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.