Friday, October 18, 2019

Sex, Lies and Manuscripts - Olivier Assayas' Non-Fiction


It’s rarely wise to begin a critique of a film by presenting a directorial statement of intent, but in this case, I think it’s both warranted and instructive, largely because it diverges so wildly from what I got out of the experience of watching it.

So...here’s Olivier Assayas on Non-Fiction (or Double vies, which is a much better title): "Our world is in constant change. It has always been. The issue is our ability to keep an eye on that flux, to understand what is truly at stake, and then adapt, or not. After all, that is what politics and opinion are about. The digitisation of our world and its reduction to algorithms is the modern vector of a change that unrelentingly confuses and overwhelms us. Digital economy infringes rules, and often laws. Moreover it questions whatever seemed most stable and solid in society and the reality around us, only to dissolve on mere contact. Doubles vies is not about analysing the workings of the new economy. Its more modest intent is to observe how those questions beleaguer us, personally, emotionally, and sometimes humorously."

I’ll concede that last sentence somewhat, in that Non-Fiction is sometimes humorous, particularly in a scene where a recollection of a blow job during a screening of Star Wars: The Force Awakens becomes fictionalised so that it takes place during a viewing of Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon instead - it’s a lovely moment of lightness that pricks the gauche pretension of flailing author Léonard (Vincent Macaigne). But I’m getting ahead of myself…

The first hour of Non-Fiction is eye-rollingly self-satisfied and smug, as we are subjected to an unremitting stream of irksome verbiage about the relative merits of print and digital technologies. We hear from authors and publishers and readers and PR people and all manner of exclusively white and middle-class Parisians who say things like "Tweets are modern-day haiku", even though real people just don’t talk like this at all.

Publisher Alain (Guillaume Canet) - he’s the one who said that wearisome thing about tweets - is married to actress Selena (Juliette Binoche) who is getting fed up of playing a cop (she often protests that she’s actually a "crisis management expert", not a cop) on Season 3 of the hit show Collusion. All that acclaim must be a real drag, because Selena also joins in during those excruciating digressions about Print! and Digital! and How We Communicate and Consume Media and Ideas and Language in the 21st Century! Anyway…

Loads of people are cheating on their partners with other people who are cheating on their partners, or just with people who are rampant careerists who also like to expound at length about Technology! and The World Is Changing, Isn’t It, Have You Noticed?

People banging on about this stuff for an hour is not great storytelling. It’s a cinema screen blasting Hot Takes and Think Pieces and interminable Twitter threads at you. The print vs digital discussions already feel wildly out-dated. It’s a film arguing about the waning relevance of certain cultural artifacts, raising questions that already feel vaguely immaterial, housed within an already decaying cultural artifact. Pop has eaten itself, excreted itself out, and is sitting down for a second plateful. Thankfully, the low-key drama that begins to develop in the second hour is far more engaging than the shallow narrowband intellectual chin-stroking of the first hour, and as soon as Non-Fiction dials back on that and loosens up enough to let the character interactions and revelations unfold, it improves considerably, and by the end I was surprised by how much I was enjoying myself with it.

Shot on Super 16mm and reminiscent of Assayas’ Summer Hours (although this is ultimately more playful), Non-Fiction is in cinemas and on demand in the UK from Friday 18th October 2019.

Friday, June 28, 2019

You Who Wear Me Will Know Me - Peter Strickland’s In Fabric

“The dress is your image on to what you project through an illusion.”

Somewhere far behind the window displays of Dentley & Soper's Trusted Department Store, a switchblade slices open a cardboard box. Strange things are afoot deep inside the uncanny Thames Valley on Thames shopping mecca that appears to be staffed by a coven of witches. The trappings and fixtures of the store seem familiar...except when they don’t. It looks like the late 1970s. Or maybe the 1980s. Possibly the 1990s? The southern England town of Peter Strickland’s In Fabric is exhilaratingly hard-to-place.

Shoppers are lured to the store by a hypnotic television commercial, just in time for the January Sales. Amongst them is Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), looking to get back into the dating game following the end of her marriage. Sheila is drawn to a malevolent "artery red" dress with a black flame motif. It’s a size 36, and yet it always fits the wearer perfectly, irrespective of their body shape. As the sales assistant Miss Luckmore informs her: “Dimensions and proportions transcend the prisms of our measurements”.

There’s an intoxicating, evocative tactility to Peter Strickland’s films. He’s an eclectic fetishist who revels in texture and sound. Strickland makes the kind of films that end with a credit for “Mannequin Pubic Hair”. The Nagra tape recorders and three-track magnetic film of Berberian Sound Studio are superseded by the pneumatic tubes and bakelite telephones of In Fabric, and the film’s musical accompaniment is the dark rhythmic pulse of Cavern of Anti-Matter.

Strickland also plays with the low-grade euphoria of ASMR, to both comedic and erotic effect, predominantly via the involuntarily seductive drone of washing machine engineer Reg Speaks (Leo Bill) as he explains incomprehensible technical faults in exhaustive detail.

Over time, Strickland’s films have gradually become more overtly funny, moving from the severe austerity of his debut feature Katalin Varga to the frisky The Duke of Burgundy. In Fabric is his funniest yet, but he never loses his grip or formal rigour over his vividly-realised worlds.

Berberian Sound Studio remains one of my favourite films of this century, so I was already primed to love In Fabric, and I loved it unreservedly. I absolutely cannot wait to immerse myself in this bewitching phantasmagoria again very, very soon. And I really need to get my hands on that Cavern of Anti-Matter soundtrack.

In Fabric is in cinemas and on demand in the UK from Friday 28th June 2019

Friday, April 19, 2019

Il Cavaliere Oscuro si alza - Paolo Sorrentino’s Loro

Todd Phillips’ Joker arrives in cinemas later this year...but if you can’t wait that long for a profile of a grotesque entitled white man-child with a backcombed slick of artificially coloured hair and an unnerving, humourless rictus smile that masks the sting of indignities both real and imagined, then you’re in luck!

Paolo Sorrentino’s Loro opens with a Giorgio Manganelli quote that sets the stage for what's to come: "All Documented. All Arbitrary." Take it any way you want it. This may or not be a heavily fictionalised look at real people and events - not dissimilar to James Ellroy’s real / fictional interrogations of post-war Los Angeles through the eyes of history’s supporting players.

Loro” is Italian for “them”, and they are the initial preoccupation of Sorrentino’s film about Silvio Berlusconi in the years between 2006 and 2009. We spend half an hour rolling around in the gilded gutter with the social climbers and venal wannabes on the periphery of Berlusconi’s world, particularly the opportunistic Sergio (Riccardo Scamarcio). I could have easily done without this first half-hour, although it is a useful illustrative case-study of the thwarted, deluded ambitions of those in Berlusconi’s orbit.

The film finally sparks to life when Toni Servillo appears as the man himself - the man talked of in awed tones right up to that point, and never by name - just “lui” (him). It is an unalloyed joy to watch one of my favourite living actors as Berlusconi. He nails it. The flat reptilian eyes. The insatiable hunger for attention and adulation. Restless, ambitious, egotistical and vain, it's a glorious performance and Servillo manages to imbue Berlusconi with (arguably undeserving) pathos.

The title also indulges in a bit of wordplay. L’oro. The gold. And there’s an escalating orgy of excess and hedonism on display. Loro opens like Sorrentino’s riff on Scorsese’s Goodfellas, but it quickly becomes apparent that this is actually Sorrentino’s The Wolf of Wall Street, and it’s occasionally tiresome when the film revels in the leering, vulgar decadence of sex and drugs and bunga bunga.

It’s a frustratingly uneven piece of work. Some of Loro is up there with the very best of Sorrentino. An uncomfortable scene where the seventy year-old Berlusconi fails to seduce twenty year-old Stella (Alice Pagani), and confrontations between Berlusconi and his wife Veronica (Elena Sofia Ricci) are high points. Veronica cuts straight to the essence of Berlusconi when she calls him "a child who's afraid of dying" and refers to his life as "one long uninterrupted performance".

Loro also falls down when it resorts to heavy-handed symbolism: a dying sheep; a muted gameshow on an unwatched television screen; a garbage truck flying off a bridge to avoid a rat before exploding with a fountain of trash; the political pomp of a swearing-in ceremony cross-cut with an earthquake. This isn’t a film interested in subtlety, and a little more nuance and ambiguity would have gone a long way.

Some of my issues with Loro could be attributed to this “international edit” that is being released - a combination of two films that were released separately as Loro 1 and Loro 2 in Italy. The international edit is an hour shorter than the original diptych combined and that can sometimes be felt quite keenly. Character subplots are dropped without resolution, and that skewed pacing has a way of making it feel overlong and indulgent, even in this truncated version. Loro is strongest when the focus is directly on Servillo's magnetic, compelling performance as Berlusconi.

Loro is in cinemas and on demand in the UK from Friday 19th April 2019

Friday, March 29, 2019

Agnès Varda 1928 - 2019


"In my films I always wanted to make people see deeply. I don't want to show things, but to give people the desire to see." 

"Quand je suis la, J’ai l’impression que j’habite le cinema, que c’est ma maison, il me semble que j’y ai toujours habite."

"If we opened people up, we'd find landscapes. If we opened me up, we'd find beaches."

À dieu vit, cher Agnès.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Listomania! My Favourite Films of 2018

Like fifty percent of the Universe at a snap of Thanos' fingers, 2018 will soon be dust...but wait! There's still plenty of time for the highlight of everyone's film calendar, the Unleashing of the Lists!

As long-term readers of my annual cinematic reverie know, I’m a stone-cold sucker for a well-placed musical interlude. After all, Action is Character. It’s not what you say, it’s what you do...

...in a rare moment of wild abandon from his life of thankless wage-drudgery, David Oyelowo drives to work belting out Will Smith’s Gettin’ Jiggy Wit’ It with gusto on an icy Chicago morning in Gringo...

...Juliette Binoche illuminates the dancefloor, letting the sunshine out, as she succumbs to the yearning, seductive charms of Etta James’ At Last in Un beau soleil intérieur...

...Agnès Varda accompanying Anita Ward’s Ring My Bell as she drives along a country road in the South of France in JR’s photobooth truck in Faces Places...

...Jason Statham sings plucky blue tang Dory’s reassuring refrain of Just Keep Swimming to himself as he does just that in the direction of a gleefully absurd showdown with The Meg...

Dread it, run from it, My Top Ten of 2018 arrives all the same. And now, it's here. We're in the endgame now:

Coco (Lee Unkrich)
Half an hour before I entered the cinema to watch Coco, I got a phone call telling me that a close family member had died. This is either the best way or the worst way to watch Coco - I haven’t decided yet. Either way, it will surprise no-one to know that I was weeping uncontrollably by the time the end credits rolled.

Faces Places (Visages villages) (Agnès Varda / JR)

The Green Fog (Guy Maddin / Galen Johnson / Evan Johnson)
Alfred Hitchock’s Vertigo recreated using only footage from movies and television shows shot in San Francisco. One minute, Jimmy Stewart’s Scottie is Rock Hudson circa McMillan & Wife...the next, he’s Chuck Norris brooding his way through An Eye for an Eye. The Michael Douglas of The Streets of San Francisco watches a screen and hoots admiringly at the bare ass of the Michael Douglas of Basic Instinct. An exhilarating and hugely entertaining experimental valentine to both the City by the Bay and Hitch’s psychosexual thriller.

Let the Corpses Tan (Laissez bronzer les cadavres) (Hélène Cattet / Bruno Forzani)

Mandy (Panos Cosmatos)
You’d be hard-pressed to find a bigger Nicolas Cage stan than me, but it’s Andrea Riseborough’s delicate, luminescent performance that really gives Mandy the heart and heft that makes it all work.

Mom and Dad (Brian Taylor)
One Cut of the Dead (Kamera o tomeru na!) (Shin'ichirô Ueda)
It’s all true. You will grudgingly admire the 37 minute non-stop single opening shot, but you won’t really understand what all the fuss is about. Hang in there. Your persistence will be rewarded. By the time you reach the end, you’ll get it, I promise. Pom!

Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson)
I had no idea what to expect going in to Phantom Thread, but it wasn’t what I got. I didn’t expect it to be so funny, and strange, and hypnotic. It was all of those things, and so much more.

The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro)

Suspiria (Luca Guadagnino)
I thought I’d be, at best, lukewarm on Suspiria. I haven’t really fallen for a Guadagnino picture since I Am Love almost a decade ago, and treading in the colour-saturated shadows cast by Dario Argento is as perilous as it is ambitious. But this isn’t a remake so much as it as a cover version, and is so much stronger for it. Perhaps Madame Blanc says it best: "When you dance the dance of another, you make yourself in the image of its creator."

Right under my Top Ten, I’ve got this dirty dozen and, honestly, any one of these could have been up there on another day, but personal taste is a capricious motherfucker.

Close But No Cigar

A Quiet Place (John Krasinski)
Avengers Infinity War (Anthony Russo / Joe Russo)
BlacKkKlansman (Spike Lee)
Black Panther (Ryan Coogler)
The First Purge (Gerard McMurray)
Gholam (Mitra Tabrizian)
Isle of Dogs (Wes Anderson)
Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig)
Mission: Impossible - Fallout (Christopher McQuarrie)
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Bob Persichetti / Peter Ramsey / Rodney Rothman)
Teen Titans Go! To The Movies (Aaron Horvath / Peter Rida Michail)
You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay)
UPDATED 19/12/18: The lines are closed, the votes have been counted and verified, and I can now reveal the results of the HeyUGuys Online Critics Best Films of 2018 Poll (to which I contributed a ballot). Eagle-eyed List Watchers will note that it doesn’t exactly match my Top Ten listed above. The HeyUGuys voting rules stipulate that all selections must have opened in the UK in 2018, so I’ve made a couple of substitutions for One Cut of the Dead (which has a UK theatrical release from 4th January 2019) and The Green Fog (which is never likely to get a commercial release of any kind due to rights issues relating to cobbling together pre-existing footage from around 200 sources). Anyway, go check it out. 

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Within A Forest Dark - Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built

“Some people claim that the atrocities we commit in our fiction are those inner desires which we cannot commit in our controlled civilization, so they're expressed instead through our art. I don't agree. I believe Heaven and Hell are one and the same. The soul belongs to Heaven and the body to Hell." -- Jack (Matt Dillon)

"Jack has a weak point for fame also, and so do I. I’m not proud of it." -- Lars von Trier

“I Am Jack's Complete Lack of Surprise.” -- Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club)



Jack (Matt Dillon) is an architect. Or maybe Jack is an engineer. Jack definitely considers himself an artist. The medium for Jack’s art is the human body and the manifold horrors that can be inflicted upon it. Because Jack is a serial killer.

Utilising the same narrative device that he employed in Nymphomaniac, Lars von Trier presents The House That Jack Built as a series of episodic vignettes. A dark mirror to Charlotte Gainsbourg’s recollections of sexual experiences in Nymphomaniac, this is an unflinching catalogue of death. A grotesque picaresque. Part confessional, part testament, part reverie, Jack regales Verge (Bruno Ganz) with the details of five incidents that take place over a period of twelve years.

Jack may be an unreliable narrator. But then, so is Lars.

“I Am Jack's Smirking Revenge.”

Interspersed with repeated refrains of David Bowie's "Fame" and Glenn Gould seated at his piano, Jack’s revelations are by turns self-aggrandising and self-flagellating. Sometimes both at the same time. He gives himself the grandiose pseudonym Mr. Sophistication, and arranges his victims in hideous tableaux morte to capture moments with negative photography. Provocative and repellent, it occasionally feels like von Trier is whispering in my ear “why are you still watching this?” and laughing at his little incitements. (This is as good a time as any to note that the film isn’t actually funny, despite the intermittent bursts of laughter from the audience in the screening that I attended).

As the film progresses, the line between Jack and Lars becomes increasingly blurry. Jack (and Lars) suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. His art distracts him from his neuroses, and he exorcises his demons through his work. I don’t even know if I’m talking about Jack or Lars von Trier anymore..

“I Am Jack's Medulla Oblongata.”

The House That Jack Built also grows more contemplative as it goes on. We get a better sense of Jack’s narcissism and egotism. He is utterly self-absorbed, and we’re trapped in the stifling confines of his warped worldview. There are excuses and justifications. He flaunts his toxic masculinity and male entitlement and his ability to act with impunity. He indulges in discursive digressions on architecture and “the noble rot” of fermenting grapes, and self-importantly places himself in a continuum of human horror and atrocities.

It would be a stretch to say that I enjoyed watching The House That Jack Built, but I’ve certainly enjoyed turning it over in my head in the days since. It’s a confident and impressive piece of work. The early movements of the film are reminiscent of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and Man Bites Dog, but it’s a very different beast as we descend further towards the baroque denouement. And it is ripe with allusions: early on, Jack sports a pair of large lens Jeffrey Dahmer glasses; occasionally, Jack faces the audience wielding cue cards à la Bob Dylan's “Subterranean Homesick Blues”; and then there’s the impressive and striking recreation of Eugène Delacroix's The Barque of Dante.

“I Am Jack's Inflamed Sense of Rejection.” 

It’s surely no coincidence that Jack is von Trier’s first male protagonist since 1991’s Europa. It certainly feels like The House That Jack Built could be Lars von Trier’s swansong. With Jack as his proxy, von Trier is looking back on his oeuvre - the House that Lars built. (Sometimes, it’s a little bit too on-the-nose, especially in a montage made up of footage from von Trier’s back catalogue. Subtle it ain’t.) But I hope this isn’t the last room on von Trier’s house. There’s life in the old provocateur yet.

The House That Jack Built is in cinemas and on demand in the UK from Friday 14th December 2018, with nationwide previews that include a pre-recorded Lars von Trier Q&A on Wednesday 12th December 2018

Monday, November 19, 2018

William Goldman 1931 - 2018


“It’s an accepted fact that all writers are crazy, even the normal ones are weird.”

Have fun storming the castle, Bill.

Friday, November 16, 2018

The Kids Are All Write - Laurent Cantet's The Workshop


Summer in the town of La Ciotat near Marseille. A region once prosperous due to the presence of a large dockyard and commercial port, the area has been in steady decline since the closure of the port twenty-five years earlier.

A group of unemployed teenagers taking part in a state-funded writing workshop seize upon the town’s industrial past, working class heritage and history of communist labour strikes as ingredients to throw into the pot as they attempt to cook up a crime novel together, under the auspices of novelist Olivia (Marina Foïs).

Co-written by director Laurent Cantet and 120 BPM’s Robin Campillo, The Workshop is primarily interested in the most provocative and combative member of the group, Antoine (Matthieu Lucci). Observing Antoine’s spiky interactions with the rest of the group, it’s hard not to view him as not so much a fully-formed character, but a cypher for one of the film’s many Big Themes. He represents the inchoate disgruntlement of the intelligent, understimulated, disaffected, isolated young man - fertile ground for insidious ideas to take root. He lives a substantial part of his life online, providing him with his unmoderated yet narrow and self-selecting window onto the world.

The opening shot of the film is from the videogame The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Antoine’s avatar repeatedly shoots arrows into the air. He’s probably just getting used to shooting things...

We also watch him trawling YouTube and soaking up the rambling incendiary far-right rhetoric that he later parrots to the group. More than once, he invokes both the coordinated 2015 Bataclan terror attacks, and the cargo truck that drove through a crowd in Nice during the 2016 Bastille Day celebrations.

Far too often, The Workshop is saying a lot, but to what end? It muses about race and class and violence as entertainment. It ponders forms of expression, both in word and deed. It flirts with the power dynamic that exists between Antoine and Olivia - the palpable tension of attraction and repulsion between them. And therein lies the great frustration of The Workshop. It raises loads of interesting questions, but never seems especially interested in landing on any answers. Arguably, that's not the job of stories though, right? But that just leads to an even bigger problem - there isn’t a whole lot of story here. It’s a bunch of Very Topical Talking Points in search of a compelling narrative, and so it ends up being an unsatisfying, vaguely inert and overly didactic experience, which only served to remind me of these words:

"The moment you start preaching in a film, the moment you want to teach your audience, you're making a bad film." -- Douglas Sirk

The Workshop is in cinemas and on demand in the UK from Friday 16th November 2018

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Stan Lee 1922 - 2018


"All I tried to do in my stories was show that there's some innate goodness in the human condition. And there's always going to be evil; we should always be fighting evil."

Excelsior!

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Ruff and Tumble - Matteo Garrone’s Dogman


Opening Shot: a snarling pit-bull barking right into the camera. Pull back: We see that the dog is about to get a shampoo from Marcello (Marcello Fonte). By the end of the pampering session, the dog is placid and compliant. Marcello has a way with wild animals.

Milquetoast Marcello (whose hangdog features evoke the memory of the similarly expressive Peter Lorre) lives and works in the run-down, grey coastal town of Magliana in a weathered suburb of Rome. He cares about dogs, his daughter Alida, and his reputation and good standing amongst the other local businessmen. He’s an inveterate people-pleaser - meek, loyal, a pragmatic survivor. He’s also a petty criminal and part-time cocaine dealer.

His dabbling in the latter is the start of all his problems. Bestial troublemaker Simone (Edoardo Pesce) always hits him up for free coke or whenever he needs a getaway driver at short notice. Marcello invariably acquiesces to Simone’s increasingly unreasonable demands, often to his own detriment. Marcello’s relationship with Simone raises one of the central questions of Dogman - is he unafraid of vicious animals, knowing just what he needs to do to soothe them...or is he simply too naive and trusting to know when he needs to avoid their snapping jaws?

Based on a real incident that occurred in 1988 (but don’t read too much into that), Dogman, for all its superbly realised grit, has a lovely seam of dark wit, in particular a terrific sequence which involves Marcello returning to the scene of a crime to save a chihuahua from a chilly demise.

It’s the plot machinations which shift Garrone’s compelling character study into the more conventional territory of a crime drama. Dogman is incredibly strong for at least the first three-quarters of its running time, but it did lose me somewhat as it entered its final movement. I was far more captivated following Marcello as he went about his day-to-day life.

Credit for that goes to Marcello Fonte for his magnetic central performance, the camera often lingering on that extraordinary face, his expressions nervously flitting between obsequious, warm, terrified, quizzical and disoriented as he’s bruised and battered by circumstance. “It’s a dog’s life, hunger and ease.”

Dogman is in cinemas and on demand in the UK from Friday 19th October 2018, and screens as part of the 62nd BFI London Film Festival on Sunday 14th October and Monday 15th October 2018.