A rare screening for two oddities from Underground cinema stalwarts the Kuchar brothers: Mike’s 16mm effort Sins of the Fleshapoids (1965) and George’s Orphans of the Cosmos (2009). Fleshapoids is a 43-minute science fiction epic set in a future where the human race has become self-indulgent, depraved and lazy, lounging about on couches and waited upon by artificial humanoids the ‘fleshapoids’. The plot follows one of the latter, Gar (Bob Cowan), as he rebels and flees slavery to pursue his lover in the palace of Prince Gianbeno (George Kuchar) and Princess Vivianna (Donna Kerness), a couple locked in passive-aggressive war, who are going through their own crisis of infidelity. Mayhem ensues.
Fleshapoids is a riot of plastic jewellery, draped fabric and thrift shop tat repurposed to depict a future world of luxuriant decadence. As in much of the Kuchars’ output an old-school Hollywood glamour sensibility rubs up against their low-rent hairy-arsed tin foil reality. This is a sub-poverty row production shot entirely in Bronx interiors, cast from whatever local male and female hotties could be persuaded into it, in rich colour, but without synchronous sound. It has the innocent ‘let’s put on a show right here’ amateurism you might expect from such a youthful production, but also displays a flair for composition and lighting, and a sheer ambition that lifts it out of home movie status. There is a certain defiant swagger to it, utterly unreal but unconcerned, happy to use a painting and a few pot plants to suggest a palace exterior if they’ll do the job. It’s hard not to feel a certain delight when the narrator intones, in his best ‘welcome to the world of tomorrow’ voice, that ‘humans now live in a true paradise!’ as the camera moves over the plastic fruit and leopard skin to settle on the glitter-sprayed cast, who acquit themselves with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Cowan’s Gar moves in your traditional ‘I am a robot’ jerky fashion throughout (which none of the other fleshapoids do), George Kuchar is a vision of five and dime resplendence, and the script, (delivered through on-screen speech balloons and audio narration) runs the gamut from over-ripe to melodramatic and back again. The ending is outrageous and stupid and rather sweet. It has charm.
Orphans of the Cosmos was made by George Kuchar some 43 years after Fleshapoids, and is, objectively, pretty terrible on any technical level you would choose to judge it. A project made at the San Francisco Art Institute with his students, it tells the tale of some ambitious teens with their hearts set on a mission to Mars, who achieve their goal through dope money funding, only to unleash an extraterrestrial attack in the process.
Cosmos seems at times to have been assembled from the worst (only?) takes that George could get, so that flat readings, fluffed lines and quizzical looks off camera are de rigueur. The lush grain of 16mm has been replaced by video, but not high-end digital video, no; this appears to have been shot with the same camera and software package usually employed by the creators of cable television adverts for Crazy Larry’s Used Furniture Warehouse. Thus every other scene will be framed into hearts, or covered with symbols, or kaleidoscoped into fly’s eye vision. Occasionally this is used to some narrative purpose, but it often feels like he is using every setting on the menu randomly, possibly to win a bet. The thrift store aesthetic here continues in the extensive use of toys to stand in as zoo animals, spaceships and Martians, though the combination of these together with cheesy digital FX becomes increasingly confusing. Indeed the whole thing is a lot less coherent and a lot more repetitive than much of his previous output, and, frankly, the last 10 minutes or so of this 40-minute meisterwork had me baffled.
All this said, it’s clearly a bit of a goof, assembled in a hurry with whatever resources were readily to hand. The patented fruity Kuchar dialogue still raises a smile, and there are some disarmingly terrible musical interludes. I watched the whole thing with a feeling of tickled bemusement. It doesn’t fit the pattern or share the aesthetics of anything else in contemporary American cinema, but nor does it look like it cares. So, godawful then, but kind of fun.
Nucleus Films have just released a three-disc follow-up to Video Nasties: the Definitive Guide, comprising two discs of introductions and trailers to all of the seized and destroyed films under Section 3 of the Obscene Publications Act, and a substantial new documentary directed by Jake West and produced by Marc Morris. Video Nasties: Draconian Days 1984-1999 details the years after the immediate implementation of the Video Recordings Act, through to the end of James Ferman’s tenure as head of the BBFC, when his unilateral introduction of the R18 classification and the effective legalisation of hardcore porn embarrassed and irritated the government into demanding his resignation. The irony inherent in Ferman’s fate, brought low by such a liberal gesture after a reign characterised by secrecy, snobbishness and censorship is not lost on many of the talking heads West and Morris have assembled. He was a hate figure for many horror fans irritated beyond measure by the death by a thousand cuts inflicted upon film after film, often because filmmakers had included one or more of the elements that Ferman seemed oddly obsessed with: power tools and throwing stars, drugs and nun-chakus. He refused certificates to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Exorcist, left Straw Dogs in limbo and actually reordered a scene in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer to his liking.
For all that, he wasn’t the simplistic censorian that some of his critics clearly want him to be. He was a clear head during the media flaps over Michael Ryan’s Hungerford massacre and the Jamie Bulger killing and their supposed connections to video violence, and saw off the idiotic crusade by MP David Alton, which would have removed from cinema any characters who weren’t good role models for children. The documentary takes you back to strange times when a piece of middling franchise landfill like Child’s Play 3 was treated like the very work of Satan himself, and know–nothing MPs and news reporters spouted fluent horseshit about the easy availability of actual snuff films to your children. It also documents a hitherto forgotten social scene of horror obsessives trying to track down and distribute all the stuff the BBFC and DPP had tried to remove from the public’s eager gaze, risking imprisonment to smuggle those precious video reels of Cannibal Ferox back from Amsterdam… The gleeful impression given by Draconian Days is that the video nasties that were supposed to turn the nation’s youth into sociopaths actually did something far worse: they turned them into filmmakers and writers. And the state’s reaction to the panic gave a couple of generations their first lesson in civil disobedience: the authorities are idiots.
Mark Stafford met up with Jake West and Marc Morris of Nucleus Films to talk about throwing-stars-obsessed censors, home-made nunchakus and hiding Blood Sucking Freaks under the bath.
Mark Stafford: I was one of those kids who didn’t have access to a VCR during the first years of the video nasty phenomenon, so I spent a lot of my youth with my sweaty little nose pressed up against the video library window imagining what these films were. Draconian Days has actually cleared up a few weird half memories for me – that cover to Pigs was fuzzily lodged in there somewhere.
Marc Morris: ‘Pigs eat anything, including evidence’.
I fnally know what that thing was. The film deals with a fascinating period and a character, James Ferman, who gives the film its backbone. Jake, you’re off camera, what’s your take on him?
JW: He’s fascinating because he’s contradictory. He was a filmmaker himself, and a highly intelligent, articulate intellectual.
MM: He had to balance the scales between the press, the government, the law.
JW: To begin with, he was quite idealistic. When he started at the BBFC, he got in censors who were highly educated and quite sceptical about censorship. But as far as videos were concerned they had to make up the rules as they went along.
MM: The idea being that because the VCR was in the home, different rules applied.
JW: And what emerged were Ferman’s own views and peccadillos, which then started to guide policy. The outcome of that, as Carol Topolski (former BBFC Examiner) reveals, is that he started to lose the plot, he got drunk on his own power.
MM: Like everyone says, it was his own fiefdom.
JW: It became clear that at the end of the day he was setting the agenda and policy. The fact was that he was altering the BBFC minutes, and other controlling behaviour. But he stood up against David Alton, and was instrumental in making sure that law didn’t happen.
MM: He had to stand up for the BBFC’s decisions, say that they’d already certified Child’s Play 3 and the like, and government couldn’t just come in and undermine him, say that they now weren’t suitable for viewing in the home.
JW: I think it was very important, as a filmmaker, to not just do a hatchet job on James Ferman. It would be very easy to just condemn him, but he’s a more nuanced character than that. Thankfully we got a brilliant archive interview with him. I really wanted to give him a big presence in the documentary. He was a man who shaped that era, and part of what was funny and what was tragic about it came out of that as well. His continual over-insistence in cutting horror films is what led to the emergence of the underground horror scene, and us all being here to talk about it now. He created the environment that made horror fans want to become criminals because we couldn’t stand what the BBFC sold us.
MM: You’d read about a film in Fangoria or wherever and hire it out and ‘fuck!’ all the good scenes were cut. What were you going to do? Try to find an uncut version.
JW: And they ended up criminalising everyone because they wanted to get hold of these versions. It was all a lot of fun until people genuinely started getting arrested and prosecuted.
There’s an interesting parallel with the 50s anti-comics crusade and the later underground cartoonists. Artists like S. Clay Wilson said that it wasn’t just the EC comics being an influence in themselves, but the fact that they were taken away by the powers that be that led them to fill their own work with as much depravity as they could muster. You’ve got Alex Chandon (director of Inbred) in your film saying more or less the same thing – filmmaking as a kind of hardcore punk gesture.
JW: That’s what happened with all of us. We were influenced by the very things we were told we weren’t allowed to watch. It created a whole generation, two whole generations of people who were deliberately bucking that.
Watch the trailer for Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide Part Two:
I’ve always thought that the censors’ obsession with the idea that kids would watch the nasty scenes over and over again and turn into serial killers…
JW: ‘They’ll freak out in their bed sitting rooms.’ That terrible classist view that Ferman had. He thought that there were some very disturbed people out there, he had this real fear of some sort of social disorder being created by films. And there was no real proof that that ever happened. But when the media purported that it did happen, in the Bulger and Michael Ryan cases, he firmly spoke out against that idea because he knew that those acts weren’t created by film. They criminalised the wrong people. Horror fans were the people who got affected by all this panic, like with Marc.
MM: Hiding my videos under the bath. You had to undo these chrome domes, then undo the screws, pull the side of the bath off and shove all the tapes under there, put the panel back… And then every time somebody said ‘can you do me a copy of Blood Sucking Freaks?’ you had to undo it all again. It was a pain in the arse. But if you left it undone you’d be scared that they’d come round and find all these depraved movies.
JW: There was a point in the 90s where raids on collectors were happening on a daily basis.
MM: You’d get a phone call saying that there were probably going to be some raids next week. It was either hide it under the bath or take it round a friends or a girlfriend’s house.
JW: Then you split up with your girlfriend and she ended up destroying your tapes.
MM: Smashing them up with a hammer.
JW: Now there’s a form of censorship!
I was on the side of all that. I moved to London in 1990 and began going to the Scala obsessively. I still didn’t have a VCR…
JW: The Scala was like the ultimate video collection anyway. And in better quality. They were heady times. You had all these energies, with the film festivals and the fanzines, in the pre-internet world of communication. People had a great sense of social grouping because of that. And that’s the side of the story that was positive, it did bring a lot of people together in interesting ways. So many people have friendships now because of that.
MM: People used to watch films in groups, have nights just watching movies.
I miss that. Now, if you mention a film you think’s interesting everybody’s watching it 10 minutes later. There’s no need to go round somebody else’s house.
JW: There’s no sense of discovery, of somebody finally getting hold of something.
MM: I remember somebody finally getting a copy of Men behind the Sun on VHS from Hong Kong. We all watched it, like… ‘Fucking hell!’ It was an original tape but the quality wasn’t very good, it was odd, VHS gave everything an even grimmer look.
The BBFC’s obsession with throwing stars and power tools seemed kind of odd. They were obsessed with ‘imitable behaviour’, but how many people in the annals of actual crime have ever been killed with a chainsaw?
JW: It was always absurd, this idea. Of course a power tool is a dangerous object but you can’t uninvent the object by not showing it.
MM: Any weapon is an imitable weapon. Any sword, any bottle, any fist. Do you reach a point where you say ‘we can’t show this because people might use fists to hit people’? It’s a cycle of stupidity to believe that there’s going to be a spate of throwing star murders because of a film.
Everybody in my metalwork class was making them. That was why we were doing metalwork.
MM: I made nunchakus out of broom handles. Of course anybody who made their own nunchakus quickly realised that they were going to do more damage to themselves than anybody else.
Over and over again in the intros to the Section 3 films the commentators are trying to understand why this or that particular film got seized.
JW: That’s because the Section 3 films weren’t prosecuted, they were just seized by the police and destroyed. You’re just left wondering as to what it was about these movies that led to them getting seized in the first place.
It’s funny watching Kim Newman talking about Final Exam, this tedious late entry stalk and slash effort, being utterly bewildered that anybody would find anything in it to be offended by and remember enough about it to complain. Did you try to interview any plod that were involved at the time, anyone who did the actual seizing?
JW: In the first documentary we interviewed Peter Kruger, who was head of the Obscene Publications Squad, but in the second film we didn’t interview any police. I don’t think they would have spoken, and I don’t think they would have known much. The reason these films got seized by the police is that they didn’t understand what horror films were. So any film that just sounded like a film that got seized in the past, a Driller Killer or a Zombie Holocaust, they would think, ‘well that’s the same thing’. There was no internet back then, no way of checking what these films were. So the police would just go by the back of the box: ‘oh, he’s got his eye gouged out, that’s offensive, we’ll seize it.’ It was as random as that really. (1)
In Draconian Days James Ferman comes across as complicated but David Alton seems just like an absolute screaming idiot.
JW: I think David Alton is a lot like Graham Bright from the first film. Graham Bright has not changed his views one iota since the 80s when he put the Video Recordings Act through. Alton was a right-wing Christian and a political agenda. Spreading the idea that Child’s Play 3 was destroying society was just politically expedient to get a large following of voters and newspapers on his side to further his own agenda, which seems quite transparent when you look at it now. You can always learn how stupid moral panics are by looking at one that happened previously. The format that they play out is always the same thing. Somebody in power gets offended and decides that nobody should gets to see something because they don’t like it.
There was a little ripple a few years back. I remember walking into a newsagents and seeing a tabloid headline trying to whip up fury about the fact that a lot of the DPP’s list were now emerging again on DVD, but the hysteria just didn’t take. Nobody cared.
JW: It’s a lot harder for them to do that. Back in those days, if you were a fan you had no outlet. Unless you were published or could get on television and your views were broadcastable, you weren’t represented by anyone. Now with the internet you have a platform. So the situation has changed, you can’t scapegoat something on that level because people will come forwards to defend it.
Also, back then a tabloid could grossly distort the nature of a film and people would believe it. Nowadays people can check stuff out for themselves and see that the tabloid version is bullshit. ‘Hey!’ this film isn’t evil, it’s just stupid!’ Where are the censorship flashpoints of the future for you?
JW: The internet. The internet is being more and more controlled in a very subtle way. It’s not the hammer blow of ‘Video is Evil!’ There are things like Cameron’s porn block and parental filtering going on that you don’t necessarily know about.
MM: People watching what you’re looking up, everything logged somewhere by search engines.
There was that TED talk where the head of Netflix, who had lots of left-wing friends and lots of right-wing friends, got them to type the word ‘Egypt’ into Google during the Arab Spring and take screen shots of the results. The left-wingers all had headlines about the uprising on the first page, the right-wingers all had adverts for holidays, with the news stories only turning up on page two… And this isn’t some definitive conspiracy by some Bond Villain, it’s just algorithms, cookies, bits of code shaping how you see the world.
JW: The internet is a Pandora’s box of problems. You want to keep it free for people to use, but all this information being gathered by people who could use it against you is a worry.
So what’s next? Is this your last documentary on all of this?
JW: We don’t have a plan to continue the video nasties story. We only made the second one because we realised there was more to tell. But beyond the Ferman years things got a lot more relaxed. There were still problems but there weren’t big scares, that era is over, which is good. Draconian Days was a surprise to us, that people wanted more, and it took us two years because it was a labour of love.
MM: And Nucleus will be putting out more stuff, more trailer compilations, like Grindhouse Trailer Classics 4. (2)
Watch the trailer for Grindhouse Trailers 4:
By coincidence I’ve recently come across the first one, so together with Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide Part Two I have subjected myself to a hell of a lot of concentrated filth over one weekend.
MM: We have depraved and corrupted you.
It was only my lack of power tools that stopped me going on a kill crazy rampage.
MM: We’re lucky you don’t own any, with your background in film viewing you could only be a danger to society.
Interview by Mark Stafford
1 In the first documentary, which I bought and devoured after this interview, seizures of Dolly Parton’s The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and Sam Fuller’s The Big Red One by clueless coppers are reported. Sam Fuller’s film presumably because its title suggested something to some copper’s filthy dirty mind.
2 Of which what can one say that it features the expected lively mix of blaxploitation, sexploitation, Euro sleaze, horror and kung fu promos all screaming for your attention. Fans of nipples won’t be disappointed. Additional enjoyment can be gleaned charting the career trajectories of the stars popping up in the likes of Strange Shadows in an Empty Room or The Late Great Planet Earth (Martin Landau! Orson Welles!). Or wondering whether Stuart Whitman fired his agent after Las Vegas Lady. Maybe you’d expect Karen Black, Warren Oates, Eli Wallach and Ray Milland to pop up in this sort of stuff, but Christopher Plummer in The Pyx? Sir John Mills in A Black Veil for Lisa?! What happened there? Possibly the same 1970s drugs that led to Monkee Mickey Dolenz tearing up the screen in Dirty Dan’s Women. Prize for best tagline: ‘If it’s hot she’s got a hand in it, or on it’ from Too Hot to Handle, though Sacred Knives of Vengeance’s ‘a masterpiece of martial arts kung fu karate’ does have the virtue of covering the bases.
Cast: Anton Yelchin, Addison Timlin, Leonor Varela, Willem Dafoe
Best described somewhere on the Blu-ray extras as ’Bill and Ted’s Naked Lunch’, John Dies at the End is the latest Don Coscarelli film in a nigh-on 40-year body of work. He doesn’t make perfect films, the early ones tend to oscillate between ramshackle goofiness and arresting surrealism, but he does make winningly inventive ones, crafted against the odds on tight budgets. Phantasm and Beastmaster are genuine cult classics, and hell, if you don’t love Bubba Ho-Tep there’s just something wrong with you.
In a phone interview conducted at 9am Los Angeles time, Mark Stafford talked to Don Coscarelli about filming a spider crowd massacre, the Presley estate’s reaction to Bubba Ho-Tep, and how Tarantino has changed indie filmmaking.
Mark Stafford: I first saw John Dies at the End at the London Film Festival a couple of years back. That was fantastic, but it’s been a long, long road to this DVD/Blu-ray. Was the cut you first screened at Sundance different to the LFF version?
Don Coscarelli: It was an interesting process because we filmed in digital format, so consequentially after every festival screening I was able to make adjustments to the movie. I showed it at Sundance and I made some changes, and we showed it at South By South West and made some more changes, and probably by the time we showed it in London that was the final version… I don’t think they’d let me make changes that late into the process.
It becomes clear watching the extras that you do a lot of takes. Was that always part of your process, or has the technology encouraged that?
As I’ve made more films I think I’ve made less takes. Early on I took a lot because I didn’t have confidence in myself. It was always: ‘that was pretty good, can we get a better one?’ But it all depends. Some actors, by the way, seem to get better the more takes they do, others get worse. It’s the actor. But I do like to shoot lots of takes because movies are like a puzzle that’s built in the editing room, and the more material you have to work with the better. Sometimes you’ll get an odd look from an actor during a take, which doesn’t have any meaning at the time, but that you can use in the edit to make a point. But I don’t think I’ve ever taken as many as Stanley Kubrick did…
John Dies at the End relies a lot on the casting, which is great. How long was the process? Did you get everybody you wanted?
Generally yes. I’d worked with a couple of the actors before, like Angus Scrimm. And I knew Paul Giamatti, and he came on board very early, to help also as a producer. There was a built-in challenge making this movie: we had limited resources, so I had to find some unknown guys for the two leads, and as a horror director the most terrifying part of making the movie was whether I could find those two actors. The first few days of casting I’d only seen actors who were wrong for the part, who’d just butcher the dialogue, and I began to question whether I could make the film. Luckily Chase Williamson wandered in, this guy who had just come out of college and had never been in anything at all. And then, to compound the challenge, first day of shooting he has to come in and shoot eight pages of dialogue with Paul Giamatti as his first scene ever. It all worked out.
How much of the film was locked down on the page before shooting began? Some of the stuff on disc gives the impression of a film being made on the wing, on the fly…
I pretty much follow the script but sometimes the most interesting elements in a movie happen by accident, when one of your collaborators does something extraordinary. An actor, a set designer, a cameraman will do something with lighting, and you have to try to stay open. The challenge of making movies is that you have this finite amount of time. Every day you have your 12 hours to get the shots done, and you don’t always do it, and being an editor I know how crippled I’ll be if I don’t get those shots… So you want to have it pre-planned, you want to have it organised, and you also want to be spontaneous, but usually spontaneity takes time, to investigate where the spontaneity takes you. It’s a juggling act at all times, and just talking about it gets me exhausted.
I haven’t read John Dies at the End, the novel, but watching the film again I noticed how much it shares some bits of business with your other work, the interdimensional travel, insects, the way that Phantasm has a severed finger and John Dies at the End has a couple of pills that turn into flying bugs…
Reading the book was exciting for me. What was nice about it was this brilliant young author exploring themes and topics that I’ve been interested in for decades, but with this fresh voice, especially the way he writes dialogue. I thought the book handled those themes in a way that would connect with a modern audience. So I jumped at the chance to get the rights and make a film out of it. Then it became a challenge because he had so many wonderful ideas, and unless you’re Coppola or Cameron or Scorsese, who can make three-hour movies, you’re limited to a very tight time frame of maybe 90-100 minutes. Trying to find a way to shoehorn that book into a tight screenplay was difficult. I had to leave a lot of good stuff behind, unfortunately.
You said onstage at the LFF that your method was to go through the book and cut out anything that cost a million dollars.
That’s true, there were things that, with a huge effort, we could still never really approach. Still, I did look for ways to do that. There was this massive sequence in the book that I just loved (the spider trench massacre), and there was just no way we could create that in the movie. But I was able to get a friend of mine (David Hartman) to come in and do a little animated version of that sequence. Though I was worried for a while that that wouldn’t be accepted by fans of the book…
John Dies at the End is based on David Wong’s novel, Bubba Ho-Tep was based on a Joe R. Lansdale short story. Is there a pile of books by your bed waiting to be adapted?
There aren’t that many. It’s hard to find a book that suits my taste and where I can see a viable path to getting it funded and made. What was great about the Joe Lansdale story was that, other than the mummy, it was a pretty simple story that you could make on a budget. Some of the best moments of that film are just the two actors talking in the bedroom, and that’s pretty simple to shoot. I’m always looking for something like that. John Dies at the End is a lot more ambitious but I’m always reading, looking for projects.
Did you ever get any reaction from the Presley estate to Bubba?
We did get a reaction, I don’t know how legitimate this story is. We were always a little concerned that we’d gone too far with the movie and that we’d get an adverse reaction from the estate. I don’t think it’s any secret that they guard their intellectual property, trademarks and images very carefully. Luckily, I’m assuming, they approached it like everyone else did, that Bubba Ho-Tep was a piece of fiction, a parody. But I did hear that one of the folks who worked on our crew called over there just before the movie came out to see if they could get co-sponsorship on some kind of promotion. It was a completely ill-advised move and I was really angry when I found out about it. But apparently, when they called the response that they got was just, ‘oh, we’ve heard about that movie, we really want to see it!’ The thing is that the movie and the book had a really good spirit, and despite the state, the terrible predicament Elvis is in Bubba, we really did treat him and his legacy respectfully. I think we all looked to the better side of Elvis. That was the very nature of it, we couldn’t accept the fact that Elvis died the way he reportedly did. We had to say, ’he was the man, he wouldn’t go out, wouldn’t die that way! He had to die on his feet kicking mummy arse!’
You’ve been an independent filmmaker for 40 years, what do you think’s changed the most over that time?
There have been all kinds of changes. I think the worst is that it’s just much more difficult to get films funded these days. There used to be a lot less films being made. It’s all Quentin Tarantino’s fault, for making being an independent filmmaker cool. Millions of young people across the world decided ‘I’m gonna be a director!’ They’re all making movies and the competition is fierce. It seems to me that back in the day there was a lot more experimentation, a lot more willingness to take risks. There were always young filmmakers out there trying to figure out some new way of making a movie, it was exciting. There were a lot of movies that were popular back then, but wouldn’t be considered viable now, like The Last Picture Show or, say the Truffaut movies that were very simple but not exploitative, and they seem to have gone away.
I once interviewed Franco Nero, talking about the 60s, and all his stories seemed to be like ‘my hairdresser mentioned to me that her boyfriend had written a script,’ and four weeks later they’re shooting a movie. These days everything seems to take years. I asked him what the difference was between then and now, and he said ‘We used to have producers.’
There’s something to that. It’s gotten strange in that the divide has grown. There used to be a lot of pictures in the middle range, or lower middle range. These days you have the micro-budget on one side and the mega-budget on the other, so you either have to make your movie for two bucks or for two hundred million. That limits the kind of movies that can be made.
In our final report from the 57th edition of the London Film Festival, we review some of our favourite titles from this year’s line up, along with one of very few disappointments.
Check out Part 1, 2, 3 and 4 of our 2013 LFF coverage.
Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (Sion Sono, 2013)
After a couple of serious post-apocalyptic dramas made in reaction to the Fukushima disaster, Sion Sono returns with a gleeful, mischievously fun, candy-coloured comedic gore fest about wannabe cineastes hired by feuding yakuza to make a film. Humorously violent and deliriously excessive (as is to be expected from Sono) it features some striking scenes, from the yakuza boss’s white-clad young daughter sliding through a blood bath in their all-white living room, to the sexy, sassy, sadistic broken-glass kiss she gives a treacherous lover ten years later. The story takes a while to get to where it is obviously heading, but when it finally does, it does not disappoint: the verve with which limbs and heads are cut off and blood liberally spilt in the final showdown as the fanatic filmmakers continue to shoot is giddily, stupidly exhilarating. After the underlying darkness and complexities of Guilty of Romance, Cold Fish, Love Exposure and Suicide Club, this feels like a return to simpler pleasures and youthful brazenness, which may be due to the fact that the script was written 15 years ago.
Set up as a film within a film within a film, Why Don’t You Play in Hell? is also a warm, exuberant love letter to cinema. It references Bruce Lee through a screaming, nunchaku-wielding action star wearing the iconic yellow jumpsuit, and comically pays homage to yakuza movies, more particularly Kinji Fukasaku’s. And amid all the madcap humour, there is a certain wistfulness about the death of 35mm, projectionists, old-school fights, Japanese culture, and the corrupting influence of money on cinema. Inventive, playful and thrill-packed, it is a vastly enjoyable slice of film-affirming fun. VS
Night Moves (Kelly Reichhardt, 2013)
Kelly Reichhardt’s latest is concerned with three eco-activists Josh, Dena and Harmon (Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, Peter Sarsgaard) who have decided to go further than their documentary-making, organic vegetable-farming compadres and blow up a dam. As they plot to do so, their conflicting characters, backgrounds and motivations are revealed. The operation is a success, of a kind, but has unintended consequences Confident, ballsy Dena becomes an emotional wreck, sensitive, taciturn Josh grows more and more paranoid, and the conflicts become chasms. Reichhardt does good work in setting up her characters and then showing what their crime does to them. She is also is very smart and subtle about mileu and motivation, while the amateur eco-doc we see projected on a white sheet at Josh’s commune is spot on (and is actually shot by producer and horror auteur Larry Fessenden, fact fans!). As is the lame discussion afterwards.
Night Moves has its moments of well-achieved tension, but for me was a disappointment after Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff. There, her ‘less is more’ aesthetic paid off with absorbing, anxiety-inducing films that linger in the mind. Here… I don’t know, we spend an awful lot of the running time looking at Eisenberg’s anxious face, we get an awful lot of silence, and we get a Meek’s Cutoff-style finale that just sort of…ends. I needed more, for once, never feeling as involved as I did with her previous works. All in all, it’s a bit of an unthriller. MS
Watch the trailer for Night Moves:
The Double (Richard Ayoade, 2013)
Richard Ayoade’s second feature film is a very mannered affair, taking pace in its own transatlantic nocturnal bubble, where the architecture is utilitarian, charmless and shrouded in Lynchian gloom, the juke boxes play old Japanese pop tunes, and mobile phones are significant by their absence. Based on Dostoyevsky’s novel, it follows Simon (Jesse Eisenberg), an office drone whose life is a series of frustrations. Nobody notices him, his contributions are ignored, his transgressions are seized upon, and he can barely function when attempting to interact with fellow worker, and romantic obsession, Hannah (Mia Wasikowska). So far so depressing, but then one day Simon’s exact double turns up at work, and immediately begins to climb the corporate ladder. This new version is confident and dynamic, a hit with the bosses and a wow with the ladies; he seems to be a better Simon than Simon could hope to be, and slowly begins to edge the original out of his own existence…
The Double eschews any kitchen-sink naturalism (the default setting for many British filmmakers) for a highly stylised, intricately planned and executed aesthetic. There’s more than a hint of Gilliam’s Brazil here, in its office politics and romantic frustration. Each scene is framed, timed and sound designed to create the maximum humiliation for Simon, and there’s a lot of physical comedy here at his expense (automatic doors particularly seem to have it in for him), while his plight is accentuated by staging that leaves him locked out and blocked off from where he wants to be. Also adding to the ‘movie movie’ experience is the casting, or, what I believe is known in the trade as ‘overcasting’: Ayoade has clearly called in a few favours to fill out his film, and as a result we have most of the actors from his first film Submarine turning up here, as well as a couple of his I.T. Crowd co-stars, and apparently everybody else with a resume he could get hold of. I’m in two minds about the effect of all this on the viewing experience. On one level it’s like another design element (I was reminded of John Water’s stated ambition to make a film where everybody who appears on screen is a celebrity of some kind, and the sets are deliberately fake). On the other hand, it is undeniably distracting to have familiar face after familiar face pop up in the tiniest roles (Chris Morris! Chris O’ Dowd! Paddy Considine! Dinosaur Jr’s J. Mascis, as a janitor, for christ’s sake!) regardless of the quality of their contribution (loved Tim Key’s turn as a heroically unconcerned care home worker, though). I fear that all this stylisation seals the viewer off from total engagement somewhat, and while it plays on common nightmares, it plays as someone else’s.
Whatever… this is bold, intelligent filmmaking. Eisenberg does great work as both unter-Simon and uber-Simon, suggesting two entirely different characters through body language and gesture, often acting against himself in scenes which must have been a technical nightmare. It gets interestingly dark and painful in places, I already want to see it again, and I await whatever Ayoade does next. MS
Watch the trailer for The Double:
Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, 2013)
Remember Alien‘s classic poster tag line ‘In space no one can hear you scream’? It would have also been the perfect fit for Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity which, arguably, is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful and mesmerising films out in cinemas this year. That is, if you are willing to suspend your disbelief at the door and take the film at face value. And most likely, you will. Because from the moment you’ve put your 3D glasses on, Gravity embraces you with its awe-aspiring CGI heart and soul. ’Life in space is impossible’, we are told, along with a summary of plain facts: 372 miles above Earth’s surface, there is no air pressure, no oxygen, and no atmosphere to carry sound. And it’s that very sense of fatal, lonely isolation that Gravity radiates, with an instantly disarming charm and cinematic virtuosity.
Gravity is released in the UK on 8 November 2013 by Warner Bros.
Though essentially a two-hander, with George Clooney as the well-versed astronaut Matt Kowalsky (Clooney being his usual smart, irresistibly charming self) and Sandra Bullock as the overly committed, new-to-space scientist Dr. Ryan Stone, who are caught in an accident while they are out in space repairing a satellite, this is really Bullock’s film. With their shuttle destroyed and all connection to Houston and soon to each other lost, she drifts through the scary, silent darkness of the universe, fighting her way from one space station to the next in the slowly dying hope that she might be able to return to Earth, all alone with her troubled soul on her mission to survive.
Taking the power of long, unbroken takes and seemingly limitless CGI imagery to a new dimension, Cuarón wisely alternates the settings between claustrophobic ship interiors and the boundless expanse of the cosmos, while never losing sight of the incredible beauty of Earth as seen from space, unashamedly putting it all in, from strikingly rendered scenes of sunrises to the northern lights from orbit. But while there is no denying that the film clearly underestimates audiences’ intelligence in terms of plot and character depth, everyone in for a unique cinematic ride against the backdrop of the abyss of outer space will have a fantastic time. PJ
Watch the trailer for Gravity :
The Sarnos: A Life in Dirty Movies (Witkor Eriksson, 2013)
Witkor Eriksson’s affectionate documentary looks at the life and work of Joe Sarno and his loyal wife (and costume designer) Peggy. Dubbed ‘the Ingmar Bergman of porn’ by John Waters, Sarno is responsible for some 75 features, but best known for the run of films he made from the mid 1960s to the mid 1970s. Young Playthings, All the Sins of Sodom, Sin You Sinners, Sin in the Suburbs (do you sense a theme?), Inga, and many more, culminating in Confessions of a Young American Housewife, and Abigail Lesley is Back in Town. These were all self-penned works with a recognisable auteurist signature. ‘They were always about women’, notes Annie Sprinkle, and normally featured headstrong, not necessarily pleasant lead characters bringing about their own doom in oppressively bland contemporary America (or occasionally Sweden). Clearly atypical filth, they have gained a cult reputation over time, featuring in RE/Search’s original Incredibly Strange Films book, and now being screened and discussed at the BFI and other edifices of artistic respectability.
Not that this helps out Joe much, who is 88-years-old here, looking unfit, and a victim of bad contracts and shady deals, who doesn’t own or benefit from much of his substantial back catalogue. The Sarnos spend their life flitting between New York and Stockholm, clearly barely able to keep the wolf from the door. Eriksson follows them as Joe tries to get one last feature together, and investigates a life lived on the disreputable underside of the film industry. The film posits that the films Sarno wanted to make were rendered uncommercial by the arrival of hardcore porn, which effectively destroyed the grindhouse/drive-in ‘sexploitation’ genre. The raincoat brigade just wanted to watch people screw, and didn’t want to sit through his glum psychodramas, waiting for the sex scenes when they didn’t have to. The Sarnos also suggests that he didn’t want to have any part of the hardcore business after the failure of Abigail Lesley in 1975, largely glossing over the interim decades, but a quick glance at his IMDB page tells you that he carried on plugging away with explicit smut, and I wish the doc had asked him more about his (reluctant? regretful?) participation in these lesser works.
That bugbear aside, The Sarnos is fine stuff. It’s oddly delightful to watch this ageing couple having matter-of-fact conversations about absolute filth, while there is plenty of arcane and interesting detail to absorb, and the clips of his 1960s/70s output are tantalising. Joe and Peggy are complicated, charming people, and it’s a study of a long-term relationship as much as it is a treatise on a life in dirty movies. Be prepared to wipe away a tear. MS
Watch a clip from The Sarnos – A Life in Dirty Movies :
The Long Way Home (Aiphan Eşeli, 2013)
Set (and filmed) in East Anatolia, The Long Way Home takes place in 1915, just after the Battle of Sarikamish. A mother, her daughter and their guide, refugees from the conflict, are struggling over the snow-choked mountains when their horse gives up the ghost, and they find themselves struggling through the forbidding landscape, and the remains of war, on foot, passing thousands of frozen corpses to arrive at a burnt-out village not found on their map. Digging in to wait out the storm they find two surviving villagers, and then a couple of soldiers, but as the food runs low, what are they prepared to do to survive?
Aiphan Eşeli’s impressively confident first feature works first as a battle-against-the-elements tale of human persistence, then turns darker and more brutal as desperation sets in, only to turn again in a bit of a coup-de-cinema with a devastating final reel. Powerful, widescreen, intimate/epic stuff. MS
Watch the trailer for The Long Way Home :
The Kill Team (Dan Krauss, 2013)
A few years back, a platoon of US soldiers serving in Afghanistan made the news as ‘the kill team’, amid troubling stories about Afghans pointlessly killed and body parts kept as souvenirs. Dan Krauss’s documentary follows the defence team and parents of one of the accused, Adam Winfield, as he is prosecuted by the U. S. Army, interviewing two other platoon members, Stoner and Morlock, along the way. What emerges is a jaw-droppingly horrible account of apparent sociopaths given carte blanche to kill for fun. Winfield claims that he tried to blow the whistle on the Platoon’s actions, but was stymied by a system that didn’t want to hear it, and had to take part in one of the killings for fear of his own life. The others seem utterly unrepentant, and seem to have taken to indiscriminate murder partly because they had been trained to kill, not dig wells, and Afghanistan wasn’t what they felt had been advertised. ’It wasn’t like what they hyped it up to be, and that’s probably why, y’know, stuff happened…’
The Kill Team may focus too much on Winfield’s trial and not enough on the 5th Stryker Brigade, and it has the gaping hole of platoon leader Gibbs (who instigated the madness, denies everything, and wouldn’t take part) at its centre, but it still opens up a world of darkness to argue over long after its closing credits. Recommended. MS
New World (Park Hoon-jung, 2013)
This is the type of film that South Korean directors seem to do so superbly well: the dark action thriller with a conspiracy twist. Directed by Park Hoon-jung, New World is not nearly as disturbing, bleak and tortured as the incredibly twisted revenge story I Saw the Devil, which was written by Hoon-jung, but it is still a gripping, very well-executed example of the crime genre.
Undercover police officer Ja-sung (Lee Jung-jae) is a mole who has worked his way up in the echelons of Goldmoon, a crime syndicate that the cops have spent years trying to crack. When Goldmoon’s chairman manages to evade a guilty verdict in court, only to be killed in a car accident, a bitter struggle for succession ensues. Ja-sung, who has become a lieutenant to the powerful and vicious Jung Chung (Hwang Jung-min), is desperate to get out, but finds himself manipulated into becoming an integral player in the power struggle by his handler, Chief Kang (the always fabulous Choi Min-sik).
Although it starts out fairly generic, New World gradually evolves into something much more compelling, adding in a series of twists, some foreseen, others completely surprising, that make the story increasingly complex and exciting to watch. With all the brutal back-stabbing going on between the police and criminals alike, there’s plenty of violence and gore on top of the more thought-out plot points. Needless to say that by the film’s powerful and dramatic conclusion, there are few men left standing. SC
Virginie Sélavy, Pamela Jahn, Mark Stafford, Sarah Cronin
As this year’s London Film Festival draws to a close, we review more films from the 57th edition. Some better, some worse.
Check out Part 1, 2 and 3 of our 2013 LFF coverage.
The Witches (Cyril Frankel, 1966)
’Nothing can eat your soul,’ states the voice of reason, Miss Mayfield (Joan Fontaine), just before the mission school she has been running in Africa is attacked by freaky mask-wearing witch doctors and she dissolves into a blubbering mess. Months later she is back in England, supposedly recovered from her ordeal, but still clearly brittle. She is delighted to be offered the post of headmistress in the archetypal English village of Heddaby. Everything seems delightful at first, with colourful characters and rolling fields, but slowly bits of weirdness creep in, and all the locals seem overly concerned that schoolgirl Linda (Ingrid Brett, frankly, hot) should be separated from her would-be boyfriend as soon as possible. When the boy falls suddenly ill, and a headless plastic doll with pins in its chest is found, it becomes clear to Miss Mayfield that something is up, but as she begins to pry, her fragile state comes under strain, and under scrutiny.
The Witches is largely a woman’s picture, with Miss Mayfield (and her oddly Thatcherite hair) at the centre, and Linda and her mum, newspaper columnist/community leader Stephanie Bax (Kay Walsh), pushed to the fore, with the men supporting, at best. Alan Bax (Alec McCowen) is especially useless: ‘I wanted to enter the church but I failed,’ he says, and seems to spend much of the film going silent and sloping off whenever the conversation takes an awkward turn. It’s an atypical Hammer from 1966, adapted from a Peter Curtis novel by the great Nigel Kneale. I’m not sure how much is Kneale and how much Curtis, but the confluence of’ ‘old ways’ hoodoo with modern science is a Kneale trope, and certain lines have that spark of offbeat realism (‘I’ve got veins!’). The way that the full import of the words ’give me a skin for dancing in’ are left to dangle in the viewer’s mind is sublimely horrible. But time and again the full impact of the script is let down by pedestrian staging, and meat–and-potatoes cinematography. There are some nice shots and the occasional visual coup (a writhing, jerking cloth doll on a pentacled floor is authentically nightmarish). But a film in which the lead character may be losing her marbles should look a lot more deranged than this, and the climactic witches’ sabbath looks, unfortunately, like the rehearsals of an off-Broadway musical. All things aside, though, it’s a bit of a forgotten gem, looking ahead to elements of The Wicker Man and Rosemary’s Baby. Occult madness in sleepy England is always a winner, and Leonard Rossiter pops up as a doctor. Well worth checking out. MS
The Zero Theorem (Terry Gilliam, 2013)
Christolph Waltz plays Qohen Leth, a black-clad man in a day-glo world – a loud, irritating future of intrusive technology and automated intimacy. Not that he wants intimacy. He just wants to be left alone at the fire-damaged church he calls home, where he is hoping to receive a phone call that will explain his existence. After a strange encounter with the mysterious Management (Matt Damon) at a party held by his boss (David Thewlis), he is granted his wish to work from home, as long as he works on a hush-hush project, an attempt to assemble a computer model of an insanely complex equation. He makes better progress than most in a task that has driven others to despair, but still begins to lose his mind under the pressure. A therapy programme (Tilda Swinton) proves unhelpful, so sexy Melanie Thierry, as a kind of virtual call girl, and a teenage wizkid (Lucas Hedges), are brought in to keep him working, turning his ordered and isolated life upside down in the process.
Terry Gilliam’s latest is restless in its own skin, feeling like a hugely absurdist science-fiction satire trying to fight its way out of a five-hander play, or an intimate study of modern madness lost in an overactive hyperkinetic playground. Zero Theorem takes you to the edge of a black hole, and the beach of a tropical island at permanent sunset, but still feels claustrophobic. Where the likes of Minority Report are thematically dystopian, but fetishise the gleaming technology, Gilliam has a cartoonist’s eye for bullshit: the street advertisements in his lousy future address passers-by as the wrong sex, the pizzas sing annoying ditties, and digital communications are a great new way to not listen to each other. As you would expect from this director, the environmental detailing, the sheer visual exuberance, is something to behold. I heard ripples of delight spread around me at the screening from some shots, but this is, essentially, a beautiful boat without a goddamn motor. The earlier, kandy-koloured-Kafka scenes evoke a sense of stress and alienation many people in 2013 will be familiar with, but for the most part Leth’s problems, his goals and desires, are just too abstract and peculiar for easy identification (especially when he’s determinedly throwing off the advances of Thierry). Elements of the OTT visual dynamic obscure the storytelling. Forward momentum drops away, and the suspicion begins to grow that nobody knows where this is going or how to satisfactorily end it. It’s a film with many incidental pleasures, but little purpose. A downbeat, pretty, befuddled mess. MS
Watch the trailer for The Zero Theorem:
How We Used to Live (Paul Kelly, 2013)
Filmmaker Paul Kelly has built up a fine body of work over the last decade devoted to chronicling London’s hidden corners and gems, through films such as Finisterre and This is Tomorrow. His latest is a lyrical love letter to London’s post-war past, beautifully composed of footage housed in the BFI National Archives. With just the right amount of narration delivered by a throaty Ian McShane (and written by Bob Stanley and Travis Elborough), the film almost wordlessly lets the audience glide through the transformation of London into a modern city.
A blonde woman in a long white coat wanders lost among the bombed-out ruins of her neighbourhood; wrecking balls smash through the remaining walls of destroyed terrace homes; London Bridge is dismantled before its move to the US. The men in bowler hats commuting to work in the City are replaced by boys with long hair and leggy girls in mini-skirts. In one of the most engaging sequences, a skateboarder threads his way through the crowds crossing a bridge over the Thames to the sounds of Saint Etienne. The excellent soundtrack, composed by the band’s Pete Wiggs, terrifically sets the mood, from some jazzier numbers to more sombre notes, and in many ways it serves as the fabric that binds the interwoven images together. It’s easy to immerse yourself in the hypnotic visuals, and find delight in the little details that fill the frame with every shot. But what is most strikingly revealed in How We Used to Live is how much of the old London remains – shop fronts may have changed, cafés and clubs are gone, but the heart of the city, the people, are still there. SC
Watch the trailer for How We Used to Live:
Sx_ Tape (Bernard Rose, 2013)
Jill is a would-be artist being filmed going about her business by Adam, one of those boyfriends incapable of putting the camera down in films like this. She paints a little, they have sex, shop, eat, annoy each other. Try to have sex again, before being rudely interrupted. He wants to show her something: a huge abandoned hospital where ‘naughty women’ used to be sent to have abortions. The perfect venue for an art show. She breaks in, he, reluctantly, follows and then bad things happen to Adam and Jill and later arrivals Ellie and Bobby, the film’s regulation aggravating, macho arsehole.
It seems a little mystifying as to why Bernard Rose chose this script to mark his return to the horror genre; it’s a late jumper onto the ‘found footage’ bandwagon, passably executed and pretty unpleasant. There’s a theme, of sorts, about the abuse and exploitation of women, but it gets lost among the shock tactics. Too often the illogicalities felt preposterous rather than nightmarish, and the series of endings on offer at the climax of the film (none of which resolve the film’s police station-set opening sequence) seem to confirm that nobody really had a handle on this mother. I’d be lying if I said I was bored. Or that there was nothing here of interest, but films like this need to develop some solid, creepy ideas to really pay off, and this just ain’t working. MS
Jodorowsky’s Dune (Frank Pavich, 2013)
If we imagine a world without Star Wars, we can imagine a world where cinema was not dying as it is now. If we imagine a world where Alejandro (El Topo) Jodorowsky beat Star Wars to the punch with his planned film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel Dune, we can imagine him laying the groundwork for a new and different kind of film spectacle, rather than the empty state-of-the-art 80s blockbusters that spawned endless rollercoaster rides masquerading as movies.
Frank Pavich’s feature documentary is as close as we’re ever going to get to seeing what might have been one of the great movies of the late 20th century. A mere five-million-dollars short of becoming a reality, the film was to star Mick Jagger, Salvador Dali and Orson Welles. Seeing this doc is to indulge in the creative excitement that went into every second of preparing this epic motion picture. We experience Jodorowsky’s pride (albeit with a tinge of melancholy) at planting seeds for the future greatness of others from a movie that was never made. The films exists only in a massive frame-by-frame storyboard book with the screenplay and Jodorowsky’s notes – a document used to raise additional financing in Hollywood, but which was instead passed around to one filmmaker after another. Hollywood accepted the genius, but rejected the artist and, sadly, his film. GK
Watch the trailer for Jodorowsky’s Dune:
Pioneer (Erik Skjoldbjaerg, 2013)
A pleasingly paranoid Norwegian thriller from Insomnia creator Erik Skjoldbjaerg. It’s the early 1980s and American and Norwegian diving teams are collaborating on a project which will exploit the oil and gas deposits to be found under the ocean floor in the Norwegian Sea. This is deeper than any diver has been before, and to this end the American team have developed a special breathing mix which should enable the teams to operate below 500m. But things go horribly wrong during the first test dive at sea, and Petter (Aksel Hennie, great), a dedicated diver with little outside life, becomes obsessed with finding out why, bringing him into conflict with political and commercial forces who want the tests over, and the money to start rolling.
As with Insomnia, a standard thriller set up is made much more interesting by a derangement of the senses. Petter is experiencing little blackouts, lacunae in his ability to function, and we are left unsure as to exactly how compos mentis he is – we have already seen him hallucinate a seabird into existence in the dry-run test of the opening sequence – so when he starts throwing accusations around, and breaking into offices to steal medical files, a suspicion remains that this might be all in his head. Decompression chambers here are used as instruments of torture, and places to isolate the inconvenient. Everything is murky, motives are obscure and, as in The Conversation, the evidence is open to interpretation. Pioneer plays games with focus, becoming increasingly woozy and warped as it goes on, and in the closing sections of the film Petter and the viewer have a case of the bends, which is not the best state to be in when unravelling a conspiracy or fending off shadowy killers. Good stuff, with an occasionally wonderful soundtrack by Air.
Potential viewers should be warned that this film contains Norwegian hair. MS
Watch the trailer for Pioneer :
We Are the Best! (Lukas Moodysson, 2013)
For all you punkety rockety girls out there, and those who love them: this is your new favourite film, you just don’t know it yet. With We Are the Best! (which is based on his wife Coco’s graphic novel), Lukas Moodysson returns to the inclusive humanism of his earlier work (Show Me Love, Together), rather than his pass-the-razor-blades phase (Lilya 4-Ever, A Hole in My Heart) or his what-the-bloody-hell-is-this phase (Container). It’s a simple tale: two 13-year-old girls, Bobo and Klara, are outcasts at school, mainly because it’s a bad place and time to be ferociously dedicated to punk rock: Stockholm in the early 1980s. Partly out of spite, they get the metal band Iron Fist thrown out of the practice room at their local youth centre on the pretext that they have a band, and having booked the room, they decide that they might as well start a band for real. Undaunted by their lack of talent, but aware that they ought to have somebody on side who knows what they’re doing, they recruit Hedwig, a Christian and another outcast, on guitar, and the film follows their trials and tribulations as they attempt to get it together for their first gig.
There is very little conflict here (an unfortunate haircut incident, a falling out over a punk boy), just a lot of brilliantly observed business about families and schools and pop culture and all that other stuff you have to negotiate when you’re 13. The girls are adorable, fearless and bulletproof, wide eyed and vulnerable, with their own cool punk chic (it involves a lot of scarves) and Moodysson perfectly captures that age when you can be obsessing over nuclear annihilation one minute and having a food fight the next. There is a great sense of time and place, and fun to be had about the difficulties of being a rebel when everybody’s so tolerant and accommodating (Swedish punk songs of the period seem pushed to find stuff to complain about). We Are the Best! finds time for everybody – youth club workers, parents, and hell, even Iron Fist are people rather than characters. There may not be a great deal to the film other than a little slice of time, but it’s bloody delightful – a warm, spiky hug. MS
Grand Piano (Eugenio Mira, 2013)
The experience of watching Grand Piano is something like wandering around a Victorian folly – a cunningly constructed, visually appealing exterior that knowingly obscures a lack of substance. Directed by Eugenio Mira, this giallo-influenced film stars Elijah Wood as Tom Selznick, a classical pianist who is about to perform in front of an audience for the first time in five years after a disastrous concert led to his retirement. The occasion: a tribute to his mentor a year after his death, and the once-in-a-lifetime chance to play his priceless grand piano before it’s shipped to Switzerland.
Wood effortlessly conveys all the stress and stage-fright that threaten his come-back performance, and his anxiety is only magnified when he discovers that there’s a sniper in the theatre threatening to assassinate his glamorous, movie-star wife if he plays a wrong note during his grand finale. There is a point to the slightly absurd plot, which is finally revealed towards the end of the increasingly bloody stand-off (although Mira does well with delivering an ambiguous ending). But it’s not the film’s premise that makes the movie appealing – it’s simply great fun to watch, an entertaining 90-minute visual treat. The art design is excellent, while the blood red tones that infuse the cinematography lend a terrific atmosphere to the thriller. There’s some clunky writing and ham-fisted acting by the more disposable characters at play, but in the end it all seems like part of the game. SC
The Sacrament (Ti West, 2013)
After his slow-burn Satanic chiller The House of the Devil and offbeat ghost story The Innkeepers, Ti West continues on his idiosyncratic path with a faux documentary investigating a religious cult in a far-off land. Presenting itself as an ‘immersionist’ Vice piece, it perfectly captures the mixture of reckless bravery and self-conscious ‘craziness’ that typifies the magazine through the characters of reporter Sam (AJ Bowen) and cameraman Jake (Joe Swanberg). When photographer Patrick decides to visit his former junkie sister Caroline in the commune she has joined, they tag along to document the reunion. Although they are met by intimidating armed guards when their helicopter lands on the island, their initial interviews with commune members seem to paint an idyllic picture of life at Eden Parish. But after a bizarre on-stage interview with Father, the charismatic cult leader, the surface begins to crack, and a far more sinister reality is revealed.
Very restrained in its use of violence, The Sacrament is about a disturbingly realistic kind of horror, recalling the Jonestown Massacre and similar fanatic cults. Key to the film’s emotional power is the complex character development, one of Ti West’s greatest strengths, helped by tremendous performances from the excellent cast. Aimy Seimetz is both unnerving and pitiful as the screwed-up sister who has traded drug addiction for another kind of escape, and Gene Jones is extraordinary as Father, a frighteningly intelligent, creepy, manipulative man, who also desperately believes what he preaches. There is a great sense of human tragedy in all of the characters, including the gung-ho reporters who sober up as they become the unwitting catalysts for horrifying violence. An intelligent, original, category-defying gem. VS
Virginie Sélavy, Mark Stafford, Greg Klymkiw, Sarah Cronin
With the 57th BFI London Film Festival now in full swing, Virginie Sélavy, Pamela Jahn, Mark Stafford and Sarah Cronin report on more films being screened over the next nine days.
Check out Part 1 and Part 2 of our LFF previews and come back for more reviews throughout the festival.
The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears (Hélène Cattet, Bruno Forzani, 2013)
As gorgeous as it is oppressive, Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s latest neo-giallo is an ultra-sensuous, hypnotic trip through dark desires and the disturbing, delicious lines between pleasure and pain, madness and sanity, dream and reality. With what has to be the best title of the festival, riffing on the wonderfully convoluted names of the films that inspired it, The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears strengthens the potent aesthetic vision of the directing duo’s 2009 feature debut Amer, focusing entirely on pure sensation. In this hallucinatory, obsessive psychosexual dream, every shot is a marvel of composition, every object and texture is fetishized: leather, gloves, boots, jewels, blood, mirrors, blades. Male and female bodies are repeatedly penetrated, skull wounds are shaped like sexual organs, broken mirror shards enter flesh, as sensual ecstasy becomes deadly and lovers turn assailants.
The narrative is even more minimal than in its Italian predecessors – a man is looking for his missing wife – and it serves as the pretext for an intense distillation of the visual and sonic motifs of the giallo. Just as its masters effortlessly found stunning decors in beautiful, decadent Italian architecture, Strange Colour makes great use of the Brussels art nouveau building in which it is set. With its exuberance of organic round shapes, flowery motifs, voluptuous naked women, twisted stairs, stained glass and golden curlicues, the building is like a living organism, the figures on its walls breathing and moaning with the rapture and agony of its inhabitants.
A baroque film composed of giallo elements that are themselves baroque, Strange Colour constructs a dizzying, infinite cascade of doubles and repetitions, of stories within stories and structures within structures, where everything is mirrored, multiplied and fragmented. While it pays brilliant homage to its models, it is compellingly alluring in itself, and its meticulously crafted world of lush excess, sumptuous sophistication and opulent illusion is deeply seductive. VS
Watch the teaser trailer for The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears:
Harmony Lessons (Boris Khlebnikov, 2013)
Directed by 29-year-old first-time Kazakhstani filmmaker Emir Baigazin, Harmony Lessons was one of the most impressive films in the international competition at this year’s Berlinale. In its essence, the film is a twisted school-bullying revenge drama revolving around introverted 13-year-old Aslan (Timur Aidarbekov), who is targeted by his ruthless classmates. In return, Aslan vents his anger and frustration on cockroaches and other pests and insects that he uses as guinea pigs for the cruel little scientific experiments that he conducts in his room. Things seem to get slightly better when a student arrives from the city and helps defy the bullies, while palling up with Aslan. However, when a murder takes place at the school, the main suspects are easily found, transforming both the characters and the plot into something deeper, darker and more mysterious. With its existential overtones and the creative assurance of a young director who seems to have little to learn from any arthouse veterans, Harmony Lessons is an inventive, genre-defying film located on the borderline between the real and the imaginary, and deserves more attention than it received in Berlin.
Watch a clip from Harmony Lessons:
Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski, 2013)
“War is death, Hell is pain, chess is victory.”
It’s the early 1980s, and a nondescript American hotel is hosting a computer chess tournament, in which various teams will match their machines against each other over one weekend, with the winner to play against a human being for the grand finale. It’s a kind of geek Olympics, which the world, most assuredly, is not watching, and things aren’t going to plan: one of the competitors has failed to book a room and wanders the corridors at night; another team grow concerned as their computer seems determined to commit suicide on the battlefield. Tensions and conflicts grow, and to make matters more uncomfortable, these generally uptight types are sharing the hotel with a touchy feely ‘encounter group’ who have booked the same weekend.
Mumblecore director Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess promises at first to be something of a lo-fi Best In Show, a comic study of a particular group of obsessives in their own environment, a parade of analogue tech and bad hair. It’s shot in black and white, seemingly on a contemporary video camera, and starts in a naturalistic mode. But as the film progresses things get weirder: the late-night chatter revolves around artificial intelligence and the Pentagon, and the apocalyptic uses to which their technology might be put; cats multiply; smart people seem to be consumed by odd ideas; and a whole lot of sex doesn’t happen. There is the suggestion that the work that they are all engaged in may have altered the world in some way. It’s a funny, charmingly strange piece of work in which the unravelling of minds is reflected in increasingly inventive visuals, and massive ideas are conjured on a tiny budget. Cool. MS
Watch the trailer for Computer Chess:
A Long and Happy Life (Boris Khlebnikov, 2013)
City boy Sasha (Aleksandr Yatsenko) is now a farmer employing a handful of locals, and hoping to turn his land into a viable commercial operation when shady developers take an interest in the property. Everyone else seems to be selling out, and the council offers him no choice but to sign and take the compensation, which he is about to do until his workers convince him to make a stand against the powers that be. A deadline approaches, and a showdown seems assured, but while Boris Khlebnikov’s film is inspired by High Noon, it’s a very cynical, Russian take on that scenario. ‘You shouldn’t have listened to us… we’re morons,’ admits one of the more honest workers to Sasha’s face after it all starts to go south, in one of those ‘Hollywod scenes we’d love to see’ moments that world cinema occasionally throws up. A punchy 79 minutes. MS
Watch a clip from A Long and Happy Life :
Trap Street (Vivian Qu, 2013)
Li Qiuming is a naïve, trainee urban surveyor, who develops a romantic obsession with Guan Lifen, a girl he spots on the job, and tries to engineer ways to bump into her again, when not engaged in his sideline of installing secret security cameras. Vivian Qu’s film plays partly as a love story, but takes a darker turn when Li disappears during a date, and all that romantic behaviour is seen in another light. There’s nice play here with streets that don’t exist on maps, and maps that don’t stick to real-world geography, in a China where the truth is whatever the authorities say it is. ‘We don’t arrest innocent people,’ says a policeman at one point, as it all gets a bit nightmarish, in a low-key thriller with shades of The Conversation. MS
Story of My Death (Albert Serra, 2013)
In which an aging Casanova (Vincenc Altaio) moons about a mansion, strains on the toilet, indulges in an odd bit of wenching, and delivers monologues about the nature of the world for an hour or so, before repairing to the country, where Dracula (Eliseu Huertas) shows up. Casanova seems to represent the enlightenment, reason and open sensuality, Dracula something darker and more violent. It doesn’t end well. For the record this Count is hirsute of face, as in the Stoker novel, but sits about in the sunlight, which seems a bit off.
Albert Serra makes proper art-house films of the type that barely trouble art-house cinemas anymore, impenetrable things featuring dialogue with endless pauses, ravishing pastoral photography, gnomic visual metaphors and murky plotting. There’s much to engage with here if you’re in the mood, much to infuriate you if you’re not, but if the world had no room for baffling 148-minute-long indulgences like this, then we’d all be living in a poorer place. MS
Watch a clip from Story of My Death :
Shame (Yusup Razykov, 2013)
Almost certainly inspired by the Kursk tragedy, when 118 men died aboard a nuclear submarine after an explosion and an inept (if nonexistent) rescue attempt, director Yusup Razykov rejects the more obvious approach to the story – that of an on-board thriller – in favour of a slow-burning drama focused on the wives of the men lost at sea. Set in a remote outpost in the far north of Russia, the story mostly revolves around Lena (terrifically portrayed by Maria Semenova), who’s recently moved from St. Petersburg to the bleak, desolate, Communist-era ‘town’ inside the Arctic Circle, where her high-ranking husband has been stationed (though the audience never meets him; the only men left at the base are either the young or those unfit to serve). Lena, in her black high heels, keeps to herself, rejecting the company of the other, more matronly wives, and is seemingly indifferent to both them and her husband. Slowly, painfully, word begins to spread that a tragedy has struck the submarine, sparking a chain of consequences that sweeps through the lives of the devastated women.
Shame starts with an enigmatic mystery, only resolved much later; for the most part, events play out slowly until then, but the film has a compelling rhythm, while the cinematography beautifully captures the cold, heartless environment. What unfolds is a moving, at times heartbreaking, yet redemptive portrait of a woman and a community that exist at the mercy of outside forces. SC
Virginie Sélavy, Pamela Jahn, Mark Stafford, Sarah Cronin
In the second part of our BFI London Film Festival previews, Pamela Jahn, Mark Stafford and John Bleasdale pick out more highlights from this year’s festival line-up.
Check out Part 1 of our LFF previews here and look out for more coverage throughout the festival.
All Cheerleaders Die (Lucky McKee, Chris Sivertson, 2013)
Anyone who’s suffered through the likes of Head Cheerleader Dead Cheerleader, and Delta Delta Die! will know that the cheerleader-based horror film is a dubious prospect at best, but All Cheerleaders Die is spiky, nasty and massively enjoyable. The first third of Lucky McGee and Chris Sivertson’s film is a tense and unnerving affair, as, after a shattering opening sequence, we follow high-school-outsider Maddy while she infiltrates the cheerleading squad at Blackfoot High with some kind of dark agenda, sowing distrust and disharmony in an already spiteful, brittle environment of ‘bitches’ and ‘dogs’. The paranoia builds, and there are no especially sympathetic characters, only a sense that something dreadful is going to happen, which it duly does, as tempers flare during a party scene. After this the film changes, via some witchy business, into an arguably less interesting, but undeniably more fun, out-and-out black comedy horror ride. It’s as if Afterschool morphed into Jennifer’s Body, but a lot more entertaining than that sounds. It’s sharp stuff, with quotable dialogue and a game cast giving it their all. The sexual politics may be debatable, and assassinating airheads may be like shooting fish in a barrel, but sod it. This is great. MS
Blue Is the Warmest Colour (Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013)
The winner of the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival was the talk of the town from the moment of the first press screening until long after the award ceremony. Although most critics immediately fell in love with this oddly seductive, three-hour lesbian love saga, soon after taking home the main prize, the film was slammed by others for some oddly positioned camera angles focusing on the central character’s arse and the lengthy scenes of real-looking sex between her and her female lover, allegedly all designed for the male gaze. What’s more, Julie Maroh, author of the graphic novel the film was inspired by, has publicly expressed her disappointment about Kechiche’s adaptation, describing the sex scenes as ‘ridiculous’ and comparing them to porn. What’s true is that Kechiche has a tendency to keep the camera pointed and rolling just a little longer and deeper than most directors would have done when it comes to depicting Adèle’s lust for life, love and home-made spaghetti.
Blue Is the Warmest Colour will be released in UK Cinemas by Artificial Eye on 15 November 2013.
On the other hand, the sex aside, there simply aren’t many films that manage to keep you hooked for that sort of running time on not much more than the coming-of-age of a middle-class, high-school girl who instantly and desperately falls for a foxy art student, from the moment she spots her on the street until their painful and moving break-up as young adults. That of course is in no small part thanks to the two leads, Adèle Exarchopoulos (Carré blanc) and Léa Seydoux, who play their parts with utter conviction, guided by a script that allows them to find their own voices. PJ
Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2013)
The latest offering from Joel and Ethan Coen was one of the hottest tickets in Cannes this year, and deservedly so. Inside Llewyn Davis tells the heartfelt story of an itinerant, relentlessly failing and unashamedly self-pitying folk singer in 1960s New York, loosely based on the life of Dave Van Ronk, who was at the centre of the Greenwich Village music scene. Adored by many at the time, Van Ronk never had his big breakthrough, just as Davis (Oscar Isaac) struggles to keep his head above water with occasional gigs in a tiny club called Gaslight, and with the help of his peevish ex-girlfriend (Carey Mulligan) who might, or might not be, expecting his child. But that’s only one of the many problems leading to his downfall, which culminates in a trip to Chicago to visit the legendary folk club The Gate of Horn.
Inside Llewyn Davis will be released in UK Cinemas by Studiocanal on 24 January 2014.
To a large extent, the Coens are working in known territory: a bunch of flawed, but strangely intriguing characters, dry-as-dusk dialogue and some wonderful music supervised by T-Bone Burnett, fused together into an impressively subtle, dark but magical character study that says as much about shattered dreams and the trouble with art as it does about the mystery of life and luck. What makes the film uniquely special, however, is Isaac’s riveting performance (both playing the guitar and acting), and who makes his precariously unlikable character unexpectedly compelling, as he wanders through the streets and other people’s lives, and shines whenever he’s on stage. PJ
Watch the trailer for Inside Llewyn Davis:
Locke (Steven Knight, 2013)
Steven Knight’s second film in one year – the first was the Jason Statham thriller Hummingbird – is a brilliant minimalist piece of cinéma de chambre, in this case the chamber being the titular protagonist’s car. Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) is driving alone from Birmingham to Croydon, away from his his wife and two teenage sons, from his work as a senior site supervisor on a huge building project, and from his life as he knows it so far. Armed only with the car phone and some tissues and cough medicine for his head cold, Locke attempts to repair the damage even as he is doing it. Boasting a wonderful performance of unshowy maturity by Hardy and driven by a superbly detailed script by Knight, Locke is a film that is never hampered by its own rigorously applied confines.
The emotional moments are hard won and brilliantly delivered. Although credit should also be given to the vocal presence of Ruth Wilson, Olivia Colman and Andrew Scott, Hardy carries the weight of the film with aplomb. To add to the difficulties of holding the screen on his own for the duration of the film, he also adopts a Welsh accent, which is entirely in keeping with the character, who makes poetry out of hard work and who desperately struggles to maintain his values and integrity even when they will effectively destroy him. JB
Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, 2013)
After Jarmusch’s last film, The Limits of Control, it seemed that another great director was close to losing his genius, but there is a welcome sense of rebirth about Only Lovers Left Alive from the moment it opens. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston make for a brilliant pair of vampire lovers who have been truly, madly, deeply in love for centuries, yet are now living apart. Swinton’s resilient and enigmatic Eve resides in lush Tangiers while Hiddleston’s disheartened underground musician, Adam, is holed up in the outskirts of derelict Detroit. When their longing for each other becomes unbearable, Eve decides to take on the difficult journey (she can only travel at night) to reunite with Adam, but soon after the couple are back together, their gently hedonistic idyll of non-murderous blood and old vinyl is disrupted by the arrival of Eve’s unnerving, uncontrollable younger sister (Mia Wasikowska).
Only Lovers Left Alive is released in UK Cinemas by Soda Pictures on 21 February 2014.
Nothing much happens in Jarmusch’s sensuous fantasy of night and nostalgia, apart from the fact that the pair are running short of the sort of pure, uncontaminated blood that they now need to keep them going. But watching these two archetypal outcasts, still in full possession of their animal instincts, as they roam around trying to blend in with their surroundings, is an undemanding, irresistible pleasure. PJ
Watch the trailer for Only Lovers Left Alive:
Sacro GRA (Gianfranco Rosi, 2013)
Picking up the Golden Lion at Venice Film Festival a few weeks ago, Gianfranco Rosi’s documentary Sacro GRA takes the Roman ring road – the GRA, the Grande Raccordo Anulare – as a fairly arbitrary rope with which to lasso a hodgepodge of eccentrics and colourful characters into an at-times funny and occasionally moving, but oddly unrevealing picture of a series of places. Rosi has gathered an eel fisherman, an ambulance worker, a monkish tree surgeon, a seedy nobleman, a father and daughter chatting in their emergency housing, and bar-top dancers preparing in the dingy back room of a grubby bar. The road passes close by them, but serves little purpose except a tenuous connection and perhaps a structuring absence. The road is the audience that passes by these lives but doesn’t stop to listen, perhaps. As with previous work – El Sicario, Room 164 and the American based Below Sea Level – Rosi maintains a neutral space of bland observation, but sometimes the neutrality feels like a pose. As with Le Quattro Volte, which feels like a rural companion piece to Rosi’s documentary, there is an awkward feel of an essayist presenting his supporting evidence too neatly on the page. The hair-in-the-gate spontaneity is missing and some of the effects realised are done so neatly that there is a suspicion Rosi is filming his characters with specific traits in mind: the laughable photo-novel and the horny-handed hero of toil. JB
With this year’s 57th edition of the BFI London Film Festival just around the corner, Pamela Jahn, Mark Stafford, John Bleasdale and Pierre Kapitaniak preview some of the feature films screening in cinemas across London during the first week of the LFF, including Ari Folman’s bold, riveting and unmissable The Congress, Ivan Sen’s Australian western Mystery Road and Jia Zhangke’s angry, strikingly stylised A Touch of Sin, and J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost, which features one of Robert Redford’s finest performances.
Check out Part2 of our LFF previews here and look out for more LFF coverage throughout the festival.
A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhangke, 2013)
Although director Jia Zhangke officially denied in interviews that his close relationship with Office Kitano was more than simply based on financial support for this production, A Touch of Sin feels like a ferocious piece of work very much in the same vein as the best films by the Japanese director and friend, albeit intensified by the social-political backdrop addressed here. Based on four real-life criminal cases (including a murder, suicide and a couple of killing sprees), Zhangke’s protagonists represent a cross section of contemporary Chinese society, from different areas of the country. Seen from that perspective, the film, which deservedly won Zhangke the award for Best Screenplay, is a sanguinary, tense investigation into the Chinese economic miracle and the brutalising effect it has on the lives of ordinary people at the bottom end of the ladder, who ultimately can’t help but vent their rage, rising up against authority, in a world not theirs. Likewise, on a visual level, A Touch of Sin is a powerful war of the senses, in the way the stylised violence seems gently aligned with the character’s innermost thoughts and emotions, enabling the audience to savour a similar cold adrenaline rush as those wuxia and Lady Vengeance-type characters on screen. PJ
Watch the trailer for A Touch of Sin:
Borgman (Alex van Warmerdam, 2013)
Alex van Warmerdam returns with Borgman, which masterfully plunges into the uncanny without ever fully acknowledging the supernatural dimension of the plot. Indeed, Camiel Borgman (played by Jan Bijvoet, recently seen in Alabama Munro) might well be the devil, as suggested by the Bible-like quotation opening the film: ‘And they descended upon earth to strengthen their ranks.’
The feeling of something otherworldly is introduced from the opening scene, in which two hunters, accompanied by a Catholic priest, hunt down Borgman and his followers, who are living in underground shelters in the forest (reminiscent of the Black Man in Warmerdam’s The Northerners). On the run from them, Borgman arrives at an upper-middle-class house asking for a bath and gets sorely beaten by the owner, while the wife takes pity and shelters him. From then on things go wrong, and we soon realise that Borgman is definitely more than just a tramp, as he turns into a literal night-mare, such as pictured by Henry Fuseli. Once again, in his very idiosyncratic style, Warmerdam combines social criticism of the bourgeoisie with mystical angst, leaving the audience to weave the threads of interpretation as they please. PK
Watch the trailer for Borgman:
The Congress (Ari Folman, 2013)
Opening this year’s Director’s Fortnight, Ari Folman’s follow up to his 2008 Cannes competition entry Waltz with Bashir is an idiosyncratic masterpiece, highly ambitious in its scale and complexity, and fuelled with dazzling animated beauty. In a daringly intimate performance, Robin Wright plays herself, an acclaimed actress just past her prime with a market value diminished to zero, her previous stardom being long buried in Hollywood history. When her agent, Al (Harvey Keitel), tells her she’s being given one last chance by her studio, Miramount, Robin reluctantly agrees to a meeting, unknowing what this final offer entails. The plan is to motion-capture Wright, to copy her body, feelings, memories, and gestures in order to create a digital alter ego that can easily be adjusted to fit into any blockbuster, TV show or commercial as required by the studio. As part of the deal that promises her both a generous pay-off and the guarantee of eternal youth on screen, the real Robin Wright must retire with no claim as to how her virtual self is being used in the future. At first, she refuses, but family constraints force her to reconsider.
So far, The Congress might appear as a vicious, darkly cynical take on the movie industry in the digital age and how Hollywood treats its ageing goddesses. What then happens, however, about 50 minutes into the film, is best seen first-hand. Loosely inspired by Stanislaw Lem’s The Futurological Congress, and again combining animation and live action to puzzling effect, Folman jumps forward 20 years to find the real Wright aged and out of business, while her alter ego has become one of the biggest action heroines on screen as ‘Rebel Robot Robin’. Invited to Miramount’s Futurological Congress, the actress must pass into a strange animated zone, which opens an entirely new, imaginary universe of its own, crowded with celebrity doubles who escape their daily misery through drug-induced hallucinations; it’s a place that visually blends the style of 1930s Betty Boop cartoons and the trippy aesthetic of Ralph Bakshi’s Cool World. At the same time, Folman slows down the action to plunge into something darker, deeper, more inventive and more existential than merely teasing the Hollywood system to the core. Soused in gorgeous imagery and surreal, intoxicated melancholy, the second half of The Congress meanders gracefully between philosophical, religious and ideological reflections on the human condition, yet despite minor flaws, never loses sight of its original premise. The film is a fiercely original, bold and riveting meditation on the future of the silver screen and the stars that make it shine. PJ
Mystery Road (Ivan Sen, 2013)
Ivan Sen’s fine, modern-dress Australian western impresses as much for what it doesn’t do as much as what it does. It’s unhurried, unprettified, and has a sparse soundtrack with minimal music; not everything is explained, and much is left unsaid. In other words it’s a genre film made for adults – remember them?
Aaron Pederson plays a man alone, an aboriginal copper, treated as the enemy by his own people, and hardly ‘one of the boys’ in the small police department he has recently returned to in outback Queensland. Tasked with a job nobody else wants – investigating the murder of a teenage aboriginal girl – he begins to uncover some murky business involving drugs and prostitution, in which his own force, and, more queasily, his own abandoned daughter, may be involved. Clearly headed into troubled waters, and with nobody to back him up, he begins to look more and more vulnerable under those wide-open skies…
The set-up is entirely conventional for any number of thrillers, but there are no Hollywood faces here, no extraneous action sequences, no master criminals either. The details of life in this harsh environment are well observed, and the atmosphere of menace is well sustained right up to the brilliantly delivered final confrontation. All the performances are pitched just right, with Hugo Weaving especially good value as the wayward and worrying leader of the drug squad (in terrifying double denim!). It looks great, too, especially the night sequences, where the land turns black, and the horizon is a riot of oranges and reds, with human figures picked out in sick green neon. Photography by Mr. Sen as well. Clever boy. Gold stars. MS
Watch the trailer for Mystery Road:
Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013)
Jonathan Glazer’s return to feature films after an almost decade-long absence, Under the Skin stars Scarlett Johansson as a predatory alien who prowls Glaswegian streets in a white transit van, searching for young men who will not be missed. Mixing arthouse visuals of mesmerizing abstraction with naturalistic (and occasionally incomprehensible) street scenes and occasional lurches into Lynchian horror, the film escapes the gravitational pull of its genre and the dubious slightness – and potential misogyny – of its storyline. As with Johansson’s victims, we are beguiled by the look of the film, its self-confessedly empty eroticism and its otherworldly perspective on mundane British life. Whereas the criminally underrated Birth riffed on Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, Under the Skin ditches the lightweight satire of the Michael Faber source novel to absorb the influence of Nic Roeg – The Woman Who Fell to Earth if you will – and create a disturbing trip into the other. JB
Watch the trailer for Under the Skin:
Vic + Flo Saw a Bear (Denis Côté, 2013)
Canadian critic-turned-director Denis Côté’s eccentric Vic + Flo Saw a Bear (Vic et Flo ont vu un ours) starts off promisingly, but gradually loses momentum, as well as character depth, before an unexpectedly superb, if bitchy, ending. Pierrette Robitaille as Victoria, who has been discharged early from prison for a life sentence, and Romane Bohringer as Vic’s former cell mate and now lover, Florence, who has her own agenda for consistently soft-selling Vic’s mounting fear that she will eventually drop her, both give convincing performances as the outlaw couple trying to make a new start somewhere in the Canadian forest. But Côté doesn’t quite manage to keep the viewer interested in his deceptive directing choices and the film’s enigmatic atmosphere, so much so that one doesn’t really care anymore when the trap that has been carefully laid out eventually snaps shut. PJ
Watch the trailer for Vic + Flo Saw a Bear:
Pamela Jahn, Mark Stafford, John Bleasdale, Pierre Kapitaniak
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.
The Hunt is released in the UK on 30 November 2012 by Arrow Films.
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.
End of Watch is released in the UK on 23 November 2012 by Studiocanal.
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.
West of Membphis is released in the UK on 21 December 2012 by Sony Pictures.
Mark Stafford, Sarah Cronin and Virginie Sélavy review the most notable Japanese and Korean films that screened at this year’s London Film Festival.
Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time
Opening in Busan in 1982, Yoon Jong-bin’s Nameless Gangster is a vastly enjoyable sprawling mob saga that clearly references Coppola and Scorsese in its story of the rise and fall of a would-be godfather, but adds a caustic sense of humour and ironic distance. Introducing the story with the definition of ‘daebu’, it plays on the various meanings of the term, including ‘elder relative’ and ‘crime boss’. Choi Min-sik (Oldboy) gives another fantastic performance as corrupt customs official Choi Ik-hyun, who comes into contact with local gangster Choi Hyung-bae when he is sacked from his job. Hyung-bae turns out to be related to him and Ik-hyun takes advantage of his status as his elder relative to get involved at the top of his gang.
Ik-hyun is a fascinating multi-faceted character: a comical figure who is often ridiculed, a ‘half-gangster’ – as he is called by the brilliantly ruthless prosecutor Jo – who can never really cut it as a crime boss, he is also impressively cunning and resourceful, and despite his shameless lack of scruples and despicable conduct, he has a sympathetic and very human side in his love for his family. One of the big joys of the film is his relationship to the younger, more attractive, scarier, real gangster Hyung-bae (played by rising star Ha Jung-woo), who exudes the sort of power and authority that will always elude Ik-hyun. And yet, despite his menacing aura, Hyung-bae is a man of principle who, unlike Ik-hyun, abides by gangster codes and even traditional social rules (in his respect for Ik-hyun as his elder relative for instance), which puts him at a disadvantage when dealing with his less honourable enemies. This reversal of the usual dynamic between young and old is another of the pleasures of this exhilarating, humorous, smart gangster saga. VS
The second outstanding Korean offering of this year’s festival was adapted from a novel by Miyabe Miyuki and directed by female filmmaker Byun Young-joo. Helpless is a captivating, intelligent thriller on the nature of love and identity that takes a hard look at what happens when a victimised character is forced to devise extreme strategies to survive. It starts like The Vanishing: young veterinarian Mun-ho is taking his bride-to-be Seon-yeong to meet his parents when she disappears at a service station. When he finds her apartment has been emptied in a hurry and the police are useless, he asks a relative who is a disgraced former cop to help him find her. As they investigate, her identity becomes more and more mysterious, and they must make sense of her possible connections to large debts, loan sharks and even suspected murder. The many revelations thrown up by their investigation repeatedly throw into question our assumptions about Seon-yeong and build a finely nuanced and affecting portrait of a complex woman. A convincing, tense, insightful thriller in which there is more than one victim, with a deep sympathy and understanding for the kind of dynamic that leads seemingly helpless characters to commit terrible acts in order to defend themselves when no one else will. VS
An apocalyptic triptych from Korea, written and directed by Kim Jee-woon and Yim Pil-Sung, the creators of The Good, the Bad and the Weird, and Hansel and Gretel. Part one is an eco-horror of waste and consumption where dodgy food production causes a kind of zombie outbreak. Part three is the tale of a family attempting to survive an impending meteor strike. Both share a wild, freewheeling sense of humour and are dizzy, bizarre satirical fun, especially the pot shots aimed at idiotic TV news coverage.
The side is let down a little by the middle section, where problems arise for a corporation when one of their robots assigned to a Buddhist temple achieves enlightenment. The tale is over-familiar from decades of SF, the robot is a poor cousin to Chris Cunningham’s Björk-bot in the ‘All Is Full Of Love’ promo and a ponderous tone takes over. It’s not bad, just a bit dull, and overall, considering the talents involved, Doomsday Book comes as a bit of a disappointment. Definitely has its moments though. MS
For Love’s Sake
Takashi Miike returns with the adaptation of a manga by Ikki Kajiwara and Takumi Nagayasu – filmed many times before – about a rich young girl’s impossible love for a boy from the wrong side of the tracks. The original title Ai to makoto means ‘Love and Sincerity’, which is also the name of the two main characters. Ai is a sweet young girl from a well-to-do family, who was rescued by Makoto while skiing as a child. When Makoto returns to Tokyo for revenge and immediately gets into a fight, Ai does all she can to save him from his delinquent life. An insanely colourful, at times kitsch teen melodrama, it mixes the badass attitude and energy of Crows Zero with the demented chirpiness of The Happiness of the Katakuris. It may not be Miike at his most ground-breaking or daring, but it is wildly entertaining. The director once more demonstrates his boundless inventiveness and impressive visual sense with a variety of animated sequences and (cheesy) musical numbers, as well as great decors, gorgeous colours and brilliantly choreographed fights, all pulsating with his customary high-voltage energy. VS
I was a big fan of Mika Ninagawa’s 2008 Sakuran, a fun, gorgeous-looking film with a fantastic female lead. Unfortunately, her second film, Helter Skelter, is a major disappointment. Ninigawa began her career as a fashion photographer, and returns to that world with a story, based on Kyoko Okazaki’s manga, about the unravelling of a top model’s career. While there are some likeable elements in this satire of the fashion industry, the film is let down by its total lack of narrative structure and an irritating subplot, while the riot of colour that made Sakuran so refreshing seems like nothing more than eye candy in Helter Skelter, helping to gloss over the film’s weaknesses.
Erika Sawajiri stars as Lilico, Japan’s hottest model and teen idol. She’s bitchy, tyrannical and stunning – but also a fake. Her looks have been created at an expensive clinic, paid for by her agent, who is still extracting a heavy price for turning her into a commodity. When Lilico is pushed aside by a younger model, her anger and frustrations are taken out on her unfortunate assistant, who’s forced to endure endless humiliations. In the meantime, a team of police, led by an obnoxious, irritating character who spouts trite philosophical soundbites, is investigating the clinic for illegally using human tissue in its patients (a sorely underdeveloped idea – although strange bruises do begin to appear underneath Lilico’s skin.) But rather than use this investigation to add an element of noir to the film, the scenes with the police are mostly shot in a very bland office, with them doing very little. They add nothing to the already fractured narrative, while the dialogue is simply excruciating.
Despite some good moments – Ninigawa does an excellent job capturing the absurdity of the industry, and the public’s obsession with beauty at all costs – the director’s inimitable style can’t make up for the unlikeable characters, needlessly frenetic pacing, and worst of all, the weak script. SC
The Samurai That Night
Adapted by Masaaki Akahori from his own play, The Samurai That Night is the story of a meek factory owner, Nakamura, who is still grieving after the death of his wife and is looking for revenge against the thug who killed her in a road accident five years earlier. The title ironically refers to Nakamura’s vengeance fantasy, which is comically and pitifully deflated in the realistically depicted modern world of the film. The film is indeed anything but an action film: it takes the classical opposition between the wronged good man looking for payback and the unredeemable evil brute but films it as a slow-paced, introspective character study. When – in another nod to the samurai film – the final big showdown in the rain comes, there is no resolution, or even progression, and both characters remain the same.
This could have been interesting, were it not for the excessively simplistic characterisation, the unbearably ponderous tone and the affected, sometimes sentimental quirkiness (the main character obsessively eats custard desserts; while on a date he takes his late wife’s bra out of the pocket of his trousers; when he plays ball with his overly sweet date, just as he used to with his wife, she delivers an exasperating ode to simple things – I could go on). This is a film that is not as deep as it thinks it is and its self-important slowness just makes it tiresomely dull. VS
A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews