Pride

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Pride (2014, dir. Matthew Warchus) joins the Great British tradition of the heart-warming ‘issue’ film; a story of the downtrodden minority triumphing over adversity to well timed musical interludes. In this context the downtrodden is the LGBT community and the adversity is, surprisingly, the miners’ strike. Based on the little-known true story of the collaboration of gay and lesbian activists and a small mining community in Wales, Pride touches important markers in British history, educating as well as entertaining.  

With an all-star cast headed by Dominic West, Imelda Staunton and Bill Nighy, Pride is a parade of some of Britain’s best comic actors—West’s dance-off at the men’s working club is particularly memorable. Yet despite these big names the younger talent shines through in the more dominant roles. George Mackay is a revelation as Joe compared to his wooden and laboured performance in How I Live Now. Faye Marsay is also extremely watchable and ably carries the standard for lesbians as the ‘L’ in Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM).

A good mixture of hilarious camp moments and more serious reflections, Pride presents a broad spectrum of LGBT experience, largely avoiding stereotypes. While I personally could have done with a few less repetitious jokes—the comic juxtaposition of having an old woman screeching “where are my lesbians?” wore slightly thin at times—overall it’s an incredibly funny and heart-warming film. Russell Tovey’s blink-and-you-miss-it cameo is well positioned, highlighting the darker side to the gay lifestyle in a subtle moment of reflection.

Moving, funny, heart-warming and with an important message of tolerance and acceptance still relevant today, Pride is a must see. ****

Obvious Child

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Obvious Child (2014, dir. Gillian Robespierre) is a romantic comedy, about abortion. With a similar irreverence to Lena Dunham’s Girls, it follows Donna (Jenny Slate), a young New York comedian as she gets dumped, fired and pregnant just in time for Valentine’s Day.  

Combining Donna’s stand-up comedy slots with her chaotic everyday life, Obvious Child is a very funny, if heavily stylised, presentation of female experience. But nobody that ‘broke’ can have that many nice jumpers and at times Donna’s disintegrating life felt slightly too effortfully assembled. In contrast her stand-up feels much more natural; Slate is haphazard, crude, endearing and so charming its hard to look away. While she carries these qualities across to the non-performative moments of her character, it doesn’t translate as well.

It’s an assured and accomplished directorial debut for Gillian Robespierre. The main characters are well-developed and cast, although I would have liked to have seen more of Gaby Hoffman cast against type as the straight girl to Slate’s funny. Well paced, it meanders through Donna’s life without trivialising her decision to have an abortion.

Anything that has extended scenes of people jumping around in their pants to Paul Simon is a winner in my books - a refreshingly funny and original film. ***

20,000 Days on Earth

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Not quite documentary, not quite drama, but an intriguing mixture of the two, 20,000 Days on Earth (2014, dir, Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard) entwines the events of one day in the life of Nick Cave with his previous 20,000.

We wake up with Cave, we eat with Cave, drive with Cave, sleep with Cave – it’s an incredibly, immersive experience, and yet at the same time very stylised. Moving seamlessly between staged interviews, dramatic sequences, live performances and archive footage, 20,000 Days is a celebration of Cave’s life and work as well as the creative process more broadly. The footage of the Bad Seeds recording the 2013 album, Push the Sky Away is mesmerising on the big screen, capturing a more muted and outwardly disciplined side of Cave’s flamboyant and chaotic performance style.

Yet, as comes with most good music documentaries, there is an inherent sycophancy to 20,000 Days and for at least the first 20 mins I wasn’t sure whether I could stomach the pomposity of Cave’s on-screen persona. As the film progresses, however, Cave’s awareness of his own mystique is what really makes 20,000 Days so interesting. To see Cave stripped of his shimmer would be too much, an irreversible peek around the curtain… but seeing him in this fictionalised reality brings enough out but also crucially, keeps enough at bay.

20,000 Days presents the creative process in one cohesive thread. Visiting the Nick Cave archives—a nice self-ironising touch— the disparate influences and stages of Cave’s life are organised into a linear structure, not corresponding to reality, but more an edited highlights of his life. A must for Bad Seeds fans but with much more to offer, 20,000 Days on Earth is an intense and introspective look at the creative process and how we remember it. ****  

The Fly

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The Fly (1986, dir. David Cronenberg) develops the cinematic portrayal of the boundaries of the flesh and metamorphosis explored in Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983).

Jeff Goldblum stars as Seth Brundle, an eccentric scientist at the mercy of his own failed teleportation experiment. Testing his creation on himself, he begins to transform into a man/fly hybrid when the experiment goes horribly wrong.

Winning the 1987 Academy Award for Best Makeup, Cronenberg and Chris Walas’ vision of metamorphosis remains impressively grotesque. Whereas in Videodrome the morphing of man and machine creates a ‘new flesh’, The Fly goes one step further, creating a new cross-species hybrid on a sub-genetic level.Seth’s relatively slow transformation into ‘Brundlefly’, staggered by Cronenberg as the story increasingly moves to Ronnie (Geena Davis) alienates the viewer as his humanity fades away. Examining himself in the mirror as his teeth and nails fall out, the other invades the flesh as the horror begins.

Not afraid to camp it up, Goldblum’s performance in The Fly is legendary for all the right reasons.Whether giving it some wide-eyed eccentric glaring or dribbling flesh-melting discharge onto his girl-friend’s ex, it’s a disturbing transition handled with real vigour. 

Nymphomaniac: Volume I

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Joe: It’s my own fault. I’m just a bad human being.

Seligman: I’ve never met a bad human being.

Joe: Well, you have now.

Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac: Volume I (2013) stages a confessional narrative; a self-diagnosed nymphomaniac, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg/Stacy Martin) recounts her erotic experiences to the man who saves her after a mysterious assault.

Joe is preoccupied by guilt, she sees herself as a ‘bad’ person because of the way she has expressed her sexuality. The sections of her life she reveals to us, then, are skewed to present her in a deliberately dark light. Von Trier structures the film into five chapters or episodes in Joe’s sexual experience. Ranging from losing her virginity to tentatively falling in love, it charts the rise of her obsessions but also focuses solely on them.

The action in flashback is accompanied by Charlotte Gainsbourg’s retrospective voice-over narration. Gainsbourg’s voice performance is captivating, especially when laid over Von Trier’s trademark use of images inter-cut with action.  

Yet, Michel Foucault argues that confession is a “power discourse” in which the confessor is empowered by his position to “judge, punish, console and reconcile”. This is in some ways true of Joe’s confession which has a therapeutic dimension. While not asking Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) to forgive her, in fact she often wants to shock him, she is seeking to unburden herself by intimately sharing him what she has experienced. It has been suggested that Nymphomaniac I presents a misogynist view of female sexuality, and I would argue that this confessional discourse underpins this idea. There is an inherent voyeurism to Joe recounting her sexual experiences to a man. While Seligman tries to comfort her, comparing her natural desires to the metaphor of fly fishing in a stream, in her mind she is still confessing her ‘sin’ of desire.

However, Nymphomaniac I was much less sensationalist than the media hype made out at the time of its release. The orgasmic poster campaign featuring the lead actors for instance doesn’t really reflect what the film is about at all. Yes, there is a lot of sex, but it is not a porn film. The characters have depth and emotion, especially, and most importantly, Joe herself. So while the outdated nympho label is tagged onto her character, the film explores much more than her adventurous sex life to become a complete piece of art.  

The Congress

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In its opening premise The Congress (2013, dir. Ari Folman) raises issues relating to the commodification of the female body in the film industry. Set in the near future, an aging actress (Robin Wright) sells her image to Miramount movie studio. Now in ownership of all future versions of her digital performance, which can be re-created at any age, Wright is expected to retire and keep quiet.

An amalgamation of animation and live-action, Folman explores images of aging on screen, commenting on our perceptions of women in the film industry. We see Wright in various guises; a mid-40s star in decline, a stylised cartoon representation, and back again. Playing a fictionalised version of herself, The Congress draws heavily on Wright’s real back catalogue. The camera lingers lovingly on The Princess Bride (1987) poster featuring a head-shot of Wright’s more youthful visage. For the studio then, this new technology is a way to make its female stars forever young, forever beautiful. It’s telling that the movie that goes on to be the most successful using Wright’s digital image is a Tomb Raider-esque sci-fi slasher starring a younger, scantily clad version of herself.

The Congress also questions the power of the role of the actor in the film industry. Wright is willing to consider the studio’s offer but not with their unconditional right to cast her in any genre. Her veto to sci-fi is a nice touch, making a prophetically satirical comment on the erasure of her power. Harvey Keitel as Wright’s agent, Al, plays a convincing devil’s advocate to her desire for control over the future use of her image, arguing she never had any real in choice in performance, particularly as a woman. Keitel’s speech as Wright is being scanned is a particular highlight, working against the more gimmicky instances of the film to cut to the emotional core.

Indeed, the film loses its way as live performance switches to animation. As Wright is summoned to the eponymous congress at Miramount, now an exclusively animated zone, her journey across the desert gradually transitions to a warped, hallucinogenic style of cartoon. While I enjoyed the initial stages of the shift –Wright’s cartoonified eyes flicker in the mirror–the overall effect is cliché and feels overdone. The road becomes a twisting rainbow, the sand dunes are writhing waves and giant sea snakes and dragons leap out of every orifice. Clearly this is meant to satirise the grotesque vanity of the animation zone but its exaggerated tone makes Who Framed Roger Rabbit look subtle.

At this point the film all but abandons its premise, becoming more and more convoluted in both storyline and, for me, a disappointing style of animation. The cartoon version of Wright feels too automated, a skeletal stick with very little emotion, stalking about with jerky, unpolished movements. Wright becomes trapped in the cartoon world, is she trying to escape? Bring down Miramount? Find her son? We don’t know. The juxtaposition of scenes feels very stilted with no logical flow as the characters blunder around from one disaster to the next. While the return to live action towards the end is refreshing, I feel this interplay could have been used better to fully explore the divisions between dystopian reality and utopian fantasy.

An ambitious, maybe too ambitious film, The Congress starts off well but descends into a convoluted clutter of half-baked plot lines and strange editing.

***

American Psycho: Voice-over

A voice-over is used to address the audience of a film directly. Typically moving beyond straightforward diegesis, it furthers our understanding of the film’s characters and events at first-hand. In American Psycho (2000, dir. Mary Harron) Patrick Bateman’s (Christian Bale) voice-over allows the viewer access to his thoughts and fantasies. While this use of voice-over can enable audience identification with a character, the heavily modulated and sublimely structured dark philosophy of Bateman’s monologues serve to separate us further from his psychosis:

I have all the characteristics of a human being: blood, flesh, skin, hair; but not a single, clear, identifiable emotion, except for greed and disgust. Something horrible is happening inside of me and I don’t know why. My nightly bloodlust has overflown into my days. I feel lethal, on the verge of frenzy. I think my mask of sanity is about to slip.

Bateman’s thoughts are as meticulous and obsessive as his lifestyle. His focus on the body conveys his fixation on sensory experience, one of the only similarities he has with those around him. Indeed, the perfection of Bateman’s body in American Psycho ties into the repeated mistaken identities throughout the film. He is beautiful and yet rotten, concealing himself in plain sight.

However Harron’s use of voice-over is not so clear cut. Bateman’s aggressive outbursts often go unnoticed by those around him, questioning the film’s boundaries of reality and fantasy: “You’re a fucking ugly bitch. I want to stab you to death, and then play around with your blood”. Although almost all of the voice-over text is lifted from Bret Easton Ellis’ novel, it is one of the few features of the film adaptation he disliked, feeling it was “too explicit”.

Yet there are so many self-aware monologues in American Psycho that surely the odd voice-over here and there wouldn’t make a difference. The infamous Phil Collins speech for instance reveals as much of Bateman’s character as a well placed introspective voice-over could, yet by including the silent listeners on screen his frightening narcissism is fully evoked.  

In Too Deep is the most moving pop song of the 1980s, about monogamy and commitment. The song is extremely uplifting. Their lyrics are as positive and affirmative as anything I’ve heard in rock. Christy, get down on your knees so Sabrina can see your asshole. Phil Collins’ solo career seems to be more commercial and therefore more satisfying, in a narrower way. Especially songs like In the Air Tonight and Against All Odds. Sabrina, don’t just stare at it, eat it. But I also think Phil Collins works best within the confines of the group, than as a solo artist, and I stress the word artist. This is Sussudio, a great, great song, a personal favourite.

Bale’s clipped, robotic delivery of these speeches brings out the automated nature of Bateman’s insecurity. The high register is so discordant with both the topic and the situation that it feels rehearsed, revealing how much effort Bateman puts into this apparently impromptu social occasions. The seamless interspersion of imperatives conveys a sociopathic emotionless as well as revealing Bateman’s egotistical desires.

However, as the violence reaches a crescendo Bateman’s voice-over dissipates, his rampage playing out over a suspenseful orchestral score. While this could convey a breakdown of Bateman’s logical processing and reactions, in my opinion, it reflects his freedom from having to constantly explain and rationalise himself. Fantasy blurs with reality as a single bullet to a police car sends it up in a fireball. It is only when he reassesses his actions that Bateman begins to monologue once again. Confessing to his lawyer’s answer machine and shot in an extreme close-up of sweaty disarray, Bateman appears to be finally sharing his unmoderated thoughts with the viewer. His speech, for instance, is more realistically fractured. It is telling, then, that this moment of self-expression and remorse goes unnoticed by those around him. Presuming it to be a joke his lawyer then goes on to think Bateman is someone else, effectively erasing that exposure of his character.

"This confession has meant nothing".

The Rover

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Set after an unknown global ‘happening’ in the bleak wastelands of the Australian outback, The Rover (2014, dir. David Michôd) is a post-apocalyptic thriller charting one man’s seemingly futile quest to get his car back.  

It’s a very sparse film, both visually and in terms of narrative. We are given very, very few clues as to what triggered the global collapse, nor are we offered much in terms of character development. Eric (Guy Pearce) slides into view with no exposition, just moments before his car is stolen by three fellow rovers and the film begins. Don’t get me wrong, I love a mysterious dystopia… but occasionally I felt that The Rover would have benefited from just a bit more context.  

Yet, saying that, I really enjoyed the bleak empty aesthetic of the film which matches the purposeless roving of the characters. Michôd frames the narrative beautifully against the backdrop of the Australian outback. There is a dangerous quality to the landscape, burned out, dry and arid it symbolises the wider circumstances of the doomed world as well as the predicament of the individual.

Robert Pattinson puts in a really strong and mature performance as Rey. A fellow traveller Eric encounters on the road, and coincidentally the brother of one of the car thieves. The relationship between Eric and Rey sustains the film through its essential bleakness. Indeed, Pearce and Pattinson rub along well together, complementing the others  performances. Pattinson’s accent and idiosyncratic speech patterns for Rey are subtle and convincing, conveying his character with sensitivity and skill.

The portrayal of violence in The Rover is shocking and brutal. Michôd’s minimal soundtrack adds a frightening realism creating a bleak and unshowy vision of the necessity of violence in this new world order.

Despite quite a slow opening, the dystopian world of The Rover is one I couldn’t look away from. Packed with plenty of twists and turns, the initially minimal seeming film becomes a sophisticated piece of storytelling, masquerading behind a sun-bleached facade. The two leads’ exceptionally strong performances captivate the viewer until the film’s very, very bleak conclusion.  

****

Boogie Nights

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Set in the 1970s, the Golden Age of porn, Boogie Nights (1997, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson) follows the rise and fall of Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg). When spotted by a porn director, Eddie’s life is turned upside down. Being in adult films allows him to escape the violent claustrophobia of his parents’ house, finally being able to live and work independently, not to mention all the sex, alcohol and drugs along the way. The shimmering highs however lead, inevitably, to crashing lows. The dawn of the Eighties brings more excess and greed which coupled with Eddie’s—now known as ‘Dirk Diggler’—increasingly difficulty to ‘perform’ on cue draws him towards other more dangerous ways to fund the lifestyle he has become accustomed to.

Anderson directs a large ensemble cast ranging from those directly involved in the porn industry such as performers, directors and financiers, to families, friends and hangers on. While the main focus of Boogie Nights is Eddie, Anderson offers the viewer snapshots of life in the business. This fast pace switching between characters, usually at parties, stresses the importance of reputation and fame within the industry. The next batch of rising stars is always just over the next horizon, and don’t the current stars know it.

The adult content of Boogie Nights was always going to make it controversial. However, in presenting pornography as a business rather than an amusing pastime, Anderson offers what feels like a very real, and at times very dark glimpse into the vulnerability of performers and the harmful effect the industry has on them. The juxtaposition of Melanie Safka’s jaunty “Brand New Key” intercut with a medium close-up of Jack Horner’s (Burt Reynolds) impassive face watching Eddie and Rollergirl (Heather Graham) fuck on the sofa is incredibly uncomfortable, questioning the voyeuristic nature of pornography, not just for the consumer, but also those involved and exploited within the industry itself.   

Indeed, Anderson doesn’t shy away from the dark side of the business. A young woman overdoses, blood caked over her nose and chin, she is carried away while the party continues. For all the cocaine and caviar, these people are disposable, easily replaceable and can all too easily fall through the cracks.

But Boogie Nights is also a film about film-making. It is through his discovery of Dirk that Horner is inspired to make his films better, truer and more dramatic. For the shooting of Dirk’s first film Anderson pans across the crew watching Dirk and Amber, again highlighting the voyeuristic nature of the industry. As the camera passes over the entire crew in sequence it ends zooming onto Horner’s camera lens itself; the two cameras come lens to lens, almost kissing, in a meta-filmic comment on not only the power of the camera to draw attention to certain things but also the ever present, silent watching viewer.

Having only seen Mark Wahlberg in his more recent action roles, I found his performance in Boogie Nights to be a bit of a revelation. While he plays the innocent and fresh Eddie well, he really comes into his own during Dirk’s downward spiral. The scenes speaking to himself in the mirror are particularly moving: “I’m a star, I’m a big bright shining star”. Wahlberg really captures the Dirk’s essence of both sadness and desperation, mourning the elliptical nature of stardom and his own fall.

Over its 2 hours Boogie Nights courses through a huge range of emotions and circumstances, inviting us in to the heady world of the seventies, before spitting us out onto the hard concrete of the eighties come down.  A seduction, a break-up and heartbreak all in one, it’s both an absorbing and draining watch.

Guardians of the Galaxy

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Marvel Studios’ Guardians of the Galaxy (2014, dir. James Gunn) is the latest of their super-hero creations to make the leap to the big screen. The tenth installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Guardians is the story of a rag-tag group of misfits who join together for various (and dubious) reasons, only to end up saving the galaxy.

It’s a large ensemble cast including Chris Pratt as Peter Quill, (the human hero) Zoe Saldana as Gamora, (sexy, green assassin and token woman) as well as the voices of Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel as genetically modified raccoon Rocket and his side-kick/body guard Groot.

The well judged balance of humour and action makes Guardians a great family film. Refreshingly, it doesn’t take itself too seriously, There’s  showy explosions and visual gags for the kids as well as some more subtle jokes for the adults too. Yet this bathetic tone occasionally undermines the action, disrupting the flow by interrupting the tension. The final battle with Ronan (not Keating), for instance, feels too underplayed, making the ending a bit of an anti-climax.

Chris Pratt gives a solid performance as the likeable hero, demonstrating great comic timing and the cast gels well around him. As the only human character in the world of the other, he is the character the viewer feels the strongest bond with. Indeed, in not glamorising Quill and also highlighting his weaknesses as well as his strengths, he is endeared to the audience as the emotional and moral centre.

However, the plot felt underdeveloped at times and lacks contextual detail. After seeing Quill’s abduction we are suddenly whisked ahead to see him installed in a pretty impressive spaceship with no explanation how he got there. Although I understand that this avoidance of Quill’s ‘origin story’ makes narrative sense; cutting straight to the action-packed adventures of the adult Quill makes a much more exciting film, it does leave quite a few loose ends untied.

The same can be said about Guardians’ baddies. A strong and believable villain needs a clear motivation for his evil plans. But Ronan is an identikit bad guy, complete with the deep voice and shadowy face. Sadly Karen Gillan as Nebula is also a bit disappointing. Skulking around, screaming orders, engaging in fights to the death, all felt paradoxically wooden and hammy.

Guardians of the Galaxy is a fun and enjoyable action adventure. The plot arc is exciting, if a bit lacking in development and moves along at a roaring pace.

***

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

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What if you grew up to realise that your father had used your childhood as an experiment?

Rosemary doesn’t talk very much, and about certain she’s silent. She had a sister, Fern, her whirlwind other half, who vanished from her life in circumstances she wishes she could forget. And it’s been ten years since she last saw her beloved older brother Lowell.

Now at college, Rosemary starts to see that she can’t go forwards without going back, back to the time when, aged five, she was sent away from home to her grandparents and returned to find Fern gone.

As the first novel on this year’s Man Booker longlist I have read, I was steeling myself up for a difficult read. In recent years the Booker has gained a reputation as a champion of impenetrable literary fiction; Will Self’s Umbrella defeated me completely, so it was with growing surprise that I eased myself into We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. Fowler’s prose feels very natural and effortlessly draws the reader Rosemary’s dysfunctional family life. 

Around seventy pages in, Fowler hits us with the twist: *spoiler alert* Fern is a chimpanzee. I don’t know whether it’s because I read We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves sporadically over a few weeks or I just missed all the signs completely, but I was genuinely surprised. The preceding chapters, while lacking a sense of driving narrative, do not build the kind of tension usually expected before a big revelation. Indeed, Fowler’s structure is well developed circulating around the main events in Rosemary’s life, revealing only snippets to the reader. Drawing on the traumatic episodes of Rosemary’s past and the difficulties of returning to childhood memories the fragmented structure frames her experiences well.

Although it made narrative sense to push through to the ending after the reconciliation, I felt this section was rushed. Partly, this is down to Fowler’s skill as a writer, the reader becomes attached to her characters and, naturally, wants more of them, but the unexplained changing relationship with Rosemary and her mother in particular felt jarring.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves has a powerful animal rights message. Without ramming it down the reader’s throat, the careful character development of Fern is a challenge to the unseen norms of animal testing and experimenting, highlighting our complicity and ignorance. The interspersed psychological theory both from Rosemary’s father and her lecturers give the novel real grounding. The further reading section at the back is well-judged and something I intend to explore further.

Fowler’s novel is a strong contender for the shortlist. Immensely readable, it has a powerfully thought-provoking message told in an accessible way.

WINNER OF THE 2014 PEN/FAULKNER AWARD FOR FICTION

LONGLISTED FOR THE 2014  MAN BOOKER PRIZE FOR FICTION 

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