We Are What We Are

We Are What We Are
We Are What We Are

Format: Cinema

Release date: 28 February 2014

Distributor: Entertainment One

Director: Jim Mickle

Writers: Nick Damici, Jim Mickle

Cast: Bill Sage, Ambyr Childers, Julia Garner, Kelly McGillis

Based on the film: Somos lo que hay (Jorge Michel Grau, 2010)

USA 2013

105 mins

Based on the 2010 Mexican film of the same title, Jim Mickle’s We Are What We Are is not so much a remake as an entirely new film revolving around the same premise. Jorge Michel Grau’s film was gritty and realistic, with a few staggeringly visceral, gruesome scenes. Through the portrait of a family of cannibals, it hinted at the brutality of survival among Mexico’s poorest, and observed the shifting family dynamics after the death of the father, mixing in intimations of incest and awakening homosexual desires.

Shifting the focus from this man-eat-man social jungle to the unquestioning observance of rigid, archaic beliefs, Mickle places the story within the context of American history, making the family’s cannibalism a twisted practice going back to the hardships of their pioneer ancestors. In so doing, he also switches the gender roles of the original. In Grau’s film, the men were nominally in charge, even though the women were by far the fiercest and most ruthless members of the family. Here, the women are the keepers of the ritual, and when the mother dies, it is up to the delicate, pretty blonde daughters to continue the tradition under the oppressive control of their tyrannical father, with their youth and innocence a shocking contrast to the grim acts they are forced to perform.

Replacing the muscular direction of his post-apocalyptic vampire movie Stake Land with an eerie, dreamy atmosphere bathed in blueish tones, Mickle has fashioned a melancholy American Gothic tale set deep among bleak, misty mountains. Far less brutal and bloody than its Mexican predecessor, the film is surprisingly restrained and eschews showing any gory details until the explosion of violence that concludes the story. That grisly denouement jars with the rest of the film and seems unnecessarily excessive on first view, although it is perhaps needed to balance the muted sadness that dominates throughout. Regardless of how that end is perceived, We Are What We Are easily stands out among the dumb and dire remakes that relentlessly clog cinema screens. A thoughtful, intelligent take on the earlier film, it exerts a spellbinding charm that is all its own.

An earlier version of this review was published as part of our FrightFest 2013 coverage.

Virginie Sélavy

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Format: Cinema

Release date: 22 February 2014

Distributor: Curzon Film World

Director: Lars von Trier

Writer: Lars von Trier

Cast: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin, Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Uma Thurman, Willem Dafoe, Jamie Bell

Denmark, Belgium, France, Germany, UK 2013

118 + 123 mins

This is a review of the theatrical version of the film, released in 2014.

In Lars von Trier’s 1998 Dada-spirited satire The Idiots, the characters pretended to be mentally retarded in a series of anarchic pranks that aimed to provoke reactions and shake up the social order. Just like his characters, von Trier often appears in the role of the idiot, the singular individual who won’t behave as is expected or conform to society’s collectively sanctioned discourse, as demonstrated most spectacularly by the furore that greeted his misperceived comments at the Cannes Film Festival three years ago.

Now, after the epic misery of Dancer in the Dark, Antichrist and Melancholia, he returns to the mischievous spirit of The Idiots with what is arguably his greatest film so far, a colossal saga of lust and life, a magnum opus that recapitulates everything he has done before, encapsulating major themes, character types and even scenes from previous films, and integrating them into an ambitious, intelligent and vivid work of tremendous depth and breadth.

Divided into two volumes of roughly two hours each, the teasingly titled Nymphomaniac tells the story of the troubled, bruised and battered Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) as she recounts it to gentle intellectual Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), who rescued her after finding her unconscious in an alley. The first part covers Joe’s childhood and youthful erotic experiences with playful, witty verve, before descending into darker, more painful territory in the second part as Joe’s desires come up against the crushing pressures and constraining demands of adult life. The erudite Seligman responds to each episode that Joe describes with brilliant digressions on the art of fishing, Fibonacci numbers, Edgar Allan Poe, Bach, Roman punishments, James Bond, Zeno’s Paradox of the Tortoise and Achilles, the Catholic and Orthodox religions and so forth, establishing connections and analogies between her experiences on the one hand and the history of human thought on the other hand, and in so doing, removing the notion of sin and Joe’s condemnation of herself.

Nymphomaniac Volumes I & II Director’s Cut is released in the UK on DVD and Blu-ray on 10 May 2015 by Artificial Eye. Now with 90 minutes of previously unseen material.

All these cultural references are skilfully and inventively woven into the film, either prompting the revelation of a new chapter in Joe’s life, illuminating unexpected aspects of her story, or offering a different perspective on it. The storytelling is complex and controlled, as well as playfully self-aware, with Seligman sometimes expressing doubts about the veracity of parts of Joe’s story. Von Trier’s obvious love for the art and ideas referenced is never self-indulgent, but thrillingly demonstrates the profound and vital connection between art and life.

Occasionally, the dialogue between Joe and Seligman turns into debates on thorny topics such as anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, misogyny and women’s place in society, the outright condemnation of paedophiles and the use of words like ‘negro’. At times, it feels as if von Trier was responding to his detractors, at others as if he was having a dialogue with himself, using both characters to present the two sides of the discussions (attributing the more incendiary views to each of them in turns) in nuanced, thought-provoking ways.

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As all this makes clear, for all of the explicit trailers and the provocative title, Nymphomaniac is not a film about sex as much as it is a film about being human, about love, lust, desire, failings, irresistible urges and irrepressible terrors. The tone is one of ironic distance, but also of curiosity and openness, as the emotions and secretions of the strange human species are observed with quasi-scientific detachment tinged with – for von Trier – a surprising amount of amused warmth. Uncompromising and eye-wateringly candid, the film looks at all aspects of life, with an enormous desire to see everything and embrace it all, no matter whether it is beautiful or ugly, comical or disturbing.

In that spirit, von Trier examines the human body with wonderful, invigorating honesty, scrutinizing it in all its gooeyness, inspecting sperm, female lubrication, shit and blood with non-judgemental interest. The camera unflinchingly stares at cocks (erect, but also at rest in a gallery of penises that humorously shows off the diversity of the male anatomy), cunts, tits and arses; in sex acts, but also in sickness and in pain. Women have pubic hair in what seems almost a protest against the hair intolerance and sanitised female bodies of a porn-influenced mainstream culture, in the same way that the characters saying words such as ‘cunt’ and ‘negro’ feels like a giddy two fingers at the censoring self-righteousness of our strange neo-puritan age.

Supported by intense, in turns courageous and uproarious performances, as well as a soundtrack that includes everything from Rammstein to Beethoven, in keeping with the film’s free, open spirit, Nymphomaniac is an exhilarating tour de force that takes in the whole of the singular human experience, including the body and the brain, sex and love, art and life, and all of the complicated, painful and wonderful connections between them. Astonishing, energising and exciting, Nymphomaniac is a fearless film made by a man with a tremendous lust for life in all its cruelty, absurdity and richness.

Read our interview with Lars von Trier on Antichrist.

Virginie Sélavy

Only Lovers Left Alive

Only Lovers Left Alive
Only Lovers Left Alive

Format: Cinema

Release date: 21 February 2014

Distributor: Soda Pictures

Director: Jim Jarmusch

Writer: Jim Jarmusch

Cast: Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, John Hurt, Mia Wasikowska

UK 2013

123 mins

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).

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.

This review was first published as part of our Cannes 2013 coverage.

Pamela Jahn

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As always with Jim Jarmusch, music is crucial to the film, not just as sonic accompaniment to the images, but also as an integral part of the story, starting with a main character who is a musician and lives in a house full of vinyl and vintage guitars (almost all of the records actually belong to Jarmusch).

The score was written by Jozef Van Wissem, avant-garde composer, lutenist and guitarist, with contributions by SQ&#220RL, a trio featuring Jarmusch, Carter Logan and Shane Stoneback. Van Wissem’s music is beautifully sparse and evocative, punctuating the story with nonchalant, unhurried, fuzzy guitars that moodily drift in and out, just like the characters.

Only Lovers Left Alives is released in the UK on DVD, Blu-ray and limited edition Steelbok (BR) on 15 September 2014. The Jim Jarmusch Collection with the director’s first six films will also be released by Soda Pictures on 6 October to tie in with the BFI Jim Jarmusch Season, which will include the re-release of Down by Law on 12 September 2014.

In addition to the score, there are a number of original songs that are heard at key moments in the film. The opening track is a woozy, slowed-down, even ghostlier remix of Wanda Jackson’s spine-tingling ‘Funnel of Love’, which flows over a hypnotic pan of the various characters in different locations, all tripping out after drinking blood. Later we’ll also hear the louche guitar riff of Charlie Feathers’s terrific ‘Can’t Hardly Stand It’ and Denise LaSalle’s laidback and soulful ballad ‘Trapped by a Thing Called Love’. But it’s not all classic soul and rock’n’roll, and Jarmusch’s enduring love for the 50s and 60s is complemented by new music from the likes of American psychedelic rock band White Hills, and Lebanese singer Yasmine Hamdan in an atmospheric, Moroccan-set café scene.

The Only Lovers Left Alive soundtrack is out on ATP Recordings. It is available on double 180 gsm 12” red vinyl (with download code), CD, and digital download. There is also a limited edition of 1000, all-black 180g 12″ vinyl singles featuring ‘The Taste of Blood’ (Jozef Van Wissem and SQ&#220RL), ‘Funnel of Love’ (SQ&#220RL and Madeline Follin) and ‘In Templum Dei’ (Jozef Van Wissem and Zola Jesus). To listen now to ‘The Taste of Blood’, please click here.

Virginie Sélavy

In Order of Disappearance

In Order of Disappearance
In Order of Disappearance

Format: Cinema

Release date: 12 September 2014

Distributor: Metrodome

Director: Hans Petter Moland

Writer: Kim Fupz Aakeson

Cast: Stellan Skarsgård, Kristofer Hivju, Bruno Ganz

Original title: Kraftidioten

Norway, Sweden, Denmark 2014

115 mins

Nils (Stellan Skarsgård) doesn’t talk much. A snowplough driver by profession, and recently elected as the community’s ‘Man of the Year’, he’s more the kind of guy who skips the chitchat and gets right to the action – especially if he is upset, or angry, or both. And when his son suddenly dies of a heroin overdose, he is devastated and opts to take revenge.

His urge for personal vengeance soon becomes a dangerous threat not only for the gangsters responsible for his son’s death, who wrongly believed him to be engaged in a spurious drug scam. Rather, in the course of his investigations, he also shakes up the frosty relationship between the Norwegian drug Mafia and their Serbian opponents, which inevitably leads to a big showdown at Nils’s depot. To reveal much more of the story would take the fun out of Moland’s droll and deftly crafted crime thriller, but rest assured that the number of characters drops quickly once Nils gets into the flow of things.

Although the filmmaking is assured and the pace correspondingly brisk, keeping in line with its hero’s spirit, there is no denying that Moland reworks a well-tested formula here, which places his playful slice of Nordic noir at risk of running idle. He occasionally tries too hard to exploit the winning (and sometimes worrisome) simple-mindedness of some of the villains, while the initially amusing structure of the film (each death on screen is marked with an intertitle of a cross and the victim’s name) somewhat looses momentum towards the end. But you have to give it to Skarsgård for keeping a perfectly straight face throughout, while Moland makes excellent use of the crisp, snowy landscape that, as ever, serves as an appropriate setting for a staggering war of revenge.

Pamela Jahn

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John Dies at the End

John Dies at the End

Format: DVD + Blu-ray

Release date: 17 February 2014

Distributor: Eureka

Director: Don Coscarelli

Writer: Don Coscarelli

Based on the novel by: David Wong

Cast: Anton Yelchin, Addison Timlin, Leonor Varela, Willem Dafoe

USA 2012

99 mins

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.

This review was first published as part of our London Film Festival 2012 coverage.

Mark Stafford

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Odd Thomas

Odd Thomas

Format: DVD

Release date: 3 February 2014

Distributor: Metroodome

Director: Stephen Sommers

Writer: Stephen Sommers

Based on the novel by: Dean R. Koontz

Cast: Anton Yelchin, Addison Timlin, Leonor Varela, Willem Dafoe

USA 2013

93 mins

In the tradition of Hollywood thrillers of the 80s like The Burbs, Odd Thomas is a delightful, offbeat yet mainstream film that will be sure to please those looking for some old-school thrills. Anton Yelchin plays Odd Thomas, a short-order cook with the ability to see dead people, who uses his powers to bring killers and murderers to justice. Addison Timlin plays Stormy Llewellyn, while Willem Defoe is Chief Wyatt Porter, who knows about Odd’s powers, and helps to keep them hidden.

Stephen Sommers keeps the whole film lighter than a ball of marshmallow, while the set-pieces and special effects are impressive enough for a film clearly not made on a big budget. The central mystery is simple – for once it’s nice to see a thriller where there aren’t complicated layers after complicated layers – it’s a true Hollywood case of good guys vs. bad guys, and Odd Thomas is not a lesser film for it. Clearly trying to attract as wide an audience as possible, this is a breezy, fun-ride reminder of how good Hollywood mainstream can be when it chooses to. Delightful.

This review was first published as part of our FrightFest 2013 coverage.

Evrim Ersoy

Lift to the Scaffold

Lift to the Scaffold
Lift to the Scaffold

Format: Cinema

Release date: 7 February 2014

Distributor: BFI

Director: Louis Malle

Writers: Roger Nimier, Louis Malle

Based on the novel by: No&#235l Calef

Cast: Jeanne Moreau, Maurice Ronet, Georges Poujouly, Yori Bertin

Original Title: Ascenseur pour l’échafaud

France 1958

92 mins

Louis Malle’s 1958 debut feature Lift to the Scaffold offered a number of notable firsts. The director introduced key themes such as duplicity, moral compromise, weakness and fatal attraction that would permeate his work over a subsequent 30-year career. Released under a number of guises, including Elevator to the Gallows, but best known under its original language title of Ascenseur pour l’échafaud, it made an iconic star of Jeanne Moreau and featured the first film score composed by Miles Davis.

The film is adapted from a relatively minor roman noir by No&#235l Calef that was clearly indebted to Double Indemnity; it is also an early example of a European take on film noir with a nocturnal Paris standing in for the mean streets of Los Angeles. Retaining the bare bones of the novel and bringing the marginalised female character to the forefront, Malle and his script writer, the left-wing novelist Roger Nimier, up the existential ante in the tale of a handsome veteran of the Indo-China and Algerian wars, Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet), and his lover, Florence Carala (Jeanne Moreau), who plan the murder of her husband, an arms manufacturer. Returning from the crime scene, Tavernier becomes trapped in an elevator and Florence is forced to wander the streets of Paris forlornly awaiting their assignation. Any final flickering hopes of escape are extinguished when a teenage couple steal Tavernier’s car and take it on a joyride.

Influenced by Bresson and Hitchcock, Lift to the Scaffold boasts two remarkable achievements alongside its pervasive mood of melancholy, ennui and amour fou. The film is shot in high-contrast black and white by Henri Deca&#235 and is striking to look at, with each frame resembling an intricately designed photograph; Deca&#235 went on to work for Chabrol and Truffaut and became one of the finest cinematographers in European cinema. The other trump card is the aforementioned score by Miles Davis.

Malle was a huge jazz fan and carried a particular torch for the music of Miles Davis. While the director was editing the film in 1957, Miles was visiting Paris to play as a guest soloist for a few weeks at the Club St Germain, and the pair were introduced via Juliette Greco. Malle plucked up the courage to ask Miles to compose a score. Initially reluctant because he was travelling without his usual recording band, Miles was finally convinced after being shown a rough cut of the film and given an explanation of the plot and main characters. As recounted in Malle on Malle, a series of interviews between the director and Philip French, the duo agreed on the moments in the film where music was required, and on a rare night off from his club residency Miles gathered together musicians Barney Wilen (tenor sax), Rene Urtreger (piano), Pierre Michelot (bass) and Kenny Clarke (drums). Renting a studio whose foreboding atmospherics matched the dark nature of the film, work continued from 10 at night until five in the morning with all the music, amounting to about 18 minutes in total in the film (a 2003 soundtrack reissue later compiled a further 40 minutes of out-takes), scored directly to screen. This was one of the first film scores recorded this way and improvised in its entirety. Malle found Miles’s efforts transformative, declaring that without the score the film would not have had the critical and public response it enjoyed.

The score is indeed remarkable, often acting as a counterpoint to what we see on screen rather than trying to simply reinforce it. The music is elegiac and detached, while the mood of the film is often one of anticipation and tension, contributing to the poignant sense of doom that shrouds the film from the first image to the very last. The score is particularly effective when we see Moreau’s character prowling the Paris streets at dawn, lending it a sense of abstract emotion. Jack Johnson aside, Miles Davis would go on to produce other feature film soundtracks, perhaps most notably the John Lee Hooker and Taj Mahal triple whammy for The Hot Spot, one of those instances where the soundtrack is more memorable than the film it accompanies, but he never came close again to replicating what he did on Lift to the Scaffold.

The film also marked a major turning point in the career of Miles Davis, freeing the trumpeter from the conventional structures of modern jazz. The result was Kind of Blue, widely regarded as the bestselling album in the history of jazz.

Jason Wood

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