Walker (Lee Marvin) is out for revenge after a robbery ends with his friend double-crossing him, leaving him for dead and running off with his wife and the stolen money. It is a classic plot that could easily be an Anthony Mann Western or a Fritz Lang film noir. And yet Point Blank (1967) can be seen as heralding a turning point in Hollywood cinema, which was to lead to the innovative filmmaking of the 1970s and beyond.
While the 60s were marked by a great creative upheaval and experimentation seemed the order of the day, from the ‘new waves’ in France and Czechoslovakia to the American underground cinema, Hollywood remained resistant to these forces for change. The classical Hollywood ‘invisible’ style, with all elements of filmmaking subservient to the narrative, still dominated – The Sound of Music was the biggest hit of 1965 and more big-budget musicals were planned. The director knew he had done a good job if you didn’t notice his work. That an audience could watch and admire the cool stylish direction as well as follow the plot was an idea that only occurred to Hollywood execs at the very end of the decade – the pivotal year of 1969 when the huge failure of those big-budget musicals and the success of films like Easy Rider (1969) forced the industry to reevaluate its approach.
Point Blank was conceived as a vehicle for that unlikely star, Lee Marvin, who somehow became box-office gold in the mid-60s. After years of great scene-stealing performances as the bad guy in such classics as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), The Big Heat (1953) and The Wild One (1953), Marvin seemed to dodge his destined ‘Hey It’s That Guy’ status and found his moment had come.
He inherited the taciturn tough guy roles that John Wayne was too ill to play and took the type to new extremes of meanness. The dark side that lurks inside the Western or noir hero is out in the open in his role as a sociopathic hit man in Point Blank. He even fights dirtier, smashing bottles into faces and punching in the nuts. He is the American individualist – one man against ‘The Organisation’. His enemy has similarly evolved from the scheming cattle barons and corrupt mayors of the Western and noir to a business corporation that has no understanding of revenge or debts of honour. ‘Profit is the only principle,’ its bosses tell Walker. When he asks for his money he is told simply, ‘No business corporation in the world would acknowledge a debt of that kind’. The Hollywood hero struggles manfully on as the modern world throws up unimagined impediments.
It was Marvin who wanted to hire young hip Swinging London director John Boorman; and Marvin again who protected him from studio interference. Boorman – whose previous film (his debut) was the Dave Clark Five movie Catch Us If You Can (1965), a visually inventive and often brilliant mix of Richard Lester wackiness and kitchen sink realism – seems an odd choice for a gritty noir. He brings a range of innovations rarely seen in a mainstream Hollywood thriller, playing with a variety of styles borrowed from underground and art-house directors such as Stan Brakhage and Alain Resnais. The rampaging Walker smashes bottles bath oils that swirl around the plughole like psychedelic projections. Marvin and Angie Dickinson appear in separate fragments of a smashed mirror. But he uses those techniques to further the plot and add psychological depth without slowing the pace of the thriller and maintains the clarity of the Hollywood narrative. The inventive flashbacks (disturbing matches on action) show the character haunted by his memories, and yet temporal disorientation is minimised by an ingenious device – the earlier the flashback, the less grey there is in Lee Marvin’s hair.
Despite the stylish direction, Point Blank, just like Catch Us If You Can, is not a film that celebrates the 60s. For a film set and shot in LA and San Francisco in 1967 it is pretty dour. Even the groovy night club is peopled by slimy middle-aged balding executives singing a call and response with the resident soul band – it is like a scene cut from an ugly version of Mad Men. The 60s California we get here is one of leering used-car salesmen vainly listening to their own radio commercials, corrupt politicians and corporate lawyers.
The desire of stars like Lee Marvin and Steve McQueen to make voguish, cooler-looking films led the studios to bring in European (well, British) directors. Through films like Point Blank and Peter Yates’s commercially successful Bullitt (1968), Hollywood gradually began to appreciate that audiences may enjoy seeing exciting filmmaking even if it drew attention to the artifice of cinema.
Admittedly, Virginie Despentes’s notorious hardcore adaptation of her novel, co-directed with former porn actress Coralie Trinh Thi, is implausibly plotted, has wooden dialogue and patchy acting, and looks like a drab TV movie. And yet, Baise-moi is a fascinating and important film. The raw explicitness of the title (‘Fuck me’) sets the tone for this tale of two disenfranchised women on the run. Manu (Raffaëla Anderson) is a porn actress who lives on a brutal rundown estate. Nadine (Karen Bach) is a hooker who spends her time watching porn and getting stoned. After Manu is attacked in a barely watchable, vicious rape scene, her brother calls her a slut, mistaking the harsh, disillusioned impassiveness with which she reacts for indifference. She flips and kills him. Elsewhere in town, Nadine similarly loses control. The two women meet when Manu puts a gun to Nadine’s head, a fitting start to their desperate friendship and an almost aimless journey through France littered with indiscriminate murder, sex and drugs.
With two ex-porn actresses as the leads and unsimulated sex scenes, Despentes and Trinh Thi aimed to make Baise-moi real and visceral. Shot on DV, with no additional lighting and a tiny budget, the film (just like the source novel) was inspired by French punk music (Seven Hate, Virago and X Syndicate feature on the soundtrack). These low-production values mean that, aside from a couple of red-tinged scenes, it looks dismally ugly – but if it had looked prettier, it may well have been a more objectionable film.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Baise-moi indeed caused a huge controversy on its release in France and abroad (it is still banned in Australia), and even the filmmakers were not quite prepared for the level of aggression and hostility they provoked. After a complaint by right-wing religious group Promouvoir, Baise-moi was banned by the French government. This was replaced shortly after with an 18 certificate following a petition organised by another female agitator of French cinema, Catherine Breillat.
The film has been criticised for its perceived hatred of men and arbitrary violence, but Manu and Nadine’s first victim is a woman, and in the book they also kill a child, a scene the filmmakers chose not to include for practical and moral reasons (which they intelligently explain in the insightful documentary included in the extras). True, most of Manu and Nadine’s victims are men, and most of the murders are associated with sex, but the reaction to Baise-moi seems entirely disproportionate given the number of films in which men subject women to horrendous violence, sexual and otherwise.
As for the accusations of pornographic content, Baise-moi actually offers a rare multifaceted, if dark, representation of female sexuality. Interestingly conflicted and boldly candid, it is undeniably disturbing, starting with the violence and sexual exploitation that Manu and Nadine are routinely subjected to. Reversing the situation in their murderous road trip, they punish the lecherous desires of the men they encounter by humiliating and killing them. But they don’t simply use their sexuality for power, they also enjoy sex, in one scene taking two young men back to their hotel room. Debunking another stereotype about women and hinting at the complexities of female desire, Nadine also likes masturbating to porn. Although sex is important to both of them, it is part of a wider portrayal of their lives which also takes in the weight of social expectations, hypocrisy and prejudice, violence (both suffered and inflicted), disenchantment, disaffection, anger, laughter and friendship.
Baise-moi is excessive, unrealistic, unpolished, clumsy, trashy and ugly, but its violent fantasy of female power has an uncompromising rawness, gutsy courage and angry energy that command attention – even respect.
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.
Set across a dreamy and melancholic cityscape, Franck Kahlfoun’s take on William Lustig’s notorious 1980 shocker might well be the best genre film to be released this year.
Shot largely in first-person P.O.V., it features an intense performance from Elijah Wood, who manages to portray Frank as a man both frighteningly sadistic and heart-breakingly pitiful. Frank works as a mannequin restorer and seller at a dilapidated shop in LA, which used to belong to his promiscuous mother. He has uncontrollable feeling of abject hatred and fear of women, which explode in acts of unparalleled violence. When Frank meets Ann, who wants to use his mannequins in a photography exhibition she’s preparing, the two connect in an awkward but not implausible way. However, as their relationship develops, it becomes harder and harder for Frank to control his destructive impulses.
Utilising mirrors, windows and other reflective surfaces, Khalfoun creates a glossy but emotive visual language: while the horror of Frank’s barbaric acts is never underplayed, his character comes across as a tragic figure rather than as the one-dimensional psychopath that is the stereotype of the genre. Cleverly using the soundtrack to intensify the city and Frank’s experience, Khalfoun grabs the audience when they least expect it: added into the mix are the rare appearances of Elijah Wood’s face, his eyes exhibiting a dead, hollow quality that makes his acts even more disturbing. His voice-over, delivered in a child-like whisper, speaks volumes about a man whose life has been lost for a long time: reminiscent of the protagonist Paul in Tony Vorno’s forgotten grindhouse gem Victims, Frank is equal parts abhorrent murderer and unexpected victim.
It’s hard to think of another piece of filmmaking that will manage to pack the same visual invention and emotional punch into a measly 89 minutes. Do not miss.
A dizzying, dazzling affair at times, bearing witness to Steven Soderbergh’s craftsmanship, Side Effects might be compelling in the heat of the moment but, like a bad drug, it’s a quick fix that leaves you all the more frustrated afterwards.
Emily (Rooney Mara) should be nothing but happy since her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) has just been released from prison after a four-year sentence for insider trading. And she tries to be, duly swallowing every pill her friends, family and doctors recommend, but she can’t help feeling down: Martin’s return has brought back her long-suppressed depression, which soon pushes her to hurt not just herself but those around her. When after a long sleep on a new antidepressant she finds her husband stabbed to death, she can’t seem to remember a thing. Suddenly all eyes are on her psychiatrist (Jude Law), who prescribed the medication and emerges as the outlaw in a mix of pharmaceutical cover-up story, conventional psycho-thriller, unpredictable plot twists and wayward solutions.
Emily’s subtle transformation from the troubled loving wife to diabolical femme fatale is a little rocky, but a confident cast and their director largely keep the film aloft: it’s another genre exercise for Soderbergh that he has managed to pull off with the help of his Hollywood friends to entertaining, if ultimately rather underwhelming, effect.
A few months before Freddy Krueger began stalking the sleep of American teens in the A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, and almost three decades before Christopher Nolan’s Inception, Joseph Ruben’s Dreamscape used the world of dreams as a battleground. Where A Nightmare on Elm Street subverted the slasher genre and Inception was an inverted heist movie, Dreamscape was a sci-fi thriller in which the very future of the planet was at stake. Very loosely based on a treatment author Roger Zelazny wrote of his novel The Dream Master (1966), Dreamscape touched on an issue very much in people’s minds at the time. With fears of the possibility of nuclear Armageddon at their height, Ruben’s movie posited a scenario in which a trained dream-assassin would murder the president in his sleep, thus killing him in real life and halting his plans to bring nuclear proliferation to a halt.
Shady government agencies, compromised scientists and powerful psychics scheme, betray and fight in both the real and dream worlds. Dennis Quaid’s Alex Gardner, an affable but wayward psychic, is coerced into assisting on what is ostensibly a government-funded project to cure people of their nightmares. The programme’s star pupil and covert dream-assassin, Tommy Ray Glatman (David Patrick Kelly) – brash, egotistical and deeply troubled – is the Yang to Gardner’s Yin. Glatman’s damaged psyche makes him a dangerous weapon, easily able to terrorize the minds of those around him. Kelly gives a memorable performance as the proto-Krueger; turning dreams to nightmares, shape-shifting and even sporting blades for fingernails at one point. Gardner, by contrast, reconnects with his conscience and moral values as he is charged with stopping Glatman from carrying out his mission. The equally apposite, and equally manipulative, figures of Doctor Paul Novotny (Max von Sydow) and the project’s overseer, CIA operative Bob Blair (Christopher Plummer), are the older reflections of Gardner’s naïve protégé and Glatman’s malleable prodigy. While Novotny wants to use the psychic’s abilities as a force for good, Blair’s crooked agent is bent on stopping the President’s plans, believing they will hand the initiative in the Cold War to the Russians.
Blending action movie tropes with horror movie imagery into a science fiction narrative written as a thriller gave Dreamscape a fresh feel and cross-genre appeal. Visions of monsters conjured up in the imaginations of psychologically scarred children, and post-nuclear wastelands in the president’s tortured mind, are as fittingly nightmarish as could be realised on screen by special effects teams at the time. The theme of dream and inner worlds, alternate realities and what-if scenarios seen in many later science fiction and horror movies, from Brainstorm to Source Code, Dream Demon to From Beyond, proved an enduring and endlessly recyclable one. The fact that the ‘enemy’ in Dreamscape comes from within, literally and figuratively, leaves the viewer in no doubt that Ruben and screenwriters David Loughery and Chuck Russell understand that sometimes those guarding our safety can do as much to endanger it as any perceived external threat. That the president is seen as a figurehead to be maneuvered and toyed with marionette-like by those agencies also speaks volumes for their views on the true locations of the power bases in American politics.
Somewhat under-appreciated, possibly due to a superfluous romantic sub-plot involving Gardner and Kate Capshaw’s research assistant Jane DeVries, Dreamscape nonetheless remains an important step on the evolutionary road for science fiction cinema. Alien, Blade Runner and the Star Wars franchise may be the era’s science fiction titans, but Dreamscape, along with Brainstorm, deserves more recognition for delving into inner rather than outer space in its futuristic what-if narrative.
Focusing on seemingly mild-mannered concierge César, Jaume Balagueró’s Sleep Tight is an exceptional psycho-thriller that keeps its cards very close to its chest.
While César goes about his daily routine, doing odd jobs around the apartment building, most of the residents look right through him. However, César has secrets no one would even imagine: he is an adept predator that hides under a meek appearance.
César’s strange belief that he was born without the ability to be happy pushes him to start making a conscious effort to turn life hell for those around him. However, his methods are more deviant and despicable than any of the residents can imagine – and as Marta Etura’s Clara proves almost impossible to crack, César resorts to increasingly extreme measures.
Taking a break from the Rec franchise, Balagueró returns to his earlier style of filmmaking: tense and deftly handled camerawork coupled with a meticulous and disturbing story, which is revealed ever so slowly. Just like he did with Darkness Balagueró uses shadow and light to great effect – considering the setting, this is an approach that pays off handsomely. It’s a further joy that the film’s high production values accentuate the terror of César’s actions: modernity and comfort clash with his disturbing intentions in a series of tableaux that push the audience out of their comfort zone time and time again.
Spanish superstar Luis Tosar is incredible as César, pulling off a performance that can easily rival the best within the genre. With his nondescript appearance and almost shy mannerism he is one of the most dangerous men ever to be portrayed on screen, proving that one does not need loud noises to scare the audience.
Screenwriter Alberto Marini knows exactly how to toy with audiences’ expectations and turns the screws multiple times through the compact running time – even seasoned viewers will find themselves disturbed by where the film’s plot line is going to. His real achievement, however, lies in getting the audience to identify with a character like César: in one exquisitely plotted, breathtaking set-piece it’s hard not to wish for the psychotic handyman to get away with his actions.
All in all, Sleep Tight is one of the most disturbing and brilliantly made genre films to come out of Spain within the last few years, which, considering Spain’s prolific output, is a genuine achievement.
Stoker marks Korean director Park Chan-wook’s first foray into making a Hollywood feature in English, but he has not strayed too far from his roots. Following on from the themes he explored in his previous movies, Stoker is a sexually deviant tale of lust, jealousy and the very unenviable task of coming of age, explored with much of Park’s customary visual style. Closer to last year’s Korean hit The Taste of Money or even its prequel, The Housemaid (2010), than anything released in the mainstream, Stoker is a gorgeous marriage of style and substance.
The story revolves around 18-year-old India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), whose life is turned upside down following the death of her father in a tragic car accident. Left with her emotionally unstable mother (Nichole Kidman), India is further thrown into disarray with the arrival of her Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode): a man hitherto unknown to her and who might have ulterior motives.
The performances from the trio of leads is impressive: the dance between Charlie and India is set to a vicious and sexual beat – Wasikowska and Goode are more than adept at capturing it – while Kidman brings a sense of disdain and jealousy to her character that Bette Davis would’ve been proud of. Wentworth Miller’s script is an unfolding joy: taking its cue from Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943), it explores the story with a sense of sexual deviancy that Hitchcock would surely have approved of, while Park’s use of visual motifs within the film recalls the more abstract images in Vertigo (1958). However, the film’s real coup is the use of physical space. It is deliberate in its attempt to disorient the viewer: impossible exits and entrances, sudden shifts within rooms and a lot more bring to mind the architectural deliberations of Mark Z. Danielewski’s novel House of Leaves.
Something must also be said for the incredible supercharged soundtrack by Clint Mansell, to which is added a Philip Glass piece that captures the emotional glass heart of the film perfectly. Emily Wells is the icing on the cake of what might indeed be the best soundtrack of the year, alongside Maniac.
Although the film will have its detractors, it’s hard not to be impressed with what Park has achieved here: a Korean movie in Hollywood clothing, Stoker is a one-of-a-kind masterpiece.