and the crew is too small and the stakes too high to carry a passenger in this respect. Thus Norman’s initiation job is to mop up the remains of his predecessor inside the tank, and before long he is forced into other depressing acts, first shooting an unarmed prisoner of war under orders and secondly bedding a young German woman named Emma (Alicia von Rittberg), an act which requires much less duress.

As the tank trundles on from one muddy path and field to the next, permanently short on supplies and low on ammunition, Ayer incorporates an array of surreal, harrowing images that show just how grim and unpleasant a battlefield can be: corpses are piled up high by vehicles; there’s the sight of a bride in full gown among a group of refugees; the tank drives over a dead body in the mud which pops out again after the vehicle moves on. Every now and again the crew of Fury comes up against a platoon of Wehrmacht soldiers or some other force, so there’s little let-up in the action, which is fine as Ayer’s battle sequences are very good indeed. When the Allies roll into one town, the opposing force – mostly children conscripted by ruthless SS officers – quickly surrenders, enabling the Americans to enjoy some much-needed R&R. Yet even here the tension doesn’t magically disappear; the threat of rape hangs over the German women of the town, and one extended and magnificent scene around a kitchen table shows that, really, there’s no true downtime to be had. (Incidentally, I’ve seen this scene come in for criticism in some places for being overlong, but I thought it was very well acted by the principal cast members; the threat of an explosion of violence hangs in the air and I was on the edge of my seat during it. So there.)

The action sequences are intense, the fighting is bloody, and each small victory is met with knackered, mud-caked relief rather than triumphant celebration. A battle with a fearsome German Tiger tank across an open field is one highlight, with Fury and two other Allied tanks desperately trying to scuttle round the back of the more powerful enemy, while an attack on an anti-tank post and trenches is equally suspenseful. Unfortunately all the hard work is undone by a final act in which the soldiers of Fury take on several hundred Waffen-SS soldiers, lifting the concept of ‘defying the odds’ to new and unrealistic heights. Credibility is tested even further when it transpires that the supposedly experienced crew have left all of their spare ammo sitting on the outer rear of the tank, and must courageously pop outside to stock up during the firefight, despite having some time to prepare for the incoming enemy. Hmmm. At least the stupid oversight makes for some exciting on-screen derring-do, and it also enables Ayer to focus on a few pre-battle clichés – a swig of booze for every crew member, a rousing show of loyalty to the man in charge, a general acknowledgement that they’re all doomed, etc. etc.

I don’t wish to be too harsh on Ayer, or his film, as frankly it is one of the better (best) war movies in recent memory. It’s relentless, downbeat (and rightly so), moving, and when it felt realistic to this inexperienced viewer it really did hit the mark. Unfortunately there are a few predictable elements that just linger in the memory afterwards. When Norman reads the palm lines of Emma, for example, and tells her that she’ll have one great love in her life, we can guess what’s in store for the young German. Then there are the war film clichés that seem unavoidable: a young recruit lumped in with the veterans, a noble officer hiding his true feelings of fear and, by the end, the age-old assumption that every American soldier is able to mow down 50-100 Germans before any returned fire troubles him … although, to be fair, they are in a tank for much of the firefight.

In summary, there are good performances by Pitt, Lerman, Bernthal, Peña and Shia LaBoeuf, who plays a religious member of the crew (religion is as prevalent in Fury as the mud) who believes he is doing the work of God; the rest of the support is also impressive, though it is at times difficult to distinguish one grizzled senior officer from another. Despite one or two faults Ayer has made an impressive, action-packed war film that is at its best when it is pulling no punches. It is a nerve-jangling movie with a heavy, trundling, tank-like rhythm.

The Basics:
Directed by: David Ayer
Written by: David Ayer
Starring: Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, Shia LaBoeuf, Jon Bernthal, Michael Peña
Certificate: 15
Running Time: 134 minutes
Year: 2014
Rating: 8.0

Trailer Thursdays: Whiplash

I recently discovered that my local Odeon cinema charged very little indeed for tickets on Tuesday nights – which is probably common knowledge to lots of people but it was news to me – so I’ve been making more of a concerted effort of late to go to the cinema once a week to see new releases. I’ve seen ’71, Gone Girl and Fury as a result – so far, so good.

The (slight) downside to this regular attendance is that the pre-film trailers lose some impact due to familiarity after a while; I’m not particularly excited about Christopher Nolan’s forthcoming Interstellar, for example, simply because I’ve seen the trailer so many times now I feel like I have a good handle on what the story is about and a good idea of what to expect in terms of the film’s standout images. Maybe plenty has been left out of the trailer and I’ll be proven wrong. We shall see. I dread to think how many times I’ll see the trailers for the latest entries into The Hobbit and The Hunger Games series in the coming weeks, too.

Anyway, this ad – for the Sundance-wowing Whiplash – did pique my interest the other night. Not only has this film received widespread critical acclaim from those who have been lucky enough to see it in the US, it also has an unusual trailer, with that insistent drumbeat used to create an extremely odd, disconcerting feeling as the praise the film has received is interspersed with rapidly-cut images. Although for some reason they chose to leave out “Phantasmagorically uber-refulgent! Hyperfilm“. Chumps!

0195 | Swimming With Sharks

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There may be a touch of the pantomime villain about Buddy Ackerman, the monstrous and vain Hollywood studio exec played by Kevin Spacey in Swimming With Sharks, but that doesn’t preclude the character from regularly appearing in those long clickbait lists with titles like ‘100 evil movie bastards’ or ‘The 5,000 most disagreeable wankers of all time’. Weirdly, though, the film itself isn’t widely-known; despite the fact it features Spacey and a young Benecio Del Toro (in what is admittedly a ropey supporting performance), few people have heard of Swimming With Sharks and it’s even harder to find people that have actually seen it.

Ackerman is a high ranking movie mogul and a first class prick, allegedly either based on real-life producers Scott Rudin or Joel Silver, depending on who you want to believe. When he isn’t manipulating his colleagues in order to get what he wants (which is usually either women in bed or the green light for movies that contain lots of loud explosions), he’s either humiliating his junior staff by publicly berating them or physically abusing them by launching objects at their heads. He is one of the great comic creations of the 1990s, a vicious, abhorrent man drunk on his own power, exploiting his lofty position in an industry that apparently ignores the usual ethical requirements of modern employment law. Spitting furious insults one minute, sneakily taking credit for the work of others the next, Ackerman is as cruel and as devious as they come. The role was made for Spacey.

The actor has drawn on his experience of bringing Buddy to life on numerous occasions since. There are signs of Ackerman’s withering sarcasm in Verbal Kint, Spacey’s character in The Usual Suspects, which was made around the same time. His arrogance can also be detected in Lex Luthor, from 2006’s Superman Returns, and the total lack of empathy was also evident in 2009’s Moon, in which Spacey coldly voiced the space station’s on-board computer Gerty. His relentless self-interest and cutthroat nature is manifest today in Frank Underwood, the anti-hero of House Of Cards, and – most obviously of all – Buddy was pretty much resurrected note-for-note in Horrible Bosses. Outside of Spacey’s own work the nearest comparison to Buddy Ackerman would probably be Jeremy Piven’s formidable agent Ari Gold, who brightened up eight whole series of Entourage with his ranting and scheming, although Ari is a much more sympathetic figure.

Swimming With Sharks is more than just 90 minutes of The Buddy Show, but Spacey does dominate the film, necessarily chewing the scenery and stealing every scene he appears in (which, admittedly, is most of them). The target for much of his bullying is his new assistant Guy (Frank Whaley), who arrives in the job holding naive pre-conceived ideas about working in Hollywood, which turn out to be wildly inaccurate. Initially filled with hope for the future, Guy is swiftly and unceremoniously brought back down to earth, but his hardened predecessor Rex (Del Toro) explains that the position has a good lineage and that Guy – an aspiring screenwriter – can expect to go places if he ‘protects [Buddy’s] interests and serves his needs’.

The trouble is those interests are nigh on impossible for an underling to protect and his needs cannot ever be fully served. On day one Buddy tears into Guy for giving him a Sweet N’ Low sweetener when he asked for an Equal. As Guy’s first year plays out we see that this is no first-day blip, with the sadistic Buddy constantly screaming at Guy in front of people for forgetting to provide him with phone numbers, failing to put important callers through (even when he specifically asks not to be disturbed beforehand) and a host of other minor transgressions and mistakes. Buddy tortures Guy in the office, forcing him to sit still for his own amusement when the assistant complains that he is desperate for the toilet, and he makes unreasonable demands that constantly interrupt Guy’s weekends (in one scene Guy is forced to seek out and buy every copy of Variety in Los Angeles to get rid of an article that portrays his boss in an unflattering way; not only does Guy do this, he also has to physically tear up every single page, resulting in dozens of paper cuts). The assistant’s endearing idealism is rapidly dismantled and the lack of work-life balance also has a detrimental effect on his burgeoning relationship with Dawn (Michelle Forbes), an ambitious producer who may or may not be playing her own game.

We know from the very beginning where all of this is going. Following a brief prologue the film begins with Guy, apparently driven beyond the point of no return, breaking into Buddy’s house to seek revenge for all the paper cuts, payback for all the insults and some kind of compensation for all those lost hours. Buddy is tied to a chair and beaten, and Guy’s first year in the job is subsequently played out in flashback, offering some explanation as to why he has flipped to such an extent (though when Guy angrily complains that he has put up with Buddy’s shit for too long Buddy snaps back that he suffered it himself for ten years from someone else).

The simple plot, low number of characters and reliance on just a few locations suggest that writer-director George Huang had the theatre partly (if not totally) in mind when he penned the story, and it’s no surprise that Swimming With Sharks has since been re-made on stage in several cities around the world, most notably in London where Christian Slater took on the Buddy role. Like James Foley’s Glengarry Glen Ross – which also starred Spacey – there’s a reliance on the cadence of language rather than any visual poetry; as such it’s one of those endlessly quotable films, memorable for what you hear rather than what you see. The dialogue is snappy and sharp for the most part, the rat-a-tat barking of insults holding your attention while the backdrops of nondescript studio office spaces and bland restaurant interiors appear in view.

Spacey’s performance is terrific fun to watch, and at times it’s hard not to guiltily laugh along as Buddy insults poor old Guy for the umpteenth time, but the actor shows his range by convincingly tapping into the film’s dark undercurrent when required. Tellingly, the best scene in Swimming With Sharks isn’t one of the many in which Buddy serves up a volley of abuse, but a vital serious moment where the horrible boss reveals an explanation for his actions and some long-standing, well-hidden inner torment. Even if the ‘hey, every monster has a human side’ development is a little predictable, it’s impossible to ignore Spacey’s talent as he tells the story of his wife’s rape and murder years before. Whaley, on the other hand, is unable to match such high standards but he does manage to draw out the necessary empathy required for his character with plenty of stammering and hurt-puppy eyes. His is a fair performance overall.

Huang’s film isn’t quite good enough to be seen as a lost classic, but it’s still an interesting curio that’s worth checking out if you’ve never seen it. It certainly deserves a wider audience than the one it got at the time of release, and given Hollywood’s love for films about Hollywood it’s surprising that this didn’t receive a bigger push; perhaps it was difficult to sell, or perhaps a few too many feathers were ruffled by its satirical sideswipes at the business of show. Swimming With Sharks was given a trailer that made it look like a straight-up comedy, which led to confusion on the part of some reviewers and, presumably, quite a few of the cinemagoers who actually bothered to check it out; the 1990s were littered with dark comedies that studios struggled to market successfully – the handling of The Cable Guy, for example, was just as poor. In the end Swimming With Sharks only made $380,000 at the box office, barely half of the movie’s budget, but that’s a false indication of its merits: the blackly-comic tone is well-pitched and in Buddy Ackerman Huang and Spacey created one of the best tyrannical bad guys of the decade.

The Basics:
Directed by: George Huang
Written by: George Huang
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Frank Whaley, Michelle Forbes, Benecio Del Toro 
Certificate: 15
Running Time: 89 minutes
Year: 1994
Rating: 6.7

Photo Essay: A Star Wars Exclusive

Here at Popcorn Nights we spare no expense in bringing readers the latest news from the wide, wide world of cinema, but let’s be honest here: we’re hardly the kind of terrier-like investigative blog with a track record of digging out stories and leaving other sites trailing in our wake. Imagine our surprise, then, when we were contacted recently by a Star Wars ‘insider’ who offered to sell us some exclusive pictures taken on the set of Star Wars Episode VI, the new instalment in the long-running series that is currently being filmed in Tunisia, or England, or somewhere else. The set has been closely guarded and information about the plot has been kept under lock and key, but we’re sure readers will be excited about these glimpses into the distant planet of Tatooine.

Tunisia1I think the crew must have driven down this track at some point. Those are, apparently, marks left by an actual Abrams-inhabited jeep. This has been authenticated by an independent expert.

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Is that some kind of building on the horizon? Top right, just above the bush. It looks like it could be.

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I think it might be a sandcrawler. Or a moisture farm. Or something. Pretty sure there’s a grey speck there.

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HOLY SHIT! I think it’s an escape pod.

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If you look closely you’ll see that this particular photograph has just one source of light, which is of course from our old friend The Sun (the big ball of angry fire in the sky, not the tawdry British tabloid). Interestingly, the planet Tatooine in the Star Wars universe has twin suns, so this photo pretty much confirms the long-held belief that George Lucas was using special effects way back in the 1970s.

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Harrison Ford Carrie Fisher relaxing on set.

Classic Scene: Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982)

There are few comedians who can touch Steve Martin at his funniest. Don’t believe me? Check out this reply to a fan that appeared on Letters Of Note. Still don’t believe me? Then you should watch Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, a superb homage to / satire of vintage black and white movies and film noir in particular, which is arguably the funniest film of Martin’s career (although you could make a case for Planes, Trains and Automobiles, The Jerk, The Three Amigos or The Man With Two Brains as well).

In this scene Martin’s private investigator Rigby Reardon is following a lead as he looks into the suspicious death of John Hay Forrest, a noted scientist and cheesemaker. A found list details several ‘Enemies of Carlotta’, but one name – Swede Anderson – isn’t crossed out. Rigby visits Swede but finds the target to be somewhat worse for wear. There’s only one thing for it: strong java.

If you’re thinking that Swede looks familiar that’s perfectly understandable. Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid cleverly incorporates a wide range of scenes from classic films and part of the fun is in spotting the famous face; Swede is actually Burt Lancaster and the footage here is taken from The Killers. Elsewhere in the film you can see Lana Turner, Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Cary Grant, Alan Ladd, James Cagney, Barbara Stanwyck and Veronic Lake, among others.

0194 | Time Table

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In order to discuss this 1956 noir by Mark Stevens, who also stars in it, I’m going to have to reveal the film’s major plot twist below; it’s unavoidable, so if that’s a problem I suggest you look away now, or take a hike. Actually don’t take a hike, I’m only kidding; use this random review generator and read something else instead.

Time Table opens with a well-executed heist that takes place on board a speeding train. An off-duty doctor named Brucker (Wesley Addy) is asked to help a fellow passenger who has taken ill. The doctor explains that he’s happy to help, but orders the train’s guard to make an unscheduled stop so that the patient can be transferred to the nearest hospital, and also asks that he be granted access to the locked baggage car so that he can retrieve his instruments. However Brucker isn’t a real doctor, and when he enters the baggage car he’s able to use a stashed gun and overpowers three fairly gormless men guarding a safe. He blows the safe door and, when the train stops, leaves the vehicle with $500,000. The patient and his wife Linda (Felicia Farr, who would go on to marry Jack Lemmon) are accomplices, and the three make their escape in a waiting ambulance.

Stevens plays Charlie Norman, the insurance agency’s best investigator, who must cut short his holiday with wife Ruth (Marianne Stewart) when he is assigned the case by his superior. Helping Charlie with his enquiries is his long-time friend and colleague Joe Armstrong (King Calder), who fulfills a similar investigator role for the railroad. Gradually the pair realise that whoever planned the heist was attempting to carry off the perfect crime, although Joe is wearily dismissive and argues that the perfect crime doesn’t exist, before he sets about finding a mistake or an oversight made by the gang. But here’s the twist: the criminal mastermind behind the heist is actually Charlie, and he grows increasingly more frantic as his perfectly-planned ‘time table’ begins to unravel partly due to errors by his accomplices and partly in the face of Joe’s doggedness. Charlie’s plan is to abscond to Argentina via Mexico with Linda (who is actually Brucker’s wife, but Charlie’s lover) and as the net closes he is forced to tie up loose ends and make a run for the border sooner than he had hoped.

The movie really hangs on Stevens’ performance, and thankfully the actor is up to the job despite also having duties behind the camera. Charlie’s duplicity is credible enough for the viewer to accept thanks to some well-handled early scenes in which he suddenly and unreasonably becomes rude and aggressive towards his wife, planting the seeds of doubt in our minds as regards his true nature. At the time Ruth puts it down to stress, which is understandable, but we soon find out that it’s not necessarily pressures of work that cause Charlie to lose his rag so easily. Well, it is, but not the kind of work that we were initially thinking of.

What has caused Charlie to plan a heist of this magnitude? He doesn’t appear to be short of money, but there are a number of other possibilities subtly incorporated into the screenplay by Aben Kandel (from an original story by Robert Angus). It may be for love: it is revealed that Charlie met Linda when investigating her husband Brucker in San Francisco, and presumably the pair started their affair shortly thereafter. He also seems to be disillusioned, generally: has he had enough of his job and his marriage to the well-meaning Ruth? Does he simply want some excitement in his life? Was he fed up of chasing down inept criminals with a nagging feeling that he could do better? All of this is hinted at, and in typical noir style it results in a world-weary protagonist who becomes ever more interesting as his moral compass goes awry.

The excellent Noir Of The Week website explains this well: ‘Unlike in other noir pictures, the protagonist’s downfall can’t be attributed to a femme fatale. Time Table doesn’t have one. Sure, there’s a girl, but Charlie’s inamorata is hardly an upgrade on his wife. Here’s a guy who is winning the rat race and still wants out — he hates everything about his situation. The answer to his motivation lies in the movie’s unrelenting cynicism. Time Table consciously subverts the post-war American dream of happiness through national prosperity and material achievement. It thumbs its nose at the white bread promises of the Eisenhower era: the steady jobs, home-sweet-homes, and June Allyson wives that saturated mainstream media offerings. It gives us a protagonist who has achieved these material things and more, yet remains unfulfilled.’

The story is driven by Joe’s investigation, which gradually takes him closer and closer to the truth behind the crime. Calder’s performance as the other slightly-cynical investigator is decent enough, especially when we see him mulling over his chalkboard full of clues while seemingly oblivious to Charlie’s anxious squirming nearby. Both men work through the clock while trying to figure out who is responsible for the crime – even though Charlie is careful not to try too hard – and Joe seems utterly married to the job, catching a few hours of sleep here and there on police station benches but otherwise totally focused on tracking down the perpetrators. The two leads carry the film successfully, although their performances are more ‘dependable’ than ‘standout’; both are upstaged in one scene by Jack Klugman, for example, who has an early film role here as a jumpy ambulance driver brought in for questioning.

Time Table has a complex story but it’s as tightly plotted as they come. It’s quite an unusual film for its time given that the big twist is revealed at an early point, but this works well enough and part of the fun comes from seeing the unflappable Charlie flap more and more, leading eventually to cold-blooded murder and a (poorly-lit) chase around the streets of Tijuana. The tale of a caper gone wrong (replete with in-fighting among the criminals) may be a little too familiar, but it isn’t the main focus of the film, and Stevens’ concentration on the cat-and-mouse part of the tale results in some decent crime drama. My main problem with the movie is that it just lacks an ‘x’ factor; there’s nothing really special about the cinematography or much of the acting, for example, that enables Time Table to stand out from the pack, although it’s short enough to warrant a viewing.

The Basics:
Directed by: Mark Stevens
Written by: Robert Angus, Aben Kandel
Starring: Mark Stevens, King Calder, Felicia Farr, Marianne Stewart, Wesley Addy, Alan Reed 
Certificate: A
Running Time: 80 minutes
Year: 1956
Rating: 6.0

10 Great Australian Films

Australia. Land of chooks, Acca Dacca, swagmen, bogans and much more besides, including some very fine films indeed. Here, apropos of nothing and in no particular order, are ten of my favourites. (Anyone who believes this post does nothing but add to the ridiculous amount of clickbait currently swirling around the web should just be thankful I didn’t go with my original idea of ‘101 Reasons Why Gal Gadot’s Cleavage Will Be The Best Thing In The New Batman Vs Superman Film’. Or maybe you’d have preferred that? Perverts.)

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1. Gallipoli (1981)
Director Peter Weir and star Mel Gibson feature prominently on this list, and this is the movie that helped launch Gibson’s international career. A key film in the Australian New Wave of the late 1970s and early 1980s, Gallipoli tells the story of two young rural Australians (Gibson and newcomer Mark Lee) as they travel to Egypt and Turkey to fight in the First World War. Dealing with lost innocence and the nature and identity of the Australian male, Weir’s film is a moving and heartfelt study of young ANZACs and includes some superb cinematography, with the vast, arid expanses of South Australia doubling for the Turkish peninsula that gives the film its title.

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2. Lantana (2001)
Roger Ebert compared Lantana, Ray Lawrence’s masterfully-constructed tale of death, infidelity and suffocating suburban unease, to PT Anderson’s Magnolia and Robert Altman’s Short Cuts. There’s definitely more than a hint of those two LA-based films in this superbly-acted Sydney equivalent, but Lantana is more than a mere Australian copy and it has an odd, unsettling tone of its own. It’s a slow-burning tale of lives linked through circumstance as well as trust and grief, but a film that lives long in the memory afterwards, and it contains excellent performances from its stars Anthony LaPaglia, Barbara Hershey and Geoffrey Rush.

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3. Romper Stomper (1992)
Geoffrey Wright’s bleak and controversial Romper Stomper is a snarling, spitting beast of a film, which directly addresses racism in Australia by concentrating on the violent criminal activities of a gang of neo-nazi skinheads in the Melbourne suburb of Footscray. Russell Crowe plays their leader, the brutal Hando, and if he has delivered a finer performance in his career I’m yet to see it (and yeah, that includes LA Confidential, Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind). Romper Stomper does not promote or condemn far-right activity, but it is a fascinating insight into the groups and individuals that practice it, with clear parallels to the later Ed Norton film American History X. Awful title though.

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4. Shine (1996)
Did Shine deserve more than its single Oscar win back in the mid-nineties? Geoffrey Rush picked up the Best Actor accolade but this finely-crafted tale based on the life of pianist David Helfgott was nominated in several other categories, including Best Picture (losing out to The English Patient) and Best Director (Scott Hicks, losing out to Anthony Minghella). It’s a beautiful film, with an equally impressive soundtrack, and Rush resumed piano lessons for the part so that he did not require a hand double. It’s a thoroughly uplifting story that thankfully manages to avoid schmaltz – a difficult thing to do.

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5. Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)
In all honesty I could have picked any of the films from the original Mad Max trilogy, as they all have their own particular merits, but I’m going for George Miller’s second instalment, starring the young Mel Gibson as the titular hero trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic wilderness. It’s energetic from the off, with magnificent widescreen cinematography and a real minimal, post-punk edge; Mad Max 2 provides numerous action thrills, with the highlight being the extended and violent chase sequence in the final act.

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6. Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975)
Quite a few of the films in this list deal with masculinity, but Peter Weir’s haunting Picnic At Hanging Rock looks at female adolescence and femininity,  and went on to influence Sofia Coppola (particularly with regard to her films The Virgin Suicides and Marie Antoinette). Detailing the disappearance of several schoolgirls during a visit to Hanging Rock on Valentine’s Day, 1900, it’s an eerie mystery that addresses the importance of the land to Aboriginal Australians as well as the failure of European settlers to recognise this relevance. A quiet, disturbing and profound masterpiece.

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7. The Proposition (2005)
In a decade where the western was given a new lease of life thanks to a string of well-acted, brooding films, John Hillcoat’s The Proposition is up there with the very best. Written by Nick Cave – who also scored the film with violinist Warren Ellis – it’s yet another bleak, moody entry into this list and yet another film set near the end of the 19th Century / start of the 20th Century. It features sterling performances from Guy Pearce, Ray Winstone, Emily Watson and John Hurt and is as gritty and uncompromising as any entry in the genre you care to name.

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8. Walkabout (1971)
Loosely based on James Vance Marshall’s novel of the same name, Walkabout is a hallucinogenic study of clashing cultures, of intellectual and spiritual awakening and, above all else, communication. It is yet another story that attempts to get to grips with Australia’s recent history and its fascinating landscape, once again from the point of view of (colonial) outsiders. The subject matter of Nicolas Roeg’s second film is wildly different to the two he made before and after it (Performance and Don’t Look Now) but his style is clearly evident, with cross-cutting and intellectual montage featuring heavily.

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9. Mary & Max (2009)
This clay-mation black comedy-drama from 2009 only made a fraction of its $9,000,000 budget back, unfortunately, but it’s a poignant and moving tale that deserves to reach a wider audience. Concentrating on an unlikely penpal-ship between an 8-year-old Melbourne girl and a 44-year-old depressed New Yorker with Asperger’s, the story spans two decades and addresses anxiety, autism and suicide, standing as a fine testament to the notion of friendship. It’s witty, well-observed and it contains stellar voice work by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Toni Collette and Eric Bana, while Barry Humphries even contributes narration. Just had to get him in here somewhere.

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10. Wake In Fright (1971)
Clearly years ending in the number ‘1’ are good for Australian films. Wake In Fright – also known as Outback – was long considered to be the great, lost Australian movie, as despite the fact it premiered at Cannes in 1971 and received excellent reviews, it bombed in Australia and was subsequently out of circulation for many years. The sole existing print of the film resided in Dublin but thankfully it was restored and re-released in 2009, and it has come to be viewed as one of the most influential Australian films ever made. This unsettling, dark thriller revolves around a schoolteacher who arrives in a tough mining town with the intention of staying for one night, but he becomes trapped when he loses his money through gambling and his attraction to the local hard-drinking scene lands him in no end of bother. It was chosen by Martin Scorsese as a ‘Cannes Classic’, which makes it one of only two films to have been shown twice at the festival.

So, those are my (fairly predictable) choices, how about yours? Are you annoyed that Breaker Morant has been left off? Disgusted I couldn’t find space for Animal Kingdom, Muriel’s Wedding or Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert? Or – and I dread to think – is there some love out there for Paul Hogan’s Crocodile Dundee? Let me know!

0193 | Gone Girl

GONE GIRL, from left: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, 2014

My inner cynic was wary about the high praise recently bestowed on Gone Girl, David Fincher’s latest suspense thriller, given that it was released after a relatively quiet post-summer period in which one average film after another seemed to tumble half-heartedly into cinemas. I’m not intending to disparage those who consider the film to be among the better releases this year, but there’s definitely a pattern whereby the celebrations surrounding the first half-decent movie after weeks and weeks of mainstream dross always seem a little inflated, to me at least. Still, I tried to keep my expectations for this adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s bestseller at a reasonable level, despite the plethora of positive reviews appearing online and in print.

For the uninitiated, the story revolves around the mysterious disappearance of Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike), whose philandering husband Nick (Ben Affleck) is the prime suspect in the ensuing murder investigation. For reasons obvious to anyone who has read the book or watched the film, Gone Girl never gets as far as the courthouse, with Fincher and Flynn (who adapted her own novel for the big screen) concentrating on the immediate aftermath of, as well as the years and events leading up to, Amy’s sudden disappearance. The story swiftly develops into a trial-by-media, in which writer and director produce a withering assessment of the USA’s talking head news anchors, as well as the judgmental sector of society that accepts the media’s opinions as gospel. Rather than simply standing back and letting the investigation in Gone Girl take place, somewhat predictably the media heavily influences it, with Amy’s disappearance making the national news due to her link to popular children’s book character ‘Amazing Amy’ (created by her parents, played by Lisa Banes and David Clennon). Public opinion turns against Nick and the management of his public image quickly becomes a priority ahead of the search for his missing wife.

Clearly taking aim at the media’s thirst for gossipy information as well as its ability to operate without impunity, the story highlights the damage that can be done, painting a poor picture of the law enforcement agencies whose moves are heavily scrutinized by eagle-eyed news crews; by the end of the film both the local police and the FBI are frozen, with officers afraid of pressing forward with a certain line of investigation for fear of looking incompetent.

Gone Girl is a twisty tale with the snakes well camouflaged in the grass. Important facts about both Nick and Amy are slowly eked out, encouraging the viewer to reassess any early opinions formed about the pair, before it is suddenly revealed that we – like the media in the movie – are not aware of the full picture. To most outsiders Nick and Amy are (were) the perfect couple. We see their early years via flashbacks related to Amy’s diary entries, which detail their initial meeting in New York and subsequent blossoming love, eventually leading to marriage. When they move back to Nick’s hometown in Missouri, to be close to his dying mother and estranged father, the marriage begins to deteriorate and a considerable amount of stress is placed on the couple when they both lose their jobs. Financial problems and issues surrounding fertility and parenthood lead to unresolved bitterness, and both seem to be unhappy in the relationship as they approach their fifth anniversary. Amy’s diary entries slowly reveal her detachment while lecturer Nick enters into a long affair with one of his students, Andie (Emily Ratajkowski).

As the police’s missing person / murder investigation continues in the present, Nick – who wanted a divorce before Amy went missing – struggles to hide his indifference to Amy’s plight, failing to convince at a press conference arranged to appeal for help, and arousing further suspicion when he is pictured smiling with an opportunistic local resident. His closest allies are his loyal twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon), media-savvy attorney Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry) and, to an extent, the local officers investigating the case (Kim Dickens and Patrick Fugit), but all of these appear to have less control over Nick’s destiny than cable TV hosts Ellen Abbott (Missi Pyle) and Sharon Schieber (Sela Ward), who closely scrutinize the suspect’s movements and even go so far as suggesting his relationship with his sister is incestuous.

Complicating the investigation further is the looming presence of Amy’s wealthy ex-boyfriend Desi (Neil Patrick Harris), a man who supposedly tried to commit suicide when she broke up with him years earlier, and who repeatedly sent her letters in the interim despite the presence of a restraining order. He is another suspect, having recently moved back to nearby St Louis, and the question of Nick’s guilt or innocence gradually becomes more difficult to assess as a result.

Fincher has delighted in the past when revealing that the initial impressions we have of his characters are somehow incorrect, and this fact will play on the mind of anyone with knowledge of the director’s prior work when they watch Gone Girl. We first see Nick carrying a ‘Mastermind’ board game into the bar he runs with Margo (a local business that was paid for by Amy). An early clue, perhaps, or merely an unsubtle red herring? Thankfully for much of this film we cannot be 100% sure of the answer to such questions, as suspicious behaviour, unreliable narrators, mounting evidence and lying characters all serve to cloud our judgment. The eked out revelations lead us gradually through the film’s two-and-a-half-hour running time, and as we follow the investigation we also discover more about Amy’s character and her own actions leading up to the disappearance. Flynn’s novel is filled with cliffhangers and twists, and these are revealed at unexpected moments here, allowing the writer and director to form a clear three act structure with the main ‘shocks’ providing obvious breaks.

Unfortunately I have some issues with the film’s pacing, which I felt to be uniform for the most part and – as a result – more and more frustrating as time ticked on. The occasionally plodding nature of the film – mirrored in Affleck’s occasionally plodding performance of an occasionally plodding character – meant that I began to lose interest after a while, and although the twists are clearly designed to pull the audience back in, they also suck all of the credibility out of the story.

I’m also a little perplexed about the across-the-board praise the two leads have received for their acting here. I’m not suggesting that either is awful, but there are times during the film when both Affleck and Pike are very good and times when they are not quite so convincing. They both nail the scenes that show the couple in a bitter, downward spiral, but their portrayals of younger versions of the two characters as they fall in love are middling. Still, presumably both of these performances were difficult for the actor in question to judge: it’s clear that great care has been taken in maintaining poker faces, and Pike (icily misleading) and Affleck (dumbly misleading) do their utmost to ensure that audiences walk away with conflicted feelings about what they have witnessed, but the final act in particular is a challenging one to get right and I’m not convinced after one viewing that either managed to carry it off successfully.

Fincher’s latest is at its most gripping when it veers strongly towards the police procedural, although it lacks the weight and the subtlety of Zodiac, which is a far superior film all round. The two films do share a common cold, green-grey look, which also brings to mind the earlier, underrated Panic Room, and the director once again uses a meticulous production design to create an upper-middle class section of a city where the lavish interiors and outward bonhomie cannot fully hide the darker acts and thoughts that occur. The colours suit the tone, which is enhanced further by the occasionally-discordant score supplied by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.

Gone Girl is more than just a precisely-made ‘whodunnit’ with a twist; as much as anything else it is a satire of the media’s influence on such events, and about the failure of modern marriage and family life, but the overall package of all these things together somehow feels underwhelming – as if it should work better than it does – and disjointed. Much like the characters, it’s difficult to get to grips with the true nature and identity of the film.

I liked the bursts of humour, and one or two vaguely shocking moments of violence are handled well, but I have serious doubts about Fincher’s ability to direct the more upbeat scenes required in this story: the flashbacks of Nick and Amy falling in love, for example, are as cheesy as they come, and their first kiss in a sugar storm nearly made me splurt out my overpriced pick n’ mix in disbelief. Should we really be seeing something that looks like it has been lifted straight out of a Richard Curtis film here? The director is seemingly more at ease when creating a sense of menace, and Gone Girl is at its best when Fincher’s dark side is in full effect. The final scene, for example, is a deliciously malevolent repetition of the opening scene and the opening lines, but the context has shifted completely and the words spoken are now laced with a dual meaning. I like Sinister David better.

Overall, then, a sprinkling of irritation and disappointment mixed with a slug of admiration and enjoyment. Confused? Me too. I was non-plussed by Zodiac the first time I saw it and I was wrong, but I’m not so sure a couple of viewings would force a similar re-appraisal here.

The Basics:
Directed by: David Fincher
Written by: Gillian Flynn
Starring: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Kim Dickens, Carrie Coon, Tyler Perry 
Certificate: 18
Running Time: 149 minutes
Year: 2014
Rating: 6.9

Your Questions Answered, With Tommy DeVito

Dear Tommy,
My most recent film has drawn heaps of praise and I’m widely regarded as one of the foremost chroniclers of modern unease among wealthy, white, upper-middle-class Americans. My stupendous ability at creating worlds and characters where all is not quite what it seems on the surface is all well and good, but what I’d really like to do is make one of the greatest romantic comedies of all time. You know, kind of like that one where Meg Ryan has a fake orgasm in the diner, or one of the movies McConaughey made before he started taking himself seriously again. Unfortunately the studios keep phoning me about their next dark project (ugh … whatever) and my buddy Trent keeps posting me copies of his unsettling soundtracks. I can’t bring myself to tell him that I listen to boy bands when I’m driving around Hollywood and I can’t tell my bosses that I feel creatively trapped. It’s funny, but I don’t know what to do.
Best,
David F, Los Angeles

David,
You mean, let me understand this ’cause, ya know, maybe it’s me, I’m a little fucked up maybe, but I’m funny how? I mean funny like I’m a clown, I amuse you? I make you laugh, I’m here to fuckin’ amuse you? What do you mean funny, funny how? How am I funny?  I don’t know, you said it. How do I know? You said I’m funny. How the fuck am I funny, what the fuck is so funny about me? Tell me, tell me what’s funny.
Hope that helps,
Tommy

Dear Tommy,
I make films. I make a lot of films. I make documentaries, war films, human dramas, religious epics, all sorts of things. I even cooked and ate my own shoe for leftfield highbrow entertainment purposes back in the day. I can pretty much turn my hand to anything, but just once I’d like to have a hit. You know, a Michael Bay-sized hit, with hundreds of millions of dollars of box office takings and explosions and fast cars and slow-motion shots of women with long legs with flames in the background. Do you have Mr Bay’s telephone number so I can make it happen?
With warm regards,
Werner H, Munich

Werner,
Motherfuckin’ mutt! You, you fucking piece of shit! Motherfucking… He bought his fucking button! That fake old tough guy! You bought your fucking button! You motherfuck… Fuck! Keep that motherfucker here, keep him here!
Hope that helps,
Tommy

Dear Tommy,
Back in the 1980s I was a big star. I appeared in lots of hit films, and the roles just seemed to keep on landing right at my door. I was on posters in magazines and it seemed like the world was my oyster, but since then the really big roles have kinda dried up, and I wondered if you had any advice. I still work regularly but I’d like to be in a hit film again, maybe playing the mom of a young girl who is struggling to find her way in life and who has to give her daughter advice about whether to ask the captain of the football team to the prom or the dorky, alternative kid that sort of hangs around like a five o’clock shadow. Do you know who makes this kind of film today? Any help would be much appreciated.
Yours,
Molly R, Los Angeles

Molly,
You know, you’re a fuckin’ mumbling stuttering little fuck. You know that? Oklahoma kid. That’s me. I’m the Oklahoma kid. You fuckin’ varmint! Dance. Dance. Yahoo, ya motherfucker!
(BANG!)
All right so she got shot in the foot, what is it a big fuckin’ deal?
Hope that helps,
Tommy

59Tommy DeVito is a syndicated columnist and fellow of the American Guild Of Agony Uncles. His advice column appears in 87 newspapers daily.

Trailer Thursdays: The Avengers: Age Of Ultron

Hey, let me just state that Hyperfilm will never, ever be at the forefront of cinema news again after this, but the first trailer for The Avengers: Age Of Ultron appeared online a matter of hours ago (which, in real time, is like the equivalent of three weeks), and we’re proud to be at the very start of what will almost certainly be the longest, most tedious marketing campaign you’ve ever witnessed. It looks … well … kind of like you’d expect: there are superheroes arguing with each other, The Hulk runs at a big version of Iron Man, and The Avengers have regular board meetings where they try and work out what Hawkeye does exactly. I’m a bit sketchy on the plot details at the moment, but it’s clear from the trailer that there’s a huge product placement threat to the planet in Age Of Ultron, and The Avengers will have to combine all of their powers to deal with a rogue fleet of Audi cars sent from the planet Ingolstadt. Be sure to get your tickets now as this independent cracker will probably disappear from cinemas after one week next summer!

0192 | ’71

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Yann Demange has cut his directorial teeth by working on a variety of TV shows in the UK, ranging from ITV’s Secret Diary Of A Call Girl to Charlie Brooker’s post-modern zombie series Dead Set, but his best small screen work to date is the excellent Top Boy, a 2011 miniseries about gang life set in inner city London. Top Boy is arguably one of the best – if not the best – British shows of recent years, and his debut feature film, the muscular, tough ’71, is a similarly gritty thriller that is also set in a sprawling and even-more-unforgiving concrete landscape.

‘71 takes place a generation ago and a world away from the council estates of East London, concentrating mainly on a single 24-hour period during one of the years in which the conflict in Northern Ireland (widely referred to as ‘The Troubles’) was at its most brutal. Despite years of conflict beforehand, in the early 1970s there was an explosion of political violence in the country as the unionists and loyalists – who generally wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom – clashed with Irish nationalists and republicans, who wanted to see a united Ireland. Participating in the events were republican paramilitaries (such as the Provisional IRA), loyalist paramilitaries (such as the UVF and the UDA), the Royal Ulster Constabulary (Northern Ireland’s police force), the British Army, political activists and, naturally, a number of high-profile politicians. In Belfast the fighting was at its heaviest, with roads often acting as dividing lines that generally separated opposing communities, and it is this city in turmoil – with its burning vehicles and divided residents and highly-charged flashpoints – that serves as the backdrop to Demange’s film.

As a politically-neutral Londoner who was born in France, Demange does not seek to offer an explanation, a potted history or an in-depth analysis of The Troubles, and is fully aware of his position as an outsider. This tense debut follows a young English soldier who is caught ‘behind enemy lines’ one evening and must try to survive until he is located by his fellow officers. The critic Mark Kermode has pointed out that ’71 owes more to Walter Hill’s The Warriors and John Carpenter’s Assault On Precinct 13 than it does to the likes of Jim Sheridan’s In The Name Of The Father or the gripping Paul Greengrass film Bloody Sunday, and this is actually a straightforward and engrossing thriller, though it doesn’t completely ignore or shy away from the issues associated with the setting and the conflict: in fact it paints a depressing picture of the chain-of-command structure, duplicity, betrayal and in-fighting on both sides.

The soldier in question is Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell), a young Private who leaves his hometown of Derby when his freshly-minted regiment is deployed in Belfast on an ‘emergency basis’. His new commanding officer in the city is Lt. Armitage (Sam Reid), a similarly inexperienced but well-meaning officer whose upper class upbringing is suggested as the reason for his higher ranking. While out providing support to the RUC, who are viewed in one scene aggressively carrying out door-to-door searches for paramilitary weaponry, tension on the street rises and Hook is separated from the rest of his ill-prepared regiment during a riot. Screenwriter Gregory Burke seemingly draws from the Falls curfew of July 1970, when a similar house search for weapons turned into a three day pitched-battle between the British Army and the IRA that only ended when 3,000 women and children from Andersonstown marched into the curfew zone with food and groceries for the locals.

With the violence escalating around him, the young soldier must escape on foot through unfamiliar streets and shelled-out houses, pursued by young gunmen associated with the Provisional IRA in one of the most exhilarating chase scenes I have seen in some time. After he gives them the slip Hook is lost and alone, and must survive the night in the badly-lit city estates while the gunmen and the army search for him, relying on the kindness of strangers and his own luck as much as any training he has received. Leading the search for the British Army is Sandy Browning (Sean Harris, impressive), a cold, hardened undercover officer with an apparently untrustworthy team in tow, but the rescue mission is difficult as Hook is forced to constantly stay on the move despite the fact he has sustained serious injuries.

Demange has made a taut, gripping thriller, and his assured handling of the action here is as impressive as his ability to coax good performances from all of his actors. There are some startling sequences in ’71 that hold your attention and reveal Demange’s talent: as well as the aforementioned chase on foot, there’s a disorienting sequence set at night following an explosion in a Protestant neighbourhood, and a well-judged slow-burning but violent final act in which Hook and those looking for him converge on a giant block of flats in a heavily-nationalist area.

O’Connell delivers a very good performance as the vulnerable soldier at the centre of the story who must fight for his own survival. When asked whether he is Catholic or Protestant by a young loyalist boy the naïve Private tells him that he ‘doesn’t know’, much to the kid’s amusement, and Hook is generally confused and silent throughout much of the film. The point being made here is that this man is simply there doing a job, he is someone else’s pawn, and knows very little about the conflict or its history. Hook is no hero, just a lad from Derby who is left to fight on the streets while his superiors enjoy relative comfort in their barracks, and interestingly there is a connection made between the English soldier and an eager young paramilitary wannabe named Sean (Barry Keoghan), who is out to impress the (slightly) older men running the Provisional IRA.

’71 details the failings of all of the factions that are directly opposing each other in this conflict, with Demange refusing to paint a rosy or romantic picture of any of them; the film’s critical tone is best summed up by one character who notes that the Army is just ‘rich c***s telling dumb c***s to kill poor c***s’, though anyone tempted to suggest that this is an unfair attack on the British military should note that shortly thereafter we see senior members of the Official and Provisional IRA plotting against each other. Demange and Burke understandably try to keep things balanced throughout, although one could argue that the fact the lead character is portrayed sympathetically, as an innocent young man, will possibly draw hoots of derision from some Belfast residents with long memories.

While it’s not for me to say whether it’s an authentic representation of early 1970s Belfast or not, ’71 is a compelling war film that wisely recognises the complexity of its subject matter without lecturing or seeking to apportion blame or point out clearly-defined rights and wrongs, although it does have its say on safer topics such as the ingrained class system in the military as well as the Army’s predilection for covering its own arse when things go wrong. The moody, downbeat score by David Holmes perfectly complements the visuals, it contains some fine acting performances and Demange has cemented his reputation here as a talented up-and-coming director. It suffers a little from a sentimental epilogue but otherwise ’71 is a fine, engrossing film.

The Basics:
Directed by: Yann Demange
Written by: Gregory Burke
Starring: Jack O’Connell, Sean Harris, Sam Reid, Charlie Murphy, David Wilmot, Barry Keoghan
Certificate: 15
Running Time: 99 minutes
Year: 2014
Rating: 7.7

Reading List 18.10.2014

Here are a few links that I’ve enjoyed this week. Hope you like them too.

0191 | Nymphomaniac

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It’s interesting to contemplate the changing way that sex has been portrayed on film over the years in western cinema. There were many decades where the act itself could only be hinted at, of course, and a film containing a love story or even an element of romance would probably include a kiss on the lips and little else. In the post-war years filmmakers became braver and censors became more accepting as they reflected changing public attitudes; as a result, during the 1960s and 1970s, intercourse was occasionally seen on screen in ‘normal’ cinemas often resulting in an ‘X’ rating or something equally hysterical, depending on your country. As public attitudes continued to change, filmmakers and writers began to joke about sex more and more, breaking taboos and allowing their serious writing and directing counterparts to become ever more graphic with their own depictions. Films such as Last Tango In Paris and Don’t Look Now dared to go further than most, gaining notoriety at the time for their relatively explicit material.

When I think about sex on film in the 1980s and early 1990s I tend to remember those softcore straight-to-video releases with titles like ‘Night Heat’ or ‘Forbidden Desires’, which usually starred Shannon Tweed or someone who looked and sounded and acted like Shannon Tweed. Pretty tame soft-focus stuff, by and large. There were plenty of deliberately controversial larger budget erotic thrillers, too, like Basic Instinct, which made a star of Sharon Stone, and the awful Body Of Evidence, in which Madonna’s acting career somehow managed to hit a new low. Nowadays, though, very few directors are even bothering to attempt to titillate their audience in such a brazen, unsubtle way; just consider how many new films you have watched during the past five years that contain even one single sex scene. Perhaps sex simply doesn’t sell quite as much as it used to.

A more likely explanation is that the rise in freely-available porn online has put many filmmakers (or rather studios) off from trying to compete with their adult movie counterparts, as the proliferation of hardcore sex on the internet has rendered softcore sex in movies a little pointless, certainly in terms of it being used for the purposes of titillation, anyway. It’s surprising to think that barely a generation ago there were reports of videotapes of Basic Instinct being worn out as a result of people constantly pausing or re-winding the famous full-frontal shot of Stone wearing no knickers, but the availability of more graphic on-screen acts for those that want to see them has changed considerably in the interim. Perhaps fashion is also dictating the change to an extent; it’s presumably seen as being a little bit naff to include a sex scene in your film these days, although over in TV-land – particularly at HBO – the lifting of years of stringent guidelines has resulted in a new era of (arguably sexist) provocation.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the last two films I’ve watched specifically about sex are, even more specifically, about sex addicts. The bobbling about of some actor or other’s arse might be old hat to a lot of filmmakers and their target audiences, but there are at least some elements of sex that remain relatively untouched as subjects ripe for analysis, and perhaps unsurprisingly an intelligent and controversial writer like Lars von Trier can still shock cinemagoers during such an examination.

There were some scenes during Steve McQueen’s Shame that I found disturbing to watch, because Michael Fassbender was able to convey through his performance the despair that a sex addict presumably feels as a result of a constant (or regular) need for gratification. The way the subject is addressed in Shame is fascinating, but it has nothing on von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, in which Charlotte Gainsbourg’s depressed sex addict Joe shares her sexual history (and, to a degree, information about the rest of her personal life) with a well-read bachelor named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) after he finds her bloodied and beaten up in an alleyway.

At four hours and split across two films (though for ease I’m just posting the one review here), von Trier’s latest does at times feel like a slog when viewed in one sitting, with Joe’s progression through a series of lovers and one-minute stands suggesting what I can only presume is the treadmill-like existence of someone whose addiction to sex is very serious indeed. I suppose I should just be grateful that the director managed to cut it down from its original length of five and a half hours, although the idea that a graphic 240-minute arthouse film about a depressed sex addict has had 90 minutes trimmed off in order to make it more ‘commercially viable’ is amusing, to say the least. Who exactly would sit through four hours of Nymphomaniac but would baulk at the idea of sitting through five and a half?

The sex itself in this film rarely looks glamorous (if at all) and I’d go so far as to say it often looks completely unappealing. There are only a few scenes where the people having sex actually look as if they are enjoying themselves, for instance, although perhaps we should just be grateful that filmmakers have now incorporated a healthy dose of realism into such scenes after years of ignoring the existence of grunts and furrowed brows and blank stares at the ceiling.The uniform production design ensures that all the bedrooms and toilets and basements and hotel rooms that Joe uses with her partners are sparse and cold, as if four walls and a bed is all that’s ever needed (and of course even they aren’t really essential).  This is a film where the mise-en-scène has been put together without any sprinklings of warmth, and without any apparent signs of comfort: there are scenes in the first film, for example, that are set in a hospital ward as Joe’s father (Christian Slater) is dying of cancer, and it’s hard to find much difference between those starkly-lit, hygiene-conscious and ultra-functional spaces and the ones that Joe actually lives in.

The first film concentrates more on the younger Joe (played with courage and conviction by Stacy Martin), roughly covering her experiences between the ages of 15-31. We do see the character briefly as a child, and at this time her mother Katherine (Connie Nielsen) – who does not subsequently feature in the film – is shown to be cold and distant; Joe has a better relationship with her father, though he seems to be much more comfortable communicating with his daughter when discussing trees. At 15 she loses her virginity to a boy named Jerôme (Shia LaBouef) that she had no previous relationship with. It is a swift act of three front strokes and then five … uh … round the back, so to speak, and these numbers are subsequently riffed on by von Trier, who uses them when setting out the episodic structure of the two films (Nymphomaniac Part I is split into five parts, while Part II has three). They are also linked to the Fibonacci sequence by Seligman, whose uses his vast knowledge in various fields to try and understand Joe and her compulsion; by the end of Part II, though, he is revealed to have failed.

Jerôme forms something of a constant during the course of the two films, coincidentally dropping into Joe’s life on three separate occasions, and at one point fathering a child with her. It’s the nearest Joe ever gets to experiencing love, though the union is always temporary; her constant need for sexual gratification and her neglect for their child drives Jerôme away on occasion, but he also leaves of his own volition and is a complex character in his own right.

As the films progress Joe describes several key sexual encounters to Seligman. There’s a competition with teenage friend B (Sophie Kennedy Clark) to see who can have sex with the most men on a train journey. There’s an account of an incredibly awkward moment when one of her lovers, H (Hugo Speer), is followed to Joe’s flat by his wife (Uma Thurman), who brings their kids along to the uncomfortable showdown (‘Shall we show the children the whoring bed?’ Mrs H asks matter-of-factly, before losing it spectacularly). Then there’s the death of Joe’s father, which she responds to by having sex with orderlies and other random employees in the hospital. She even lubricates in front of her father’s dead body, perhaps illustrating that she can only emote in a sexual way or that her sex drive at this point is so out-of-control that it takes over in any situation, regardless of context. And there is of course a more obvious psychoanalytic reading, a clear suggestion that she is in love with her father, but it’s a mark of the man’s talent that von Trier is able to convey all of these possibilities with a single surprising image.

These episodes are associated by the asexual virgin Seligman to objects he owns, as if on some level he feels he has much in common with Joe. They both share a love for Izaak Walton’s book The Compleat Angler, for example, and so the practice of fly fishing is linked by Seligman to young Joe and her friend dressing to attract men on a train. Joe is reminded about her father’s suffering by Seligman’s discussion of Edgar Allen Poe’s death from delirium tremens, while a discussion of Bach has parallels with a time in Joe’s life when she was seeing two different men at once, both very different from each other, but who – with the sudden re-appearance of Jerôme – led to her own ‘cantus firmus’. Seligman’s apartment, where nearly all of his conversation with Joe in the present takes place, contains many books and he has religious iconography on the walls but otherwise it is as bare as any of Joe’s living spaces. Despite finding some common ground in Part I Joe gradually realises that this man simply cannot relate to her experiences.

In Part II the focus switches to the older Joe, where her (even more extreme) sexual exploits between the ages of (roughly) 35-50 are detailed unflinchingly. This is grimmer, harder and downright sadder than Part I, and Joe’s inability to sate her own sexual appetite is linked to a long, ongoing period of depression (this is actually the third part of von Trier’s ‘depression’ trilogy following Antichrist and Melancholia, both of which also featured Gainsbourg). In Part II von Trier initially equates Joe with both Valeria Messalina and the Whore Of Babylon, before featuring an attempt at a threesome with an African immigrant named ‘N’ (Kookie Ryan), rendered somewhat amusing as a result of the protracted, heated discussion he has with his brother, who has been invited along to take part.

Botched trysts aside, the darkness of Part II is perhaps best indicated by the change in the men with which Joe has relationships, as well as the increasing way in which the film links sex, inevitably, to violence and crime. Trying more and more extreme measures to satisfy her needs, she eventually visits ‘K’ (Jamie Bell), whose aggressive sadomasochism sessions are actually pretty tough to watch (and I don’t count myself as a prude, whatsoever). Eventually Joe’s visits to K take their toll, as her addiction to them directly endangers her child, Marcel. Later, implausibly, she gets involved with ‘L’ (Willem Dafoe, doing penance for his role in Body Of Evidence all those years ago), a debt collector / gangster, which also directly leads to a lesbian relationship with a younger girl named ‘P’ (Mia Goth). Joe’s role in the debt collection business is to use her sexual experiences of the past, as well as her knowledge of male behavior, as tools with which to break stubborn debtors into paying up; it culminates in a startling scene involving a paedophile debtor played by Jean-Marc Barr, as well as the violent incident that took place directly before Seligman found Joe in the alley.

Von Trier pushed the boundaries of what could be shown on screen when he made The Idiots in the late 1990s, and a string of arthouse directors followed suit, but even by his earlier standards the results of his taboo-busting here are surprising. The sex in Nymphomaniac is graphic, even though it is somewhat unexciting, although even von Trier does not push things too far (and you may think that’s a bizarre thing for me to say if you’ve watched the film, but watch again and study the editing and the way the he cuts away after brief glimpses of the most explicit material).

The actors involved all pretended to have sex and von Trier subsequently superimposed the genitalia of porn-actor stand-ins with digital compositing, thereby blurring the lines dividing art and pornography. It is therefore the kind of film where the courage displayed by many of the actors in trusting von Trier, and going along with his methods and vision, can only be admired and applauded. I enjoyed the performance by Stellan Skarsgård, who anchors the film and provides some respite with his gentle presence, as well as the incredible supporting turn by Jamie Bell, who has fulfilled his youthful promise and has now developed into a fine actor, albeit one who has been limited to supporting roles in the main. Even LaBeouf, whose accent is so bad that during some sentences I could distinctly hear inflections from North America, Europe, Australasia and Africa, puts in an otherwise-decent shift when considering his reasonably tricky role; he has his critics but I’m happy to give some time to an actor who pushes himself with films like this over one that rarely strays out of their comfort zone any day.

However it is Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stacy Martin, as the two versions of Joe that we mostly see, who must receive the most plaudits. Gainsbourg in particular delivers an incredibly strong performance and it should be recognized by the award-givers over the coming months, if that even matters. She must grapple with some outlandish plot developments and some difficult characterization, but copes commendably thanks to her not-inconsiderable talent. Her haunting cover of ‘Hey Joe’, which plays dreamily over the end credits, is the cherry on top.

Considering that it’s a four hour film about a depressed sex addict, I didn’t really feel like I discovered anything new about addiction, sex addiction or depression during Nymphomaniac. Was I supposed to? It’s probably a horrible thing to suffer from if it is felt to this extent, but perhaps von Trier was not actually intending to shed light or insight on any of these subjects. There are times when his film feels like a critique of male sexuality and masculinity, in fact, as seen through the eyes of a woman. Joe talks often of masculinity, as if it were more important to her condition than femininity, or somehow to blame for it (an interesting choice for the character to have a traditionally male name, too, as opposed to being called ‘Jo’). Through the actions of the character Seligman, von Trier may be suggesting that the presence of men somehow always leads to violence, or some other kind of non-physical pain, whether advertently or inadvertently: Seligman is seen as a non-threatening asexual man throughout, but he eventually makes an unwanted advance that leads directly to a sudden, violent ending.

But then von Trier’s film is quite damning about men in the same way that it is quite damning about everything else it covers: religion, friendship, society, life, this, that, the other. It’s about as downbeat as it gets, but it is a milestone work, and it seems wholly appropriate that a film in which the principal character suggests that love is just ‘lust with jealousy added’ is itself difficult to be fond of yet very easy to admire. Von Trier is a fascinating filmmaker, and here he is once again operating at the outer limits of cinema, with success.

The Basics:
Directed by: Lars von Trier
Written by: Lars von Trier
Starring: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stacy Martin, Stellan Skarsgård, Shia LaBoeuf, Christian Slater, Jamie Bell, Uma Thurman, Mia Goth, Willem Dafoe
Certificate: 18
Running Time: 241 minutes
Year: 2014
Rating: 8.7

Classic Scene: Pulp Fiction (1994)

Rounding off a few days of posts about Quentin Tarantino’s 20-year-old masterpiece Pulp Fiction is this classic scene which, I should point out, contains copious amounts of swearing. Here hitmen Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) have just left the scene of a crime with cohort Marvin (Phil LaMarr) in tow. During the previous scene both Vincent and Jules cheated death, and in the car the pair debate whether it was luck that saved them or a more divine intervention.

I remember the first time I saw this scene, and how shocked I was when it played out on screen. One of the reasons I love Tarantino’s work is because of his ability to suddenly surprise the audience and take the story off in a completely different direction as a result, as is the case here. Pulp Fiction contains a few of these moments, such as Mia Wallace’s overdose and the unpredictable post-fight fate of Butch and Marcellus Wallace after they stumble into Zed’s shop, but this is probably my favourite of all. The dialogue is pretty damn great too.

Pulp Fiction And Tarantino, 20 Years On

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Twenty years ago yesterday Pulp Fiction was released in cinemas, an anniversary that prompted me to post some shots detailing the movie’s superb cinematography. I spent a few moments on the train home last night thinking about Quentin Tarantino’s film – which remains his best work to date – and the way that the director’s career has panned out since, and thought I’d share them here.

It struck me when looking back that there are two clear periods that divide Tarantino’s work to date. In the first period I would count Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, as well as (through association as writer) True Romance. (I’m inclined to leave Natural Born Killers out as the original screenplay by Tarantino was heavily revised by David Veloz, associate producer Richard Rutowski and director Oliver Stone.) The second distinct period begins with the pair of Kill Bill films – which act as a transition of sorts from QT Mk 1 to QT Mk II – and includes Death Proof, Inglorious Basterds, Django Unchained and (with considerable presumption on my part based on a few key facts) the forthcoming The Hateful Eight, his second western in a row.

While I’ve found much to enjoy in all of Tarantino’s films to date, it is the first three – all LA-based – that stand out for me as his finest works. They are films about the world of small-time criminal Angelenos, first and foremost, all of which clearly benefit from the director’s formative years spent living in the city; excellent use is made of the city’s less-familiar landscape and architecture, with the outlying neighbourhoods that make up the urban sprawl featuring heavily. Though it concentrates on Detroit and Detroit-based bad guys and is therefore less of an ‘LA’ film per se, True Romance is also partly set in the city, albeit viewed more from the point of view of outsiders.

Since then he has, of course, literally broadened his horizons: Kill Bill Volumes 1 and 2 have always seemed a little disjointed to me as a result of the numerous random settings and the constant flitting between Asia and North America, while the director has also dabbled in wartime western Europe and the American deep south of the 19th Century. He was briefly back on familiar ground with Death Proof, but that flawed and indulgent experiment seems curiously disconnected from the physical geography of Los Angeles when compared with the three earlier movies set there.

No-one would want a director of such talent to simply re-tread over old ground, but I do feel that an element of visual pizazz has been missing from Tarantino’s later work, and I wonder whether straying far from LA has been slightly detrimental to his work more generally. I also wonder whether the desire to genre-hop in an attempt to force home the auteur angle will take its toll eventually. Granted Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown are arguably all genre exercises too; they are highly-stylised takes on the crime thriller, albeit the first a straightforward cops n’ robbers tale with added flashbacks, the second an expansive neo-noir and the third a Blaxploitation homage. However they all seem to me to be Quentin Tarantino movies first and foremost, as opposed to genre movies that have been given a sprinkling of Tarantino magic, and the fact that they form the blam-blam-blam early part of his career means that crime thrillers will forever be his true genre, in my eyes at least.

The later works certainly keep a thread going – QT does westerns, QT does war, QT does martial arts – but I don’t think he has actually added to the rich history of any of these genres in a meaningful way through his own output. With crime thrillers, by way of contrast, Tarantino read the rulebook, tore it up and wrote a new one (blatantly copying a few passages from elsewhere along the way). I don’t think that Inglorious Basterds does the same for war films, for example, despite the fact it contains some unsubtle attempts to make an impact on the genre (or, rather, to get you to notice it and remember it). In fairness neither is it merely a simple Quentinisation (or, if you will, a geekover) of an existing classic; it’s not The Dirty Dozen with added swearing and violence, in the same way it’s doubtful that someone so talented is currently spending his time making The Magnificent Seven with bells on, despite the clear spin and reference in the title of The Hateful Eight.

I must stress that I’ve still enjoyed Tarantino’s recent movies, even if I do prefer the earlier ones. I even like Death Proof, the one that the director himself admits is his weakest (and he’s right to do so, but it has enough moments during its short running time to lift it above a great many other films released that year). I’m just getting a little bored with the feeling that we’re currently heading down a road that will inevitably lead to Tarantino’s take on horror or sci-fi or Hungarian miserablism or even Farrelly Brothers grossout – and fuck it, I’d watch all of those films, particularly the last two – but as the years roll by I wonder whether he will ever make anything as good as Pulp Fiction while he continues to operate outside of the framework of an American crime story.

A brilliant movie is a brilliant movie, regardless of the genre, and I’d gladly welcome a western that is the equivalent of any of those first three films (and even something as good as Django Unchained, though I’d be feeling a tinge of disappointment for the sixth Tarantino effort in a row). Few writer-directors have made a sequence of films where their own personal imprint on each is so instantly recognisable, which is a highly impressive feat, but I’d also really like to see a Tarantino film in which few (or even none) of his more recognisable tropes, techniques or frequent collaborators were present: a year zero effort, perhaps, a temporary ditching of that culture-heavy dialogue and the Cali surfer girl types and the Red Apple cigarettes and the foot fetishism and the attempts to shock through violence and the Spike Lee-angering ‘N’ word. Something more measured, not trying as hard to impress or to court controversy. Imagine what his detractors would make of a mature, human drama, for instance, if it was actually good.

Those three early films famously featured several actors who were either in the early stages of their careers or who had been largely ignored by casting agents and studios for a considerable amount of time, certainly with regard to high profile roles. Harvey Keitel, Lawrence Tierney, Robert Forster, John Travolta and Pam Grier all received unexpected mid- or late-career success thanks to their work with Tarantino, while talents such as Steve Buscemi, Ving Rhames, Michael Madsen, Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, Tim Roth, Uma Thurman and Samuel L Jackson all benefited from considerable profile boosts as a result of their association with the writer / director.

In the post-Jackie Brown period it’s interesting, and perhaps somewhat indicative, that this hasn’t happened quite as much. Keith Carradine, Daryl Hannah and Kurt Russell have all been cast by Tarantino, though none have been able to use their appearances – all pretty memorable, as it goes – as a springboard back into the big time. Fewer actors have been propelled into the spotlight as a result of their association with the director, while some such as Lucy Liu and Vivica Fox seem to have struggled to get great film roles following their work with QT. Christoph Waltz is a notable exception to this, and you could argue a case too for Michael Fassbender, but his profile was already on the rise when he appeared in Basterds. There certainly seemed to be more success stories way back when.

Pulp Fiction remains a joy to watch today, of course, though that’s just something people say; in truth I actually last watched it about three years ago. Ha. But I imagine I’d enjoy it just as much today as I’ve enjoyed my previous viewings, and every time I have watched the movie it has provoked the same visceral reactions and given me the same level of enjoyment as it first did 20 years ago. Never before or since has Tarantino managed to inject so much energy into just one movie, so much invention and playfulness, so many quotable lines, such an amount of sharp dialogue or such a plethora of memorable images and performances. I still hope that he will equal or better it, but with each film since I lose more and more hope.

Cinematography Spotlight: Pulp Fiction

It’s hard to believe Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece Pulp Fiction was released in cinemas 20 years ago today – that almost makes it an adult in the eyes of the law. Here are 20 widescreen Cinemascope reasons – part of a wider series diligently captured by Evan Richards – that show exactly why the cinematography by Andrzej Sekula, with all its unconventional framing and use of strange angles and vantage points, is among the very best of the 1990s. Sekula, who was born in Poland, was also the cinematographer on Reservoir Dogs and is best known for his work on those two early Tarantino films.

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0190 | El Cuerpo (The Body)

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Hey! If you’re only going to watch one film this month about the disappearance of a woman, and the suspicion that’s placed on a man as a result of that disappearance, then the chances are you’ve seen it already. There has been plenty of fuss made about David Fincher’s Gone Girl, and the critical thumbs-upping has resulted in impressive box office takings, but if I can persuade you to check out another film about disappearing wives and their shady husbands then I recommend Spanish thriller El Cuerpo (The Body).

Director Oriol Paulo’s 2012 debut is part police procedural, part twisty, paranoid Hitchcockian thriller. It stars Hugo Silva as Álex Ulloa, an adulterous husband who poisons his tormenting, high-flying corporate wife Mayka (Belén Rueda, who you may recognize from The Orphanage), and the excellent José Coronado as Jaime Peña, a grizzly mac-wearing detective who is assigned to the case when strange things happen at the morgue just hours after Mayka’s death.

Though it’s a murder-mystery, the question driving the film on to a just ending is not the usual one regarding the identity of the murderer, but whether a killing did in fact occur in the first place. Early in the film during one of many subtly-incorporated flashbacks Álex – a science professor – is revealed to have poisoned Mayka, using a slow-working poison that results in the victim suffering a heart attack several hours after it is imbibed. The cause of Mayka’s death is wrongly identified by the authorities as being from natural causes, but later that night her body disappears from the morgue, with night security guard Ángel Torres (Miquel Gelabert) left as the sole witness to events after CCTV camera feeds are cut. The problem for the police is that the petrified Ángel ran out of the building, was struck by a car on a nearby road, and lies in a critical condition in hospital.

Álex is calmness personified when the police call him in to the morgue for questioning, and Jaime’s suspicion is piqued by the fact that the widower doesn’t appear to be grieving, despite his wife’s death occurring only hours earlier. But did she really die? Was the body taken or did Mayka just get up and walk out of the morgue as if nothing had happened? While he is detained for questioning a series of strange events occur that lead Álex to believe that his wife is very much alive and is hell bent on extracting revenge on her cheating, murderous husband and his mistress.

Though it may sound a little far-fetched, Paulo’s tense story (co-written with Lara Sendim) is played straightly and the reason for the disappearance of the body is difficult for the viewer to figure out, with various possibilities becoming apparent as the plot thickens. The idea that Mayka could fake her own death and simply walk out of the morgue may be hard to accept on paper, but cleverly the flashbacks reveal elements of her character, as well as certain tidbits of information, that make it seem entirely plausible; as a result Paulo is able to toy with the idea that something supernatural has happened, or that Álex is going mad, before offering a more realistic explanation that doesn’t defy medical science.

Part of the film’s success is due to the fact that the scenes showing the status of the marriage between Álex and Mayka are every bit as interesting as the traditional ones of interrogation, in which clever suspect and cleverer detective do battle; Álex and Mayka’s relationship is also informed by a similar cat-and-mouse battles of wits, as wife tries to catch out unfaithful husband with the help of a private investigator. Mayka is right to be suspicious of her husband’s behavior, and in trying to find evidence of his infidelity she is attempting to satisfy her own need for the truth as well as ensuring her own wealth is protected as a result of their pre-nuptial arrangements. Gradually, however, the picture is complicated slightly as Mayka is revealed to be a bully who delights in making people squirm.

We first see the couple in a DVD of their wedding day, for example, which Álex’s relatives are mawkishly watching in the matrimonial house while he fakes his own grief in the bedroom. The wealthy, high-flying Mayka stuns guests during the wedding ceremony by suggesting she is not willing to marry her fiancé, before revealing that it’s a practical joke at his expense. Later we see her exert her power and influence by pretending to have Álex fired from his job because he refuses to spend the morning with her when she returns from a business trip and instead wishes to go to work as planned. After both of these cruel tricks he looks as pale as a ghost.

Mayka’s odd sense of humour and controlling nature appears to be the catalyst for Álex’s cheating, and his new girlfriend Carla (Aura Garrido) is complicit in the poisoning. While Álex is mentally put through the ringer by an unidentified tormentor at the morgue, Carla appears to be in physical danger from either Mayka or the person who took her body, depending on what you believe. As the evidence mounts up against Álex and the police get ready to charge him, the question of whether a murder actually took place becomes ever more important.

With its muted green palette, stark morgue interiors, well-lit night shots and slowly-building tension, El Cuerpo does coincidentally resemble a David Fincher film, recalling perhaps the look of Zodiac and Panic Room first and foremost. There are certainly worse films to be compared to, and first-time director Paulo exudes impressive confidence throughout, rolling from one tension-filled scene to another; his skill is great enough, and his pacing is quick enough, to make you believe that bodies just get up and walk out of morgues all the time.

It’s interesting to find a film with all the usual machinations of a whodunit when the answer is clearly ‘hedunit’, but the extra question as to whether Mayka has faked her own death (as a result of tip offs received from her private detective) ensures for a fascinating mystery. I only have a finite ability to sit through plot twists, and find that credibility is often stretched too far when the rug is pulled a little too viciously from under the viewer’s feet, but the events here are devised, camouflaged and executed so well that I applaud El Cuerpo’s unpredictability. My only problem with the film is that the characters seem to be slightly one-dimensional at times; Mayka’s willingness to play the corporate boss from hell at home, for example, makes you wonder why Álex found her attractive in the first place (though money, of course, can be given as an adequate answer). Jaime, meanwhile, is a detective that will seem very familiar indeed to anyone with even a passing interest in such a genre: he lives alone, is utterly dedicated to his job and has a troubled, distant relation with his daughter. The other cops that assist him are sadly non-descript: there’s a woman, and a man with a mullet and a moustache, but they really don’t have much to do other than follow his orders. Despite these minor quibbles the performances by the cast are good, and they carry off this gripping mystery with aplomb.

The Basics:
Directed by: Oriol Paulo
Written by: Oriol Paulo, Lara Sendim
Starring: José Coronado, Hugo Silva, Belén Rueda, Aura Garrido
Certificate: 15
Running Time: 110 minutes
Year: 2012
Rating: 7.1