Director Jeremy Saulnier made waves in 2007 with his debut feature Murder Party, a well-constructed, perhaps a little over-ambitious horror-comedy that was head and shoulders above most of the mainstream releases coming out that year. His return to the big screen is nothing short of astonishing: Blue Ruin is a taut, tight, incredibly tense but also laugh-out-loud funny revenge thriller the likes of which only come out once in a blue moon.
Dwight (Macon Blair in a terrific turn) is an outsider who lives out of a car on the beach, avoiding contact with other people, save for breaking into their homes from time to time to use their bathrooms and steal small necessities. However, the arrival of friendly police officer Eddy (Sidné Anderson) with some unexpected news sets Dwight on a path of vengeance and destruction that will engulf him and all those he knows.
Blue Ruin is released in the UK on DVD + Blu-ray on 8 September 2014.
Blue Ruin is best appreciated blind because the joy of the film is as reliant on the journey of Dwight as it is on the narrative twists. With a palette reminiscent of the loved-but-forgotten neo-noir Westerns of the 90s such as Red Rock West and Kill me Again, he paints the story of a resourceful everyman who becomes an avenger who finds himself out of his depth. With a beautiful synth score and immaculate sound design, the film ratchets up the tension, keeping the audience engrossed through a number of unexpected key sequences.
Within a much-appreciated 90-minute runtime, Saulnier, writing and directing, manages to create an entire world populated with wholly believable characters who face the consequences of their actions in dark and remarkable ways. Saulnier is also a skilful cinematographer (as movie-lovers can see in films such as the wonderful I Used To Be Darker and You Hurt My Feelings) and his visual style is striking, capturing the inane banality of Dwight’s journey with stops on the way for arresting imagery.
Using Macon Blair’s expressive face to full effect, Saulnier drags the journey on the vengeance trail kicking and screaming. What’s the most impressive, however, is his ability to mine incredibly funny dark humour during scenes of unbearable tension – a trait which he had demonstrated before in Murder Party.
Saulnier claims that he made Blue Ruin to prove that he wasn’t just a horror genre filmmaker – in fact during one of his festival appearances he admitted that he had to distance himself from Murder Party because no one would finance anything that was outside of horror. While that state of affairs is an indication of the general attitude towards genre filmmakers, Saulnier’s stellar effort in Blue Ruin will serve as a reminder that he is a talent to watch with the ability to strike across multiple genres.
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.
Watch the trailer:
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.
Cast: Anton Yelchin, Addison Timlin, Leonor Varela, Willem Dafoe
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.
Cast: Anton Yelchin, Addison Timlin, Leonor Varela, Willem Dafoe
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.
Cast: Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Rachel Korine, Ashley Benson, James Franco, Gucci Mane
Harmony Korine may be the writer of Larry Clark’s Kids (1995), director of Gummo (1997) and friends with Werner Herzog, but gaining a reputation as one of the many enfants terribles of American cinema doesn’t mean mediocre work can go unnoticed. That is not to say that Spring Breakers is a bad film per se – there are a few sparks of brilliance in it – but everyone who’s beyond the actual spring-break age may struggle to keep their attention focused on what is essentially a slow-motion-candy-colour-teen-bikini-tits-pills-guns-coke-pseudo-gangsta-rap-beach-rave video clip on constant rewind.
Part of the film’s problem may be that, as his projects have grown bigger, Korine wants too much, too fast. While Kids was all about sex, Spring Breakers is as much about sex as it is about violence, money and drugs, in equal measures. It’s the American teen dream (or nightmare) packed in 92 seemingly endless minutes. And as most dreams go, especially those on illegal highs, its sparse narrative, following four bored-to-death college girls on a crime spree to spring-break paradise, is elliptical, hazy and marked by recurrence and a sense of déjá vu.
When, soon after their arrival at St. Pete Beach, Brit (Ashley Benson), Faith (Selena Gomez), Candy (Vanessa Hudgens) and Cotty (Rachel Korine) end up in jail for dancing at the right party at the wrong time, they are bailed out by sleazy, big-mouthed local hustler Alien (James Franco), who takes the girls under his wing. It’s all fun and games with Alien too, who proudly announces that he has found his soulmates in the reckless blondes who would stop at nothing to have fun, until Cotty gets shot and chickens out, following devoutly religious Faith, who has long gone home. For the remaining two girls, however, the party is just getting started.
Korine himself said that he just wants to be as innovative, radical and personal as possible, and to get people who wouldn’t normally go for his stuff to watch his films. Fair enough, and Soderbergh’s Magic Mike (2012) has just proven that no matter how ambitious your intention as a director may be, you better keep things simple if you want to succeed at the box office, too. In fact, that there may well be a subtle melodrama hiding somewhere behind the sex-and-crime-obsession-imagery seems to unnecessarily complicate matters in Spring Breakers. But thanks to cinematographer Benoît Debie (Enter the Void, 2009) and a dubstep/electro soundtrack featuring DJ Skrillex and Winding-Refn’s composer, Cliff Martinez, you are sure to forget that thought within seconds, and instead find yourself trapped in a loop of booze, beach and boobs yet again.
Writers: Alexander Jacobs, David Newhouse, Rafe Newhouse
Based on the novel The Hunter by: Donald E. Westlake (aka Richard Stark)
Cast: Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, Keenan Wynn
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.
Writers: Alexandre Aja, Grégory Levasseur, C.A. Rosenberg, Joe Spinell
Cast: Freedom, America Olivo, Elijah Wood
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.
Read our Comic Strip Review of the original Maniac.
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.