Sunday, 23 July 2017

Tenfootcity: Classic Gangster Films

My latest piece on classic gangster films is in the new summer issue of Tenfootcity, Hull's independent street magazine. I will be posting an extended version on The Screen Assassin blog shortly.

Friday, 14 July 2017

Great Films of the 1960s

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (UK: Karel Reisz, 1960)

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning has a young Albert Finney as the boozing, brawling and shagging Arthur Seaton. Dissatisfied with his mundane factory job and guided by the motto ‘don’t let the bastards grind you down’, Arthur is ‘out for a good time’, living for the weekend and embarking upon a string of affairs which eventually come to threaten his hedonistic lifestyle. He may be a rogue but Arthur is determined to play by his own rules, rejecting the boring conformity of his parents and the limited opportunities that society offers him.
Alongside films such as Room at the Top, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and This Sporting Life, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning remains one of the outstanding examples of the British New Wave. The New Wave shook up the nation’s cinema, revealing the working class in a brave new light and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning depicts its rebellious anti-hero with a brutal honesty rarely seen in the cinema until the 1960s.

This Sporting Life (UK: Lindsay Anderson, 1963)

Like Reisz, Lindsay Anderson emerged as one of the founders of the Free Cinema movement which attempted to merge documentary realist aesthetics with a more experimental, avante-garde and innovative style of filmmaking. This Sporting Life stars Richard Harris as an up-and-coming Rugby League star, Frank Machin, who, despite his physical prowess on the field, is prone to introspection and self-doubt and is tortured by his inner demons.

Filmed on location in the North of England and at Wakefield Trinity’s Belle Vue stadium - the Rugby League action is particularly impressive - This Sporting Life is arguably the greatest sport film ever made. For me, it is certainly the best film of the New Wave with a brooding, poetic and psychological intensity which hints at expressionism considerably more than most of the social realist films of the period.

A  Raging Bull for the industrial north of England.

Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (UK/US: Stanley Kubrick, 1964)

Kubrick’s apocalyptic comedy features Peter Sellers in multiple roles as British RAF Group Captain Mandrake, US President Merkin Muffley and the sinister Dr Strangelove himself. Despite Sellers being in great comic form, the outstanding performance in the film arguably belongs to Sterling Hayden as Brigadier General Ripper. Driven by the fear of Communist infiltration (he believes the fluoridisation of water to be a “commie plot”), Ripper evades the US military’s security systems to single-handedly instigate a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. In addition to Sellers and Hayden, George C. Scott is also superb as the brash patriot, General Buck Turgidson.

Released just two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, Strangelove magnificently satirises the paranoia of the Cold War. When the US top brass gather to discuss the impending crisis, they invite the Soviet ambassador to the meeting. As the ambassador and Turgidson come to blows, they are ordered to stop by President Muffley: ‘Gentlemen. You can’t fight here. This is the war room’, barks the President, highlighting the reckless stupidity of US/Soviet relations during the 1960s.

Four years after Strangelove, Kubrick would make 2001: A Space Odyssey. Almost half a century 

later, 2001 still remains the touchstone for a particular trope of cerebral sci-fi.

Carry on Cleo (UK: Gerald Thomas, 1964)

I had to include something from the Carry On team and Cleo- with the possible exception of Carry On Screaming- is their best. The Carry On films, in addition to those produced by Hammer studios, provided a refreshing antidote to British cinema’s earnest realism. Whereas Hammer offered blood and sex to counter middle-class decorum, Carry On delighted audiences with its saucy seaside postcard humour, as salty- and as British- as fish and chips.

You know what you are getting with the Carry On team and Cleo brings together the usual cheeky ensemble: Sid James, Joan Sims, Charles Hawtrey, Jim Dale and the two Kenneth’s- Williams and Connor. Collectively these actors are legends of British comedy and here they are joined by a young Amanda Barrie who plays Cleopatra. Barrie would later become a regular in ITV’s Coronation Street. The film also has Kenneth Williams, as Julius Caesar, delivering one of the finest moments in British cinema. When Caesar realises there is a plot to assassinate him, he flees his would-be assassin, shouting the immortal line: ‘Infamy. Infamy. They’ve all got it in for me.’ Pure comic genius.

Whereas Carry On Screaming parodied the Hammer horror films, Cleo is a spoof of 20th Century Fox’s Cleopatra, released a year before Cleo. When Fox shifted its shooting location from Britain to Italy, the props, costumes and sets were left at Pinewood studios to be raided by Carry On’s production company for use on the film.

Performance (UK: Donald Cammell/Nicolas Roeg, 1970)

Performance’s frank portrayal of sex, drugs and rock and roll and its explicit violence caused Warner Brothers to delay its release until 1970. Like a comedown from a particularly bad acid trip, the film depicts the swinging 60s counterculture's freakish descent into madness and despair.

James Fox is Chas, a brutal and narcissistic gangster hiding out from the mob with a fading and reclusive rock star, Turner, played by Mick Jagger as a warped fictional version of his own rock and roll persona. Under the influence of a cocktail of chemicals, including mind-bending hallucinogenic mushrooms, a weird merging of Chas and Turner’s characters begins.

Performance has exerted a huge influence on pop culture with bands such as The Happy Mondays and Big Audio Dynamite sampling the film. BAD’s ‘E=mc²’ is a celebration of the work of the director Nic Roeg and Happy Mondays’ second LP Bummed is littered with references to this cult classic. The film also features an early example of a music promo, ‘Memo from Turner’, performed by Jagger.

Roeg would go on to become one of the finest British filmmakers of all time and this, his co-directed debut, is one of the coolest and hippest British films of the 1960s. Performance is as trippy as a bucketful of LSD, totally unique and utterly brilliant.

Also recommended:

Breathless/A bout de souffle (France: Jean-Luc Godard, 1960)

Peeping Tom (UK: Michael Powell, 1960)

Psycho (US: Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)

The Great Race (US: Blake Edwards, 1965)

The Battle of Algiers/ La battaglia di Algeri (Italy/Algeria: Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966)

Bonnie and Clyde (US: Arthur Penn, 1967)

Planet of the Apes (US: Franklin J. Schaffner, 1968)

2001: A Space Odyssey (UK/US: Stanley Kubrick, 1968)

Easy Rider (US: Dennis Hopper, 1969)

Midnight Cowboy (US: John Schlesinger, 1969)

*This piece has been adapted from an article published in Hull's independent magazine Tenfootcity (Issue 45 Spring 2017)

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Dvd/Blu-ray Review

Arrival: Denis Villeneuve’s emotional and strikingly original first-contact sci-fi drama. (DVD and Blu-ray review)

US, 2016/116 mins/Cert. 12A
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma

Out later this month on DVD and Blu-ray is the contemplative and emotional science fiction drama from director Denis Villeneuve. Adapted for the screen by Eric Heisserer from a Ted Chiang short story: “Story of Your Life”, Arrival received an Academy award earlier this year for sound editing and was nominated in a further seven categories, including Best Picture and Director. The film stars Amy Adams, criminally overlooked for a best actress nomination at this year’s Oscars for her tremendous performance in Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals and Adams is equally impressive here as linguist Dr Louise Banks.

When twelve alien spacecraft suddenly appear at various locations across the globe, Banks is lecturing at college and grieving the loss of her young daughter to cancer. She is subsequently enlisted by Colonel GT Weber (Forest Whitaker) to assist the US military in their attempt to communicate with the extraterrestrial visitors and discover their motive in visiting the Earth. Working alongside physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and a team of experts, Banks slowly pieces together the alien language. During her dialogue with the aliens she becomes increasingly haunted by dreams of her daughter, learning a devastating truth about her own life in the process.

Pitched somewhere between mainstream science fiction and arthouse cinema, Arrival manages to both entertain whilst simultaneously probing social and geopolitical issues. Banks learns that the alien mission is to impart knowledge, described by the aliens as a ‘gift’ to humanity, and this knowledge concerns the human concept of the linearity of time as the film asks the question that if we were to become capable of seeing into the future, should we change it?

Banks’ journey towards a higher state of human consciousness leaves us to ponder the limitations of language and how human beings communicate and interact with each other on a personal and public level. When the spacecraft arrive, mass panic and rioting ensue around the world with the visitors initially deemed as a threat to humanities existence. Initially puzzled as to why the alien visitors chose their locations across the globe, one of the experts jokes that it could be that Sheena Easton had a number one hit in those countries in the 1980s. Later it becomes apparent that the extraterrestrials have deliberately spread their spacecraft across the globe to facilitate global cooperation. To understand the purpose of the alien visit, the US military must work closely with other teams like those led by Banks at the other sites across the world and share information. With this cooperation between governments comes the hope of a new age of international peace and stability but this optimism soon falters as the national governments revert to mutual mistrust and aggression. Soon a group of dissident American soldiers acting on their own volition plant explosives on the alien spacecraft and divisions within the international operation emerge, leading to political conflict as the Chinese prepare to attack the spacecraft.

I saw Arrival just after the US Presidential election and considering that the film went into production in the summer of 2015 was struck by how prescient it is in its engagement with Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric of isolationism and xenophobia. Similarly, the film also engages with current debates around the issue of immigration as the equation between the irrational threat of the alien “other” and the perceived threat that immigration poses is one of the film’s subtexts, subtly working beneath its narrative surface.

Arrival is a remarkably restrained science fiction piece which relies on narrative and atmosphere rather than spectacular wham-bam special effects to capture the imagination. That said, the shots of the huge, black, oval spacecraft hovering above the surface of the earth like giant otherworldly modernist sculptures are strikingly created and will linger in the memory. The initial approach to the spacecraft is also breathtakingly shot and the cinematography throughout the film is beautifully done. The first time the scientists enter the base of the UFO, they are informed that once inside the spacecraft there is no gravity which means they must courageously jump from their winch with the ground hundreds of feet below- a physical leap which symbolically foreshadows Banks’ personal metaphysical leap of faith later in the film. Once inside, the interior of the spacecraft is also superbly designed as the film eschews the usual technological look of much science fiction cinema opting instead for a much simpler, but brilliantly effective, cavern-like structure. Similarly, the space where Banks and her coterie of experts interview the aliens is also minimalist in its construction, with dazzling white drape-like surfaces which create a stunningly futuristic chiaroscuro effect. The two, seven-limbed, squid-like ‘heptapod’ aliens, viewed from behind a large glass screen and nicknamed Abbott and Costello by Donnelly, communicate semiotically via a system of visual symbols that they squirt into the air like extraterrestrial squid ink. The creatures are a magnificent achievement and the effects and design team on the film have done a tremendous job in creating an entirely original, stylish and ground-breaking new aesthetic for the genre.

Arrival is an intelligent, thought-provoking and gripping drama that will undoubtedly come to be considered as a canonical example of the first-contact trope of science fiction. The film is concerned primarily with human social and personal relationships in our shared present- rather than the technological future- and consequently is much warmer, emotionally engaging and philosophically introspective than many other examples of the genre. Although I found the ending of the film upping the sentimentality quota a touch too much for my personal taste and some viewers may anticipate the plot twist about twenty minutes before its revelation, Arrival’s narrative arc is skilfully presented and hugely satisfying nevertheless. It is a hugely enjoyable film and Villeneuve’s adroit handling here bodes well for his eagerly anticipated Bladerunner 2049 released later this year.

Arrival is available to buy in the UK from 20 March 2017.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Nocturnal Animals (Review)

Nocturnal Animals’ intelligent story-within-a-story is brutal, engrossing and deeply philosophical.


US, 2016/ 116 mins/ Cert. 15

Cast: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher. 

Fashion designer-turned-filmmaker Tom Ford’s second film, the neo-noir Nocturnal Animals, is an ingenious, gripping and thought-provoking piece of cinema. Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 2016 Venice International Film Festival, the film’s device of having a fictional story within its ‘real’ story, plays with your generic expectations. Seamlessly unifying its divergent generic components - part crime thriller, part emotional drama, part philosophical discourse - Nocturnal Animals asks profound questions about the moral choices we make and their consequences. It works on a narrative level and is pleasing to look at but beyond its surface sheen and intricate plot construction, the film’s richness ultimately derives from the deeply affecting existential questions it poses.

Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) is a successful L.A. art gallery owner, worried about her troubled second marriage to Hutton (Armie Hammer) and frustrated at his apparent disinterest in attempting to make their relationship work. When a parcel containing the manuscript of a novel from her ex-husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), unexpectedly arrives at her office, Susan’s disillusionment with her marriage and career forces a re-evaluation of her life. As she reads the novel, which is dedicated to her and titled Nocturnal Animals - a nickname which Edward gave Susan because of her insomnia - Susan begins to see alarming parallels with the fictional story and their past relationship. Describing the soon-to-be-published novel to a female colleague at the gallery as ‘violent and sad’ and admitting that she ‘did something horrible’ to Edward, Susan rushes off an email to her ex-husband, agreeing to meet him for dinner. As the film flits between the present, with flashbacks of Susan and Edward’s relationship and the story contained within the novel, we discover Susan’s guilty secret, as the boundaries between the “real” and the “imagined” are blurred, both within Susan’s conscience and the cinema audience. We are left to ponder Edward’s motives. Is the devastating story contained within the manuscript a form of revenge against his ex-wife? And how much of the fiction is influenced by the actuality of their unfortunate marriage?

The novel’s story begins with a middle-class husband and wife as they embark upon a road trip to Texas with their teenage daughter, India (Ellie Bamber). As the husband, Tony Hastings, is also played by Gyllenhaal and the wife is played by Isla Fisher who is remarkably similar in appearance to Adams, the visual connection between the two narratives is vividly portrayed. The family are forced off the road at night by local troublemakers and a terrible crime is committed, forcing Hastings, with the help of a Stetson wearing, chain-smoking, Texan detective, Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon), to hunt down the perpetrators. Andes is a typically tough, noir anti-hero, who has his own personal reasons for wanting to solve the crime as we discover he has cancer and has been told he only has months to live and is threatened with being thrown off the case. These factors serve to increase his determination in seeing that justice is done and he asks Hastings how far he is prepared to go to punish the perpetrators. As the methods of the pair to apprehend the criminals increasingly fall outside the remit of the law, Hastings attempts an uneasy transformation from the educated metropolitan with liberal values at the beginning of the story into a much more ruthless and amoral character; his urbane temperament clashing with the harsh reality of the Texan badlands.

Hastings’ desire to bring the criminals to justice appears to be partially motivated by guilt. During the harrowing and incredibly difficult to watch crime scene, Hastings comes across as a weak character who could have been braver and done more to protect his family. He later admits his weakness to Andes and this parallels neatly with the backstory of Edward’s courtship and marriage to Susan. When the couple fall in love they are both studying at college in New York and Edward is struggling to become a writer. It is his sensitivity and intelligence which initially attracts Susan, however, her attitude changes and her student idealism diminishes as she becomes increasingly ambitious. She embarks upon an affair with the younger, more successful, Hutton whose character seems the direct opposite of Edward’s. Hutton is strong, reliable and seemingly able to provide the security that Edward cannot. When Susan informs Edward that the marriage is over, she says she still admires his imagination and sensitivity which Edward interprets as meaning he is weak. Throughout the film contrasting depictions of masculinity are on display. Edward represents the sensitive, intelligent side of masculinity which is equated with weakness, contrasted with the go-getting, dependable strength of Hutton. Outside of these two facets, a more toxic masculinity is represented by the boozing, brawling criminality of the rednecks which the Hastings encounter in Texas. The question of whether Edward’s decision to dedicate the novel to Susan and send her the manuscript is motivated by a desire for vengeance, thus representing another form of intelligent, yet equally toxic, masculinity is never fully resolved but much of the film’s tension lies in this aspect of the narrative. Watching the film, I found that these themes resonate strongly with the current political climate as Nocturnal Animals mirrors recent debates about male attitudes to women which dominated Donald Trump’s recent Presidential campaign, giving the film a degree of topicality which the filmmakers could not have anticipated whilst the film was in production.

The question of Edward’s perceived weakness is emphasised in a notable scene in a restaurant when Susan informs her mother, Anne (Laura Linney) that she and Edward are to be married. Anne is the antithesis of the cultured, idealist and tolerant Susan; an obstinate and over-ambitious reactionary who, we discover, has disowned her son for his homosexuality. She disapproves of Edward, warning her daughter that Susan is like her and that she will regret the marriage, because ‘he is too weak for you… The things that you love about him now are the things you’ll hate’. This short scene is pivotal to our understanding of Susan’s character, as the ostentatious and unlikable Anne nevertheless proves to be intuitive, correctly pointing out that Susan is suppressing her true nature which is more ambitious and egotistical than she realises. The suppression of latent desires and motivations is one of the key themes in the film and it is Susan’s failure to understand her true character which leads to her eventual despair. Edward, on the other hand, seems to be in touch with his authentic self and this emerges through his writing. At one point Susan, unimpressed with one of Edward’s stories, offers him the unwelcome advice that ‘maybe you should write less about yourself.’ Her rejection of Edward’s endeavour is as much a reflection of herself than her finding fault in Edward’s work. She is wary of introspection as she is coming around to Anne’s way of thinking, unable to admit that she possesses her mother’s faults. The irony is that Edward succeeds in getting his novel published by ignoring Susan’s advice and that his story is a fictional reworking of his own defects and an admission of his weakness. Therefore, Nocturnal Animals uses its meta-narrative device to suggest that the impulse towards creativity comes from locating and interrogating our authentic identity. Susan’s mental disintegration is the direct consequence of her bad faith and the film punishes her for this.

Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography in Nocturnal Animals complements the narrative, brilliantly reflecting Susan’s inner turmoil. She is often seen alone, staring out from her modern, luxurious L.A. mansion late at night and the lingering, deep-focus, wide-angled shots of her, mostly filmed from outside, perfectly capture her character’s isolation and sense of alienation. These images are reminiscent of Edward Hopper’s city paintings which depict the melancholy and loneliness of modern America. Although Susan’s spacious state-of-the art home reflects her character’s lavish lifestyle, in these parts of the film it resembles a prison. The similar use of the camera is also used to great effect in the establishing shots of the L.A. cityscape and for the Texan landscape as throughout the film the utilisation of cinematic space is brilliantly deployed. These relatively lengthy and static takes are contrasted with the more rapid editing employed during the scenes of violence in Texas.

The neo-noir aspects of Nocturnal Animals recall moments from a number of Coen Brothers’ films - minus their dark comedy. The Texan setting of the fictional segment of the film reminded me of Blood Simple and No Country for Old Men and Nocturnal Animals is just as brutal as anything in the Coens’ canon. Moreover, its focus upon a central, lonely protagonist trapped by circumstance contains the same psychological intensity of The Man Who Wasn’t There and Fargo. Although Nocturnal Animals far less eccentric than the Coens’ dramas, it poses similar existential questions within its binary plot construction.

Nocturnal Animals is a stylish and original thriller-cum-melodrama which remains an enigma right until it’s unresolved, emotionally bleak conclusion. All of the central performances are magnificent which help the film to perform the trick of presenting its nuanced double narrative. Amy Adams is terrific as the beautiful - but damaged - Susan, perfectly capturing her character’s vulnerability, as is Jake Gyllenhaal in his dual role. Both Michael Shannon as the uncompromising Texan detective and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the snarling alpha-male of the Texan gang provide tremendous support. The pulp noir strand of the story is brutal, though it complements rather than overpowers the more sophisticated and meditative main drama. The film’s major themes of love, regret and revenge are skilfully woven into the film’s texture and Nocturnal Animals will benefit from repeated viewings in order to fully appreciate its philosophical and structural complexities.

Sunday, 20 November 2016

The Iran/Iraq conflict forms the backdrop for an exceptional chiller in Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow
UK, Jordan, Qatar, 2016/ Cert. 15/ 84 mins
Director: Babak Anvari
Cast: Narges Rashidi, Avin, Manshadi, Bobby Najeri, Ray Haratian, Aram Ghasemy

From the British independent film company Wigwam Films comes the UK, Qatar and Jordan co-production Under the Shadow, written and directed by Babak Anvari. Set in Tehran in 1988 during the Iran/Iraq war, Anvari’s debut feature was premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and has been deservedly well received by critics. The film succeeds on a generic level, providing genuine jump-in-your seats moments demanded from a horror audience. It also succeeds in utilising the horror genre to comment upon the nature of war and the status of women in post-revolution Iran after the Ayatollah Khomeini came into power.

The film’s plot centres upon Shideh (Narges Rashidi) and her young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) who are living in a Tehran tenement building struggling to cope with the chaos of the conflict. Her husband, Iraj (Bobby Naderi), is a doctor who has been enlisted to join the military and has been assigned to the front and Shideh has opted to remain in the city rather than stay with his parents in the country. At the beginning of the film we discover that Shideh wishes to continue with her medical studies but she is bluntly informed by the Director of the University (Bijan Daneshmand) that as she was active in a left-wing organisation during the revolution her application has been denied. Shideh becomes depressed by the decision and the curtailment of her ambition to become a doctor and this leads to tension in the marriage which is further exacerbated by her decision to remain in Tehran. With her husband away, the shelling of the city intensifies and the tenants of the block are forced to gather in the basement for safety until an unexploded missile crashes into the building’s roof. Gradually the rest of the occupants leave the tenement block until only Shideh and her daughter remain, with Dorsa increasingly disturbed by visions and convinced that as the missile burst through the roof it has let in a malevolent spirit- a Djinn in Islamic folklore-into the building.

Under the Shadow’s Iranian setting immediately brings to mind Ana Lily Amirpour’s 2014 vampire film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night although the two films are considerably different in tone and form as Amirpour’s horror is heavily stylised and far more idiosyncratic than Anvari’s more conventional chiller. A more valid comparison can be found with Jennifer Kent’s psychological horror The Babadook (2014) as both films deal with the isolation of a mother and child and deal with horrors- either real or imagined- suggestive of mental anguish or breakdown. Much of the film’s impact owes a great deal to its domestic setting and how it manages- to paraphrase Alfred Hitchcock- to bring terror back into the home. Its suspense is derived from the fact that we really care about the characters and the reality of their situation as Under the Shadow, like The Babadook, has a mother left alone to cope with a young, highly imaginative and fearful child, concerned for her own sanity and child’s safety. When she is informed that there is an evil presence in the tenement block by Mrs Ebrahimi, an elderly and devout Muslim, who states that the djinni ‘travel on the wind, they always know how to find you’, Shideh’s rationality leads her to dismiss her neighbour’s warning. But when Dorsa’s favourite doll inexplicably disappears and Shideh is told that the spirits steal a favourite item in order to take possession of its owner, she can no longer ignore the possibility of the paranormal. Shideh eventually comes around to believing her daughter’s assertion that an evil spirit lurks in the building and, increasingly plagued by her own nightmares and visions, agrees to leave for her husband’s parents as soon as the doll is found.

In a similar manner to Kent’s film, the spirit attempts to drive a wedge between mother and child. Both The Babadook and Under the Shadow locate their psychological dread in the real and there is a theological struggle in both films between rationality and a belief in the supernatural. The Babadook’s threat emerges from the grief of the mother at the loss of her husband and the repressed resentment this causes her to feel towards her son. Under the Shadow’s terror originates in Shideh’s thwarted ambition to practise medicine, the devastation of the war and the increasing repression imposed upon women living under the revolutionary regime- the “shadow”- implied by the title.

Shideh has a modern feminist outlook on life which contradicts the edicts of the Islamic regime. We see her exercising in the living room to a Jane Fonda Workout video and as video players are frowned upon as anti-Islamic she has to warn her daughter not to mention the fact that they own a VCR to their neighbours. At one point in the film Shideh and her daughter flee the tenement in terror and they are picked up by the military police. In the haste to escape the entity that dwells in their apartment, Shideh has forgotten to wear her veil in public- a punishable offence for women under Sharia law- and they are forced to spend the night in a police cell until Shideh is cautioned by an official the next morning.

With Under the Shadow, Anvari emerges as new directorial talent and his debut promises much for the future. Rather than pound the audience with special effects, the film shows admirable restraint with Chris Barnwell’s editing and Kit Fraser’s cinematography complementing, rather than intruding upon, the narrative which avoids explicit violence and gore for a more cerebral, psychologically disquieting atmosphere. The point-of-view cuts during Shideh’s terrifying hallucinations are effective, as are the rotated camera angles of her lying upon her bed which demonstrate her apprehensive state of mind and skilfully signpost the beginning of her waking nightmares. Similarly, Under the Shadow promotes the edict that a little is enough in its portrayal of the djinn which is, for the most part, fleetingly glimpsed and is much more sinister for being so. Both intelligent and genuinely scary, Under the Shadow adroitly manages to unsettle, sending several satisfactory chills down your spine whilst successfully weaving a socio-political comment on Iran during the period into its horror narrative You will still be shaking from its psychological terror and engaging with its nuanced subtexts long after the credits roll. 

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Blood on the Catwalk in Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon
France, Denmark, USA, 2016/ Cert. 18/ 118 mins
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Cast: Elle Fanning, Karl Glusman, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Keanu Reeves, Desmond Harrington, Christina Hendricks.

When Nicolas Winding Refn’s psychological horror, The Neon Demon, was screened at Cannes earlier this year, it simultaneously provoked booing and applause from the gathered press. Refn’s films have an interesting habit of dividing the critics: his 2013 thriller Only God Forgives received a similar reaction when it was entered for the Palme d’Or and, as Refn himself has pointed out, Drive (2011), his most acclaimed and accessible film to date, received mixed reviews on its release. In the case of The Neon Demon, such diversity of opinion is hardly surprising as it is an intentionally provocative film, however, its exploitational shocks ought not to fool us into thinking the film is not worthy of attention. Its relentlessly lurid blood and gore and transgressive sexual content make The Neon Demon a stylish and perverse work of cinematic art.

 The film opens with wannabe model, Jesse (Elle Fanning), wearing a bright blue PVC dress and draped over a chaise longue, with what seems to be blood from a neck wound oozing down her chest and arms. We discover that the blood is fake and that this is merely a photo shoot, an opportunity to build Jesse’s portfolio to assist her to gain a foothold in the fashion industry. The aspiring photographer is a friend, Dean (Karl Glusman), who tentatively starts a relationship with Jesse only to be cruelly rejected later in the film. Dean represents the film’s only portrayal of human decency; a moral compass in a society dominated by callousness, self-promotion and narcissism.

The innocent, virginal Jesse lodges in a seedy, run-down Los Angeles motel which is managed by Hank, sleazily played by Keanu Reeves. We begin to ask questions about Hank’s dubious character when he asks if Dean might be interested in ‘some real Lolita shit’, and have sex with a thirteen-year-old runaway girl who is staying at the motel. Hank also forces Jesse to pay for damages to her room after it is wrecked by a large wild cat that has escaped from the zoo, the first scene to suggest a surreal juxtaposition between twisted fantasy and reality which will recur throughout the film. Even more disturbing is a dream-sequence where Hank sneaks into Jesse’s room whilst she is asleep and forces her to swallow a large knife as if performing fellatio. Later someone- possibly Hank- attempts to break in to Jesse’s room but, thwarted in his attempt, goes into the thirteen-year-old-girl’s room next door instead to attack and rape her. The assault occurs off-screen, heard by a distressed Jesse through the walls of the motel. The motel and its manager therefore represent the predatory underbelly of L.A. which is seen to be not to dissimilar in nature to the fashion industry itself. 

Jesse finds work at a top modelling agency and when she informs the owner, Roberta Hoffmann (Christina Hendricks), that she is sixteen she is told to lie and say she is nineteen. (In an interesting case of mimesis, Fanning was also only sixteen years of age when The Neon Demon was filmed in 2015). Hoffman then sends Jesse off to an intimidating test shoot with the renowned photographer, Jack (Desmond Harrington), who calls for a closed shoot and orders her to undress. Before she strips, Jesse is framed in the centre of the shot with a completely white background to emphasise her virginity and inexperience and as she takes off her clothes the camera remains fixed upon her face in close-up, capturing her vulnerability. Jack then turns of the lights and the screen is engulfed in almost complete darkness until the photographer smears gold paint over Jesse’s body. Despite the menacing nature of this sequence, the shoot proves to be a success and as Jesse’s career takes off she becomes increasingly confident and self-obsessed, transformed from the sweet naïf seen at the film’s outset struggling to come to terms with the industry’s immorality into a beautiful egotist who, it seems, is more than capable of matching her colleagues, Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi’s (Bella Heathcote) contemptuous ambition.

Jesse is drawn into the L.A. fashion social scene by her make-up artist, Ruby (Jena Malone), who initially suggests she wants to protect her from the more corrupt aspects of the business. It is Ruby who introduces Jesse to Sarah and Gigi at a party which turns into a Japanese bondage show. The two models are both fascinated and jealous by Jesse’s youth and beauty as Sarah is regarded as being too old for modelling and Gigi represents a fake beauty owing to the amount of surgery she has had done to fulfil the needs of the industry. Both models appear threatened by Jesse’s natural good looks and attempt to demean her, whereas when Ruby makes up Jesse there is suggestion that she is sexually attracted to the model and this is confirmed later when Ruby tries to initiate sex with her. This forceful and clumsy attempt at seduction leads into The Neon Demon’s most notorious scene. Ruby moonlights as a make-up specialist at a morgue and when she is treating the corpse of an attractive female she becomes sexually aroused, climbing on top of the dead body to have sex with the corpse whilst a cross-cut of Ruby’s thought processes show us she is fantasising about Jesse as she masturbates.

In addition to lesbian necrophilia, as The Neon Demon progresses Refn steadily racks up the nudity and gore, referencing familiar horror tropes of vampirism, cannibalism and necromancy along the way to transform the film into a deeper, unsettling psychological study- a kind of The Devil Wears Prada (David Frankel, 2006) with graphic sex and violence. If The Neon Demon can be read as an exposé of the fashion industry, then it is one which has been imbued with the symbolism of Luis Buñuel and suffused with Giallo imagery. There is one moment in the film when Jesse is pursued around an L.A. mansion and, in fear for her life, she takes a large knife to defend herself. In this sequence, Refn pays homage to Dario Argento as the rooms and corridors are vividly lit in red and appear as though they could have been lifted straight from Argento’s Suspiria (1977). The film is strikingly shot throughout, utilising saturated colour with vibrant blues and reds prominent and the cinematographer Natasha Braier and lighting, set and costume designers have done a tremendous job in creating such a stylish and memorable look for the film.

The Neon Demon also clearly references Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou (1928) in its symbolism. During their short-lived romance, Jesse says to Dean how as a child she would climb onto the roof of her parents’ house to stare at the moon which she imagined to be a giant eye and the moon and eye are symbolic images conjured up regularly in the film. At one point, Ruby is seen performing some sort of occult ritual, laying naked under the full moon with blood gushing from between her legs. The scenes of flowing blood are reminiscent of The Shining (1980) and there is a further nod to Kubrick’s film when Jesse is informed that the shade of lipstick she is wearing is named Redrum. In addition to The Shining, there also features a hallucinatory sequence which suggests that Jesse may be losing her grip on reality with human hands growing from the walls of the room, echoing Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965). The fact that The Neon Demon’s cinematic influences are clearly on display does not detract from the film’s originality, however, as it follows the auterist patterns of Refn’s previous films in its emphasis on visual style and depiction of extreme subject matter. Whilst many may baulk at Refn’s slick, chic and sick take on the modelling world and the nature of beauty, its formal brilliance cannot be ignored.

As befitting for a horror film with its subject matter, The Neon Demon suggests that the fashion world is a zombie industry which is dangerously out of control, pointing to lengths that the models in the industry will go: either under the knife in an attempt to achieve physical perfection- like Gigi or, as hinted by the narrative arc of the film, practising witchcraft to achieve success. Jesse’s rapid rise to prominence on the catwalk is prompted by a top fashion designer played by Alessandro Nivola in an uncredited role. With an inclination to philosophise, the designer declares ‘beauty isn’t everything, it’s the only thing’, promoting Jesse to close one of his shows. Jesse’s appearance on the catwalk marks the turning point in the narrative, confirming the aspiring model’s potential star quality and highlighting a transformation in her personality as she is seen narcissistically kissing her own reflection in a mirror. As Jesse stands on the catwalk she appears to have an out of body experience, standing in a trance-like state as she watches herself perform. Is this reality we are seeing or merely a projection of Jesse’s fantasies? Prominent on the catwalk is a strange, glowing triangular neon structure which is at first an electric blue and then changes to a vivid red. Framed centrally in the shot with the rest of the screen in darkness, is this portentous structure the titular Neon Demon? Or is it some kind of portal to another dimension of reality? The neon structure and the entire scene itself is rich in symbolic meaning, possessing a delirious, surreal quality which is complemented by the use of strobe lighting, the striking use of colour and Cliff Martinez’s minimal electronic soundtrack.

After Jesse’s strange encounter on the catwalk with the Neon Demon, events turn increasingly violent and the story becomes more ambiguous. The mixed reaction to The Neon Demon could be accountable to this ambiguity and the fact that the film is generically difficult to pin down. It may be considered too outré and for some tastes on the one hand whilst being too abstruse for some horror aficionados on the other. However, there is enough blood-soaked nubile flesh on display here to keep most discerning fans of exploitation cinema happy. The Neon Demon is arthouse exploitation, coming across like a particularly visceral and recherché Hammer horror on Viagra.

I couldn’t watch this film, with its thematic engagement with the objectification of feminine beauty, without thinking back to Laura Mulvey’s ground-breaking 1975 essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, which combined psychoanalysis and feminism to introduce to cinema studies the theory of “the male gaze”. However, in The Neon Demon, and especially its grotesque, stomach-churning conclusion, Refn isn’t content to merely show us “the gaze”. Instead his film ingests it and vomits it back up. 

Friday, 20 May 2016

Ben Wheatley Reaches for the Sky in High-Rise
High-Rise - Review
UK, 2016/ Cert 15/ 119 mins
Director: Ben Wheatley
Cast: Tom Hiddlestone, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss, James Purefoy.

Ben Wheatley made his debut in 2009 with the gritty documentary-style realism of Down Terrace, a gangster thriller shot for a mere £20,000 in the director’s hometown of Brighton. With High-Rise- an adaptation of the allegedly “unfilmable” J G Ballard novel- Wheatley has earned the right to considerably expand his budget. The film, featuring an A-list cast, still cost a relatively modest £6 million, but it does demonstrate Wheatley stepping up a league to comfortably prove his talents are not confined to low budget fare. Although High-Rise may have polarised critical opinion surely no one can seriously call into question its sheer audacity? The film, like the Brutalist high-rise apartment of its setting, aims for the firmament. However, it also shows its tenants and, by inference modernity itself, heading for a fall.
          High Rise’s producer, Jeremy Thomas, has wanted to bring Ballard’s novel to the screen since its publication. In the late 1970s he managed to get the director Nicholas Roeg on board but the film failed to materialise. Wheatley admits that he was unaware of the Roeg connection but he was acquainted with the fact that Thomas resurrected the idea in the 1990s, this time with Vincenzo Natali (Cypher, Splice) directing from a script by Richard Stanley. In the same way that David Cronenberg switched the setting of his filmed version of Ballard’s Crash (1996) from London to Toronto, Natali’s adaptation of High-Rise was set to relocate the apartment to an island in the Pacific. Again, the film never saw the light of day. But now at last, Thomas has seen his dream of Ballard’s dystopian nightmare transferred to the screen and the result is staggeringly brilliant. High-Rise is such a vertiginously joyous experience that I emerged from the theatre after viewing the film reeling from its bravura to such an extent that I suspected that my popcorn may have been laced with amphetamine.
High-Rise opens with its central character, Dr Robert Laing (Tom Hiddlestone), eating roasted Alsatian on his apartment balcony with the voice-over informing us that "For all its inconveniencies, Laing was satisfied with life in the high-rise." The remainder of the film’s narrative relates the characters’ atavistic degeneration, via one continuous flashback, beginning three months earlier at the time that Laing first moved into the tower block. Laing remains an enigma in the film and Hiddlestone succeeds in bringing all of his character’s contradictions to life. Laing is an innocent who seemingly gets drawn into the events against his better judgement. Taking the moral high ground, he steps in to offer protection when the violence threatens to get out control. Nevertheless, Laing remains a willing participant in the brutality. He is a self-confessed “quick learner” and his breakdown sees him increasingly neglect his work as he gives in to the high-rise’s decadent influence, drinking heavily whilst embarking upon two affairs with Charlotte Melville, lasciviously played by Sienna Miller, and the heavily pregnant Helen Wilder (Elisabeth Moss).
The apartment block resembles a city in the sky, an architectural concept that offers all the modern amenities that could be found within the urban environment. Residents can enjoy a megastore, gymnasium, swimming pools, spa, restaurant and a school. Unfortunately its high-speed elevators, refuse and electrical systems experience faults and it is the failure of these vital services, mere “breathing problems" according to the building’s architect, Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), which provide the catalyst for a wanton descent into licentiousness, violence and murder.
Wild bacchanalian parties continue long into the night with drink and drugs on tap as the residents unleash their latent hedonistic impulses. Couples brazenly have sex in the corridors and at one of the ostentatious parties thrown by Royal which deteriorates into full-blown orgy, one woman shouts, “Now which one of you bastards is going to fuck me up the arse.” As the trash begins to pile up in the corridors and entire floors of the building are left without electricity, supplies begin to run short in the supermarket, leading competing floors to form rival gangs to fight for goods and services. With the floors representing a de facto social hierarchy– the higher up the building the higher the status of the residents- this conflict becomes a pseudo class war and social climbing by all means necessary becomes the natural order.

After being informed by Laing that a PET scan has indicated that he has a problem with his brain, Munroe (Augustus Prew), a trainee doctor at the hospital where Laing works, throws himself to his death from the building. Unconcerned by the tragic turn of events, the residents continue on their saturnalian trail of self-destruction. Later, the savage battle for hegemony begins when the filmmaker Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) drowns the pet dog belonging to the faded actress, Jane Sheridan (Sienna Guillory), in the swimming pool. When considering the drowning alongside the butchering and eating of the animals in the film, one may feel entitled to ask what have dogs done to offend Wheatley and his script-writing partner Amy Jump that their films relish in punishing the creatures to such a sadistic extent? Who can forget the mistreatment of Banjo, the Jack Russell, stolen from his owners and eventually abandoned in Sightseers?
There is a pervasive and insidious malevolence throughout much of Wheatley’s oeuvre. Talking to Mark Kermode about his second feature, the director says “Watching Kill List (2011), I do think, ‘Fuck, I was mean’. It’s a cruel film…. ‘Jesus it’s so angry’. But then I think High-Rise is too, in the end.”[i] Wheatley certainly has a point. There appears to be a singular trope of callousness throughout his films to date, whether it is the parenticidal bleakness of Down Terrace, the brutal genre-bending Kill List, the aforementioned Sightseers which comes across like it is the result of Sam Peckinpah spending a long weekend in a caravan with Mike Leigh, or the sinister, psychedelic, trippy-horror-freak-out of A Field in England (2013). Thematically High-Rise continues in this vein, exploring the dark and disturbing hinterlands of human psychology. T.S Eliot’s poem, ‘Whispers of Mortality’, describes the dramatist John Webster’s theatre as revealing “the skull beneath the skin” and there is certainly a touch of Jacobean tragedy in Wheatley’s cinema. In fact, High-Rise indirectly mirrors Eliot’s famous phrase when Laing performs an educational autopsy, slicing open a forehead and violently ripping back the flesh to show the skull and face to his students. One of the factors which make Wheatley’s films so memorable is that they contain many such striking images with narratives that viscerally peel away the repressed subconscious. But, despite the juxtaposition of viscosity and comedy, the recurring violence in his movies is rarely played for laughs. Although High-Rise’s perceptive satire upon modernity and ubiquitous nature of modern capitalism is riotously funny, there is a constant shift in tone between its dark humour and its ferocious, brutish violence. Although the film offers no rationale nor neat resolution to explain the characters’ regression towards anarchy, the scenes of rape and murder in High-Rise may be hard to stomach but they are never exploitative.
The dystopian element of both novel and film could be argued in a variety of ways. The isolation of the tenants and the encroachment of an increasingly virulent capitalism lead to an intensification of class-division and rampant individualism, impelling the characters to reject the accepted ethical code in favour of a sexual, violent, free-for-all which ultimately confirms the Thatcherite aphorism that “there is no such thing as society.” Similarly, references to Social Darwinism are constantly evoked. However, Ballard and Wheatley eschew didacticism in favour of creating a sense of alienation and apart from one reference to Margaret Thatcher at the film’s climax, the issue of causality is merely hinted at within the narrative.
The Brutalist architecture of the skyscraper itself could also be considered as contributing to the de-humanising effect. Ballard’s work has been remarkably prescient in relation to modern technological and industrial advances and most of his fiction deals with modernity rather than the usual spaceship and aliens stuff often associated with science fiction. Ballard was particularly interested in the interaction between technology, the environment and individual psychology and High-Rise highlights his fascination with modern architecture and how design aesthetics can influence human behaviour. As one character announces in Ballard’s short story ‘Low Flying Aircraft’: “The ultimate dystopia is in the inside of one’s own head.”
One of the major themes of the novel successfully conveyed by the film is the fact that the high-rise apartment becomes a character in itself. The tenement block becomes a living, breathing creature, a brooding leviathan which looms over the viewer’s imagination and exerts its malevolent influence over those who dwell inside. Similarly, the interior of the apartment block are imaginatively and stylishly presented. The retro apartments are minimally furnished, chic and spacious and in its representation of the supermarket, the film shuns realism for a 1970s hyper-reality that is resonant with the style of Kubrick. In fact the initial shots of the hotel corridors are reminiscent of The Overlook hotel in The Shining, another film where the setting takes on a monstrous character of its own to manipulate Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance.

Meticulous attention to detail has been paid on High-Rise and credit must go to the cinematographer Laurie Rose and the Arts Department led by Mark Tildesley (Production Design), Frank Walsh, Nigel Pollock (Art Direction) Paki Smith (Set Decoration) and Odile Dicks-Mireaux (Costume Design). The film is sumptuous to look at with images that linger long in the memory and will undoubtedly benefit from multiple viewings as there is too much to visually take in at one time. Munroe’s slow-motion suicidal leap from the 39th floor is particularly impressive as are the shots from inside the elevators where multiple mirrors achieve a kaleidoscopic effect which is echoed when Toby Melville (Louis Suc) views the mayhem of the apartment block through his toy kaleidoscope. By concentrating more on Toby’s character, the film departs slightly from the novel, focusing upon the children residing in the high-rise and becoming a reversal of The Lord of the Flies with the adults reverting to barbarism and Toby, a representative of childhood innocence, observing their feral disintegration. When asked by Laing what he sees through his kaleidoscope, Toby replies, “The future.” This is later emphasised when we see the boy listening to his self-made radio broadcasting a speech by Margaret Thatcher eulogising upon the virtues of capitalism.
In addition to focusing on the children, the film also places emphasis on the female residents which rescues it from any accusations of misogyny. Despite being assaulted, raped and confined into servitude, the denouement suggests that any escape from the anarchy of the high-rise will ultimately be the responsibility of the women. Although the film does not have a happy ending, its ambiguity does not entirely reject the possibility of redemption.
One of the ways in which Jump’s script has remained loyal to its source material is in choosing to place the action in the mid-1970s, the period in which the book was published. Some critics have raised their eyebrows at this, but the decision made by Wheatley and Jump is vindicated on a number of levels. Firstly, by setting the film just before the election of the Conservatives in 1979 when the Thatcherite revolution began to dismantle the postwar consensus, the social and political elements are foregrounded into the film. Secondly, although Ballard has been described as a science fiction author, much of his writing resists such simple generic classification. “I was interested in the real future that I could see approaching, and less in the invented future that science fiction preferred”[ii] , Ballard once said, claiming his stories were set in the “visionary present.”[iii] This is discernible in the filmed adaptation of High-Rise with its 1970s timescale acting as a comment upon the present social climate, rather than a prophecy of a distant future. Both film and book have an immediacy which makes their brutality even more disturbing.
One of the most prescient features in Ballard’s High-Rise is its anticipation of the gentrification of London which has intensified into a form of social cleansing of areas of the capital. We see this in the social make-up of the residents which has totally excluded the working class, consisting purely of various stratifications of the middle class, all competing to climb the vertical hierarchical order. On the lower floors dwell the less affluent sections of the middle class, typified by Wilder, a filmmaker prone to outbursts of sudden, senseless violence, whose degeneration is emphasised when his wife serves him a can of dog food for his dinner. Wilder’s initial revolt against the services provided for the lower floors turns increasingly brutal as he first decides to film the events in the high-rise for one of his documentaries before abandoning the project to climb the building in an attempt to murder the architect.
Irons is perfectly cast as the sleazy Royal, his performance a comical blend of amorality and eccentricity. The architectural Ubermensch resides on the 40th floor, the zenith of his own creation and is described in the film as being “intent on colonising the sky.” Initially his Nietzschean Will to Power is unquestioned by his henchmen who are happy to use strong-arm tactics to cement his authority. But as events in the high-rise begin to spiral out of control, he becomes, in his own words, “The architect of my own accident”, and his acolytes become increasingly unruly and disobedient. Royal finally relinquishes his power, claiming that his architectural creation has become a “crucible for change” in which all social, political and moral authority is challenged by primal individualism.
High-Rise can be read as part social satire, and part philosophical tussle between Apollonian Reason and Dionysian anti-rationalism where humanity’s repressed desires come to the fore and the id, gloriously unleashed, is allowed to run riot. At one point towards the end of the film, Royal is served a meal consisting of some unspecified meat. Is it dog? Or horse? Or even worse? Perhaps it is human? We never find out. But rarely in the cinema has evolutionary regression appeared as carnally sexy as the moment when, in close-up, Sienna Miller scoops the meat into her hands to chomp it down, provocatively revealing her teeth in a Darwinian snarl of contempt. The film could also be regarded as dramatising the Fall of Man with the residents rejecting civilisation for anarchy and order for chaos. There are repeated shots of characters and objects hanging or falling from the building, from Munroe’s suicide to slow-motion poetic imagery of glasses, bottles and other detritus recklessly thrown from the balconies. This metaphor is subtly extended by the inclusion of the song ‘Industrial Estate’ by the Mancunian post-punk outfit The Fall, featured just before the closing credits.

The music for the film was composed by ex- Pop Will Eat Itself front man and Grammy and Golden Globe nominee Clint Mansell who ingeniously keeps the 1970s theme alive by including a string arrangement of Abba’s ‘S.O.S.’ which becomes part of the diegesis, when performed at one of Royal’s lavish parties. ‘S.O.S.’ was a top ten hit for the Swedish pop group in the same year that Ballard’s High-Rise was published and is reprised later in the film with Portishead having recorded a version especially for Wheatley, subsequently declaring  that it can only be heard in the movie as it will not be released in any other format. Their version of the song - the first recording the band have made for six years- complements the action perfectly, its brooding synths and Beth Gibbins’ vocal suggestive of mental disintegration, reflecting the psychological and social breakdown we are witnessing upon the screen.
As High-Rise races frantically towards its brutal climax and events become increasingly chaotic, the film incredibly manages to retain its composure. It is owing to the intelligence of the filmmakers, script and the fine performances that help High-Rise keep a tight rein over its action never becoming too over-the-top to defy common sense. Despite its insanity, there is a perverted and wholly satisfying logic to the depravity depicted.
Expect more mayhem in Wheatley’s next film- his first to be set in the US- a gangland shootout starring Cillian Murphy and Brie Larson. Already in the can, Free Fire, is released later this year. Meanwhile, High-Rise’s stylish exuberance confirms Wheatley as the most exciting filmmaker in the country at the moment.
Now, how would you like your Alsatian?

[i] The Guardian 6 March 2016
[ii] J.G. Ballard The Complete Short Stories (London:Flamingo 2001) p. ix.
[iii] Ibid.