Mark Stafford reviews some of the highlights of the London Film Festival, including Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt and David Ayer’s End of Watch, out on UK screens this month.
John Dies at the End
Your new favourite film. A flip, funny thrill ride full of trippy headfuckery, rubber monsters, snappy dialogue and wild ideas, adapted from David Wong’s cult novel by Don (Phantasm/Bubba Ho-Tep) Coscarelli. Trying to explain the film’s singular tone is difficult: it’s like a punky horror/SF adventure infused with the snarky, iconoclastic sensibility of Fight Club.
Any attempt at a plot summary would be pretty much doomed; suffice to say that it concerns the effects of an intravenous drug called ‘soy sauce’, which has the effect of not so much opening the doors of perception as blowing them off their hinges. Users are apt to receive phone calls from the future and see physical manifestations of beings from other planes of existence, as a prelude to entering a multiverse of trouble and what looks like an inevitable spectacularly messy demise. David Wong (Chase Williamson) is trying to explain his recent life history on the sauce to a journalist (Paul Giamatti), the tale of how he and college buddy John (Andy Meyers) came by the stuff and started a chain of events that leads to them attempting to save the world from creepy inter-dimensional interlopers. Nothing is straightforward in this fast-paced genre mash-up: time and space are distorted, people aren’t what they seem, and metaphysical conundrums pop up with alarming regularity. I’m not sure if it’s about anything, exactly. There is a suspicion that it’s more smart-arsed than smart in places, and the random nature of the story means that it loses a little momentum before the home stretch, but I’m quibbling. It’s a blast, a wonderfully weird, eminently quotable midnight movie. Just don’t ask what happens to John, I wouldn’t want to ruin it for you.
A Liar’s Autobiography
Fourteen different animation studios pitch in to realise the late lamented Python Graham Chapman’s memoir, A Liar’s Autobiography, using recordings that Chapman made himself, assisted vocally by John Cleese, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam and Carol Cleveland, among others (Cameron Diaz voices Sigmund Freud). The result is a somewhat disjointed, inconsistent, hugely affectionate film that leaps from point to point through a charmed and blighted life. It’s a woozy, drifting thing, where memory often gives way to fantasy, and you’d be hard pressed to decipher from it the actual biographical detail, the who, what, where and when, of Chapman’s life. But that’s hardly the point. He emerges as a kind of anti-Kenneth Williams, utterly un-tortured by his sexuality and status, but a bugger for the bottle, as a Python song would put it, seriously destroying his health, but never apparently committing the sin of being bad company.
The animation varies from stiff and flat to gorgeous and accomplished – I loved the nightmarish delirium tremens sequence, and the Scarborough holiday moments. A bit of a mixed bag, but on the whole it’s all rather lovely.
Thomas Vinterberg’s outstanding film features Mads Mikkelsen as a kindergarten teacher, a likeable man in a small Danish town of other likeable types, starting to pull his life together after a messy divorce, until one day he is accused by an angelic child, daughter of his best friend, and one of his charges, of inappropriate sexual behaviour. What follows is a tense, occasionally agonising drama as a good man’s life is systematically destroyed by reasonable people reduced to violence and hatred by an unfounded suspicion. It’s all well thought through, and nightmarishly plausible. Mikkelsen puts in fine work, but then none of the performers strikes a false note. The child especially comes across as a real living, breathing girl, whose actions make sense in a little girl way, worlds away from any number of Hollywood moppets. Photography is crisp and unfussy and the whole thing is full of well observed domestic detail that add weight to the horror and heartbreak. Not an easy watch, but worth it.
In which Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein), a slight, vulnerable-looking boy, spends his days nicking the expensive gear of holidaying skiers at a Swiss resort, so that he can sell it on to the kids at the bottom of the mountain and support his feckless older sister as she quits job after job and fools around with a succession of jerks. He’s a ballsy, resourceful kid, but it’s clear that the precarious existence he’s created cannot last forever, and something is clearly wrong with the family situation. Ursula Meier’s film is perfectly fine, in a low-key sub- Dardennes kind of way. Gillian Anderson cameos as a guest at the resort, representing a way of life lost to the little thief; the location gives the film an aesthetic buzz; and John Parish’s throbbing score is sparingly used but damn fine. It’s clearly a heartfelt piece by a smart director – wish I could say I liked it more.
End of Watch
David Ayer’s cop drama feels at times like a recruitment ad for the LAPD gone seriously askew. It stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña playing the kind of unambiguous hero cops who’ll leap into burning buildings to rescue children – true blue, courageous, good husband and boyfriend material – which the film pits against the population of South Central Los Angeles, who, on this evidence, are all irrational, cruel and clueless, when not being actively malignant. Every house our partners enter contains another horror story, every car they stop contains a maniac with an AK 47, and as time passes their actions interfere more and more with the activities of a seriously nasty Mexican cartel, who have no qualms about putting out a hit on a couple of heroes.
The essential problem with End of Watch is that the vérité dynamics of the performances and camerawork are totally at odds with the heart-on-sleeve good versus evil schematics. The visuals are saying ‘this is real’, with all the action supposedly captured on surveillance and personal cameras, while galloping clichés and unlikely incidents are saying ‘this is horseshit’. The film starts with the legend ‘Once upon a time in South Central’ and names its main bad guy ‘Big Evil’, then knocks itself out straining for grimy authenticity.
You find yourself waiting in vain for some ambiguity to creep in, some acknowledgement of Rampart or Rodney King. Likewise, you keep expecting the ‘digital witness’ styling, which is consistently foregrounded, to actually have some significance to the story. But it doesn’t, and the horrible suspicion grows that this is just a pro-cop flag-waver with a simplistic Michael Winner agenda.
For all that, it’s actually pretty damn entertaining, largely because Gyllenhaall and Peña have a definite chemistry and are fun to watch, as are the outrageously horrible gang they’re up against, who provide some diverting, sleazy thrills. It’s funny and tense when it needs to be, has moments of oddball, Joseph Wambaugh-esque detail and it moves at an agreeable clip. But at the end of the day it’s not much cop.
My Amityville Horror
This fine, puzzling documentary by Eric Walter consists largely of interviews with Daniel Lutz, who is, nowadays, a worker for the UPS, but who was, back in the 70s, the oldest son of the Lutz family, who were at the heart of the ‘Amityville Horror’ paranormal case study/ media franchise. Walter gets to film Daniel playing guitar, riding around in hot rods, visiting a therapist and meeting up with various people who had a connection to the original case in some kind of quest to attain closure and peace.
The film lets everybody speak for themselves, with no editorial voice-over or evident bias, which is fair enough, though it does kind of assume that you’re familiar with the AH phenomenon, in which the Lutzes were supposed to have endured 28 days of supernatural assault after moving into a house that they picked up as a bargain after it had been the scene of a nasty mass murder (Daniel was 10 at the time). I, for one, could have done with a few more subtitles spelling out the facts where the facts are known. But this is a case where hard facts are hard to find. AH is a battleground between those who believe that it was all a hoax and those who believe the Lutzes’ account, with the waters further muddied by Jay Anson’s decidedly dodgy bestseller and the 1974 film, with its various sequels and remakes.
There are some great characters and strange ideas revealed along the way, and a visit to a psychic’s house (dozens of occult carvings, twin roosters crowing in cages, a piece of the ‘true cross’ revealed) that is weird comedy gold. But the main reason to watch is Daniel, clearly scarred by the dysfunctional home life that erupted into a media sensation. He fled home at 14 and is now estranged from his family, paranoid, intense and angry, and prone to making forceful statements that beg more questions than they answer. A brittle man in a macho shell, he recalls the subject of Errol Morris’s 2011 doc Tabloid, another film where the very idea of ‘truth’ becomes slippery and elusive. Did this stuff happen? Does Daniel need to believe it did? A film to argue over.
Julia’s Eyes writer Oriol Paulo turns co-writer and director for this wonderful piece of creepy hokum, an implausible cocktail of Hitchcock, Agatha Christie and Les Diaboliques, which, for the most part, features a man surrounded by suspicious cops being elaborately framed, apparently by a dead woman, for a murder he has committed. In a morgue. During a thunderstorm. Can we call a film delicious? I think we can.
An effective, nasty little film from Craig Zobel. Something fishy is up at the Chick-wich fast food outlet, it’s a busy day and they’re low on bacon, when police officer Daniels phones to accuse one of their members of staff, Becky (Dreama Walker), of theft. Stressed manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) goes along with his requests, searching Becky’s things, and then, at his repeated insistence, strip-searches Becky herself. So far, so creepy, but as the day wears on and the promised cops fail to show up, the demands of Officer Daniels become more and more extreme…
Zobel clearly wants to make you feel uncomfortable and does a great job of it, stretching out the moments of stilted conversation, dawning realisation and disbelief. His film walks a fine tightrope, how far can he push this? You find yourself in a state of growing anger, hoping that someone on screen will have the balls to question the caller, or refuse his demands. Which I guess is the point. I doubt I was the only one to recall Stanley Milgram’s psychological experiments of the 60s. How far do you obey authority’s demands? What are you willing to do if given permission? Big questions for what some would dismiss as a horrible piece of exploitation. But then Zobel has the ultimate get-out clause in that Compliance is based on true events, that happened over and over again.
Although the film isn’t particularly explicit, it clearly crossed a line for many in the packed audience I was in. The sound of seats flipping up started at about the half-hour mark, and built to a crescendo, with one man yelling, ‘come on every body, time to leave!’ as Becky’s humiliation continued. The majority of us stayed though, squirming in the dark. I guess we were compliant.
West of Memphis
A long haul, two-and-a-half-hour documentary that absolutely needs that length. Amy Berg’s film details the ‘West Memphis Three’ case from 1994, when three eight-year-old boys were found dead in Arkansas, in what was suspected by the police to be a case of satanic ritual abuse. Three likely teenage suspects were rounded up and tried. The film then follows events through the 18 years they spent in a supermax prison as clamour slowly grew to overturn a miscarriage of justice and set them free. The clamour first took the shape of the documentary Paradise Lost, which galvanised the likes of Henry Rollins and Eddie Vedder into campaigning and fund-raising for the long battle, and, more pertinently, gained the attention of producer Fran Walsh and director Peter Jackson, who got on board to bankroll investigations to produce new evidence, and demolish the prosecution’s case. This is a Wingnut film, produced by Walsh, Jackson, and Damien Echols, one of the WM3.
Considering that, West of Memphis is fairly even-handed, giving voice to a fair few interviewees who still believe, or profess to believe, that the three teens committed the crime, but it’s clear where the film is coming from, and it’s difficult to argue with that perspective. The flimsiness of the original prosecution beggars belief: an alarmist conflation of dodgy ‘witnesses’, spurious medical evidence and the heavily coerced testimony of a borderline retarded teenager, it’s simultaneously blackly amusing and enraging to see it all torn apart. More enraging still is the state of Arkansas justice, where opportunities for retrial after retrial are denied for clearly political ends despite DNA evidence and new witnesses. One of the odder moments sees the campaigners praying for Judge Burnett’s bid to run for senator to succeed, purely so that he’ll no longer be in a position to stonewall.
It’s a fascinating story, full of twists and turns, dark ironies and striking characters, and Berg’s film largely shapes it as a long march to justice. Ambiguities remain, however. The outcome of the campaign is highly unsatisfactory, a baffling piece of legal chicanery that means that the likeliest suspect (Terry Hobbs, stepfather to one of the boys) is never going to see a courtroom. There is a glossed-over element of the tale, when the makers of Paradise Lost 2 seem to have tried to finger the wrong man for the crimes, based partly on the same logic of the WM3 conviction (i.e., that he was kinda funny lookin’, being a mulleted redneck, rather than a goth). And we’ll probably never know what actually happened to those boys in 1994. It’s an indication of how weird and twisted the whole thing gets that the only time Terry Hobbs is placed on a witness stand to answer questions about the murders is as a result of his attempt to sue one of the Dixie Chicks.
All of the key players are interviewed, and the unobtrusive soundtrack is by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. I wish I could say it makes the locale look starkly beautiful, but it really doesn’t, a polyester-clad trailer park hellhole of foetid water and barren scrub. But you only have to spend a hundred and fifty minutes there. I was never bored, it’s very much recommended, but viewers should be warned that it contains a lot of distressing forensic footage. And a scene where a snapping turtle attacks a dead pig’s testicles. I’m not going to forget that in a hurry.