Friday, 31 December 2010

Top ten of 2010

Obviously I haven't seen every film released this year, nor even a representative sample. I've missed several critics' favourites that might well have made it onto my list had I seen them (Winter's Bone and Of Gods and Men in particular I look forward to catching on DVD next year). But, for what it's worth, here is my top ten of 2010.

1. Enter the Void.

I was surprised by how muted was the critical reception of this masterpiece. I found watching it a quasi-spiritual experience and am eagerly anticipating the bluray release so I can share it with others (albeit even in HD the home viewing won't match the overpowering cinematic experience).

2. Kick-Ass.

Of all the films on this list, this is the one I've watched the most and I suspect is the one which will stand up to the most repeat viewings. I predicted it would become a favourite lazy afternoon watch when I first saw it, and so it has proved. It's still hilarious, shocking and exhilarating after four or five viewings in the space of a few months.

3. Four Lions.

I think Mark Kermode's completely right in saying this film is not a comedy - it has funny scenes but for the most part they're simultaneously heavy with tragedy. It is, however, brilliant.

4. Gainsbourg.

Charming, witty, surreal, original, inventive, and very French. There's no need to like or even know Serge Gainsbourg's work in order to love this movie.

5. Heartless.

The best of the 2010 horror movies I saw. Bloody, melancholy, charming and never dull, the film cleverly makes monsters both of ancient demons and modern hoodies. Genuinely scary in several parts and a story that stays with you for days afterwards.

6. A Prophet.

I saw this before starting these reviews, so no title link, but on twitter at the time I said that it was totally engaging despite being 155 mins long, which was high praise from someone with my attention span. I think this was underselling it a bit. Un Prophete is one of the best crime films I've ever seen, up there with Casino and Heat. In fact, probably better than both of them.

7. Shutter Island.

Another underrated film, and better than the highly enjoyable but flimsy Inception. I loved it on first viewing, being gripped by the story, moved by the DiCaprio character's loss, and (apparently somewhat naively) surprised by the ending. My opinion of it went down a little after seeing it for a second time, but I think this was because Vue, ridiculously, left some of the lights on. This is a film that needs to be seen in the dark.

8. A Single Man.

A lovely, polished film, played piano throughout and with wholly believable characters and relationships. One of those films that is, within its own narrow confines, pretty much perfect.

9. Skeletons.

I watched this again on DVD over Christmas. It's a really fantastic film: strange without being wacky, moving but not remotely sentimental. It's a shame it'll probably never get the audience it deserves: it's probably only thanks to Jason Isaacs' supporting role (hello to Jason Isaacs) that it got any publicity to speak of. Incidentally, it is also the film of 2010 with the best-named actresses: Tuppence Middleton and Paprika Steen.

10. The Girl who Played with Fire.

I put this in tenth place as it's my favourite of the three Swedish Millennium adaptations, but obviously it needs to be seen between The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. A superb series of crime thrillers with Noomi Rapace playing Lisbeth Salander so perfectly that it's difficult to see why David Fincher is bothering to remake them, other than that people can't be bothered watching subtitled films.

And I also just wanted to note the best movie review of the year: without a doubt, and by a country mile, Lindy West's evisceration of Sex and the City 2. Reading this is as fun as watching Kick-Ass, possibly more so.

And finally, a happy new year to all four of my readers! I much appreciate every page view and comment.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Luftslottet som sprängdes

The Girl who Kicked the Hornet's Nest

Daniel Alfredson, 2009. 
BBFC rating: 15.

Like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, this is an adaptation of final part of a much-loved series of novels. It starts immediately where its predecessor finished, Lisbeth being airlifted from the scene of her attempted murder of her father, defected Soviet spy Alexander Zalachenko. Shortly afterwards, while she is still recovering in hospital from her cranial gunshot wound, the police attempt to interview and then charge her for this crime. Meanwhile, a secretive sub-section of the security police is at work trying to prevent the exposure of their conspiracy to protect the abusive, conscience-free Zalachenko - by whatever means necessary. Mikael and Millenium (the magazine he edits) also become targets when it transpires they intend to publish an expose of this conspiracy in the run-up to Lisbeth's trial. Things are further complicated by the fact that Lisbeth's brother - enormous, sociopathic and congenitally immune to pain - is on the loose. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest is not the best of the Millenium trilogy, in my opinion - the narrative requires a lot of setup before the action can begin properly, and it doesn't feel as self-contained as the first two in the series. But, like its source novel, it's a satisfying conclusion to the series.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Srpski Film

A Serbian Film

Srdan Spasojevic, 2010.
BBFC rating: 18 (with compulsory cuts)

One of the few films in recent years to have been refused an 18 certificate in its uncut form, Sprski Film would be interesting for that fact alone - just as last year's Gurotesuku (Grotesque) was for being rejected in its entirety. But unlike Grotesque - which was nasty, unrelenting torture with no narrative or message - A Serbian Film is a transfixing, astonishing piece of work.

The story follows Milos, a semi-retired porn actor now married with a young son. The opening scene involves this son watching one of his father's movies. (This is not by any means the film's most disturbing scene involving sex and children.) Milos is offered a final job by Vukmir, a filmmaker who wants to make a new type of porn film. The catch is that the artistic process means he's not allowed to see the script in advance; rather, he must explore the possibilities of each setup in real time, ostensibly to heighten the film's realism. However, the real reason Milos isn't shown the script is that Vukmir wants him to perform acts so illegal, immoral and reprehensible that he would never have signed up had he known. But is it too late for Milos to get out of the strictly-enforced contract?

The BBFC report makes interesting reading, but be warned that many of the more shocking scenes are described in such detail that reading it may diminish the power of the film. Having said that, the BBFC have insisted that A Serbian Film be cut by 4 minutes and 12 seconds for its theatrical and home video release so they've done a pretty good job of that themselves. Though, as I've said before, I find the BBFC's decisions thoughtful and reasonable, these decisions are restricted by the guidelines against which they judge films. The current guidelines are such that they
required forty-nine individual cuts, across eleven scenes. A number of cuts were required to remove elements of sexual violence that tend to eroticise or endorse sexual violence. Further cuts were required to scenes in which images of children are intercut with images of adult sexual activity and sexual violence.
It seems impossible that these cuts haven't softened the film's horror. In its uncut form, this is one of the most affecting, disturbing movies I've ever seen. Having little interest in supernatural 'scares', I find most horrific the films that plausibly show people battling with the worst of which humanity is capable. That's one of the reasons I tend to defend so-called torture porn. But in A Serbian Film this theme is really ramped up, because it explores the real horror of what we, through our protagonist, are capable of doing - under the right circumstances, with the right kind of nudging. Vukmir is a sociopathic Milgram, twisting and stretching Milos' free will while observing the results with an excited detachment. The results are stylishly grim, and the conclusion both appalling and inevitable.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part 1

David Yates, 2010. 
BBFC rating: 12A.

I finished reading the seventh Harry Potter book for the second time a couple of days ago. The first time I read it, I hated the ending, which I thought was a cop-out, a deus ex machina with a sickening and obvious postscript. Either my cynicism has mellowed or I had previously missed something - I think the latter - because I found it much less egregious this time round. Something I appreciated much more was the structure of the story. The first time I read it, it bothered me that so little was achieved within the first two thirds of the story by the trio around which the it revolves - Harry, Ron and Hermione, who are trying to locate and destroy the six horcruxes in which Voldemort has secreted parts of his soul. And the first half of this story is what this latest film adapts, so the action is sporadic, the outlook generally bleak and the achievements few and far between. But that's how projects go in the real world: it's the slog and the thinking, the exasperation and hand-wringing, that subtly creates the conditions required for its completion. And that's what we see in this film. The payoff comes in part 2, which opens next July. No doubt it, like this and all the other movies in the series, will suffer from unconvincing acting. But, like the more recent Potter adaptations, it will have some spectacular scenes of magic, death and bittersweet victory.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide

Jake West, 2010. BBFC rating: 18.

The BBFC, which certifies TV and film into age appropriate categories, doesn't have much of an impact on the watching habits of most adults in this country these days. Although it refused Grotesque an 18 certificate last year, anyone with an interest was able to acquire a digital copy with little effort. It also refused certificates to two other films: NF713 and My Daughter's a Cocksucker were rejected for, respectively, eroticising sexual torture and 'being likely to encourage an interest in sexually abusive activity'. Regardless of your views on censorship in general, these reasons are at least thoughtful and serious.

This seems to be the case for most, if not all, the BBFC's recent decisions. Often they exhibit a wry sense of humour, as in this excerpt from their most recent annual report:
Despite the widespread media coverage of our decision to classify Lars von Trier’s Antichrist ‘18’ with no cuts, we only received 10 complaints. The film was described by correspondents as an “abomination”, “pornographic” and “common trash”. All the comments were made in response to the media coverage; none of the complainants had actually seen the film. Indeed, there was some confusion about the actual nature of the film, with some people believing it to be a film about religion or Jesus Christ.
Anyone who speaks fluent bureaucratese will see the grin and sneer suppressed beneath this polite choice of words. I highly recommend reading the report in full (pdf) - it's full of this sort of thing, particularly delightful when describing the complaints received from teenagers about decisions to certify games and films at 18, and is in any case a fascinating insight into film classification and censorship.

The fact that the complaints about Antichrist were made by people who had not even bothered to research the film's content, much less see it, should not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the moral panic about video nasties in the early 1980s. As Video Nasties explains, the moral panic may have been spurious, ill-informed and hysterical, but the distributors of the films in question didn't help themselves. By rebranding Day of the Woman as I Spit on Your Grave (admittedly evocative, though not of the film's contents), they were appealing to paternalistic politicians along with excitable teens. Mary Whitehouse and The Daily Mail went through the roof and survey statistics were deliberately misinterpreted and put to good use in lies fed to the public and Parliament.

Moralisers and politicians working together behind closed doors soon led to the introduction of the Video Recordings Act, which required the BBFC to certify any video recording before it could be legally distributed, and the director of public prosecutions compiled a list of films thought to breach obscenity laws - the soon-to-be-infamous list of video nasties.

Video Nasties is rare as a documentary that allows those with opposing views to defend themselves. Alongside the talking heads of academics and producers of modern horror movies sit interviews with and clips of contemporaneous footage of those who opposed the video nasties. The director of public prosecutions and the MP who introduced the Act remenisce about and are clearly proud of the roles they played. The forces of good don't need to lie to make the other side look bad; they're perfectly capable of doing that for themselves, and the story speaks for itself.

It's not often I complain about a film being too short, but this documentary is only 70-odd minutes long and it seems a shame they didn't say more about ongoing controversies, a brief mention of the controversy surrounding A Serbian Film aside. (Of which more should be expected soon, as the movie is slated for a theatrical release in December. Expect Christopher Tookey to hit the roof.) Regardless, anyone interested in video nasties should buy this DVD boxset quickly, before the limited run of 5000 sells out. They should also check out the Video Nasty Project.

The documentary ends with the grim prediction that the current lack of online censorship - of youtube and the like - will likely one day seem distant and utopic, and a reminder that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. All it takes is The Daily Mail to write a couple of stories spuriously linking a horrible crime or manufactured teenage trend to a subset of films for our politicians to blindly grasp for the parchment. Recent reactions to drug policy critics demonstrate that they cannot be trusted to seek evidence or balance before speaking or legislating. Is it too optimistic to predict they'd have a tougher time stamping on creative and expressive freedom in the age of web 2.0? I hope not.

Packaged with another two DVDs featuring trailers for each of the 72 video nasties, along with introductions by academics and filmmakers as well as a series of postcards featuring lurid promotional artwork, Video Nasties is a great coffee table item as well as an essential reference for these era-defining films.

Cross-posted to D-Notice.

Monday, 15 November 2010

The Social Network

David Fincher, 2010. BBFC rating: 12A.

I'm sure there are few people who don't know that this film is about the origins and subsequent legal disputes over the ownership of facebook. Mark Zuckerberg created the website at Harvard in 2004, with the financial help of a friend and some creative help (or so this film assumes) unwittingly provided by a trio of upper class jocks. Zuckerberg is played by Jesse Eisenberg, the likeable lead from Zombieland. As such, although he's frequently gauche and occasionally a bit of a tit, 'Zuckerberg' seems largely likeable. It's unclear how similar 'Zuckerberg' is to Zuckerberg. And that's the only downside to a fast-paced, dialogue-heavy movie: I would much have preferred to know that what I was watching was a close approximation to the truth - though, for reasons the postscript explains, that truth is valuable and closely guarded. Facebook is so much a part of most of our lives that its origins are bound to be a subject of curiosity. But, even taken largely as a work of fiction, The Social Network is well worth seeing. It's not a cinematic movie, though, so one to add to the rental list rather than struggling to see it before it leaves the big screen.


Philip Ridley, 2010. BBFC rating: 18.

I hadn't realised when watching it on bluray recently that Heartless only came out this year - a British horror film that, like Salvage, had a home video release date only days after its theatrical release. It's set, from what I could tell, around London's Commercial Street and the backroads of Bethnal Green (quiet streets meandering around and under railway arches) and lit in a tungsten orange that works so much better than the same colour scheme does in Let Me In

Jamie is a 25 year old photographer who seems to work in a family firm. He lives with his mother and reveres his late father, also a photographer, who's played by Timothy Spall. In looks and in some respects in character, he's like an older, less confident Donnie Darko. That lack of confidence he attributes to the large heart-shaped birthmark on his face. His home streets of east London are plagued with violent gangs of hooded and masked young men - a not dissimilar world from that portrayed in last year's utterly depressing Harry Brown - according to the media. But Jamie knows better - these are not humans, but demons. And extremely effective, chilling demon faces they have too - these are not the friendly or stupid monsters of Buffy and the like.

I'd suggest watching it without knowing too much of what comes next, but suffice it to say Jamie is led into extreme darkness, seduced by its opportunities and attempting to dodge complicity. He also sees a chance to obtain love and happiness with Tia, an aspiring model played by Clémence Poésy (who was Fleur Delacour in the fourth Harry Potter film). But this is a horror movie, not a romance. It explores good and evil, free will and its absence, the visual nature of beauty, and the despair of being powerless. And if that makes it sound like a load of pretentious old tosh, don't worry - it isn't.

Heartless has not, however, been universally revered. The reviews on Rotten Tomatoes demonstrate the fairly extreme divide between those who loved it and those who didn't. Even Ben Austwick, with whom I normally agree entirely, slates it. I can't say I understand the negative coverage it received, but I can tell you that it reminded me of films and books I love, and maybe that'll go some way to suggesting its appeal. As well as Harry Brown  and Donnie Darko, Heartless strongly put me in mind of Irvine Welsh's experimental novel Marabou Stork Nightmares and this year's British indie movie Skeletons. It evokes some of the visceral dread conjured by the likes of Antichrist and A Serbian Film. And it has the sad beauty of the tender moments in a Gaspar Noé movie - the siblings playing together in Enter the Void, or Monica Belluci reading in the sunshine at the end of Irréversible.

And the thing that really sold me on Heartless: it's a film that has devils and demons alongside guns and gangsters, and pulls it off without selling either aspect short. Daniel Stamm and Eli Roth, take note - here's how to make a realist film with supernatural elements that doesn't alienate its audience. I really can't say enough good things about Heartless. It must be one of the five or six best films of the year. If you live in the UK, rent it. If you live in the States, you're in luck - it premieres there tomorrow.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Let Me In

Matt Reeves, 2010. BBFC rating: 15.

I've been both excited about and dreading Let Me In, the English-language remake of Swedish vampire movie Let the Right One In, that modern classic which I loved and which real critics - as well as I - thought was the best film of 2009.

The story is the same. A bullied and lonely 12-year-old boy - called Owen rather than Oskar in this version - befriends an odd local child, apparently a girl of the same age, though as a vampire neither her sex nor her age are quite what they seem. They slowly grow fond of each other, though Abby's time in Owen's neighbourhood is limited: her necessity for blood means she and her cohabitee, an older man with whom she has a complex relationship, leave a trail.

The first thing that really struck me about Let Me In was the colour. Where Let the Right One In is shot in brilliant white light, Let Me In glows faintly orange. It's the same as the difference between the tungsten and flourescent settings on a camera's white balance. And one of the things that made Let the Right One In so special for me was its visuals, the contrast between the pure white snow and the occasional flashes of colour when ruby red blood drips onto it, or a rubix cube is foregrounded against it. This contrast is lost in the remake.

There are other problems, for me, with this new version. Abby - though well played by Chloë Moretz, who was Hit Girl in Kick-Assseems slightly too old, when compared to Eli, and she also lacks Eli's other-wordly qualities. Many of the key scenes are very similar to, but never better than, the original. The audience is spoon-fed the story and the nature of the vampire's life is revealed in ways that were only hinted at in the stark, fill-in-the-blanks narrative of the original. Similarly, the soundtrack gives the audience a bit too much, and is a little irritating at times - though it works well in the tense and dramatic scenes, it feels intrusive in the slower, quiter scenes.

Although I'm comparing it entirely negatively with the original, Let Me in isn't a bad film - considered on its own it's a very good film indeed, though it's hard to know how the experience would differ for someone who had not seen the original - but it's simply superfluous. There'd be no point owning this inferior remake because when it came to rewatching, you'd pick Let the Right One In every time.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Mr Nice

Bernard Rose, 2010. BBFC rating: 18.

Quite the reverse of Made in Dagenham, Mr Nice inspired in me nostalgia for the 60s and 70s. Apparently, back then, drug dealers were cheeky chappies gallavanting about the world making everyone stoned and happy. It's a biopic about Howard Marks, the notorious cannabis smuggler, based on his 1996 book of the same name. And the portrayal of trafficking in Mr Nice is about as far from that in The Wire as you can get. This is closer to the jolly larks of Just William.

The film follows Marks from his sixth form in rural Wales, through undergraduate study at Oxford, to his business travels from Pakistan to California via Northern Irish farmhouses - and, inevitably, to jail. It's odd in the early part of the movie seeing Rhys Ifans, a man clearly in his forties, being patronised by his parents and his 20-years-younger peers. But as Marks leaves Oxford, starts teaching and accidentally falls into being a smuggler (and a part-time spy), the disparity melts away and Ifans is so convincing that I soon forgot Marks wasn't playing himself.

Marks' wife Judy is played by Chloë Sevigny - last seen in Werner Herzog's surreal soap opera My son, My son, what have ye done? only a few weeks back - who is as alluring and subtle as ever in this, moving from coquettish hippie to homely mother without becoming another character entirely. Partly this is because she is always, clearly, in love with Howard: something demonstrated on screen by gooey eyes as well as various restrained sex scenes.

Given this lack of anything sexually explicit, or much violence, I was curious about why the film had been given an 18 rating. Visiting the BBFC classification decision, I was surprised to find that reason was simply the fact that everyone is constantly smoking and talking about weed - the film thus requiring "an adult understanding of the complex moral and social issues surrounding soft drug use". In other words, it makes being a stoner look like a lot of fun. The rating most likely demonstrates the BBFC's knowledge that parents, believing their teenagers to be naive but suggestible, don't want them being encouraged to skin up. Of course, any teen stoner can pick up the book on which Mr Nice is based. I read it at 15 or 16 and I'm pretty sure it made me want to be an international drug smuggler, an ambition I fortunately failed to pursue.

Oh, the BBFC decision does note that we are also treated to the "brief sight of the head of a man’s penis after he has drawn a face on it". That'll be Jim McCann, then: the crazy, drunken, stoned, gun-toting, whoring but kind of lovable pal of Marks' who helps him channel drugs via Ireland (his IRA pals letting tons of hash through customs in the belief they're "importing guns for the cause"). Fotunately the movie manages to portray McCann and other quirky characters without turning them into Guy Ritchie caricatures.

I quite enjoyed Mr Nice. It comprises a series of well-acted, amusing set pieces but because I've read the source material, I was able to fill in the gaps - such as most of his time in prison, and the ingenuity of many of the smuggling schemes that was only hinted at in the film - and so for me it felt as though it had a depth which may well not be apparent to someone coming to it afresh. I think a TV series lasting four or six hours would have allowed for more drama by giving the audience a greater investment in the characters, as well as building up more tension by having the time to show the schemes' successes in detail as well as their failures. And there's little in the film that requires the cinema experience, good though Philip Glass' soundtrack (clearly inspired by Catch Me if You Can) sounds. But within the limitations of the two hour format, the filmmakers have probably done Marks' life to date as much justice as was possible. And that's a good enough reason to make it worth seeing.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Made in Dagenham

Nigel Cole, 2010. BBFC rating: 15.

1968 was over a decade before I was born. But even so I found it hard to swallow the fact that trade unions and other supposedly progressive voices were opposed to equal pay for women, a notion that wouldn't now be seriously raised by anyone outside the confines of 'Have your say'. That the Equal Pay Act of 1970 was introduced two years later owed much to the walkouts by female workers at Ford's Dagenham plant which are the subject of Made in Dagenham.

Rita, the accidental head of this campaign, is played by Sally Hawkins, who played the slightly irritating lead in Mike Leigh's recent Happy-Go-Lucky. She's much more likeable and rounded in this role, growing in confidence and conviction as she takes on increasingly difficult authorities in the fight for equality. Her relationships with her children and husband, strained by the amount of time she dedicates to her cause, is moving and believable. The sub-plots intertwine naturally with the main narrative while exploring interesting and related issues. And there's a nice, unobtrusive soundtrack to boot including the lovely, underappreciated Small Faces' chart-topper All or Nothing. All this adds up to an historically interesting and extremely well-crafted film. In that sense, though not in visual or dramatic style, it reminded me of earlier this year's A Single Man - another film about a time where the intolerance of things now unremarkable (in that case, being gay) was widespread.

Although it's easy to look back forty years with amazement at now unimaginable sytematic discrimination, as I write this senior clerics are, apparently seriously, debating whether female bishops should be allowed. So perhaps we shouldn't be so quick to sneer at the sexist sixties - and perhaps Made in Dagenham has some messages we can learn from today. Not least of these messages is a counterpoint to the tiresome stereotype of Essex girls - to whose pride and determination, this film makes clear, we are indebted.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

The Human Centipede (First Sequence)

Tom Six, 2009. BBFC rating: 18.

I'd been looking forward to seeing The Human Centipede since I heard Boyd Hilton describe it as the most disgusting film he's ever seen on the 5 live review show on 20 August. Only six weeks later, it was released on DVD and blu-ray. The publicity it received seems disproportionate to its very limited cinema run and subsequent quick home video release. Presumably most of this was to do with the disgust factor from the concept of the titular monstrosity, a "centipede" made by surgically stitching three humans together by their gastric passages, cakehole to arsehole.

The film is described in the promotional gumph as being "100% medically accurate!", a claim disputed by an Australian expert in this highly entertaining interview (video, 3m 30s) - although his objections are based on the trailer and are in fact, for the most part, addressed in the film. (One suggestion the jocular doctor makes is that an additional couple of people be stitched in to make a constantly refeeding circular creature!) Regardless of its anatomical credibility, the BBFC wryly notes in its classification decision that "the scenario is so far fetched and bizarre that there is no plausible risk of emulation".

Creating this siamese cut'n'shut is the pet project - quite literally - of insane German surgeon Dr Heiter, played  by Dieter Laser with a ferocious intensity that occasionally crosses into pantomime. (Tom Six, the director, describes Laser accurately on the blu-ray commentary as looking like "a dehydrated Christopher Walken" and explains how much the actor put into the character, on more than one occasion leading to his hurting and fighting with his co-stars.)

When Lindsay and Jenny, two young female tourists, get a flat tyre and stumble across Dr Heiter's lair, they're in for a shock as he calmly explains his project to them (having made sure first to drug and lock them up). It's not giving anything away to say that despite their brave escape attempts Dr Heiter's plan, which also includes a Japanese chap with a comparatively enviable position in the chain, is initially successful. The mad medic revels in the delight of his new pet before the centipede's own ambitions and the suspicions of the local police divert his attention to more pressing matters.

Despite Boyd Hilton's promising description of the film, in reality it's the concept that's the most disgusting aspect. The gore is infrequent (but brutal) and much is left to the viewer's imagination. These directorial tactics, along with the cold lighting and the smooth camerawork, reminded me a little of Let the Right One In. And, although The Human Centipede is not quite in the same league as that modern classic, it is a tense, bonkers ride of a movie, well worth checking out if you can get over the gastrointestinally gruesome notion at its core. Roll on the "100% medically INaccurate" sequel, which Tom Six says will feature a dodecapede and make the first sequence look like 'My little Pony'. The Human Centipede (Full Sequence) arrives in cinemas (and, probably more significantly, on the horror shelves of HMV) next year.

Monday, 11 October 2010


The premise of Frozen - the latest film from Adam Green, who made the stupid but fun swamp-based monster movie Hatchet - will be familiar to anyone who's seen the opening episode of the third series of Bottom, in which Richie and Eddie are trapped on a ferris wheel slated for imminent demolition. In Frozen, however, we have three students trapped on a ski lift. With no hope of  rescue until the following weekend, by which time they will surely have perished from exposure, one of them needs to find a way to escape the predicament and alert the authorities. But how?

As so often with such a simple set-up, more fun is to be had from finding out how they get into this situation than their subsequent adventures. Probably this is simply because the single location becomes monotonous while both the avenues open to the characters and the potential pitfalls are limited, leading to repetition and a loss of tension. I would have liked to see what was going on back home as they failed to return to their homes and colleges, if only for a change of scenery and characters. After all, they aren't so dislikable that you'd expect their friends and relatives to be simply relieved by their dissapearance (unlike those of the leads in Hostel, say).

Frozen has some nice watch-through-fingers parts arising largely from the effects of the cold on human skin, though it lacks any detailed gore (hence receiving a 15 certificate). It's well-made, convincing and probably as good as a film set mostly on a ski lift could hope to be. But I don't think any such film could expect to become a classic. Currently available free online for lovefilm members despite its recent cinema release, it's certainly worth a watch at that price, but otherwise is probably not worth prioritising unless you find the prospect of being stuck on a ski lift inherently fascinating.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Enter the Void

Watching Gaspar Noé's Irréversible at the cinema in February 2003 set a new benchmark in my mind for the capabilities of cinema to viscerally affect its audience with scenes of graphic intensity and, in retrospect, probably kickstarted my love of ultraviolent extremist cinema. But it's taken over seven years for Enter the Void - the latest film from the same director - to come along and hit me with the same level of affect.

The film opens, like Irréversible, with too-fast-to-be-readable credits projected over intense flashing lights and banging noises. The narrative begins. Oscar, psychonaut and small time dealer, says goodbye to his sister Linda, who is leaving to go to work as a pole-dancer. Already high on ecstasy and The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Oscar smokes DMT, meets one of his fellow western ex-pat friends and goes to sell a parcel of pills to another whose trust he has recently betrayed. The friend returns the favour, setting him up to be arrested, but Oscar's panic and bluster results in his being shot dead by the cops. His spirit leaves his body and we follow it for the next two hours as it spirals over, through and inside the film's surviving characters, the sleazy neon Tokyo nightlife and his own memories.

Noé makes most directors look like children playing with toys they don't really understand. The visuals in this are extraordinary: trippy, beautiful, erotic, gut-wrenching. A lot has been made (in reviews I've caught up with since seeing the film) of the hallucinatory visuals - it's said to mimic being on drugs. I think some of that may come from the fact that at times it's bathed in too-bright light which pours from pores, cracks and orifices. We see everything through Oscar's drug-widened pupils, the aperture too wide for the conditions. Swooping shots over the neon-drenched Tokyo streets are noticeably motion-blurred. Accompanying this is a soundtrack as encompassing and affecting as that in Irréversible: the same repeated sirens and banging techno drums with occasional diegetic noises joining in (heartbeats, screaming). Every so often a few bars from Air on a G String float into the mix, Noé teasing the audience with some light relief - like a club DJ tantalising the crowd by repeatedly playing a few bars from a dancefloor favourite every few minutes before it's finally played in its entirety.

To my mind, the story of Enter the Void is pretty much beside the point. There's no dramatic tension and little resolution (in the conventional sense). Some reviewers note that it has something to say about death, dualism, spirituality, or reincarnation. Ben Austwick at Quiet Earth says it "it explores an unscientific, druggy spirituality that goes against present day intellectual atheist consensus", whereas Rick McGrath on the same site interprets the entire film as taking place in the mind of the protagonist in the few moments before his death. That's how I read it, too, though perhaps because I unconsciously discounted the former interpretation which sits uncomfortably with my worldview. Anyway, Rick and Ben (both chums of mine, in the interests of full disclosure) both give the movie very high scores: a 9 and a perfect 10, conclusions with which I wholeheartedly concur.

Enter the Void demands a cinema viewing. It's such an immmersive, quasi-spiritual experience. Entirely sucked into the film as I was, I couldn't believe it when someone in an adjacent row started playing with their mobile phone half an hour from the end. Fortunately I was able to move position so I could see the screen but not the light from their phone. But I felt like dragging them out of the cinema and having them excommunicated for blasphemy. And if the cinema is a church, Gaspar Noé is its visionary godhead and Enter the Void is the second coming. It's absolutely phenomenal.

Friday, 1 October 2010

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?

Werner Herzog's new movie My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?  is based on a  true story about Brad, a rather unbalanced man in his early 30s who kills his mother with an enormous sword and then holes up in a house while the police try to meet his demands and protect his hostages (whose identities are initially unclear) from harm. Between scenes set in the present, there are various flashbacks explaining Brad's recent past and demonstrating his bizarre relationship with his also rather unusual mother and his extremely tolerant fiancée, played by the wonderful Chloë Sevigny (of Larry Clark's Kids fame). The other principal characters involved in all this are the director of a play for whom Brad recently acted and the police chief, played by the even more wonderful Willem Dafoe.

After a very limited cinema showing (two screens, so I was lucky to even manage to catch it), My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? is already available on DVD. This is the second Herzog project released in 2010, after Bad Lieutenant arriving - coincidentally? - on the shelves at about the same time. (The title of this blog, for the time being, is a Herzog quote about the nature of the universe from Grizzly Man.)

Anyway, moving back to My Son, My Son, etc. It's a hyper-real suburban melodrama. Not too far from what I imagine a feature-length Neighbours season finale - albeit one directed by Herzog and produced by Lynch - would be. This might derive partly from the fact that it's shot digitally, something that I at least haven't yet got used to and still find a little alienating on the big screen. It's also contributed to by the fact that none of its characters acknowledge at any point just how crazy Brad is. They might look a little worried from time to time but, inexplicably, no-one sics the men in white coats on him. Obviously, in retrospect, this is a big mistake.

Tone and feel aside, the story is not hugely entertaining but it keeps your attention. And Herzog seems to have a knack of picking actors, like Nic Cage in Bad Lieutenant and Willem Dafoe in this, who I think can probably rescue just about any movie. (Not Captain Corelli's Mandolin, obviously. But think the otherwise- rather poor Daybreakers, dragged into the worth-watching category by Dafoe's presence.) I tend to agree with Mark Kermode's assessment of My Son - in a sense, it's only OK, but then it's a Herzog film so there are enough wild and wonderful parts to make watching it more than worthwhile. The bottom line is - having mainly watched predictable Hollywood fare recently (Salt, The Expendables, The Other Guys), I was just really pleased to see a film in which the main character keeps pet flamingoes.

Friday, 24 September 2010

The Other Guys

In The Other Guys two cops, played by Will Ferrel and Mark Wahlberg, make a bid for justice and glory when they stumble upon a huge financial conspiracy while investigating a permit breach. The British conspirator, played by Steve Coogan, owes money to various foreign gangsters and plots to steal billions of dollars from hard working public servants to pay them back. Gamble (Ferrel) and Hoitz (Wahlberg), the eponymous other guys, try to stop them despite their bosses' lack of interest.

The film uses this story to make some hard-hitting political points about the state of the financial industry and its impact on the man on the street. At least, it does over the end credits - as everyone switches their mobiles back on, gathers their belongings and leaves the cinema. In the meantime, The Other Guys uses its story to deliver a sequence of scenes often either mildly amusing or jarring and confusing. There are, however, one or two scenes of genuine comedy - particularly those involving the cops played by Samuel Jackson and 'The Rock' whose place as Manhattan superstars the other guys aim to take when the prior top guns are rendered unfit for action. This goal is pursued enthusiastically by Hoitz, reluctantly by Gamble, and much of the dramatic tension and comedy is based on this disparity.

Although it's not a particularly memorable film, I've spent a lot of time thinking about The Other Guys over the few days since I saw it, trying to work out what I thought of it. And I'm still not sure. Though completely aware that I was watching a film throughout the screening, never losing myself in the drama - often a bad sign - I wasn't bored, and in fact found almost every scene more or less entertaining. I can't say it's a good film, because the story is too jagged and the character development so back-and-forth that it lacks much coherence. But watching The Other Guys is a pleasant enough way to pass a couple of hours.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

The Last Exorcism

I am usually careful not to spoil films when I review them, but in this review I am going to spoil The Last Exorcism (and, to some extent, Rec and The Prestige) in order to explain what spoiled The Last Exorcism for me.

It's a film I've been looking forward to for months, largely because of its association with Eli Roth, whose Hostel movies I love (and am planning to explain why in a forthcoming post on here). Discovering that Roth only produced The Last Exorcism rather than directing it dampened my enthusiasm slightly, but he's been promoting it relentlessly on twitter and elsewhere, and the trailers and reviews I'd come across looked very promising.

One of the things I really like about all of Eli Roth's films so far (that is, Cabin Fever and the two parts of Hostel) is the lack of any supernatural element to the horror. I don't mind good supernatural horror - I quite enjoyed Paranormal Activity, for instance - but it doesn't give me the delicious squirmy fear that a good naturalist or realist horror does. So obviously, with The Last Exorcism, I was anxious that it treat its subject matter with the appropriate skepticism and that the horror derive from the very real insanity, fear and violence of pseudo-possession and exorcisms.

And, for the vast majority of the film, that's exactly what it does. It's shot in the handheld mock-doc style of Rec and The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity. Of those films it's closest conceptually to Rec, an excellent Spanish horror based around 'found footage' from the cameras of a TV documentary crew following firefighters who get inadvertantly quarantined in an old building with a secret. In The Last Exorcism, a two-person camera crew is following Cotton Marcus out to his last exorcism. Marcus is a charismatic evangelical preacher who retains a fondness for his flock despite having gradually lost his faith. He has performed many 'exorcisms' in the past, ridding people of their demons with the help of gadgets and legerdemain. Now he's going to demonstrate how this trickery is achieved by taking on one last case: Nell, a teenage girl from a strict religious background whose family are all dealing with various issues following the loss of their matriarch two years earlier.

As is necessary in order for the movie to work, the characters are all well-played and believable. More could have been made of Nell's brother - it's unclear why he is initially very resistant to the exorcism but mollified when he discovers it's all a fake, and exploring this further would have been interesting. But that observation demonstrates the depth of the characters in this film, especially when compared to a horror film as laughably characterless as The Collector. For the majority of its running time, The Last Exorcism's only weak point is that it regularly betrays its mock-doc premise by adding non-diegetic scare music and offering shots of some scenes from more than one angle. But, though noticeable, these errors of judgement do not spoil the film.

What spoils the film is the ending. It really is a shame because the action is well-paced, the scares are properly creepy and the story is engaging. Marcus investigates the family's extranuclear relationships and discovers there are mysteries other than those of the girl's "possession". And by 80 or so minutes into the film, the mystery appears to have been solved, the girl "exorcised" and the documentary finished.

And then, on their way out of town, a new clue which overturns Marcus' previous explanations surfaces and the crew turns back. And they find that in fact she really was possessed and the locals are forcing her to undergo a medieval ritual involving fire, flesh and chanting. And it's rubbish, and it turns what could have been a really good horror movie into a flop. I hated the ending for the same reason I hated the ending of The Prestige: both films lead you to believe that these characters inhabit the real world, and then suddenly pull the rug from under you and yell Ah! It was magic, after all! Well, that's  not an explanation. And these are terrible ways to end otherwise fine films. The Last Exorcism ought to have taken a leaf from the book of Rec: supernatural scares can work if introduced late into a film. But they need to be sufficiently ambiguous to be consistent with what came before. Otherwise you just end up wishing, as I did after watching The Last Exorcism, that they'd deleted the the last 10 minutes or so. Had it finished as the crew left town the first time, the film would have been whole, consistent, tight, and much much better than it actually was.

It's this lost potential that makes The Last Exorcism such a waste of a strong story and some great footage. But I know many reviewers have lamented the ending despite otherwise enjoying it, and hopefully the filmmakers will learn from this and go on to create something that fulfils the potential that The Last Exorcism had.

Monday, 13 September 2010


"Who is Salt?" the adverts ask. Is she a KGB operative who has infiltrated the CIA? Or a loyal special agent double crossing the Russians? Either way it's not very 2010, but this 80s throwback action movie is far better than the creaking yawnfest that was The Expendables. Between jumping from one truck to another to escape her former intelligence buddies, trying to save her innocent scientist husband and assassinating key political figures, Angelina Jolie spends most her time simply kicking the crap out of people. The tech stuff is a bit naff in this film, as so often: an fMRI scanner that appears  to be invisible, work from a distance of several metres and instantly tell whether a new subject is lying is the most egregious example. (Also worth a mention, the fingerprint scanner that insists on tracking across the subject's fingers slowly like a knackered Canon photocopier.) But on the whole, while never entirely engaging, this film does what's asked of it. In that respect it's better than the aforementioned Sly Stallone offering by a country mile. But Salt is only really worth watching if you've already seen Inception - perhaps twice - and have an urgent need to see some goreless, harmless ass-kicking.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

The Expendables

Tattoos! Knives! Guns! Beards! Just four of the things you'll catch regular glimpses of as The Expendables meanders lumpenly across your field of vision. They're all attached to erstwhile action movie stars including Sly, Dolph, and Arnie - apart from those adorning the odd current star (Jet Li, Jason Statham). Make no mistake, these are men. They don't cry, they don't get scared and they don't have any desire that can't be satisfied in a vehicle workshop.

In her seminal 1985 book Between MenEve Kosofsky-Sedgwick described homosociality, the desire for platonic friendship with the same sex. Although these relationships are - like that between a politician and his special adviser - non-sexual, Sedgwick describes how, for example:

What goes on at football games [and] in fraternities.... can look, with only a slight shift of optic, quite startlingly “homosexual”... For a man to be a man’s man is separated only by an invisible, carefully blurred, already-always-crossed line from being “interested” in men.
You can tell this book is from the 80s because of its trendy deconstructive langauge. Similarly, you can tell The Expendables is from the 80s, culturally if not literally, because of its stars, its south American dictator baddie, and its action-man dialogue. The dialogue in particular is so terrible, and so poorly delivered, that if this film had any hint of a sense of humour you might mistake it for an 80s action movie pastiche.

Anyway, the reason I mention Between Men is because the characters in The Expendables are profoundly homosocial. Their views of women are obtained solely from fairy tales. They're incapable of conversing on any level other than grunts and punches. Visibly more relaxed in the company of their bicep-flexing colleagues, they bemoan their bad luck with the ladies between knives thrown at a dartboard, deep down relieved that they don't have to make forced conversation with members of the fairer sex. When Bruce Willis makes a jibe to Arnie and Sly about their sucking each others' dicks, I almost expected them to get down and do just that. Not even a slight shift in optic required here. (What a scene that would have been!)

With all the narrative complexity, subtle thematics and polished segueways of  a Dan Brown novel clunking from one hackneyed scene to the next, the film fails to be saved even by the fight and chase scenes (which are of course the whole point of the movie). The Green Zone style shaky handheld camera means you never get the opportunity to admire the grand scale of these set pieces. So I'm afraid there really is nothing to recommend this film. Do yourself a favour and watch Commando instead - or, better, 
dig out Total Recall and enjoy an 80s action movie with a story, some three-dimensional characters and a sense of humour. 

Friday, 3 September 2010


Madeo (Mother) tells the story of an amiable but misguided simpleton, Do-joon, who finds himself arrested for the murder of a schoolgirl after being seen in the wrong place at the wrong time early one morning. The police, having found circumstantial evidence of his involvement, close the investigation. Do-joon's quiet but determined mother sets about investigating the background of the murder victim in order to identify the real culprit. She teams up with Do-joon's best (and only) friend and together they beg, connive and torture information out of the girl's associates and other witnesses, along the way discovering the truth about her lifestyle, her death, and the reason for Do-joon's identification as the killer.

Mother takes you on a journey, but not an exhilarating one. To call it an emotional rollercoaster would imply a greater range of peaks and troughs, and a faster pace, than it has. The experience is closer to driving the length of an emotional A13: sweeping gently up and down, occasionally passing through more or less grim territory, but an oddly interesting and satisfying journey nonetheless - one which includes wince-inducing moments along with laughter, mystery and intrigue.

I was surprised to learn that Won Bin, who plays Do-joon, is a popular actor and model in Korea. It's hard to imagine Kate Moss or Danny Dyer portraying characters with a mental age in single figures (deliberately, at least). Kudos to him for taking on this role, and pulling it off so well.

It's filmed on a good-quality digital format (compared to, say, Salvage), but I still found the pixellation a little distracting. Although this minor issue will be resolved if you're watching the DVD or Blu-ray transfer (unless your telly's enormous), I'd still recommend that anyone wanting to see it do so at the cinema. Perhaps I'm guilty of assuming that everyone shares my fickle attention span, but I need to be forced (by virtue of having no distractions) to concentrate on a movie this subtle and languid. It's worth being forced, though, since the story is ultimately gripping, surprising and satisfying.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Flickan som lekte med elden

The Girl who Played with Fire is, as everyone already knows, the second book in Steig Larsson's Millenium series - and the second of the Swedish film adaptations. The story picks up a year after the first one, Män som hatar kvinnor ('Men who hate women' in English, though the film was translated as 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo'). Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander haven't seen each other for a year. Lisbeth's fingerprints are found on a gun used to kill three of their acquaintances. Rather than attempt to prove her innocence through the usual channels, Lisbeth disappears and begins investigating the murders. There are two other investigations going on in parralell: Blomkvist's, motivated by the death of his friends and his desire to prove Lisbeth's innocence (of this particular crime, at least) - and the fairly hapless enquiries carried out by the police.

Noomi Rapace is Lisbeth Salander. Her looks, attitude, moodiness and intelligence are perfectly poised in this assured, understated portrayal. This was true of her performance in Män som hatar kvinnor as well, but she is even more impressive in the sequel. Michael Nyqvist's solid, convincing Blomkvist sits well alongside, but this really is Rapace's film. She is complemented by the unflashy cinematography and the locations: largely the harsh, grey but beautiful Swedish countryside and Stockholm's classic city backdrop. These are major contributors to the success of this as an adaptation of the sombre, gritty novel.

This is not just an excellent adaptation of the novel. In many ways it's an improvement: the distractions of original, such as the intricate police procedural and political aspects (and the silliness of Lisbeth's proving Fermat's last theorem in her spare time), have been removed - making the story tighter and the action faster-paced. As such, I preferred it to the film of the first book, despite feeling the opposite about the novels. There exists a three-hour cut of the film, presumably featuring many of these removed plot points. I'd be surprised if it was an improvement over this cinematic release.

The Millenium series is also currently being adapted by David Fincher, who directed Fight Club and Seven. Much as I admire his work, I cannot imagine these new versions coming close to the perfection with which these Swedish films capture the spirit of Larsson's books.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Piranha 3D

In general, the bullet-pointed list is more suited to PowerPoint presentations then movie reviews. That's because films are usually better considered as a coherent work of art than as a series of loosely connected scenes. And in fact, Piranha does achieve this aesthetic wholeness, despite its rice-paper-thin plot. But that's not why you should see it. Piranha includes:
  • two piranha fighting over who gets to eat a disembodied human penis
  • Kelly Brook and another naked playmate performing a Sapphic underwater synchronised swim
  • Christopher Lloyd reprising his role as Doc from Back to the Future
  • two superb deaths-by-being-torn-in-two 
  • Ving Rhames getting post-industrial on the asses of a shoal of piranha with a boat propeller
  • the shredding of countless objectionable frat boys, and
  • someone being eaten from the bottom up.
If you want to see these play out in glorious, colour-saturated 3D, then this is the film to watch. And if you don't, then what's wrong with you?

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque)

If I met someone for the first time at a party and they told me they enjoyed listening to French spoken word jazz, I'd swallow my entire drink in one gulp and make my excuses. But that's the music of Serge Gainsbourg described in four words. If on the other hand I had met Gainsbourg himself at a party I think I would have followed him round for the rest of the evening. If this new biopic is anything to go by, the weedy, Gallic chain-smoking piss artist had charisma.

I knew almost nothing about him when I went to see this film. I'm not sure I know too much more now, but that doesn't matter. Based largely on the movie poster, I was expecting this to be something like Control, the film about Ian Curtis' life that came out a few years back: very well made, dark, tragic, but not exactly fun. But Gainsbourg  is hilarious, surreal fun. It's probably this that makes Christopher Tookey hate it. Tookey is the Daily Mail clown who thought Kick-Ass was for paedophiles and wanted to get Cronenberg's Crash banned. To paraphrase C S Lewis, Tookey is either a lunatic, a liar or - an unlikely one, this, admittedly - the son of God. He seems to have a real hatred for joyous, charming, playful movies. He calls Gainsbourg 'woefully pretentious', 'tiresome', 'twaddle'.

Pretentious twaddle it may be in part, though I think there's more to it than that. But it's far from tiresome and woeful. There are a handful of scenes which are stunning, for various reasons. One joyful section involves Brigitte Bardot dressed in a bedsheet, dancing around Serge's piano while he plays and smokes, and is so entirely convincing that watching it feels close to voyeuristic. The brilliance of several other scenes derives from the presence of Gainsbourg's 'mug', a Tim Burtonesque character with an enormous nose, long thin fingers and a mischievous grin. Mug is born, almost literally, out of the exploded remains of an oversized, comic-book spherical Jew the young Gainsbourg creates and with whom he enjoys various adventures. I wasn't overstating the case when I said it was surreal. Elements are clearly influenced by Dali (whose home makes a brief appearance).

Although there isn't much of a plot in the traditional sense - a problem shared by many biopics, whose subjects have a bad habit of failing to structure their lives like films - Gainsbourg's life had enough marriages and tribulations to make the film a highly enjoyable series of set pieces. And watching the journey his character takes, from cheeky charming child through awkward young man to self-assured, arrogant old soak, makes up for the lack of conventional story arc. One small criticism of the 122 minute movie: it could stand to lose a few minutes to the edit room floor, especially during the last third. But this is a minor issue and even the scenes that slightly outstay their welcome have more to recommend them than those of many movies. Gainsbourg is one of the most original, inventive films of the year, and also one of the best.

Toy Story 3

I don't have very much to say about Toy Story 3. It's been generally lauded, with a 99% score on Rotten Tomatoes to date, and rave reviews from both Kermode and Mayo and their current standins Boyd and Floyd. Supposedly it's the first 'part 3' film to live up to the quality of its preceding chapters, and Pixar's finest moment to date. It's also been widely touted as making grown men cry at the unbearably emotional ending in which Andy comes to a decision about what to do with his toys now he's leaving for college.

Toy Story 3 is slick, no question. And the story, involving the toys coming to terms with their possible futures now Andy has grown out of them, is well-crafted. Even the 3D seems somehow natural in a way that it hasn't managed even in the best of the 3D films we've seen so far such as Avatar and Streetdance 3D. But for some reason Toy Story 3 just left me a little cold. While tears streamed from under the polarised lenses of hardened criminals around me (or so I surmise), my own ducts didn't even flinch. I much preferred the charming How to Train your DragonI was explaining this to someone, telling them I wasn't hugely impressed with the film, and they replied that on the contrary: "It's a good story, well told". Well, it is that - but to me, it wasn't much more.

Saturday, 31 July 2010


Skeletons, a low-budget British film (made on "a shoestring", according to this Guardian article), follows two scruffy professional men whose occupation involves visiting customers, often couples, at their request to uncover their secrets - the skeletons in their wardrobes - using the sort of equipment favoured by new-agers and amateur ghostbusters. Only, in the movie, this equipment works - and they are able to physically explore and investigate their customers' secrets before reporting back to them. The premise is internally consistent, thankfully, so the quasi-supernatural elements are not intrusive (unlike in The Prestige, for instance, which annoyed me earlier this week).

The two are apparently experienced but junior officers who are then given the opportunity by their gruff northern boss, the Colonel - played by Jason Isaacs and his moustache - to undertake a more difficult role which, if completed well, may lead to promotion. However, the job is even more difficult than they had anticipated. They are further beset by a troublesome member of the family they investigate, the 21-year-old daughter - played by the brilliantly-named Tuppence Middleton (who played the lead in last year's silly Brit horror Tormented). To make things even more difficult, one of the duo is battling his addiction to 'glowchasing' - illicitly reliving happy memories using work equipment. In order to complete the job more quickly, they decide to stay with the family, leading to some beautifully balanced and very funny dinner scenes, as well as some strange and moving friendships.

Skeletons is being shown a handful of times at various independent cinemas - a list of screenings appears on the official website - but will hopefully receive longer runs in future. It should: the screening I saw at Manchester's Cornerhouse was moved to a larger screen to accommodate the relatively large audience, presumably many of whom had - like me - been alerted to Skeletons' existence by Jason Isaacs' plugging it on Mayo and Kermode's review show. The Cornerhouse is planning a week-long run in August as a result of its popularity.

Conceptually it shares some aspects with Inception although, featuring few special effects and taking place largely in the English countryside, is dramatically different visually. It has been compared to Withnail & I, and it it has some similarities: the setting, the very British humour, the close platonic relationship between two men of a certain age and, happily, the quality of the script and performances. Skeletons has some interesting things to say about the nature of secrets, memories and the dangers of living in the past. But despite the bizarre premise and story - and although it works well in that respect - it was the unconventional but touching relationships between the six principal characters that really made it for me. I hope Skeletons gains the audience, and the recognition, it deserves.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010


Like Shutter Island, Inception stars Leonardo DiCaprio as a man on a singular mission, obsessed with the absence of his wife and children and constantly haunted by their apparitions. Also like Shutter Island, it turns into a dizzying commentary on the fragile nature of reality. They're also both ambitious, portentous concept movies from respected directors - this one from Christopher Nolan, who made Memento and The Dark Knight.

But even more than it recalled Shutter Island, Inception brought to mind David Cronenberg's 1999 movie eXistenZ. (Coincidentally, it's not the only thing to do so recently.) It has similar multi-layered levels of reality and fantasy and similar young, strong, intellectual female characters who expertly design these reality-levels. In some ways the concept is better than that of eXistenZ: in Inception's dreamworld, dreams-within-dreams last longer than their host dreams and so several parallel "events" can synchronise - which they do, in a technically superb and exciting finale. In the to my mind important sense of plausibility, the concept of eXistenZ is superior and thus more satisfying. But the world of Inception is largely self-consistent, despite some minor gaps.

I deliberately haven't explained much of the concept here, because finding that out is an important part of the enjoyment of the film. But it's worth saying that although Inception has been slapped with warnings of complexity and of being hard to follow (notably by Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo), I wouldn't take these warnings too seriously. Yes, it doesn't spoonfeed us, but it does give us ample explanation of what's going on. I was slightly apprehensive about it myself, ensuring I was wide awake before seeing it. But that wasn't too necessary. For one thing, it's got enough explosions and gunfire to keep the doziest viewer awake. I wouldn't want people to miss out on seeing the best film of the summer just because they don't fancy having to make too much effort. Inception is thoughtful - but it's also rip-roaring, dizzying fun. Whether it would survive a second viewing with as much praise is hard to say, but everyone should give it a first.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

The Collector

John Fowles' first novel, The Collector, describes with insight and tension the relationship between a bizarre, socially awkward man and the young student he kidnaps and keeps locked up in his basement. It's a page-turner with a unique voice, similar in that sense to The Wasp Factory and The Catcher in the Rye. As when White Noise came out a few years ago, my initial delight at seeing one of my favourite novels adapted for cinema was displaced by disappointment when I discovered they shared only a title. But I heard The Collector was the latest so-called 'torture porn' horror from Marcus Dunstan who made Saw and so, as I am quite fond both of the sub-genre and the franchise, I gave it a go regardless.

The premise: Arkin, a softly-spoken former jailbird, is renovating a rich family's home. They like him, and reward him with cash and praise. Unfortunately, not enough cash - he owes his ex-wife money she needs before midnight in order to pay loan sharks: or else...

He decides the only way to obtain this money at such short notice is to break into his employers' home and steal from their safe. There's gratitude for you. But he has a stroke of bad luck - wouldn't you just know it, the local hooded psychopath has done a
Home Alone and turned the place into a massive booby-trapped deathpit.

And that's about it. Arkin tries to rescue the family from the collector - for it is he - with fairly predictable results. There's plenty of gore (much of it not too easy to make out because of the darkness of the setting), several deaths, no plot beyond that described above, and very little character development. In fact, about the collector himself - whose motivations and background are surely the most intriguing - we learn nothing. Oh, apart from the fact that if he likes you, he might 'collect' you (a fate little better than what awaits if he doesn't like you). For all we know, this is Macauley Culkin's Kevin McAllister grown up, traumatised by the horrific injuries he was led to inflict in his formative years and reliving those events in an increasingly violent destructive spiral. (I'd be happy to come on board, if anyone at Lionsgate is reading this and wants my help writing
Home Alone 5.)

As Mark Kermode pointed out on his 5Live show, in a section that might have made me think twice before seeing the film if I'd heard it in time, it might as well be called "the Trainspotter - because if you look like a train, he lets you live".

I concede that the film isn't entirely without merit. The high-tension chases around the house were fairly well done, especially considering the dark set (something I normally despise). And the gory stuff was quite well-shot without being hugely inventive. But why not wrap this up in a bit of plot and character stuff, I wonder? It seemed to be aimed squarely at the audience with whom I found myself sharing the cinema when I saw it: teenage boys determined to show their mates how insensitive to nasty violence they are by laughing through the goriest scenes.

So, congratulations, Dunstan and Co, for letting torture porn sink to its ground state: providing cheap, unexciting thrills for idiots. I hope you're proud of yourselves.

Friday, 2 July 2010

Les Herbes Folles

I like my French cinema like I like my French women - horrific, sexual and extremely violent. Films like Irreversible, A ma souer, and Martyrs. While sometimes hard to watch and at other times simply dull to watch, these movies make their points and stay submerged in my consciousness for a long time after I watch them. Which is, if nothing else, good value for money.

Les Herbes Folles exemplifies a less appealing side of French cinema. Called Wild Grass in English translation, its respected director Alain Resnais seems to think that whimsy is a substitute for storytelling. But it isn't. Amelie was whimsical, but it had charm, a heart, a story. This, on the other hand, has none of these things.

Well, I suppose I ought to concede that it does have a story of sorts. This sorry tale is of a quirky middle-aged dentist and flying enthusiast whose purse is stolen and discarded, before being found by a middle-aged, miserable layabout with his own equally quirky but rather unsavoury personality. The latter, who is married to an implausibly young, attractive lady, begins stalking the former. The dentist is initially wary - as she should be - but soon comes round to finding it charming. Things vaguely build to a lacklustre crescendo.

The film is 104 minutes long, but it feels like 104 hours. The characters are so unpredictable and their actions so implausible that any dramatic tension soon dissipates. The director seems to be aware of the drab piece he has created, for he teases the viewer with two false endings before finally putting us out of our misery.

Is Les Herbes Folles, then, just a joke at the audience's expense? If so, the joke is well-calculated - but it's also rather insulting.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Streetdance 3D

Which of the two following movies would be worse to watch with a hangover? (Not a nauseous or anxiety-stricken hangover, but a wearing-a-too-small-hat-made-of-lead hangover.) My options were reduced to Michael Winterbottom's crime thriller The Killer Inside Me, reportedly including scenes of prolonged and brutal violence to rival Irreversible, and the new British teenage bubblegum extravaganza Streetdance 3D.

I feared the latter would be worse, expecting loud insipid music with colourful, swirling visuals flying toward me from the screen. Not to mention the huge rubbery 3D glasses, fitting snugly over my prescription spectacles (and my leaden headwear) and further squeezing my poor aching head. But my companion had the deciding vote, so
Streetdance it was.

And in many ways Streetdance was as bad as I anticipated. The dialogue is bland at best and regularly cringe-inducing. For what it's worth, the paint-by-numbers story is: boy leaves girl, girl has to take over streetdance crew with only weeks until the streetdancing finals, girl has to teach ballet dancers (for reasons too tedious to recount) to streetdance in order to succeed. Various obstacles are placed in front of this goal, only to be skipped over, shimmied around or completely ignored. You don't need me to tell you how it ends. 

Streetdancing, incidentally, seems to my untutored eyes to be a cross between club dancing, breakdancing and sychronised swimming. Only without the swimming. And this dancing is of course the main point of the film. As rubbish as all the normally-essential elements of a movie are here, it's a little churlish of me to criticise it for that, since they're hardly the point. The point is - dancing! On the street! In 3D! And if that's what you want to see, this is the place to see it.

And the effect all this had on my poor hungover brain? I was surprised to find it was all rather soothing and hypnotic. Much like watching a fruit machine that no-one's playing. It's a shame the music they are dancing to is so bland - I doubt I'd even recognise one of the tracks if I heard it again, which I hope not to - but even so, I found it all strangely charming. And I have little doubt that I left the cinema happier than I would have had I spent the previous two hours watching a man smashing ladies' heads in. 

Saturday, 29 May 2010

Bad Lieutenant - Port of Call: New Orleans

The only Werner Herzog films I'd seen before this one were the extraordinary documentaries Grizzly Man and Encounters at the end of the World. So this is the first feature film of his I've seen and I am unable to compare it with his previous output. Nor have I seen the original Abel Ferrara version of Bad Lieutenant. So my impression of this film may be offered either positively, as being baggage-free or, negatively, as being ill-informed. I leave that to my reader to judge.

The story is of Nic Cage's eponymous corrupt cop, newly-promoted and charged with investigating the murder of a drug dealer and his young family soon after the Katrina disaster. His girlfriend is a prostitute and, like him, a cocaine addict. Cage's character becomes increasingly demented, the various strands of his life tightening around him, like the tentacles of a cruel but efficient predator, as he tries to escape them.

The resolution of all this is both surprising and surprisingly satisfying. Along the way, there are some bizarre and superb individual scenes, mostly involving Cage's character in one or another drug-induced, highly emotional state, fraternising with his police colleagues, the criminals with whom he becomes increasingly complicit, and his alcoholic ex-cop father.

Nic Cage's cop is a great film character, a mass of contradictions who makes the film what it is. The bad lieutenant and The Bad Lieutenant are amoral but sweet, violent but fun, occasionally frightening but - most importantly - highly entertaining. 

Monday, 24 May 2010

Four Lions

Four Lions is Chris Morris' return to form, a film worthy of association with the genius both of his 90s output and the record (and movie) label Warp. It tells the story of a group of would-be Islamist terrorists in Sheffield, haphazardly organising a suicide bombing alongside their everyday lives as father, husband, neighbour, brother.

The performance of Riz Ahmed as Omar, the lead character, was brilliant, totally convincing. The supporting cast was solid too. The humour was classic Chris Morris, and it managed to stay (just) on the side of plausible rather than falling into farce, most of the time. There were some parts which were shocking, in one or two cases too shocking to be funny despite their comedy potential.

This is a film that treats the audience as adults and doesn't tell you what to think of what is happening onscreen. I felt a bit confused after seeing it - but not in a bad way. It takes a few days to let the content sink in: always the sign of an interesting film, but something that often happens following a movie which is not particularly enjoyable to watch (such as extreme French horror Martyrs). Four Lions, however, is both a quotable knockabout comedy-drama and a unique, thoughtful, even seminal film of ideas. A must-see.