Tuesday, 20 December 2016

A Top 10 List of the Best Films of 2016

My first cinema experience of the year, The Hateful Eight (Dir. Quentin Tarantino) set the tone for the rest of 2016. I endured Tarantino’s western for the full bum-numbing run-time but it was the most uncomfortable experience I’ve ever had. Although I paid for luxury seats, the discomfort was caused by the majority of white males that filled the cinema that morning, who laughed heartily every time a racial slur was uttered (a lot) and there was an outbreak of mild hysteria, from some during the downright racist monkey “joke” and the scenes which resulted in the beatings and eventual death of every woman on the cast list. I left the cinema feeling disappointed in both the film and humankind. I felt a sense of bewilderment at the misogyny and racism that had just unfolded on and off the screen. Little did I know then of the shit-storm year that lay ahead, beyond the confines of the picture-house.

Oh what a year! It marked the end of Brangelina, revealed the dark side of Johnny Depp and saw the death of many. But one of the year’s most shocking catastrophes (film-wise) was Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (Dir. David Yeats), the worst film I have ever seen. Half way through it I contemplated throwing my daughter’s drink in her face so we would have an excuse to go home early but once I found out she hated it as much as me, I felt a sense of pride and restrained myself. I couldn’t believe the look of wonder and amazement on people’s faces around me; the gasps, the “oohs” and “ahhs” I began to think everyone else in the cinema had been lobotomised on their way in. The film was an insipid, inconsistent mess of swirly patterns and CGI with an incongruous, stomach churning pop-up appearance from Hollywood’s aforementioned wife-basher. The film is a lazy, heavily merchandised and blatant attempt to wring Harry Potter fans bone dry but its result was about as fantastic as one of those dog poo bags that someone decided to hang from a tree instead of put in a bin, although it smelt much worse.

Anyway, that’s enough before I burst a blood vessel. Here’s my top ten films of the 2016, to prove it wasn't all bad, in no particular order…

Things to Come (Dir. Mia Hansen-Love) 
An academic’s life begins to crumble when her husband leaves after 25 years. Suddenly she finds her life adrift, but rather than sinking Nathalie, performed by a perfectly understated Isabelle Huppert, emerges without restraint, viewing her every loss as a new opportunity for personal development. It’s a refreshing take on an everyday tale of sink or swim with Huppert gliding beguilingly toward the shore. Roman Kolinka provides great support as her former student Fabien and the obvious yet subtle attraction between the pair always sizzles on the back burner making this one of the most simple, yet captivating films of the year.

Love & Friendship (Dir. Whit Stilman) Stilman reunites Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny (Last Days of Disco) in this hilarious adaptation of the Jane Austin novella, Lady Susan. Beckinsale’s dangerously sharp tongue and a perfect supporting cast deliver 90 matchmaking minutes of pure joy. Stilman masterfully demonstrates the amazing things you can do without sex, violence or CGI nowadays in one elegant fell swoop.

I Daniel Blake (Dir. Ken Loach) The demonisation of the working-class, the fear of the dreaded “chav” and pseudo-reality TV exploits of benefit claimants have filled our papers and television screens with money-grabbing monsters, designed to divert attention from tax-dodgers, bankers and the British government who are truly responsible for the horrific state of current affairs. With this in mind, Ken Loach delivered the most devastatingly human film. In the age of bullshit, right-wing media and even worse this new wave of social media propaganda, it’s no surprise that film-makers have taken matters into their own hands to bring us something real. Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea shone an honest light on the refugee crisis and Adam Curtis revealed how we’re all being played in his post-truth epic, HyperNormalisation. Do yourself a favour, watch them all.

James White (Dir. Josh Mond)
This film quietly shuffled its way onto DVD at the beginning of 2016 and is unlikely to be considered on most of these film lists due to the lack of fanfare accompanying its release. However, James White is so affecting that I must give it its due. The titular character is played by Christopher Abbot, best known for his role as Marnie’s ex, Charlie in the series Girls. He is a repugnant protagonist; a self involved, narcissistic, piece of shit and his mum, played brilliantly by Cynthia Nixon, is dying a slow painful death. Mond, the director of Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011) tackles depressing subject matter within this unusual, but not unfamiliar, study of an intense relationship between a mother and son. The film feels so profoundly personal that, as a viewer, you find your paternal instincts kick in as you emotionally self-invest in James’ character, regardless of his unlikable ways. Perhaps a wider audience may be kept at bay due to the dark subject matter but if anyone is looking for a display of raw talent and a masterclass in acting James White is most definitely it.

American Honey (Dir. Andrea Arnold) 
Arnold’s American road-trip movie is an ambitious amalgam of Gus Van Sant and Larry Clark, made all the better with the British director’s exemplary aesthetic and flair for vivid realism. Authentic performances from newcomer Sasha Lane and Shia LaBeouf drive this smoothly elegant vehicle dazedly, with euphoric highs and hung-over, somnolent lows. American Honey is a pitch perfect reconstruction of the American dream and it couldn't have been sweeter or arrived at a more appropriate time.

Embrace of The Serpent (Dir. Ciro Guera) 
This mind-blowing and mystical tale follows two western explorers in different decades, with the same shaman guiding them through the Amazon, seeking the healing Yakruna plant, both for different reasons. Columbian director, Guera, as he delivers one of the most stylish films of the year, wears his Heart of Darkness proudly on his rolled up sleeve before pulling a series of surprising punches that are hard to watch but even harder to forget.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Dir. Taika Waititi)
 The director of What we do in the Shadows brings us New Zealand’s answer to Moonrise Kingdom in the best buddy movie in, not just recent years but probably ever. Julian Dennison rips your heart out from the first scene in his role as Ricky, the troublesome orphan. Along with his reluctant foster carer (Sam Neil) the pair find themselves in the heart of the wilderness and on the run from authorities. It’s a ‘majestical’ full-on, feel-good film that will bring you to tears as much as it will give you face ache from smiling.

Certain Women (Dir. Kelly Reichardt) 
Her films are archetypal slow-burners but with Certain Woman, Kelly Reichardt is on fire. Based on three short stories by Maile Meloy, the film brings great drama from seemingly average circumstances. Terrific performances from regular Michelle Williams, Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart weave the separate stories together but its newcomer Lily Gladstone whose achingly good turn as an isolated and lovestruck ranch-hand, is worthy of every award going. Certain Women for all its subtlety is a surprisingly powerful piece of cinema that takes the hum-drum of habitualness and turns it into something bold and beautiful.

Tickled (Dir. David Farrier, Dylan Reeve) 
Such a title might sound like a laugh but this documentary is far from funny, in fact it’s downright scary. This investigation into the peculiar world of competitive tickling quickly evolves from the study of a bizarre fetish into an unnerving expose of something altogether more sinister. Journalist, David Farrier and fellow director, Dylan Reeve take hold of a niche subject matter and wriggle in plenty of twists and turns to pin you down and tickle your fancy beyond belief.

Julieta (Dir. Pedro Almodovar)
With his every new film, Almodovar shows that even when at the top of your game you can continue to progress and Julieta proves that. Part thriller and unrelenting melodramatic, the film follows an abandoned wife and mother through different periods of time. As her life is unexpectedly torn apart by grief, she discovers that her missing daughter is not the person she once knew. Scenes of domesticity are shrouded by a sense of looming threat throughout. There is no doubt that the film has Hitchcockian elements, most evidently, the blonde, but even though typical of Almodovar’s style, from the film’s colourful eighties aesthetic appears De Palma toned glows. Julieta is a unique experience, that rattles the nerves, purely to insert the protagonist’s fragile mindset directly into the viewer.

Also recommended…

Room (Dir. Lenny Abrahamson)
Wiener dog (Dir. Todd Solondz)
A Bigger Splash (Dir. Luca Guadagnino)
Nocturnal Animals (Dir. Tom Ford)
Everybody Wants Some (Dir. Richard Linklater) 
Wiener (Dir. Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg) 
Little Men (Dir. Ira Sachs) 
The Clan (Dir. Pablo Trapero) 
Ellen (Dir. Malaria Belo) 
Anomalisa (Dir. Duke Johnson, Charlie Kaufman)

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Eureka (1983)

Nicolas Roeg is the master of defying traditional narrative. In Eureka (1983), Roeg has taken all he learnt from Performance (1970) to Bad Timing (1980) and created a sensational saga that has been crafted together with wondrous precision. Using a combination of beautifully framed cinematography and intensified melodrama, Eureka is Roeg’s epic, a juiced up morality tale that signifies the mark where the late director arguably hit his peak. Gene Hackman plays Jack McCann, an Arctic prospector who, after fifteen years of searching, eventually strikes gold following the advice of a spiritualist (Helena Kalianiotes). Twenty years later he is the richest man on the planet and the owner of Eureka, his island and home. But with colossal fortune comes great paranoia and Jack quickly becomes convinced that his daughter, Tracy (Theresa Russell) and her partner, Claude (Rutger Hauer) are plotting to bleed dry his soul and empty his bank account. Jack’s character fades in the light of his insuppressible greed attracting the attention of two malevolent investors, Mayakofsky (Joe Pesci) and Aurelio (Mickey Rourke) who are desperate to get their hands on his lot.

Loosely based on the true life story of gold mine owner, Harry Oakes, the film begins with clumsily juxtaposed images of Ice capped mountains, molten gold and snow drifts but Roeg quickly stamps his quality mark with a series of traditional zooms, match-cuts and blissful edits. Spirituality features heavily throughout the film. Initially Jack seeks refuge in the presence of a fortune-teller who seemingly sacrifices herself for the future of her visitor. When Jack leaves her, he is led straight to the gold mines, as he hacks away with his pick axe and unleashes the gold, she can be seen writhing and groaning in pre-maternal agony. As the mine sumptuously fills with a rush of gold, her groans become exacerbated to the point of relief, and Jack bursts from a fresh hole in the ground, overflowing with liquid gold. Jack, still wet from his discovery returns to show his gratitude, only to find his spiritual mother dying, presumably as a result of his fortuitous rebirth.

Fast forward twenty years and Jack, accompanied by his estranged wife, Helen (Jane Lapotaire) talk of their past whilst seeing it subtly reenacted through the actions of their daughter and their son-in-law. As Helen who wears a similar dress to Tracy, speaks of how it used to be them on the boat, it soon becomes clear that history is repeating itself, making Jack all the more dubious of Claude’s intentions. There are subtle references to Lewis Carol’s Wonderland throughout. Jack falls into Wonderland the minute he enters the mine and is trapped, with gold weighing so heavily upon him. At a dinner attended by the film’s key figures, the Mad Hatter’s tea party is made reference to. Jack then flies out of control, aware that the only escape from his wonderland is death. As if to affirm its significance, a copy of Carol’s book subtly sneaks into Jack’s final frames before being set alight.

The battle between Jack and Claude becomes one between Jack and his ruthless younger self and this is made clear through the redressed repetition of actions, dialogue and themes from the film’s opening sequence. Claude’s interest in black magic mirrors Jack’s supernatural curiosities in one of the film’s most intense and unnerving scenes. Hackman is remarkable as Jack and owns the film by exquisitely superseding the hammy and exaggerated performances of his co-stars with palpable, mounting intensity. This is by no means a dismissal of the co-stars efforts however, as Russell, Hauer and Lapotaire ramp up the histrionics with a soap-operatic notion, conducive to the tradition of the quintessential family saga. The court-room scene is a theatrical slice of daytime TV, delivered with hysterical passion as Tracy takes to the stand afore a giant pareidolia of her father. Towards the film’s close Claude’s mere mention of Gone With The Wind (1939) signifies a noticeable shift with Roeg rapidly inflating the classic epic-romance sentiment before rubbing it in your face without giving a damn. The director’s personal Eureka moment happened well before the 1980s but there is absolutely no doubt that he continued to be one of the greatest, Eureka being the evidential pudding. This visual and fantastical masterpiece has been standing patiently behind Roeg’s very best for a while now and hopefully, thanks to its welcome reissue, this overlooked gem will be rediscovered for all it's worth.

Available on Blu-ray for the first time in the UK as part of The Masters Of Cinema series on 21 March 2016. 

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Plein Soleil (1960)

Patricia Highsmith’s fictional fraudster, Tom Ripley has been interpreted by a number of actors on film over the years; Matt Damon in The Talented Mr Ripley (1999), Dennis Hopper in The American Friend (1977) and John Malkovich in the inferior US remake, Ripley’s Game (2002). Yet nobody brings the character to life like Alain Delon in Plein Soleil (1960), his first major film and the first and most superior adaptation of Highsmith’s 1955 novel where Mr Ripley, is brought to life with limitless charm.

Tom Ripley arrives in Italy to convince his playboy friend, Philippe Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet) to return to America and take care of the family business. Wrapped up in a world of European excess, Philippe ignores his orders and instead both he and Tom spend their days and nights partying and living in the lap of luxury. Tom, accustomed to his lavish new lifestyle becomes obsessed with Philippe and his girlfriend Marge (Marie Laforet) and begins to emulate his friend and fantasise about taking his place in the world. Phillipe becomes frustrated with Tom’s uncomfortable level of attraction, particularly after catching him wearing his clothes, and he becomes increasingly derogatory towards him.

During a yachting trip, three becomes a crowd when Tom constantly disrupts moments of intimacy between the lovers. Philippe tricks Tom into stepping onto the dinghy where he loosens the rope and leaves Tom floating behind in the blazing sunshine for hours.

Following his rescue, Philippe finds copies of his bank statements among Tom’s belongings and confronts him regarding his motives. Whilst Tom is sleeping Philippe confesses to Marge that he does not know Tom from his childhood at all and he is in fact stringing him along to find out how far he will go. This is both the first Marge, or the audience find out about this, adding a new dimension to the film that creates great suspense in Tom’s simple and innocent picking up of a knife to slice through some salami.

The rescued Tom comes back aboard with strength and a blatant openness on his purpose, first he ensures that Marge finds a ladies earring, that sparks a huge argument between the lovers. Marge demands to go ashore, leaving Philippe to confront Tom, who confesses to his plan flagrantly. Philippe believes his murderous intentions are nothing more than a joke but he is quickly proven wrong. As he returns to shore Tom visits Marge and tells her that Phillipe has decided to stay behind. Tom then proceeds to travel around Italy adopting both Phillip’s personality and the contents of his bank account. Suspicions begin to arise over Phillip’s absence and as the net gradually begins to close in on Ripley, he becomes increasingly precarious.

The initial friendship between Philippe and Tom appears blessed and their drink fuelled intimacy, especially with the lady the pair pick up is wholly convincing. However, without the drink and the excess of city living, the film abruptly tells a different story. Physically, Ripley and Greenleaf are very similar and indeed in personality, as both men willingly fuel one another’s lies. There is a crucial tension that unfolds upon the yacht as the solitude and silence of the ocean helps to reign in the action and makes for a tumultuous and intense journey. Director, Renè Clement in his study of the dangers of affluence, ensures that Ripley’s dark intentions are well hidden, so that when Marge is shocked by Phillipe’s confession, the audience genuinely experiences the same surprise. As Ripley moves further towards the identity theft, the director pits the characters against one another, as they become almost symmetrical in situ and identical in appearance but there can only be one winner in this dangerous game.

Shot in sumptuous sunshine and vivid technicolor, Plein Soleil is an absolute beauty to endure. The locations are lavish and excessive and the crystal cool style of the era flows from start to finish, in costume, design and demeanour. Clement’s influence can be read in other features including The Passenger (1975) , Minghella’s remake and Dead Calm (1989), but none quite capture their contemporary’s virtuoso. Alain Delon is utterly beguiling, and casts his charm on the viewer in the same hypnotic manor that he transfixes the cashier in the film’s bank scene. It’s an understated performance from Delon, cleverly matched by Ronet during their brief and fatal friendship but never touched upon by Ripley’s further incarnations. Ripley’s controlled composure and blatant open-secrecy make for an altogether different beast. Delon, with his effortless charisma adds a remarkable nuance to his role, that literally enables him to get away with murder.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

The Shout (1978)

A woman wanders down a Kubrickian tiled hallway and uncovers a body laid out on a slab. Then, a solitary devilish figure wanders drunkenly out of focus through a sand covered landscape during the film’s opening sequence. As the theme music gains clarity through near deaf ears, the figure comes storming into focus and reveals himself as an Aborigine shaman brandishing a sharp, threatening object that is soon to be seen again. He is, at once, an imposing presence and although only exposed to him briefly, one is reminded of his powerful impact when cricket player Robert Graves (Tim Curry), is forced into the confined space of the mysterious and chilling Charles Crosley (Alan Bates). 

“He’s not entirely normal” Graves is told, prior to the meeting and normality is defined via the form of two different trees, one symmetrical and aesthetically sound (a symbol of the traditional mainstream filmmaker)  and one twisted and strange (this film’s visionary director, Jerzy Skolimowski). The Shout (1978) is a film of curious parallels. The murderous titular roar happens in the middle of the film and its narrative effect can be read back to the films beginning, or the film’s finale because the shout itself reverberates, mirroring events both before and after it. In visual terms the film could be explained like this… Start((((SHOUT)))))End.

As Graves meets Crosley, the two become framed by the glassless window that dually captures the cricket match underway outside. Crosley begins to tell the story of how he came to possess the supernatural powers that enable him to kill people with one single, powerful shout. His story itself is  told within the cricket match and proceeding events unfold via the imagination of our admittedly unreliable narrator. From hereon in, the film unfolds in the annals of Crosley’s memory, where he tells how he came to impose himself on a husband and wife in a sleepy and remote coastal village. Crosley tells Graves and us, his audience, not to trust his account and confesses to changing the story each time he tells it, thus placing scruples on the audience as well as the characters he proceeds to terrorise.

Antony and Rachel Fielding (John Hurt and Susannah York) wake up on the beach, startled from a dream and with a buckle missing from a shoe, they head off home via the cobblers. Distracted by the shoemaker's wife, who is also his mistress, Antony rushes off home with Rachel. He is reminded of their relationship as two workmen carry a mirror from a building and pause before them, framing their reflection, a virtual wedding photograph of the “happy” couple and a weight on the conscience of the philanderer. Later, following a frolic with his mistress, Antony is surprised when he finds Crosley waiting for him on his doorstep. He invites him inside for dinner where Rachel is introduced to him. He stands before her with a decorative wasp, circling his head, halo style, before spotting a real wasp on their window pane which he promptly crushes beneath his thumb, eradicating any false praise or positive judgement one may have associated with his character. After a timely migraine attack at the dinner table, the guest of horror ends up staying with the couple for a few days. It is not a comforting scenario as Crosley tells of his life in the outback for eighteen years and brazenly confesses to murdering all of his children, a statement which disturbs Rachel, but only due to the shame of her own infertility.

Antony, a sound effect specialist and church organ grinder, is fascinated by Crosley’s claims of a magical shout and agrees to follow him into the sand dunes to witness the deadly effect for himself. Here we are presented with a collector and creator of sounds and his clash with the real deal. Bates is incredible as Crosley. He is monstrous and charismatic in equal measures. The Shout subverts all we know of the actor. Following the intensity of his shout, we see a shepherd and his equally lifeless sheep lying dead on the sand almost as if director Jerzy Skolimowski, is somehow attempting to bury Bates’ former memorable self (his famous role as Gabriel Oak in Far From The Madding Crowd (1967)) whilst presenting the viewer with something completely new and refreshingly unique. Both physically and in the intensity of his gaze, Bates frightens fellow characters and the audience as the protagonist, he lurks behind corners or at the foot of the bed spying on Antony, his presence sends a shiver down the spine, as does the savage tone of his unpredictable words. 

Polish director, Skolimowski who was also responsible for the brilliant British / West German drama, Deep End (1970) fortifies a composition that is both intelligent and intricate. Perception is manipulated throughout, as on many occasions characters are captured whilst framed by windows, mirrors and door-frames. A photograph of the Francis Bacon painting, Paralytic Child Walking On All Fours in Antony’s sound-studio, which is brought to life on a couple of occasions with cricket player (Jim Broadbent) and Rachel, recreating, without boundaries, the suddenly frightening pose.

Francis Bacon's painting and Suzanne York mirroring the pose.

The framing often acts as a cage for Crosley’s untamed beast and it unnervingly toys with the viewer’s acuity of events. Discomfort is created via the film’s surreality and the countless layers of ‘looking’ that encapsulate the viewer into the film’s very heart. Initially we watch Crosley, watching the cricket, he then invites viewers into his mind and hypnotically so, as his eyes fade away to reveal what’s going on beyond them. American Novelist, Arthur Herzog once said, “The Universal narrator knows all and can enter a character’s head any time he chooses.” Thus bringing the focus back to Skolomowski, whose vision, which takes the vein of the strange and twisted tree, dominates all. Within Crosley’s thoughts there are scenes of Antony, ostensibly alone but in recalling that this is Crosley’s account, we consequently know that he is in fact being watched, then as a lone arm lurks around a corner to let down a bike tyre, the audience is pushed back to spy on Crosley. Therefore, for the duration of the film, the audience is forever in bed with the unreliable narrator, with the universal narrator ensuring that it is always bewitchingly uncomfortable. 
Examples of "framing" within the The Shout. 

Regardless of its title, The Shout is a very quiet masterpiece that lays dormant beneath the noisy legacy of films of a similar guise such as Don’t Look Now (1973). Stylistically, both films complement one another perfectly, with the latter perhaps relying more on assertive shock-value to bring the scares. The Shout, on the other hand is more subtle in its approach, and opts to tickle the deep psychological fears of its audience, creating insidious chills. Void of traditional shocks, jolts and jars associated with the horror genre, The Shout, filmed in a British realist style reminiscent of Lindsay Anderson (If (1968) Britannia Hospital (1973)),  is a more formidable and sinister affair that, thanks to Bates’ disturbing performance and Skolomowski’s scrupulous direction, creates the strange impression that you are not only watching the film, but Crosley, in a pseudo-spiritual guise is somehow watching you too. And then, once more, completing the film’s loop, a woman wanders down a Kubrickian tiled hallway and uncovers a body laid out on a slab.

Don't Look Now (1973) and The Shout (1978)

Thursday, 1 October 2015

The Passenger (1975)

Michealangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975) is one of those special films where the director manages to create a unique and haunting sense of place, prior to introducing his characters. As the lead wades his way into the shot, through challenging sand dunes in the film’s opening scenes, the pace is set for the rest of this intelligent and innovative thriller.

Initially a tale of identity theft, the film also explores notions of truth, coincidence and fate, not only within the film, but also in the viewers perception of events.  Jack Nicholson, plays David Locke, a Gonzo documentarian living in Africa, whilst attempting to complete a job on Chad rebels overcoming the oppressive government. In his lodgings he meets charismatic stranger, Robertson (Charles Mulvehill). The two strike up a close friendship, but when Locke finds his friend lifeless on his bed, he decides to escape from the misery and trappings of his own life, by assuming the dead man’s identity.

Up to this moment, the film offers no musical score, just the breath and the breeze. As Locke gets to action, hacking away at the photograph in his passport, audio of the mens' initial introduction overlaps and it’s here where, Antonioni uses the sway of the camera to transport the viewer back and forth through time, until a clear picture of their relationship has been painted. As Locke hovers above Robertson’s body and stares into his eyes, there is a level of ambiguity, both in the nature of their relationship and the circumstances surrounding the death. Later, the nameless “girl” played by Maria Scheneider, will reverse this move on Locke himself, signalling his fate.

Leaving Africa for Europe, Locke finds himself in meetings with gunrunners and becomes aware that he has assumed the identity of a dangerous man. Having dumped his old life, in exchange for one much worse and with greater complications, Locke (now Robinson) finds himself being investigated by his wife, who believes Robinson may have information on the cause of death.

Short on traditional “action”, the film relies on mounting tension via Locke’s angst and the net that slowly closes in on him. Reading similar to Patricia Highsmith’s tales and no doubt, casting influence on Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr Ripley (1999), the viewer is asked to sit back and witness the protagonist bury himself alive.

It sounds like a slapstick affair, a hopeless fool on the run with a disastrous assumed identity but Antonioni’s direction and a brilliantly charismatic performance from Jack Nicholson make this thriller something else. The Passenger is intriguing from start to finish, fantasy and reality repeatedly and disastrously clash throughout. Locke is a discontented soul who runs away from his life and tries, yet fails, to run away from himself. Although finally liberated, he eventually learns that the grass isn’t always greener and ultimately leaves us behind bars, losing himself to the other side forever and completely.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Grunge on Film: Gun Crazy (1992)

1992, the year following the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind and the year bands like Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and Mudhoney jumped on the bandwagon and increased in popularity, ‘Grunge' was a term that had been gradually introduced into the mainstream and one year on, was fast becoming commercialised. This was the year that Cameron Crowe coughed up Singles (1992), Hollywood’s attempt to encapsulate their understanding of grunge on the big screen and what an embarrassment that was too. Cameo’s from key figures of the scene including Chris Cornell and Eddie Vedder were shoehorned into the movie in an attempt to up the zeitgeist, yet these latecomers only added to the film’s overall contrivance making the whole effort completely misguided. That same year, a small, independent film was released, starring Drew Barrymore, a regular in the tabloids back then, Gun Crazy (1992) was released with little fanfare and with no association whatsoever with the term “grunge”. The film is no masterpiece, yet in hindsight it fortuitously captures the essence of that bygone era, perhaps more so than any other movie ever claimed to. 

Barrymore plays Anita, a troubled young outcast. Ostracised at school and sexually abused at home, Anita is desperately lonely and has no concept of optimism. Her teacher sets an assignment, encouraging the students to correspond with a pen pal and Anita soon begins a long distance relationship with a prisoner named Harold (James LeGros). The compassion within the letters enables Anita with a newfound confidence, allowing her the ability to stand up to her abusive step-father (Joe Dallesandro). Harold expresses an interest in guns. Keen to keep in with him, Anita begins to take lessons from her step-father, much to his detriment, as his lights are swiftly put out, with a well aimed bullet to the back of the head. Upon his release from prison, the two meet up and a whirlwind romance ensues along with an increasing body count of wrong-doers, things, it seem can only get worse for the perilous soul-mates. 

Directed by Tamra Davis, the film has a distinctly dull aesthetic which complements the grit in the plot. The landscapes are filtered, adding permeation to Anita’s pessimistic and inescapable lull. As the couple are brought together through their letters, the imagery overlapping the spoken narrative allows the viewer to see both how inordinately sexual Anita has become, and how she sees herself in the wake of the abuse she has suffered. Harold’s obsession with guns, we soon discover,  is a form of compensation for his impotence. When the pair initially meet, Harold presents Anita with a painting of two silhouettes. Following a later kill, Davis brings the painting to life beautifully. With dirt on the lens, the two bond over a shallow grave. This naturalistic couple were very much meant to be, unlike say Micky and Mallory, the cartoonish couple of Oliver Stone’s gratuitous Natural Born Killers (1994). Whilst the protagonists would, as the title suggests, be considered as crazy, cold hearted killers, their histories and the vulnerabilities the actors express in their performance allow you to empathise with both them and their tragic circumstances. This is not a film about a pair of gun slinging, callous love birds, at its core, Gun Crazy is an allegory on the dark consequences of abuse. Barrymore is perfectly cast as Anita. Only sixteen at the time of filming, she brings crucial vulnerability to the role as well as the essence of the hyper-sexualised, girl-gone-wild constitution that had been created on her behalf by tabloid magazines of the late 80s and early 90s. 

LeGros, as Harold, plays a subtle second fiddle, seemingly aware that this is definitely Barrymore’s film and Warhol’s famous poster boy, Joe Dallesandro adds a spurt of kudos as Anita’s step-father. The locations used within the film, sit comfortably with what we now recall of the grunge era; derelict buildings line the streets, characters live in trailers and the kids favourite hang-out is a rubbish dump. The costumes are also notoriously of the time as characters wear plaid shirts, second-hand suits, dungarees and denim and the true beauty of it is that it is all entirely incidental. Davis had previously worked on Sonic Youth’s Goo videos along with fellow upcoming director Todd Haynes and had subconsciously continued to capture the spirit and pessimistic attitude of the era. The understated soundtrack features Suicidal Tendencies, Sonic Youth, Helmet and Grunttruck, again, not to make this a “grunge” film, just because of the period. By no means is Gun Crazy note perfect, but if you’re looking for a truly authentic slice of grunge pie, Tamra Davis unintentionally made it and its taste remains judiciously bittersweet. 

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Cult Film Review: Boom (1968)

Legendary power-couple, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor star in Joseph Losey’s critical snivel, Boom! (1968) Adapted from the play, The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore by Tennessee Williams, the film is showing as part of the John Waters Retrospective at BFI Southbank, as one of the director's favourite movies. Boom! tells the story of a terminally ill woman and a mysterious young poet intent on getting his greasy mitts on her bulging purse. Sissy Goforth (Liz Taylor), is an isolated maiden, a ticking time bomb living in the lap of luxury on her own private island, with staff to rub oils into her back, pass her fancy drinks and to transcribe her mundane memoirs. Christopher Flanders (Richard Burton, in a role written for a much younger man) is a man with nothing, no possessions, no money and no morals. He is thrown from a boat and swims to the shore of Sissy’s island in his black trousers and thick wooly jumper. 

As he scales the cliffs, to her castle, like the prince to Rapunzel, he yells her name.”MRS GOFORTH!” He yells as if beckoning her to lob her locks over the cliff edge. Eventually, his persistent yelling becomes too much for Sissy and she commands her security guard, a vicious dwarf, to set the dogs on him. Flanders finds himself torn to shreds in an unwelcoming environment where wild birds are caged and monkeys are chained and the humans lack reason and self control. Flanders arrives at the right place at exactly the right time, just as Sissy is speaking of the love of her life, who also happens to have been a poet. He then proceeds to sell himself accordingly to her  last requests. Out of the blue and arriving on the shoulders of servants, Sissy is joined for dinner by The Witch of Capri (Noel Coward in a role rejected by an offended Katherine Hepburn) who warns her that there is more to the mysterious poet than meets the eye. Rumour has it, that Flanders is a manipulative gigolo who has a habit of turning up just as ill and wealthy women are on the verge of popping their proverbial clogs. 

Director, Losey described being on set with Burton and Taylor as “Absolute hell”, claiming the pair would both turn up steaming drunk and screaming at one another, which indeed shows in the performance. The dialogue, in parts, is smart and poetic and occasionally delivered with the air of a beat poet, “Then there is when, then!” Yells Taylor or “What’s human or inhuman is not for human decision.” However, amidst the lyrical flow there is a pounding dissonance, whether that be the screams of “yoo-whoo!” as The Witch arrives to dinner, the repetition of “MRS GOFORTH!” as Flanders scales the cliffs or the hilarious outburst from Sissy as she staggers into her waiter, knocking a tray and it’s contents to the floor, “Shit on your mother!” She shouts in one of the film’s verbal highlights. There is a great deal of inconsistency in the film’s soundtrack also. What happens in the scene, never appears to match what’s going on in your ears. The music pounds like a nasty headache that the leads probably woke up with the morning after. Admirably though, towards each point that the music becomes unbearable, either Sissy or Flanders walk over to a mysterious tape deck, press a button and simply switch it off, bringing you back into the room. 

Whilst the sets, scenery and costumes are excessive (look no further than Taylor’s ridiculous Kabuki costume, above), Losey, whose expertise can be witnessed in faultless classics, The Servant (1963) and Accident (1967) somehow manages to keep the drama contained by creating a sense of claustrophobia, amidst a great deal of space. As the relationship between the characters heats up, the performances become histrionic to an increasing extent, which is perhaps due to their excessive consumption of alcohol. Ultimately,  the film could have been highly regarded had the casting been dealt with accordingly. Flanders would have been played by a younger, attractive and enigmatic actor and Sissy, an older, elegant woman. Instead, the leads are played by actors that don’t suit the demands of the roles, making Burton and Taylor appear self-indulgent and incapable. That being said, it’s definitely one to watch but for all of the wrong reasons. Sissy’s mysterious terminal illness, not to be laughed at, is very funny indeed, as it seems she is being slowly killed by a tickle in the throat. The mixture of dirty coughs and groaning porno noises made by Taylor cannot help but raise a smile. As the film nears it’s finale, Losey’s camera backs away, allowing the characters to become fully consumed by their lavish environment. It’s a gritty, shitty, yet highly watchable mess, that unfortunately ends with a cough, splutter and snigger as opposed to the promised titular Boom!