Tuesday, 28 July 2015

The Last of the Crazy People

Laurent Archard, France, 2007

French film directed by Laurent Achard, based on Canadian Timothy Findlay's novel ‘The Last of the Crazy People’ (‘Le Dernier des fous’ a.k.a. ‘Demented’): a coming-of-age story set in a dying little rural farmhouse where 10 year-old Martin watches his family as it’s besieged by poverty, repression, isolation and madness. Kind of. The trick upon reflection is that no one seems legitimately, technically "mad", but rather beset by a fierce mixture of despair and unfulfilled longing has driven some to apathy - the father - and others to distraction - the mother and brother. And whatever Martin is thinking, how he is filtering these experiences, we aren't too sure. Young Julien Cochelin's face is impassive and ungiving, making Martin quite an abstraction; it's a shock when a single tear quietly rolls down his cheek. His face remains so blank that it could be considered non-acting. He wanders around, all elbows and awkwardness, looking for morsels of affection. Around him, the adults give brilliant performances that fall just short of indulgent, bringing out the real tragedy of their inability to communicate successfully with one another. Martin is the opposite of his brother, Didier (Pascal Cervo), whose emotions both good and bad explode everywhere with the gusto of a wannabe poet. Dominique Reymond is the pale, elegant reclusive mother, screaming the house down in the middle of the night. Only the warmth of the maid keeps the family together.

The Gothic trimmings are always welcome, most glaringly the mother as the Madwoman in the Attic and a sense of perpetual decay. It looks like a provincial idyll, beautifully framed, leisurely paced so that small details of the kitchen and the courtyard can be relished. Small gestures mean everything: the boy at the table football nodding to the girl; mother's stare back at her son so fixed, it looks like a freeze-frame. It's somewhere between the bleakness of Hanake and the dour humour of ‘Koktebel’. It is this that prevents the story from falling into the pornography of wretchedness, although as soon as a gun is introduced, all mystery evaporates. A gun is often cheap drama because you can tell pretty much how it's going to end up as soon as you see one. And when it finishes as you thought, you realise there was nothing new here, that no extra great leap was made, and that beautifully judged as it was, that's a shame.

Nevertheless, I am a sucker for this kind of rural dystopia, and although inferior to, for example, the thriller narrative of ‘I'm Not Scared’ or the chilling ‘Olivier, Olivier’, ‘The Last of the Crazy People’ succeeds as a minor but engrossing melodrama.


Sunday, 26 July 2015


Baz Lurhmann, 2008, Australia-USA-UK
One might imagine that a film that calls itself so grandly after a continent might have something to say about its particular history, and that this would not be dominated wholly by the romance of white protagonists. Surely we are in trouble when a film called ‘Australia’ paints the aborigines in such broad strokes that lean towards magic realism rather than their humanity? The archetypes are all present and correct: we have the Magical Negro and the Noble Savage, not only the Adorable and Cheeky Tyke. Perhaps, however, it is hard to be offended by this when every character is so broadly drawn. Baz Luhrmann’s film is not about anything other than making a big, CGI-assisted epic homage to the old fashioned classic movie. We have Nicole Kidman in an initially highly pinched and hammy performance, but one that is as uneven as the film itself so that when she relaxes more, it is hard to discern if this is meant to be character development or just a symptom of that unevenness. Then there is Hugh Jackman, with his own accent, as a kind of cuddly Clint Eastwood: he is an immensely appealing and warm performer, but all he can do here is coast. His stereotype is to be the wild-man macho Aussie, the drover who answers to no man, who represents the unprejudiced white man embedded in Aboriginal culture. He says “Oh crikey,” a lot. It’s his catchphrase. Then we have Nullah, the mixed race kid, but he is no Kipling scoundrel from which we can learn about being caught between two worlds. He says cute things, mentions “cheeky bulls” a lot and is generally appealingly played by Brendan Walters. But like all characters, his reactions bend with the breeze of the plot and erratic scenes rather than from any internal life.
Oh it is all very pretty to look at, but it has no bearing on reality at all. This is a movie derived from movies (and I say “movies” which is how I think specifically of Hollywood-style escapism, rather than “film” which incorporates “movies”). It repeats its catchphrases and appropriates liberally and somewhat shamelessly from ‘The Wizard of Oz’ (!). A key example of how the film forfeits any nod to realistic detail is in the way little Nullah magically learns to play ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’, just out of thin air, near enough as soon as he puts the harmonica to his lips for the first time and having apparently heard Mrs. Boss (!) hum it badly the once. Oh, we are meant to be moved and charmed, but it’s all built on nothing but whimsy and movie affectation. That is, of course, not a bad thing in itself, but Luhrmann and the screenplay - by Luhrmann, Stuart Beattie, Ronald Hardwood and Richard Flanagan - leave the film with little of its own to offer. They trade in tropes that surely belong to those films of the past and can be considered and perhaps forgiven a little as such.
‘Australia’ reaches an ending around 110minutes in, but then it goes on and on. There are no surprises to come, only that the scope becomes even more epic with the intrusion of the war and, exponentially, the dialogue becomes increasingly trite. The drama rolls along on clichés and therefore watching becomes a passive, rote experience. We are meant to be reminded of other classics, evidently, and perhaps we are meant to carry over affections for them to ‘Australia’, but what makes a genuine classic is what it does with its tropes. ‘Australia’ is pale imitation.

Saturday, 25 July 2015

Xiu Xiu & 'Twin Peaks'

I was lucky enough to see Julee Cruise singing around the same time as ‘Twin Peaks’ was first showing… an unforgettable show. As I recall, she wore a white dress that changed colour depending upon the light that shone on her... and of course, they played the 'Twin Peaks' hits. Of course, it’s easy to forget that at the time she was something quite different; I say that because the sound forged by Cruise, Angelo Badalamenti and David Lynch at that time has since become a regular approach.

But anyway, here is Xiu Xiu playing music from ‘Twin Peaks’. And I’m a sucker for that screeching guitar.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

George Miller, 2014, Australia-USA
I’m inclined to believe that most if not nearly every modern trailer makes a film look bad: they resort to a list of clichés instead of capturing a flavour and the constant fading to black is a tic that really makes me twitch… CGI usually looks worse in a trailer too, flaying about out of context. I confess I wasn’t exactly eager after the first trailer for ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’.  “From mastermind George Miller” it said. Oh?  I countered, raising an eyebrow. Keep in mind that I think “Mad Max: The Road Warrior” is one of the best action films in the genre and its influence should not be underestimated (there were a lot of films where the gangs seemed dressed for the bondage club after a little post-apocalyptic delinquency). But the “Fury Road” trailer was full of people apparently driving through fireballs, etc, and that threw up for me the same red flag that warned me off, say, “Pompeii”. That is: it looked like it might be another CGI-fronted effects picture that didn’t care much for the basics of physics; and the original “Mad Max” films were nothing but full of dirt and grime and sand and injury, however silly and unrealistic things got. Also, initially I thought they had made Max a woman now. In fact Charlize Theron. Then I heard Tom Hardy was playing The Road Warrior, and as I was always a great fan of “Mad Max 2” and am a fan of Hardy, I went to see “Fury Road”, but with cautious expectations.

Of course, many people were legitimately excited by the trailer for “Fury Road” - I was in the grumpy minority - but even that cannot prepare you for the film. The opening is laden with a voice-over just to explain a few things and is soon followed by quick-quick editing, both choices that puts my guard up, but once the film has Max in the clutches of the unhealthily white war boys and, meanwhile, has the brides of the tyrant Immortan Joe (Hugh Keayes-Byrne) make an escape bid, things start to settle down. By which I mean if that small synopsis sounds busy, that is because the whole film is packed full. The plot is slender but as soon as Max is strapped to the front of war boy Nux’s (Nicholas Hoult) car, chasing after Furiosa (Theron) across the desert, the screen and details are so hectic that many will only become evident on repeat viewings.

For example, the war boys: diseased and delusional, poisoned by Immortan Joe’s suffocating and self-serving view of the world; they are a stunted population suffering from Joe’s patriarchy. They are both mentally and physically scarred and seem to want only to go out in a blaze of glory to meet better lifetimes in Valhalla: it is hard not to see an affinity with the suicide bombers that grace headlines. Beware fundamentalism.

Women are either milk-makers or baby-machines, it seems, giving the film perhaps the first of its alarming images with a row of large apathetic women hooked up to milking mechanisms. They are barely humans at all, not in the eyes of the society that Immortan Joe has propagated. And he holds the precious resource of water whilst trying to tell the population not to become addicted to it. This one man would seemingly hold all the power and keeps the people and his children so deprived (of resources and education, etc) that there seems no one to question it. Immortan Joe has made the world to his bidding and everyone around him is kept weakened in some way so they would not think beyond this world. It seems the desperate people know no better. Except the brides, who do receive some education to make them better breeders, but this also leads them to want more – and it should not be missed that Furiosa used to be a bride. In fact, intelligence seems to be mostly housed in the female protagonists.

All this comes across as a scathing satire on the kind of world that the wealthy patriarchs of today would imagine: for example, the CEO of Nestle opining that water should be privatised; or that a baby will be carved from a woman’s body in case it might live and be healthy seems the logical end to pro-life activism, to stories such as this. The comic of 'Mad Max: Fury Road - Furiosa' implies other sexual deviance for Immortan Joe (all those war boys) but this is an unneeded tweak to the story which would be just as strong with Joe simply being a woman-hating patriarch.

That is to say that the complexity and ramifications lay within the details of the film rather than its narrative, which is a typical chase scene through a hellish post-apocalyptic world. Where it succeeds is in a vision that equality will come through the direst conditions, eventually. There are hints that the women have been left no choice but to blame men for a world in ruins, but the male-hating is not consummate: is not a smidgeon of sympathy that converts Nux, showing that women have not lost that capacity (and Hoult's vulnerability has never been put to better use)? It is simply in this vision, women will not wait for men to save them, do not even consider it and cannot afford to. Theron will do what is necessary in an action film without resorting to machismo posturing and quips. Miller consulted female perspectives from such as playwright Eve Ensler to help ground it’s feminist credentials, and certainly some “Men’s Activist” groups have called for the film to be boycotted, which implies the film is doing something right. Miller uses the language of the Action Genre to show how narrow and male-centric it has been; it comes across as fighting the genre from within. It is no mistake that I mistakenly if briefly thought from the trailer that they had changed the gender of Max.

Speaking of which: into this merciless world comes Mad Max. Ever since the first film, Max had been more a facilitator of other people’s dramas: he turns up in some ongoing scenario, just trying to get by, and finds that his action skills come in handy in helping out. He tries to be amoral, because audiences love that anti-hero angle, but this doesn’t last so long. He’ll try to be mercenary but in the end he always helps the underdog. The opening pace of ‘Fury Road’ is frenetic, but this is misleading: it’s just to put Max to where he needs to be so that he’ll on the front of Nux’s car when Furiosa makes her escape bid. There was square-jawed blankness to Mel Gibson onto which a sort of “madness” could be imposed, but Tom Hardy can convey emotion and inner turmoil with the faintest facial tics so he is perhaps seems a more vulnerable Max as a consequence: not so much “Mad” as troubled. No matter: this isn’t really his story, but you get the idea that Max knows this, that he’s just trying to get by and hold himself together. Nux’s story gains more flesh and is more intriguing, changing from wannabe-suicide-assassin and rejected damaged son to finding a genuine place amongst the escapees. His is self-sacrifice for another, not martyrdom for a twisted cause.

Yes, there is all this and you would be foolish to ignore these details – or, for example, how casual the film present Furiosa’s prosethic arm, a unfussy approach that is surely progressive in how little attention it presents this as a “disability” or a character trait. There are mis-steps, the most discussed being the shot of the brides hosing themselves down beside a tanker, which is as Andy Nayman says at once parodic and pandering.” But here, again, the moment is slightly complicated from looking like a lad’s mag photoshoot by one of the women being pregnant (which, by the way, won’t stop her from being an action star either). It’s true that for all its feminist credentials, the film can’t quite stop gawping at these pretty women – but maybe that has some point: of course Immortan Joe would choose the most attractive. Nevertheless, the film doesn’t quite overcome some objectification where the brides are concerned. Along with this I still have some reservations about the opening narration (unnecessary) and the flashbacks that are meant to show Max’s Madness, despite looking like they’ve been inspired by some James Wan idea of a nightmarish vision, all music-video quick editing and ghostly faces etc. I could also do without the yelling-your-agony-in-the-sunset-atop-a-dune and the nods-of-understanding-across-a-crowd clichés, but these are minor glitches, swallowed up and overcome by the whole.

I enjoyed it more the second time round, knowing what I was looking for.

What you will be watching mostly are the stunning visuals and John Searle’s cinematography. You’ll be trying to work out the vehicle designs, which include cars-welded-to-cars and cheeky spikey swipes from ‘The Cars that Ate Paris’. Yes, the look of it and the action sequences are delirious, beautiful, crazed, spectacular and host of other superlatives. And the stunt work is incredible (just look at the stunt crew on IMDB to get some idea of what a massive undertaking you’re witnessing). How wrong I was in the impression I got from the trailer: the CGI here aids and abets genuine jaw-dropping stunt-work. The ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ flaws and achievements are as obvious and loud as the metal guitarist that fronts one vehicle, gleefully and manically bouncing around, motivating this remarkable spectacle. But it’s the satire and the targets of its ire, the themes and details that glue the stunts together that really add resonance and will surely make this one to return to and something of a instant classic.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

"I, Mengele" by Philip Challinor

http://www.thecurmudgeonly.blogspot.co.uk/Philip Challinor’s book superficially looks like the real deal: one in a series studying cult films that spotlights a single example, discussing its conception, content, reception and context. Except the film is called ‘I, Mengele’, the publisher is the  British Regional Film Foundation (a co-ordinated regional subsidiary of the Reich Ministry for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda) and the context is a world where Hitler won World War II. This film is an epic blockbuster for an audience where The Final Solution is a reality and you had best make sure your ancestry holds up to scrutiny. There is nothing in the packaging to refute this.

‘I, Mengele’ (the faux-film) is a Josef Mengele biopic, which affords Challinor with plenty of jibes at the expense of the film business: pokes at ‘Schindler’s List’ and the fascist readings of ‘Lord of the Rings’, for example; there are jokes using others, such as Cronenberg’s‘The Brood’, and reinterpretations of classics such as Shelley's ‘Frankenstein’. All this in passing but spoken of in a manner familiar to any who reads about films and all of it false. Challinor has utilised alternative universes before, for example in The Foundations of the Twenty-FirstCentury’ in which he uses the ghost story to highlight Nazi guilt. He is a writer that uses alternative realities to show the likely outcomes of certain political and/or religious agendas – a satirical tradition that can at least be traced back to Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal’perhaps most chillingly in ‘Security.  Like ‘Security’, ‘I, Mengele’ shows how language can assist in making the unspeakable justifiable and normal given another context – particularly in this medium of the film study whose very casual academic leanings surely makes what it leaves unspoken (a Nazi dominance) more unsettling. For example, he quotes from faux-film reviews from newspapers which indicate, through opinions, that the Third Reich’s doctrine has been assimilated into popular culture; but those dissenting views are simply other attitudes to the film.

It soon becomes apparent that the black humour of ‘I , Mengele’ reveals something of how propaganda works, of how narratives help make all things palatable. For example, what at first might seem a gag at the expense of David Cronenberg’s ‘The Brood’[i] quickly fits into the body-horror that emerges through the plot of ‘I, Mengele’ where the enemy are literal monsters who do give birth to other literal monsters, and probably in monstrous ways. In this way, it is no mistake that Challinor makes this film a cross between biopic and fantasy epic, a natural progression from using fiction to make the enemy inhuman. By the time we reach the point where Mengele is regarding 'Frankenstein' and ruminating that one day it may be possible “simply to breed appropriate monsters for entertainment purposes and spare normal actors the inconvenience of heavy-make-up”, we are in a world where the Nazi vision of eugenics defines how this culture sees evolution.

The plot of ‘I, Mengele’, apparently follows the troubled-and-flawed-but-ultimately-heroic-protagonist narrative. Troubled by what he sees as his own potentially degenerate gypsy features, Josef  Mengele nevertheless gives all to the Fatherland with his experiments, at the expenses of his family. With this and descriptions of how the creators and industry make Mengel’s character fit more popularist dramatic and stereotypical forms, Challinor slyly makes us look at the tropes and narrative types that dominate culture and propaganda: perhaps we are left questioning the tropes that take what might be seen as heinous actions and makes them heroic. The book mocks mainstream cinema hubris whilst emphasising how it aids xenophobic stereotypes.

Challinor’s conceit gets to show his more playful, sardonic side and the slender length means it is not allowed the chance to outstay its welcome. Right to the end, it keeps the quips coming (note the faux-bibliography that includes the book ‘Musn’t Grumble: The British War Film from Empire to Defeat’, for example). It is a scathing satire and a delight for those who read about film and fiction for fun. Darkly funny, scary, thoughtful and clever.

[i]               “…The Brood, a family film based on the story of Magda Goebbels and her children”: this is a satisfying gag parodying David Cronenbergs classic horror, itself a twisted version of those themes made popular by films such as ‘Kramer vs Kramer’; but it also infers the context where this is would not be a joke as well as containing a scornful criticism of Magda Goebels.

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Logan's Run

 Michael Anderson, 1976, USA

Pulpy fun in the 23rd Century where members of a domed, colour-coded, computer-run society are destined to die once turning thirty. At thirty, they give themselves up to ‘Carousel’, a kind of snuff-disco inspired by pseudo-religious ideas of the afterlife; or else they become ‘Runners’, chased by official bounty hunters called ‘Sandmen’. Sandman Logan (York) bumps into Agutter and, having coincidentally been computer-assigned to find the outside world of ‘Sanctuary’ and destroy it, he goes on the run with her for real. All interesting comments on society give way to simplistic analogies, chase dynamics and décor. The plot is as episodic as a Saturday serial or comic, including brief brushes with delinquent ‘cubs’, an instant plastic surgery clinic, and an implausibly manic robot. That it’s ultimately shallow reveals squandered opportunity.

There is the old bad urban/Eden rural dichotomy: the dome-city has a Roman Empire hedonistic undercurrent, but this mostly means seventies drape costumes. Only Logan’s pal Francis as played by Richard Jordan displays any sense of ambiguity, desperately clinging to his Sandman beliefs against mounting evidence to the opposite; plus there is a near-homoerotic undercurrent in his relationship with Logan. York and Agutter are simply bland; her proto-feminism doesn’t wash. All this seems to be a rejection of scientific progress and a yearning for old-fashioned family structures and intangible sensations such as ‘love’ and ‘memory’. It might seem poignant to a younger audience.

          Nevertheless, there is much to the pulpiness, the bold colours and sets to entertain. It certainly seems a plot made of the kind of covers that would grace Analog magazine. Still, as far as sci-fi goes, it would be hard to believe that Rabid and The Man Who Fell to Earth were released in the same year. Look there for truly developed ideas.

The Borderlands

Elliot Goldner, 2013, UK

A Vatican research team sets out to prove or disprove supernatural occurrences at a church in a small Irish town.

Another entry in the “hand-held camera” genre that of course doesn’t overcome the questions inherent in that aesthetic (who’s editing? etc). However, the film colours in the characters and provides increasingly good performances, benefitting from having convincing protagonists instead of just pin-ups. Aidan McArdle particularly starts out as the usual brattish cameraman but soon fleshes out into an innocent out of this depth, as someone relatable and to care about. The still inserts of the landscapes seem to imply that this isn’t so much “found footage” as simply filmed this way. It benefits from the Gothic atmosphere of a church and takes its time to set up an air of genuine unease. Soon, it gets down to being genuinely unsettling. It is also quietly bolstered by an argument between faith in “what is seen” and “the supernatural”,putting them in cahoots, making the latter phenomena bait for the former and making “The Borderlands” more thoughtful than its chosen appearance may initially imply. An unnerving exercise with a humanitarian streak so that the audience is left with genuine characters that do not deserve what happens to them. When the hand-held agenda succeeds it can give a descent into hell an intimacy that can be surprising and refreshing: “The Borderlands” escalates to a finale whose sheer audaciousness goes someway to justifying that angle, shedding some fresh light on some of the preceding dialogue.