Sunday, 25 August 2013

The Horror, the horror... of Hilary Duff and Human Centipedes

Sherlock Jr. / Our Hospitality – Buster Keaton -  A ghost-like face of muted melancholy and the trusty flat boater was all this genius needed for his timeless and wildly entertaining physical wit. Dream like, anarchic, athletic, hilarious and, despite the high-octane slapstick acrobatics, occasionally wistful and even haunting.


 The Holy Mountain – Alexandro Jodorowski – A film that showcases Jodorowski’s extravagant vision of psycho-magical and astrological spiritualism through a journey of convoluted enlightenment. Jaw dropping set design, with artful compositions and opulent costumes, all closer in style to surrealist paintings than to the familiar tropes of cinema. His imagination bludgeons its excitable imprint between carnivals of adolescent fixation and a solemn fetish for spiritualism, pitching the tone somewhere between Monty Python, elaborate mysticism and the graphic novels of Max Ernst. All of which makes this a hugely entertaining, maddening, overblown and intensely individual film, replete with memorable sequences and laughable conviction. Perhaps the most memorable, for me, was the Mexican conquest – re-enacted by various reptiles (REAL reptiles), all wearing tailor-made mini suits of armour…or waddling, leaping and simply sitting in ornate garments of colourful Inca apparel. Perhaps the most laughable moment arrives at the end: a moment in which the ‘fourth wall’ is broken – revealing camera/crew and lighting, accompanied by the ‘revelatory’ knowledge that ‘Real life awaits us.’ One of many instances in which the film is nowhere near as profound as its theatrically assured and consciously symbolist boasting of the bizarre would suggest. However, the dazzling oddity, audacity and magnificent absurdity of this spectacle cannot be ignored…and should be witnessed by everyone and anyone who professes an interest in the visionary and strange. 8/10

Apocalypse Now - Not much insight, thought or commentary I can add to this monumental beast of modern cinema. I watched the Director’s ‘Redux’ cut, which took the, already long, film to an expansive grandeur of 202 minutes. I was absorbed, thrilled and effortlessly immersed in the mesmeric Heart of Darkness journey. An epic example of sustained and coiling suspense – ploughing through a hybridised jungle of genre flux: adventure, introspection, horror, war, politics, social commentary, more horror, character study, literary dimensions, action, parody, romance, grand tragedy and above all, as mentioned before ‘the horror, the horror…’ 10/10


Happiness – An excruciating pitch black comedy of all that threatens, undermines and betrays the sentiment of its title: happiness. The film follows a family of three sisters and charts their varying lives and relationships, introducing an extended cast of weird, debauched and tragic characters that weave in and out of parallel vignettes. The opening sequence is perhaps one of the most hilarious and perfectly timed and acted scenes of a couple’s break up that I have ever seen – culminating in the quivering assertion that ‘I’m champagne and your SHIT….and you’ll always be shit!’ At the film’s troubling centre is a father who, despite maintaining the edifice of a suburban, happy family, is struggling with the darkness of his hidden existence as a paedophile. We watch, with griping unease, as he lures his son’s friends, shares intimate conversations with his son about ejaculation and eventually arrives at a trembling confession. It is this dark thread that draws the rest of the film together, with genuinely powerful performances from both Dylan Baker (as the father) and Justin Elvin (as the son). Elsewhere Philip Seymour Hoffman channels the same sweaty, frustrated desperation that he brings to Boogie Nights, but with the lonely and repulsive factor escalated to hilarious heights (or rather to its darkest, most comical lows). Some strands work less well, one of the sisters (the one we see breaking up in the first scene) gets embroiled and exploited in a ridiculous relationship with a Russian immigrant, which feels comparatively implausible and slightly disappointing – considering the narrative possibilities for her character at the film’s start. Minor flaws aside, this is an impressively dark and uncomfortable comedy that still manages to forge many moments of comic brilliance. 8/10

A Field in England – Ben Wheatley – With Down Terrace, Kill List and Sightseers, Ben Wheately has competently emerged as one of the most interesting, new British directors. A Field in England definitely keeps Wheatley’s independent trajectory intact…a low budget, black and white, English Civil War story that focuses on hallucinogenic mushrooms, cryptic rituals and minimal narrative, is hardly going to allow him to melt into yawning avenues of the predictable. Unfolding in the limitations of one field, the film feels as sparse as its setting with an uneasy atmosphere that at times recalls the bare human struggles of Beckett. Working within budget constraints, Wheatley constructs some beautifully striking and strangely disturbing imagery, the best moments of which are simply exercising slow motion, a strange rope and the possessed grimace of Reece Shearsmith (who has acted so brilliantly in the macabre League of Gentleman and Psychoville). I felt the film was at its most inspired when inventively embracing its more experimental leanings: the arresting slow motion, the kaleidoscopic shroom trip and the singing tableaux vivants that acted as strange pagan interludes – all being notable examples. I felt when the film seemed to fall short was in its climax, descending into more recognizable fits of violence and action (recalling the head splattering in Wheatley’s other films, while powerful and integral to other contexts – here the violence felt like a lazy shortcut to achieving cinematic resolution – which the film didn’t need). 7/10

The Magnificent Seven – John Sturges – Whenever I watch Westerns (and it doesn’t happen often) I am lazily transported into a feeling of generic Sunday lethargy…I remember Westerns populating a lot of the TV channels during Sundays, supposedly mopping up the dead air time that no one had the end-of week energy to proactively fill. Thus, hours of Sunday sofa dwelling, Monday dread and a sense of deflated fatigue, would be accompanied by desolate vistas of deep American cowboysville. As a result my memory of this film has subsequently wafted into a bland, but still enjoyable, snooze of surrounded villages, stumbling horses, pistol spinning and the rites of saddled masculinity. 7/10

The World’s End – Edgar Wright – The finale to the ‘Cornetto trilogy’ is entertaining and occasionally very funny - but ultimately a fairly patchy conclusion. I feel that ever since watching Shaun of the Dead, which felt infinitely quotable, immediately relatable (in terms of 20s slackers, not the zombie apocalypse), perfectly paced, exciting and consistently hilarious, all of Edgar Wright’s films (all, being for me, Scott Pilgrim and Hot Fuzz) have felt doomed to disappoint. Nothing can recapture the impact that Pegg and Frost’s manboy romance had, the jittering quick-cut cool of Wright’s editing style, the cinematic articulation of a new sense of British humour which had been previously confined to TV, the witty soundtrack and cine-literate geekery – first time around all of that felt perfect, it felt immediate, urgent and ripe for cult claiming. Unfortunately, once repeated: manboy romance becomes anonymous bromance and the familiarity of Wright’s quirks, divorced from ‘newness’ become waring. However, that said – there is much to enjoy here, and it is only because Shaun of the Dead was first – and set the bar so high – that Hot Fuzz, and now The World’s End have suffered. Having Pegg’s character as the grating boy who never grew up, from the ‘cool kid’ to the tragic stagnation of eternal adolescence, does seem to provide the trilogy with its own inbuilt critique. The style of Edgar Wright’s quick cuts and the soundtrack playlist attention, combined with the natural chemistry of Pegg and Frost (even when in hateful opposition, or begrudging friendship) all become recognisably wed to a ‘male phase’ – the obsessions, indulgence and insecurity of not wanting to grow up. This is the film that, in its first half, elegantly captures that self-awareness – and is able to reflexively apply it to the trilogy’s style of filmmaking, in addition to the ‘manboy’ condition. Sadly, the second half has to oblige to self-made expectations of genre worship – and so spirals into sci-fi action. While all of this is fun – and worth the cinema trip – it does not satisfy the film’s earlier emotional promise. The team of Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost is always enjoyable, compelling and funny.  I just feel as though, in Hot Fuzz and At World’s End, their enormously talented writing potential, consistent wit and enjoyment of character, all seem underserved by the need to jump through the thrills of genre parody and incongruous action.  7/10

According to Greta (Surviving Summer)  - Nancy Bardawill – (Hilary Duff/teen movie) I saw this in a low moment of channel surfing apathy, I thought: Ok Hilary Duff, American phenomenon of loathsome, sexualised pop innocence – do your worst. And she did. Atrocity, toxic and ‘damaging to small children’ seem the most appropriate words for this poisonous document of indoctrination. Or more simply, to return to Apocalypse Now: ‘the horror…the horror…’  -1/10

I give it a Year – Dan Mazer – Written by the producer of Borat, this British inversion of the When Harry Met Sally romance has plenty of awkward, ‘gross out’ and sexual humour that all bubbles along with ineffectual and enjoyable momentum. Stephen Merchant is Stephen Merchant, doing his best to become the lanky, grinning embodiment of all that’s inappropriate and misguided. Meanwhile we follow a recently married couple, clearly mismatched, whose relationship disintegrates into the arms of alternative lovers. The script has wit and evidently relishes each adolescent opportunity to steer its ‘romance’ away from the syrupy conventions of Richard Curtis territory. However, this is unfortunately without any support from character portrayal, filmic quality or interesting direction. As a result the film is a disposable barrage of jokes, lacking in any substance sufficient to carry it beyond the next goofy synonym for vagina: fun, but limiting. 6/10

Beautiful Creatures – Richard LaGravanese – Eagerly sulking into the anguished teenage void left by the Twiglight saga, Beautiful Creatures spins another tale of supernatural, coming-of-age, ‘just trying to fit in,’ witchcraft and romance. It starts off, in the college setting – following our two protagonists: strong ‘n moody silent fella and a silent, bullied, supernatural lass…and from there it stumbles with ungainly haste into a turmoil of bad effects and strangely camp theatrics from Emma Thompson and Jeremy Irons. A bizarre film that begins by flailing to establish some indie, literary credentials, name-dropping Bukowski a lot - which seems a particularly strange choice for a film that has no discernable resonance with his writing – and then proceeds to spin out of control and into the inevitable realm of dodgy fantasy effects. Not awful, but not convincing either. 4/10

Ringu 2 – Hideo Nakata – A film that, like its original predecessor Ringu, coaxes a latent horror from machines and memory; Nakata understands, with understated and eerie allure, the spectral unease between presence and absence - what haunts technology and the nature of recording and how we cant help but be distracted by these phantoms. Also, it becomes clear on seeing this that the American Ring is actually an inventive merging of Ringu and Ringu 2…with some other bits dropped into the mix. Despite the potential for American remakes to be offensive reductions that patronise and disappoint in their very existence…I have to say, I’m quite a fan of the American Ring. It does replace Nakata’s more meditative pace and originality with standardised horror dynamics…but Dammit, it’s a thrilling watch – and testament to the durable and fertile potential of the original story. 6/10

Lost in translation: Ringu became......

Human Centipede 1 – Tom Six – There are some things in life that you know, without equivocation, will be unpleasant. And yet, human curiosity nibbles away at the evidence of rationality and before you know it, like intrepid advocates of touching wet paint, we are plunging into the debased inevitability of Human Centipede. Alas.

I can remember, fairly vividly, the moment in which I first heard of the film’s twisted concept. I remember being huddled around a friend’s phone, watching the trailer over a post-lecture pint (twas back in the heyday of BA daytime drinking) and feeling nauseated and exhilarated. Pretty much the two key elements to the film, with one sad alteration – exhilaration is no longer on the ‘muffled-mouth-to-anus’ menu.

Never had a pitch for a film been as simple as Tom's infantile and disturbing doodle on the napkin.

Once you’ve seen the trailer you have more than seen the film. I say ‘more than’ as the trailer preserves the possibility that the film may in fact build upon its central grotesque premise, that maybe it will be allegorical, or frightening, or startling, or deeply blackly comic. It is the wet paint you knew would be wet …and yet touched anyway. Shame on you.

It is the undeveloped result of having an extravagantly disturbing notion, dreamt up with the same sophistication as a playground insult, and then lacking the artistry or craft to do anything remotely interesting with said notion. The underlying feeling from watching such a film is one of monotonous nausea and an accumulating annoyance at having expected anything other. If you have seen the trailer, heard of the ‘ingenious,’ scatological, DIY Siamese, crawling, surgical nightmare, then: you have no need to watch this. It is a badly made, badly thought out, juvenile mess of titillating provocation, devoid of any of the intelligence or style to make such an act worthwhile. I’m all for horror or the grotesque and always receptive to indulging provocation and titillation, yet this is simply dumb. Perhaps the only redeeming features are the faintly amusing references made to the crazy professor’s ‘trial-run’ pet Labradors, condemned to become ‘My Sweet-Three-Dog’. Apart from that, avoid experiencing what is essentially a depressing low for human endeavour. However, that encapsulation suggests this has some grandiose place in filmic history, as an emblematic and abortive aberration that will be remembered as something to forget…a summary far too monumental for this meagre turd. When I first heard about it, I thought Human Centipede would be in the vein of a budget monster movie, I envisaged a towering human/centipede hybrid, crushing buildings and doing battle with Godzilla. I would still like to see that movie; thousands of insect legs grafted onto a herculean mutation, swatting bi-planes and catching screaming blondes in its lusty mandibles. 1/10

Lunacy – Jan Svankmajer – The Czechoslovakian, surrealist animator probes into the popular surrealist fascination with insanity and depicts an asylum run by its patients. The main character is haunted by a recurring dream in which he succumbs to the same madness that consumed his mother, in the dream he is cornered by two bald doctors (looking like a maniacal version of Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum) who chase him with a beckoning strait-jacket. The film takes its inspiration from two Edgar Allen Poe short stories, ‘The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether’ and ‘The Premature Burial,’ supplemented with the blasphemous and orgiastic menace of Marquis de Sade. Svankmajer is surrealist in the traditionally capitalized sense of the word – subscribing with polemic conviction to Bretonian ideas and the early surrealist texts. This carries with it the same problems inherent in Breton’s manifestoes and recalls the movement’s often naïve inability to recognise its own limits and contradictions. Alongside the objective mystification of Women, the romanticised obsession with mental illness was a defining case in point. This film is at its best in the interludes of animation, where Svankmajor’s magical and inventively morbid skills are made entertainingly apparent. While the rest of the film is interesting and often visually thrilling, its fidelity to traditional surrealism makes the central portrayal of madness, and its treatment, as questionable as some of Breton’s least laudable views. 6.5/10

Rage – Sally Potter – The first feature film to debut on mobile phones, making early and imaginative use of the possibilities of Multi-Platform releases. The film uses the device of brightly coloured backgrounds and talking head style interviews. Through these interviews the diverse and astounding cast are introduced - and a murder mystery scenario emerges. The film centres around the activities of a fashion show, interrupted at several points by unexpected catastrophe and tragedy. The actors are mesmeric; the potentially limiting style of ‘talking head’ monologues manages to sustain its impressive strength of dramatic tension throughout. The cast is beyond amazing, everyone masters an individual ability to transfix, entertain and startle: Jude Law turns in a jaw dropping performance/transformation as an American drag queen with a Russian Alter-ego; Judi Dench plays a sardonic and intellectually disillusioned fashion critic; Eddie Izzard becomes an emblem of sharply dressed greed and power; Steve Buscemi plays a world weary photographer, convinced of his own philosophies; Lily Cole plays a young and vulnerable model; Riz Ahmed is particularly memorable as a pizza delivery man whose aspirations of fame quickly sour; David Oyelowo struts his parody of  retro incarnations of ‘cool,’ posturing as a literary detective armed with ridiculous quips and quotes; I could continue, but these were the highlights. Using fashion as a vessel to explore fame, vanity, representation and communication, Sally Potter crafts an intelligent and compellingly entertaining masterpiece. 9/10

Jude Law as 'Minx'

Friends with Benefits – Will Gluck – Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis star in this abrasively perky romcom, bouncing through its lightweight world of artifice and beauty with effortless sitcom efficiency. There are many films that make New York seem iconic, alluring and dam near mythical (King Kong, The Apartment, Manhattan, Taxi Driver, Midnight Cowboy, Saturday Night Fever, Mean Streets, The Godfather, Escape From New York, When Harry Met Sally…, As Good As It Gets, American Psycho, The Squid and the Whale…just a very eclectic and random few) but this film manages to make New York seem as vacuously anonymous as the resilient cheer, and inevitable relationship lows of the two character-less characters. Both Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake are assigned their yuppie characters with over familiar broad strokes: the uber-driven, afraid to commit, but mischievously charming man of work – whose suit hides his puppy dog heart and a family problem (here it is an offensively slapstick portrayal of Altzheimers); Milu Kunis as the stunningly good looking, inhumanly buoyant, successful avatar of business know how, while still fostering a ‘girl next door’ accessibility (so beloved of American romance…*cough* Jennifer Anniston *cough*) and a wayward, hippie-esque mother . To return to the character assassination of New York, which Mila Kunis introduces Mr. Timberlake to with excitable pride, perhaps the main reason for its grating nature is the recurring incorporation of dancing ‘flash mobs’ as a plot driving, romantic motif. I wanted to vomit – everywhere. For a film that tries to imagine and depict a relationship simply about sex (that hard to navigate ‘fuckbuddies’ terrain) it trips up on all the conventions it superficially shrugs off in the ‘bubbly’ script. 3/10

Ah...such japes!

Alps – Giorgos Lanthimos –After directing the critically acclaimed oddity Dogtooth and acting in Attenberg, Lanthimos’ second feature uncoils its dark premise with a haunting mystery of restraint.

‘Alps’ is the name given to a group of people who offer unorthodox services in the counselling of mourning. In a warped therapy of substitution they temporarily fill the place of whoever has died, acting out (with varying degrees of conviction) the character and actions of the recently deceased. The character around which this darkly humorous theatre unravels is played, Aggeliki Papouilia, the same actress who portrayed the rebellious sister in Dogtooth. Lanthimos uses her gaunt and awkward frame to similar ends, enacting displays of social discomfort, detached sex, deranged dancing and a desperately uneasy misunderstanding of any emotional interaction. She is a nurse, while also being a member of ‘Alps’. She comes to enact the role of a girl who has recently died in a car crash. However, in reanimating the dead daughter’s existence for the bereaved family – dressing up and adopting her phrases – her new identity becomes a dangerously comforting alternative to her own lonely existence.

Unlike Dogtooth, which felt contained and neatly crafted in its blackly comic world and conducive to allegorical speculation, Alps feels more lingeringly unresolved. Although utilizing similar themes (the meanings arbitrarily mapped in language, social dislocation, deception, escape and intrusion) Alps eschews the starkly satirical bite of Dogtooth for something less immediate. Sharing a similarly concise running time of 90 minutes, whereas Dogtooth felt like a beguiling puzzle, Alps feels snatched away too soon. Our interpretations of the film come to stand in for its ghostly sadness, and like the bizarre ‘Alps’ collective we are driven to enact, fill and explore the same troubling lack of resolution that is left behind. 8.5/10

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