Monday, March 31, 2008

Night of the Living Dead

With a tip of hat to Antagony & Ecstasy, I'm declaring it Week of the Dead here on The Agitation of the Mind, looking at George A Romero's five-film cycle of zombie movies ...

More than just gory horror flicks, each of Romero’s first four zombie films represented a logical thematic extension, considering a different aspect of contemporary America, the cumulative effect being a ‘state of the nation’ metaphor where the living dead are a mirror for the darker recesses of the human psyche.

The latest film, however, ploughs a different furrow. For now, though, let’s go back to where it all started.

‘Night of the Living Dead’ (1969), depicts from the outset a complete breakdown of all social conventions. The opening scene has squabbling brother and sister Johnny and Barbara visiting the rural graveyard where their father is buried. The solemnity of the occasion and the hallowed ground of the graveyard, already besmirched by Johnny’s glib sarcasm, are intruded upon by a lumbering zombie. “They’re coming for you, Barbara,” Johnny intones portentously, riling his sister.

No truer words have been spoken. Within moments, the film’s nominal protagonist is dead and Barbara (Judith O’Dea) is fleeing for her life. Finding shelter in a seemingly deserted farmhouse, she is soon joined by Ben (Duane Jones), a black man - stereotypically the sacrificial character in genre films - who proves the most capable in battling the undead; a couple of clean cut high school sweethearts; and a squabbling family whose young daughter has been injured by a zombie.

With these disparate characters besieged, Romero divides the world outside into two factions: zombies (shambolic and slow-moving, but ultimately able to overpower through weight of numbers) and vigilantes (shambolic, gun-toting rednecks). These latter roam the countryside, treating the crisis as one big turkey shoot while they wait for the National Guard to turn up. (It is quickly established that burning or shooting them in the head is the only way to kill zombies.)

The farmhouse becomes less a safe haven than a pressure cooker of dangerously high emotions. Barbara withdraws into herself, spending most of her screen time as a catatonic mute. The cute teenage couple die hideously, victims of their own foolhardiness during an escape attempt. The family implode, the mother killed by her own daughter (in the most gruesome and disturbing scene in the film) who has transmogrified into a zombie. By the end, only Ben remains. In a grim coda, he is mistaken for a zombie and shot as he tries to leave the farmhouse. “Another one for the fire,” grunts the triggerman, a bitterly nihilistic closing line.

With its stark black and white cinematography and expressionist camera angles, ‘Night of the Living Dead’ far surpasses its budgetary limitations and the low-rent acting ability of many of its cast. (Jones, however, is superb as the clinically efficient man of action. Romero, it should be noted, was one of the first white directors to assign leading roles to black actors, a trait that distinguishes the films which follow. In the shooting of Ben at the end of the film, the question is implicit: does the redneck really think he’s a zombie?)

Tense, unremitting and incredibly bleak, ‘Night of the Living Dead’ - zombies or no - is as terrifying a portrayal of backwoods America as ‘Deliverance’. In the next film, Romero would quit the rural setting and take a step towards the big city, fetching up at a large out-of-town shopping mall …

Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Orphanage

The haunted house movie has a mixed pedigree. For every intelligent, atmospheric chiller that foregrounds character and atmosphere, such as Robert Wise's 1963 Shirley Jackson adaptation 'The Haunting', there's an effects-laden piece of shit that has about as many scares as an episode of 'Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends', such as ... well, such as Jan de Bont's lame 1999 remake. Or 'House on Haunted Hill' or 'Thirteen Ghosts', remakes of films that were scrapings from the bottom of the genre barrel themselves.

Fortunately, foreign film-makers know how to handle this kind of material properly. Outstanding Korean horror film 'A Tale of Two Sisters' gave the haunted house genre its most invigorating shot in the arm since ... well, since the genre was invented, while Alejandro Amenabar's 'The Others' proved that you could go mainstream and cast Hollywood royalty (Nicole Kidman) and still turn in something low-key, restrained and creepy as hell.

Now there's Juan Antonio Bayona's 'The Orphanage', produced by Guillermo del Toro, the - let's not beat about the bush here - frickin' genius behind the likes of 'Cronos', 'The Devil's Backbone' and stone cold modern classic 'Pan's Labyrinth'. And while there are no real surprises in 'The Orphanage' (it's descended from a lineage that can be traced back via 'The Others' to Henry James's 'Turn of the Screw' and as such ticks all the boxes you'd expect), Bayona shoots, edits and structures his film so classically, and with such atmosphere and attention to detail, that it's effortlessly effective.

Want to scare your audience? Then keep the apparitions in the shadows, half hidden. Let creaks and bumps and unexplained noises do the work for you. And when you do play your hand, what's more scary: a guy in a hockey mask with a fuck-off big knife or a little kid in a sack mask standing at the end of a shadowy corridor making strange, inhuman, grunting noises?

The implied is so much more chilling than the explicit. Take the scene where Laura (Belen Rueda) and her adoptive son Simon (Roger Princep) explore some caves along the shoreline near the titular orphanage which Laura grew up in and which, in adulthood, she is renovating prior to its reopening. Calling to Simon after he's been gone too long, she hurries into the cave after him. She finds him in conversation with someone hidden behind an outcropping of rock. Laura, narked that Simon hasn't outgrown the imaginary friends phase, tetchily plays along when Simon asks if his newfound friend Tomas can come over to the orphanage to play. As they walk back, Simon leaves a trail of shells and stones picked from the beach, explaining that Tomas will be able to follow them.

Bayona then plays out a few more scenes, directing his audience's attention elsewhere, before he delivers the payoff: Laura, opening the door the next morning, is startled as she dislodges a pile of stones and shells stacked up against it.

It's simple, it doesn't involve any gore or special effects, but - damn! - it gives you the creeps.

Bayona also plays his cards cleverly in structuring a debate between science and superstition when Simon goes missing and Laura finds herself piggy-in-the-middle between clinically logical police psychiatrist Pilar (Mabel Rivera) and world-weary but sympathetic medium Aurora (Geraldine Chapman). Her gravitation towards Aurora's belief system alienates her partner Carlos (Fernando Cayo), and Laura takes the decision to remain in the orphanage alone, convinced that Simon has been spirited away by the ghosts of former residents.

Bayona invests time in establishing character and motivation: there's every reason to attribute the hauntings to Laura's mental state. An orphan herself, she's been lying to Simon about his parentage, keeping from him the fact that he's victim to a terminal disease. Her relationship with Carlos brittle and almost platonically asexual, there's more than a soupcon of the repression subtext that permeates 'Turn of the Screw'. And yet ... and yet ... plot points tesselate, images and memories and childhood games interlock in a narrative tapestry. Of course it's not in Laura's mind: all the clues are there ... Then Bayona pulls back again, and the possibility creeps in once more that all of this might be the imaginings of a woman slowly losing her grip on sanity. It's a delicate balance that Bayona maintains right till the end.

Sure, you've seen most of what happens in 'The Orphanage' in other movies, but usually done a lot more clumsily. Bayona, playing on the comfortingly familiar in order to craft something decidedly discomforting, knows exactly what he's doing. And he does it exceptionally well.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

PERSONAL FAVES: Donnie Darko

One of the consequences of moving house, particularly when you’re trying to keep the rooms as free of clutter as possible for purposes of decorating, is that you end up with half your possessions in cardboard boxes or black heavy-duty plastic bags in the garage. Thanks to the incompetence of the previous occupant’s attempts at DIY, the wiring in the garage is completely buggered and a torch is currently required if I want to find anything.

So it was that I went looking for my DVD of ‘Donnie Darko’ only to give up after twenty fruitless minutes and glumly trudge back into the house, musing morosely on how long it’s going to take to do all the decorating, and how much longer after that to sort out all the gubbins in the garage and get them shelved or in cabinets in some sort of order.

A couple of days later, nosing around in Fopp (always a risk; I’ve seldom come out of there without surrendering to temptation), I came across the director’s cut of ‘Donnie Darko’ for £7. Sold!

And so it is, having seen the film umpteen times in its original cut, that I’m writing about (or, at four paragraphs in, avoiding writing about) a personal favourite which I just had to re-evaluate. Maybe after a few more viewings, the director’s cut will grow on me, its little foibles worming their way into my affections.

My knee-jerk reaction, however, was that a lot of the quarter of an hour or so of restored material is superfluous, such as an out-of-place scene between Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal in what is still his signature role) and his father, where the latter (is he supposed to be drunk? is actor Holmes Osborne simply overdoing it?) lambasts the people who don’t understand his son. Likewise, additional scenes involving psychiatrist Dr Thurman (Katherine Ross) and motivational guru Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze) simply emphasise characterisations that have already been established.

The most annoying thing is the overlays that now accompany the time-travel/opening of the portal sequences. In the original cut, there’s a nice ambiguity, right up until the very end, as to whether these moments are hallucinations, the product of Donnie’s mind thanks to his decision, at the start of the film, to abandon his medication. Now, each of these sequences is overlaid by a computer grid, scrolling text and a hyper-kinetic barrage of images, creating a hard sci-fi feel that’s completely at odds with the rest of the film.

The thing I loved the first time I saw ‘Donnie Darko’ – well, one of the many things I loved – was writer/director Richard Kelly’s brilliant sleight of hand as to how the time-travel element of the plot actually works: he gives his audience enough snippets to seize upon (Donnie’s theoretical discussion with his science teacher, Roberta Sparrow’s book ‘The Philosophy of Time Travel’, and the implication that the opening of the portal is actually an act of God) and leaves them to draw their own conclusions.

The overlays distract from this, and are thematically at odds with the more mystic/cerebral concepts quoted from Sparrow’s book. The inclusion of more material from this tome is also an annoyance, since it neither explains nor obfuscates. It’s simply there and it holds things up.

Still, the additional material doesn’t change the structure, tone or atmosphere, and I still came away marvelling at how neatly constructed the film is given the sheer density of material …

Which brings me to the reason I spent the first couple of hundred words of this piece trying to avoid writing about ‘Donnie Darko’: how, exactly, do you write about ‘Donnie Darko’? How do you synopsise it without doing into exhausting detail? How can you even hope to pin it down in few pithily phrased paragraphs?

The answer is: you don’t. ‘Donnie Darko’ is personal experience – what you take away from the film depends on what you bring to it. On how much you open your mind to the smorgasbord of ideas and observations that Kelly’s script casually produces and tosses into the air like a conjuror bringing forth white doves from beneath a silk handkerchief.

Probably the best review I’ve read of ‘Donnie Darko’ isn’t a review at all. Posted on My New Plaid Pants as part of Final Girl’s recent Hey, Internet, Stop Being Such Cynical Effing Douchebags blog-a-thon, it’s a celebration of twenty great things about the film. It says more in a handful of words and images than I’ve managed in twelve paragraphs.

So, by way of explaining why this film is firmly installed in my personal faves list (although I’m hoping that I find my original DVD copy – the non-director’s cut is a lot tighter and, paradoxically, gives you more to engage with by dint of containing less) …

*It’s got a great cast. Seriously. Jake Gyllenhaal, Mary McDonnell, Drew Barrymore, Katherine Ross, Patrick Swayze (never better), Maggie Gyllenhaal and Jena Malone, all in the same movie, and all perfectly cast.

*It’s atmospheric, conjuring the mood of or incorporating subtle homages to other work (David Lynch; the small town settings of Stephen King’s fiction and John Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’) without ever tipping into plagiarism.

*The script zings with brilliant lines, including such off-the-wall but utterly memorable gems as “That airline better not fuck us on the shingle match”, “Did you just call me a fuck ass? You can just go suck a fuck”/”Please tell me, Elizabeth, how exactly does one suck a fuck?” and – altogether now – “Sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion.”

What I love most of all about ‘Donnie Darko’ is that it demonstrates, more slyly and effectively than any other film I can think of, how every act has a consequence. The chain of events in ‘Donnie Darko’ leads to its hero’s final act decision – utilising his very own deus ex machina – to restore the balance. And in doing so, Donnie becomes a hero for our times.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Super Size Me

A friend of mine used to work shifts at a ‘food preparation’ plant. This was a glum, prison-like building on an out-of-town industrial estate. Here, frozen food was prepared and packaged for delivery to fast food franchises.

Seldom did my friend come off a shift without adding another horror story to his repertoire: an ever-expanding ‘Thousand and One Nights’ of culinary and hygienic outrage.

There were tales of chicken being thawed and refrozen so many times during preparation that the meat was yellow by the time it was ready for delivery. There were hair-raising encounters with rats outside (and sometimes inside) the building. I particularly remember one incident: my friend saw a large, vacuum-packed bag of chicken wings dropped, its contents cascading across the floor. These stringy (and by now decidedly unclean) bits of meat were promptly shovelled up and dumped into the vat containing the breadcrumb/coating mix.

It is because of his experiences at this insalubrious establishment that I have not eaten at a franchise fast food joint for over a decade. It is also why ‘Super Size Me’ should be compulsory viewing for anybody who still does. Its 100-minute running time is as cumulatively queasy as any of my friend’s anecdotes, but if it means that everyone who sees it stops eating at McDonalds, KFC, Burger King or any of the other global-corporate fat-cat food-chains, then that can only be for the good.

The premise of ‘Super Size Me’, a Michael Moore-style documentary in which a serious social problem is addressed in an accessible and often humorous manner, is disarmingly simple. Director Morgan Spurlock sets himself a challenge: for 30 days, he will eat nothing but McDonalds meals. He will work his way through the entire menu, always opting for ‘super size’ when offered*, and consume three meals a day.

Ordinarily, this regime would constitute Grade A masochism. Spurlock, however, emerges as a martyr. And if you think that's a rather over-the top-statement (martyrdom usually conjures images of Christ dragging five-hundredweight of wood up to Golgotha), all I can say is what Spurlock goes through in ‘Super Size Me’ makes ‘The Passion of the Christ’ look like the soft option. This is the Sam Peckinpah of food films – an alternative title might have been ‘Bring Me the Head of Ronald McDonald’.

Morgan Spurlock pigs out, gains weight, voms, and suffers depression and mood swings so that we don’t have to. He dares potentially serious damage to his health (the bollocking his doctor gives him on day 21 of “this ridiculous diet” is as intense and compelling a confrontation as anything in a Scorsese picture) so that we might know the risks.

Of course, the film’s twin revelations - (a) McDonald’s is a corporation and therefore evil; and (b) their food is shite - are hardly unexpected. But Spurlock broadens his remit and the film demonstrates a cynical manipulation of children, a specific and intense targetting of the family unit, by the food industries and those who helm their advertising campaigns.

In a scene that’s almost funny until you remember it's non-fiction, Spurlock shows a group of children pictures of George Washington, Jesus Christ and Ronald McDonald. Guess what? The only one they can all identify is Ronnie. (One of them pegs Jesus as George W Bush – now that’s scary!) The Catholic Church once used the slogan “the family that prays together stays together”. Nowadays, it seems the family who watch TV together suffer obesity together.

Four years ago, I took a trip with my father through the Yukon Territory and into Alaska. Towards the end of the trip, we returned the RV we’d hired to the dealership in Whitehorse and went off round the city on foot. All through the trip, the roadside diners we’d fetched up at had offered menus that were so high-calorie you'd have thought Elvis and Rosanne Barr were running the kitchen.

The restaurant we wandered into in Whitehorse was no exception. We were shown to a table and two glasses of iced water appeared before us. The menus had pictures of the food. A couple lumbered past us to the next table. All I could think of was the scene in ‘Jurassic Park’: the concentric rings rippling across the glass of water, the heavy footfalls of the dinosaur resounding offscreen. My father offered an observation in a somewhat more direct fashion: “You know something, lad,” he opined, “I'm getting pissed off with looking at fat arses.”



*Two months after ‘Super Size Me’ premiered at Sundance, McDonalds abolished the ‘super size’ option. Mr Spurlock, sir, you done good!

Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Bank Job

In September 1971, a gang of thieves tunnelled 40 feet from a fashion boutique, under a take-away joint, and up into the vault of Lloyds Bank on Baker Street, London. They'd stationed an accomplice on a nearby rooftop to ensure the noise generated by their tunnelling didn't draw undue attention, and communicated by two-way radios. While the robbery was in progress, their on-air conversations were picked up by a local radio ham who alerted police. The story was huge, the press dubbing them "the walkie talkie gang". Then the government issued a D-notice and the story effectively disappeared.

In 1975, black rights activist Michael X, who modelled himself right down to his name on Malcolm X, but lacked the moral centre of his hero - Michael X was said to have been a pimp and drug-pusher - was hanged in Trinidad for two murders: a fellow member of his organisation and a British national, Gale Benson, daughter of a Conversative MP. Michael X's file in the National Archive is classified until 2054.

Roger Donaldson's 'The Bank Job', scripted by sit-com legends Dick Clement and Ian la Frenais, pulls these two stories together in an entertaining 'what if?', factoring in a royal scandal, government manipulation, corrupt coppers, vicious villains and a brilliantly audacious heist.

The plot, briefly:

Car dealer Terry Leather (Jason Statham), needing ready cash to pay off a money lender whose goons are threatening all kind of nastiness, is approached by old flame Martine Love (Saffron Burrows) with some inside information on the alarm system at a branch of Lloyds. Terry, a bit player on the fringes of the underworld, assembles a gang of fellow small-timers and they come up with the aforementioned audacious scheme.

Backtrack: Martine's current squeeze, Home Office smoothie Tim Everett (Richard Lintern), has been charged by his boss, the decadent and degenerate Miles Urquhart (Peter Bowles), to recover photographs of an incriminating nature (a member of the Royal Famly in flagrante delecto) which thorn-in-the-side-of-the-establishment Michael X (Peter de Jersey) is using as a get-out-of-jail-free card. With Martine conveniently arrested for possession of a proscribed substance, Tim comes to her aid ... but with a condition attached.

Meanwhile, back in the criminal underworld: Michael X leaves his vice interests in the hands of East End blue-movie producer and strip-club owner Lew Vogel (David Suchet) while he returns to Trinidad to finalise the arrangements for a little drug running. Accompanying him and his entourage is Gale Benson (Hattie Morahan), who is also being controlled by Tim.

Martine and Gale are two operatives on the same mission: Martine is to find a bunch of suckers to do a bank job (her part: swipe the photos from Michael X's safety deposit box while Terry and co. are swiping everything else), whilst Gale is to infiltrate Michael's inner circle, again with retrieval of the photos the overriding priority.

Meanwhile, back at Lew Vogel's strip club: Lew's busily paying off any number of coppers who are on the take. Only, because he's as scrupulous with the paperwork as he's unscrupulous morally, Lew keeps detailed records in a ledger. Said ledger resides in a safety deposit box in guess which bank. Correcto-mundo. The same bank that Michael X uses. The same bank, in fact, that Sonia Bern (Sharon Maughan) uses.

Sonia who?

Oh sorry, forgot to mention Sonia. She runs a high-class bordello frequented by Urquhart and various other cabinet minister, all of whom she has photographs and cine-film of. Filthy minded little beggars, these governmental types.

Did I say I was going to synopsise the plot briefly? No chance really, since the above pretty much accounts for just the first half of the film. How shall I describe the second half, particularly without giving too much away? Let's just say that various parties converge on Terry and his gang. Or, more bluntly: the shit hits the fan. The flippant, pacy, almost playful tone that characterises the planning and execution of the robbery takes a turn here; things get darker, thornier. The stakes are higher.

But Donaldson's direction never gets bogged down. The pace never flags. Clement and la Frenais' script deftly plots a narrative through-line that never gets sidetracked, despite the plethora of subplots and secondary characters. Statham proves a solid lead, graduating from the unkillable, monosyllabic characters he's generally associated with, while Burrows takes what could have been a one-dimensional femme fatale role and turns in a nuanced, world-weary performance. David Suchet has a whale of a time with Vogel; after thirty seconds, all thoughts of him as Hercule Poirot get thrown out of the window.

There's a lot to like about 'The Bank Job', not least its attention to detail - for a seedier, more defiantly cynical evocation of the 70s, you'd have to go back to the decade itself and the likes of 'The Sweeney' and 'Get Carter' - but, for me, the key to the film, its chief pleasure, is this: of all the dodgy bleeders that make up its dramatis personae, the nominal villains are the most fundamentally decent and honest characters.

Friday, March 21, 2008

PERSONAL FAVES: The Train

When I decided on the 100 personal favourites project, the selection parameters were going to be random: I'd put the titles of the 100 films in a bag and draw out one a week. If the resulting title was one I had in the DVD or VHS collection, I'd revisit it. If not, then what the hell? The whole point was to rave about why they're favourites, why they mean so much to me, why they've stuck in my mind. So even if it was a film I haven't seen for a while (ie. 'Django') or which isn't currently available to rent or buy on DVD (to the best of my knowledge, 'Hollywood Shuffle'), I'd simply rely on my memories of it. This is the Agitation of the Mind, after all, not the Accuracy of the Memory.

So: I was good to go. The hundred titles had been typed out, folded up and bunged in the bag. My better half had plucked out the first ('Donnie Darko').
However ...

At work yesterday, idly surfing the net while I should have been ... I don't know ... doing something else, I learned that actor Paul Scofield had died on Wednesday, at the age of 86. The star - definitely more so that first-billed Burt Lancaster - of John Frankenheimer's 'The Train', there was only choice for my small-screen viewing last night. A glass of wine was raised - and this post is dedicated - to the memory of Paul Scofield.

'The Train' starts with an art-loving Nazi, Colonel von Waldheim (Scofield), ransacking a French museum as Allied forces draw closer to Paris. Determining to have their collection of masterpieces - works by Cezanne, Renoir, Matisse, Picasso, etc - for himself, he defies counter-orders from a higher ranking officer and commandeers a train bound for Berlin. He puts a trusted adjunct aboard the train and gloats as its priceless cargo steams out of France.

Only the Resistance have cottoned onto his plans and hard-bitten operative Labiche (Lancaster) is charged with stopping the train at all costs. Initially, he refuses. His cell of freedom fighters has dwindled from eighteen men to just four and he argues that he can't reconcile risking their lives with the retrieval of some paintings.

Labiche works at a local railway yard, responsible for the day-to-day co-ordination of incoming and outgoing freight trains. Consequently, he witnesses an heroic but foolhardy attempt by fellow Resistance member Papa Boule (Michel Simon) to get Waldheim's train clear of the marshalling yard during an Allied bombing run, then sabotage it afterwards to prevent it reaching Germany.

Papa Boule's actions result in his execution (the first of many lives lost to Waldheim's reprisals). Labiche's attempts to intervene see him selected by Waldheim to drive the train to its destination. What follows is a battle of wits between the two men, a game of forward thinking and low cunning, not unlike a chess match but with the French railway system as the board and a steam loco and a couple of dozen waggons for pieces. (Frankenheimer's attention to detail is astounding; his talent for incorporating technical minutiae into the narrative - indeed, using it as the cornerstone of scenes of suspense - is pure genius.)

Labiche and his collaborators find their ingenuity taxed: first they re-route the train, disguising station signs to fool Waldheim's adjunct that the train is moving ever closer to Germany when it fact it's thundering deeper into the heart of France; later, less subtle methods are employed and Labiche goes all out for de-railment.

And this is what I find fascinating about 'The Train': the more desparate Labiche's methods become, the greater the human cost. All for a collection of paintings, the value of which he doesn't understand and which he was unwilling to risk lives for in the first place. On the other hand, Waldheim - while there's no doubt he's a ruthless bastard - does what he does purely because the pictures mean so much to him. They go beyond the war, beyond sides, beyond politics. They are his passion, his motivation.

But what motivates Labiche? Ah, herein lies the delicious dichotomy of 'The Train'. This is what Waldheim has to say (and this is the principle reason I love this film): "A painting means as much to you as a string of pearls to an ape ... You are nothing, Labiche; a lump of flesh. The paintings are mine. They always will be. Beauty belongs to the man who can appreciate it. These paintings will always belong to me or a man like me. Now, this minute, you couldn't tell me why you did what you did."

Beauty belongs to the man who can appreciate it ... How can you not love a line like that?

You can probably guess at Labiche's (wordless) response. It makes for a shatteringly nihilistic ending, all the more so when you realise that the ostensible villain is passionate, articulate and an aesthete, and the ostensible hero little more than a bull-headed thug.



(in memoriam Paul Scofield CBE, 21 January 1922 - 19 March 2008)

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Who Killed the Electric Car?

My father was in the haulage business. One of his favourite sayings, employed to cast aspersions on the likelihood of something ever happening, was “we’ll see the electric lorry first”.

The electric car, however …

Well, it happened. In 1996, the GM-produced EV-1 became a commercially available (albeit through lease only) reality. It was fast, reliable, cheap and easy to service, and ran without petrol. It came with celebrity endorsements, from ‘Baywatch’ star Alexandra Paul to America’s favourite movie star, Tom Hanks. (Hanks’ witty Letterman appearance is terrific.)

Ten years later, however, GM had pulled the plug on the project, sold its share of the company that produced the batteries for the cars, demanded the EV-1s back from the lessees and went on a very public love-in with its ugly-as-fuck gas-guzzling SUV product, the Hummer*.

It’s appropriate that “hummer” is also a US colloquialism for a blow-job, since that’s pretty much what GM did: suck the collective dick of the oil industry.

The oil industry is predictably present on director Chris Paine’s list of suspects. He opens with a funeral service for the EV-1 then goes on the hunt to find an answer to the film’s title: ‘Who Killed the Electric Car?’ Other suspects include the government (quelle surprise!) and consumers.

You have to admire Paine’s integrity in not sidestepping the latter issue: the electric car, limited as it was to 120 miles per day (which wouldn’t take you halfway to Edinburgh from my home town of Nottingham, never mind the kind of distances American highways cover), was always going to be a hard sell; always going to invite skepticism.

Still, the main thrust of the documentary is the most damning: GM’s relentless campaign to round-up all the EV-1s and destroy them. Ordinarily, one might shrug and say “well, the product failed, didn’t find enough buyers” … but the lessees who drove EV-1s loved them. Fought to retain them. Protested GM. Offered a significant chunk of money to buy them back.

The result? A heavy police presence at the demonstration, nightsticks drawn, protesters (including Ms Paul) handcuffed and bundled into the back of vans. The voice of protest successfully gagged, GM trucked the EV-1s out to a massive facility in the desert and crushed them. One remains – disabled by GM; undriveable – looking rather lost and alone amongst a collection of vintage and veteran vehicles.

Chris Paine’s film – surprisingly watchable given the amount of facts and figures it throws at the audience – is graced with low-key narration by Martin Sheen and features contributions from industry insiders, media pundits, environmentalists and EV-1 drivers. The heroine of the piece is Chelsea Sexton, a former GM employee who worked towards promoting the EV-1s. Intelligent, articulate and immensely likeable, Ms Sexton’s passion for the EV-1s – and her despair at GM’s destruction of them – is palpable. She has since become Executive Director of Plug In America and is dedicated campaigner for alternative fuels.

This world needs more Chelsea Sextons and fewer oil barons.



*Click here to visit the wonderfully named Fuck You And Your H2 and marvel at how many people hate the Hummer.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Personal faves

Okay, this wasn’t as easy as I thought. The two-films-per-director maximum was a bugger and I’m still not quite sure whether I can justify kicking out ‘The Last Picture Show’ or ‘Chinatown’ so that I could include lesser known gems like ‘Malcolm’ or ‘Charley Varrick’.

Still, this isn’t the list of the 100 greatest films ever made, or even my definitive 100 absolute favourite movies. It’s a list of a 100 films out of those I consider my favourites, cobbled together with the intention of providing a bit of variety. Which is a good thing, since I’ve effectively set myself the task of writing about them, roughly one a week, for the next two years.

So without further ado – and with links where reviews already exist on these pages – here’s the list:

Amarcord (Federico Fellini, 1973)

Amelie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001)

Andrei Rublev (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1969)

Angel Heart (Alan Parker, 1987)

Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)

Badlands (Terence Malick, 1973)

Battle Royale (Kinji Fukasaku, 2000)

Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982)

Blazing Saddles (Mel Brooks, 1974)

Das Boot (Wolfgang Peterson, 1981)

Bowling for Columbine (Michael Moore, 2002)

Bullet in the Head (John Woo, 1990)

Carlito's Way (Brian de Palma, 1993)

Charley Varrick (Don Siegel, 1973)

City of God (Fernando Meirelles, 2002)

A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971)

The Constant Gardener (Fernando Mereilles, 2005)

The Corporation (Mark Achbar & Jennifer Abbott, 2003)

The Dam Busters (Michael Anderson, 1955)

Dead Poets Society (Peter Weir, 1989)

Death in Venice (Luchino Visconti, 1971)

Deep Red (Dario Argento, 1975)

Dirty Harry (Don Siegel, 1971)

Django (Sergio Corbucci, 1966)

Donnie Darko (Richard Kelly, 2001)

Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944)

Downfall (Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2004)

Ed Wood (Tim Burton, 1994)

Emperor of the North (Robert Aldrich, 1973)

The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973)

The Eye (Danny & Oxide Pang, 2002)

Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999)

Fitzcarraldo (Werner Herzog, 1982)

Freaks (Tod Browning, 1932)

The French Connection (William Friedkin, 1971)

From Dusk Till Dawn (Robert Rodriguez, 1996)

From Russia with Love (Terence Young, 1963)

Get Carter (Mike Hodges, 1971)

Glengarry Glen Ross (James Foley, 1992)

The Godfather Parts I & II (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972/1974)

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Sergio Leone, 1966)

Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990)

Heavenly Creatures (Peter Jackson, 1994)

Hollywood Shuffle (Robert Townsend, 1987)

I Know Where I'm Going! (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1945)

An Inconvenient Truth (Davis Guggenheim, 2006)

The Incredibles (Brad Bird, 2004)

The Insider (Michael Mann, 1999)

The Killer (John Woo, 1989)

L.A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson, 1997)

Leningrad Cowboys Go America (Aki Kaurismaki, 1989)

Little Dieter Needs to Fly (Werner Herzog, 1997)

Lone Star (John Sayles, 1996)

Malcolm (Nadia Tass, 1986)

Manhunter (Michael Mann, 1986)

The Man Who Wasn't There (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2001)

Matador (Pedro Almodovar, 1986)

Matewan (John Sayles, 1987)

A Matter of Life and Death (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1946)

Miller's Crossing (Joel & Ethan Coen, 1990)

Monty Python's Life of Brian (Terry Jones, 1979)

North by Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock, 1959)

Ocean's 11 (Steven Soderbergh, 2001)

Pan's Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro, 2007)

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (Sam Peckinpah, 1973)

The Prestige (Christopher Nolan, 2006)

Providence (Alain Resnais, 1977)

Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994)

Ratatouille (Brad Bird, 2007)

The Ring (Hideo Nakata, 1998)

Le Samourai (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1967)

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Karel Reisz, 1960)

Seven Days to Noon (John & Roy Boulting, 1950)

Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954)

Shadow of a Doubt (Alfred Hitchcock, 1943)

The Shawshank Redemption (Frank Darabont, 1994)

Short Cuts (Robert Altman, 1993)

Sideways (Alexander Payne, 2004)

Some Like it Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959)

Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001)

The Straight Story (David Lynch, 1999)

Taking Liberties (Chris Atkins, 2007)

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (Joseph Sargent, 1974)

A Tale of Two Sisters (Kim Jee-Woon, 2004)

Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976)

That Obscure Object of Desire (Luis Bunuel, 1977)

There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)

The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982)

The Train (John Frankenheimer, 1964)

Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood, 1992)

The Wages of Fear (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1953)

Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit (Steve Box & Nick Park, 2005)

Went the Day Well? (Alberto Cavalcanti, 1942)

Where Eagles Dare (Brian G Hutton, 1968)

Whisky Galore! (Alexander Mackendrick, 1949)

White Heat (Raoul Walsh, 1949)

The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973)

The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah, 1969)

Wings of Desire (Wim Wenders,1987)

Withnail & I (Bruce Robinson, 1987)

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

THE HEY, INTERNET, STOP BEING SUCH CYNICAL EFFING DOUCHEBAGS BLOG-A-THON: Where Eagles Dare

Inspired by Stacie at Final Girl - respect!

Way back in the day, BBC1 used to show ‘Where Eagles Dare’ as regularly as ‘Holiday Inn’ at Christmas or James Bond over the bank holiday. I can’t remember how old I was the first time I saw it – old enough to plead with my folks to stay up and watch horror or thriller movies, and young enough that they invariably said no – but on this occasion, Dad relented and let me stay up and watch ‘Where Eagles Dare’.

Dad liked war movies, but wasn’t into horror. So it was still a no-no as far as ‘The Omen’ or any of the old Hammer flicks were concerned, but increasingly I was allowed to stay up if ‘The Guns of Navarone’ or ‘633 Squadron’ were on.

‘The Guns of Navarone’ was pretty cool (for a pre-pubscent still denied the frisson of the horror genre, anyway), especially when the big guns blew up at the end. And there was a dead good bombing run in ‘633 Squadron’, even if it was just ‘Star Wars’ but with some Norwegian cliff instead of the Death Star.

(Now, of course, I know better. I wish that Alexander MacKendrick hadn’t been booted off ‘The Guns of Navarone’ and replaced by J. Lee Thompson – he’d have turned in a much more interesting film – and I know that ‘633 Squadron’ was the film that got George Lucas fired up for the climax of ‘Star Wars’ and not the other way round … but, hey, I was a kid at the time and the spaceships in ‘Star Wars’ were way cool.)

But better than either of these was ‘Where Eagles Dare’. It had a bunch of guys parachuting out of a plane into a wintry forest. It had them impersonating German soldiers to bluff their way into a fortress. It had traitors in their midst. It had cable cars and people dangling off the cable cars and there was shooting and lots of explosions and they all escaped in this old bus as half the German army came piling after them and they blew this bridge up to make good their escape and then they drove the bus through this airfield and shot out the control tower and smashed up a load of Messerschmidts … No doubt about it: at that age, reared on Commando comics and Biggles books, this was the. Best. Film. Ever.

When I got into my teens, it was still shown on TV quite a lot (and even if it wasn’t, Dad had the video) and there was the added appreciation – or should I say hormone-addled appreciation? – of Hammer starlet Ingrid Pitt as a German barmaid with a decolletage you could rest your pint on. Oh, there were still plenty of explosions, never mind that I’d seen ‘Lethal Weapon’ and ‘Die Hard’ by then.

In my twenties, having it seen it more times than I could count (it’s probably still my most-watched film) and always in a slightly faded panned-and-scanned print, I bought the DVD. Woo-hoo! Widescreen, remastered, Ron Goodwin’s score punched up and even more explosions for your money. Sure, some of the acting was ropey; sure there wasn’t quite enough plot for the two-and-a-half-hour running time. Did I care? Did I hell! I was in action movie heaven and loving the film all over again.

And I still love ‘Where Eagles Dare’.

I love the fact that Richard “make mine a double” Burton and Clint Eastwood are so bizarrely but brilliantly paired, the former’s scenery chewing perfectly matched by the latter’s effortless laconic cool.

I love all that business with the cable cars. I can’t see a cable car nowadays, whether it’s those dinky little ones at the Heights of Abraham in Derbyshire, or authentically vertiginous ones in Austria or Switzerland, without humming the ‘Where Eagles Dare’ theme music. On the subject of which …

I love Ron Goodwin’s score. It’s by turns brooding, ominous and exciting. In an OST version of ‘Desert Island Discs’, the ‘Where Eagles Dare’ soundtrack would be top of my list.

I love that last scene in the aeroplane, when you realise that the whole thing has been about one name scribbled in a notebook. Minimal dialogue and the drone of the engines in the background.

And yes, I still love the action and the shoot-outs and the explosions. I know that war is hell – ‘Paths of Glory’ and ‘Cross of Iron’ are favourites of mine, powerful and damning cinematic indictments of the inhumanity of war – but we’re talking about straight-down-the-line action movies here and ‘Where Eagles Dare’ ranks among the best.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Go tell it on the mountain!

Tomorrow, the inimitable Stacie at Final Girl is hosting the wonderfully titled Hey, Internet, Stop Being Such Cynical Effing Douchebags blog-a-thon.

Her remit is simple:

Write about something in the world of film that fills you with complete and total unbridled fucking retarded JOY … Wear your heart on your sleeve and tells us all why you love something.

Wrote my entry over the weekend; on the blog it goes tomorrow. I had a blast writing it – and it got me thinking. Stacie’s clarion call to film-loving bloggers everywhere to big up and not badmouth, to sing out and not slag off, certainly chimes with the mission statement of this blog.

So: I’m introducing an ongoing series, let’s say more or less weekly, kicking off with tomorrow’s entry – 100 personal favourites.

Now, these won’t comprise the 100 greatest films ever made – (a) ‘Citizen Kane’ isn’t on the list and (b) I’d never get away with, say, ‘Bullet in the Head’ under that banner – so instead, it’ll be a motley crew of classics, curios and cult. And maybe the odd guilty pleasure.

Either that or it’ll be a mortifyingly public exercise in demonstrating just how mainstream my tastes are.

The criteria for inclusion? Pick from the following:

* Longevity: films that I’ve watched many many times and could happily watch many more times.

* Emotional response: films that have made me laugh, cry, wince or think.

* Iconography: films that are quite simply straight-down-the-line cool.

The only stricture I’ve imposed is a two-film-per-director maximum, otherwise there’d be at least half a dozen Scorseses, the same again of Peckinpahs, a handful of Hitchcock and a plethora of Powell and Pressburger. And having said that, I’m automatically going to cheat and count ‘The Godfather’ and ‘The Godfather Part II’ as one entry so that I can squeeze ‘Apocalypse Now’ into the Coppola quota.

I’ll be posting the full 100-strong list on Wednesday.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Rambo re-emergent

Rambo.

There's a lot of baggage attached to the two syllables of that famously gruff name. You could almost forget that David Morrell thus named the troubled protagonist of his debut novel after French writer Rimbaud.

In England, there's excess baggage: following the Hungerford massacre in 1987, tabloid sensationalism forged a link in the public consciousness between fictional character Rambo and real-life killer Michael Ryan.

All four of the Rambo films have had their share of critical brickbats: ‘First Blood’ was drubbed for toning down Morrell’s novel (Rambo injures his pursuers during the manhunt, whereas in the book he kills them; Morrell’s ending is decidedly more apocalyptic).

‘Rambo: First Blood Part II’ and ‘Rambo III’ were written off as right-wing military fantasias; and the latest installment, simply yet iconically titled ‘Rambo’, has taken a kicking for, variously, having Rambo backed up by a group of mercenaries instead of being a one-man army (which he never was: in episodes two and three his ass is saved by indigenous freedom fighters), lacking the guidance of Colonel Trautman (well, d’uh, Richard Crenna died in 2003 - no-one else could fill the role), and simplifying the Burmese militia/Karen rebels conflict into sadistic, murderous, raping tyrants vs. fearless resistance fighters (well, yeah, tyrants generally are murderous bastards, that’s why they're tyrants, and resistance fighters, because they take their lives in their hands by defying entire armies, pretty much deserve the epithet ‘fearless’).

Now, I’m not saying that I espouse violence, nor can I argue that the sight of one muscle-rippled individual hefting the kind of hardware it would normally take a crane to lift, and using said weaponry to cut swathes through infinitely superior numbers, isn't vaguely ridiculous ...

But.

There’s more to the Rambo films (even, in a clutching-at-straws kind of way, episode three) than they’re generally given credit for.

Do I sound like an apologist? Not so. This time last month, I’d seen only ‘First Blood’ once, studiously avoided the next two installments and hadn’t really given much thought to the latest film. Then two considered, intelligent reviews - on Moon in the Gutter and Out 1 - peaked my interest. I bought a ticket for ‘Rambo’ and took my seat. The lights dimmed, the facile adverts and generic trailers came and went. The film started. Ninety minutes later, I emerged, blinking, into the light. I felt like I’d been grabbed by the throat, wrenched from my seat and thrust head-first into the mud-caked, blood-drenched, visceral, brutal, confusing horror of conflict. I can’t think of another film this side of ‘Cross of Iron’ that has rubbed the audience's nose so unapologetically in the sickening actuality of do-or-die warfare.

Brandon Colvin, at Out 1, compares ‘Rambo’ to ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’ as a hyper-kinetic example of the kind of cinema that tears away the spatial restrictions of the screen its projected on and forces the viewer the engage with it on the most immediate level. I tip my hat to a man, a better writer on film than I could ever hope to be, for describing so intensely and intelligently why ‘Rambo’ isn’t just a film you watch but one you experience. (Sir, there's a pint with your name on it if you're ever in Nottingham, England.)

Jeremy Richey at Moon in the Gutter, in a turn of phrase that would have had me jump to my feet and applaud had I not been sneakily reading his review at work, describes ‘Rambo’ as "the kind of film ‘Saving Private Ryan’ would have been if Steven Spielberg had any real kind of film-making balls, which he doesn’t". (Sir, there's a pint with your name on it, too.)

Two days after I’d seen ‘Rambo’, I walked into HMV and bought the box set of episodes one to three. I watched them in sequence over the last two nights. My immediate thoughts:

‘First Blood’ was as pacy as I'd remembered it, Ted Kotcheff’s direction as clinically efficient as his protagonist’s fieldcraft. Vietnam vet John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone), unable to hold down a regular job, walks/hitch-hikes across the States, fetching up at the rural home of a former platoon member. When his widow coldly informs Rambo that he died of cancer, blaming his exposure to Agent Orange, Rambo is forced to accept the depressing fact that he’s the last survivor of his outfit. With nowhere to go and his future uncertain, he wanders from town to town. In the ironically named Hope, hippie-hating sheriff Will Teasle (Brian Dennehy) mistakes him for a beatnik, picks him up and drives him out of town. Snubbed, defiant, Rambo refuses to leave. Teasle arrests him for vagrancy and hauls him down the cells, where sadistic Deputy Sheriff Art Gault (Jack Starrett) gives him hell.

But as the tag-line has it, hell is what he calls home. Rambo fights his way out of the police station and heads for the woods outside of town. Teasle and his men give chase. Rambo bests them, leaving them alive but comprehensively whupped. His former commanding officer Colonel Trautman (Crenna) turns up and exhorts Teasle to pull out. Teasle (a medal displayed in his office suggests he’s served in the military) continues the manhunt, enlisting local militia. Rambo, hiding in a disused mine, survives a grenade launcher attack by the skin of his teeth and responds by bringing the war to Hope.

So, ‘First Blood’ in a nutshell: soldier returns home from war, is rejected by society (“they called me baby-killer”), victimised by authority and reverts to what the army trained him to be purely because he’s given no other choice. Powerful stuff for an eighty-nine minute thriller whose pace never flags.


Fast forward a couple of years and ‘Rambo: First Blood Part II’ finds Rambo breaking rocks in a high-security prison, having been incarcerated after he desists from killing Teasle at Trautman’s behest. If Trautman curtailed the narrative in the first film, he instigates it here and in part three. Informed that participation in a mission to establish the whereabouts of American POWs still MIA in Vietnam could lead to a presidential pardon, Rambo accepts and is parachuted into still-hostile territory with only the barest survival equipment. He makes contact with local freedom fighters, but meets betrayal before he reaches his objective.

Trautman’s superior officer, Murdock (Charles Napier), tasked to investigate the credence of MIA myths (with the politically-demanded result that he will find no evidence), pulls the plug on the mission when Rambo locates American captives in a prison camp. Left to capture and torture, Rambo only escapes thanks to the intervention of a woman, Co Bao (Julia Nickson) – the hero of a supposedly right-wing military fantasia rescued by a woman! - and takes it upon himself not only to liberate his fellow countrymen but settle the score with Murdock.

So: ‘First Blood Part II’ in a nutshell: loose cannon palmed off with a suicide mission and (almost) fucked over by an administration more concerned with plausible deniability than duty to the members of their armed forces lost in action. And there was me believing the critics, thinking that it was just a few reels of macho bullshit.

Fast forward a few more years and ‘Rambo III’ emerges as slavishly beholden to its predecessor’s template: a rescue mission (this time it’s Trautman who's been captured), the assitance of a rebel army (Afghans resisting the Soviets), the Red Menace instead of the VC, torture scenes involving electrocution. Maybe I watched parts two and three too close together, but it's hard to shake the impression that ‘Rambo III’ is Rambo-by-the-numbers.

However:

It moves fast. It doesn’t pretend to be anything it isn’t. It doesn’t glamorise American intervention. If anything, all of the Rambo films depict American intervention abroad as an arrogant inevitability, one that regular people will carry the can for (even if, like Rambo, those regular people have been re-programmed by the army as killing machines) and struggle to adjust to in civilian life, while the top brass in both the military and the administration wash their hands.

So: ‘Rambo III’ in a nutshell: politics is shag-wank and only friendship counts. (Sorry, I’m still not getting this right-wing military fantasia thing.)

Still, there's no denying that ‘Rambo III’ is the weakest installment. Which makes the re-emergence of the character, twenty years later, so much more impressive.

‘Rambo’ starts with newsreel footage of killings and torture in Burma, then delivers a prologue in which Burmese soldiers force a group of villagers to race through a paddy field into which they’ve tossed explosive devices and place bets on which of them get blown to bits. Rambo himself is living down-river in Thailand, operating a river boat and catching snakes. The old soldier has found a sort-of peace in the jungle, even if his dreams are ridden with flashbacks.

It doesn’t last. A group of Christian missionaries engage him to take them into Burma where they can minister to the oppressed natives. (Their brief interaction with a village community has them dole out Bibles and band-aids.) Rambo at first refuses, but is persuaded against his better judgement by the idealistic Sarah (Julie Benz).

When the missionaries are captured by the Burmese military, Rambo is again approached, this time by the Reverend Marsh (Ken Howard). The missionaries’ pastor, he responds to their plight by hiring a band of mercenaries. This is certainly the film’s most nihilistic concept: the clandestine government-backed military intervention of parts two and three replaced by right-wing Christian intervention. When the Bibles don’t work, break out the bullets.

Stallone, directing and co-writing, takes the action scenes to a new level. He also gives himself very little dialogue. There’s no moralising, no proselytising. Rambo does what he does. What he was trained to do. He is what his country turned him into. He can no more escape who he is than Clint Eastwood’s William Munny in ‘Unforgiven’.

The last scene echoes the opening shot of ‘First Blood’, lending an apposite circularity to things. There is a sense of hard-earned closure, reminding us that there is – always was – a human side to one of American cinema’s most enduring anti-heroes.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Zodiac

A couple of years ago, browsing in the film books section in Waterstone’s, I came across a book called ‘Dark Eye: The Essential David Fincher’. There was a picture of Jodie Foster in ‘Panic Room’ on the cover. I realised with a jolt that ‘Panic Room’ had been released in 2002; Fincher hadn’t made a film since then.

Leaving aside the question of whether a film-maker who, then, had only five films to his credit, yet merited a full-length critical study, I hoped that Fincher wasn't going to pull a Terence Malick-style disappearing act. Particularly since that slim filmography, as much as it contains two masterpieces (‘Seven’ and ‘Fight Club’), is also beset by one fucked-up-by-the-studio curate's egg (‘Alien 3’), one disappointing miss-fire (‘The Game’), and one stylish-but-by-the-numbers commercial venture (‘Panic Room’). There was the sense that Fincher's career could still go either way.

Then came ‘Zodiac’, part psychodrama, part police procedural, investigating the still ostensibly unsolved series of murders that shocked San Francisco during the 1960s and 1970s, and provided the inspiration for ‘Dirty Harry’. Don Siegel’s iconic classic gets a cameo role, investigating detective Inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo, in what deserves to be a star-making performance) walking out of a screening, ired at Callahan's non-observance of due process.

This scene is integral: ‘Dirty Harry’ is the myth (maverick cop blows away the killer at the end); Zodiac considers the reality - the real cost. The tag-line on the poster - "there’s more than one way to lose your life to a killer" – says it all. Although Toschi is closest to the case, and takes it personally when he can’t get enough evidence against the main (indeed, only) suspect, it's two newspapermen who become obsessed by the nameless killer who taunts police and media alike with a series of coded messages.

Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jnr) is a louche and a drunkard who steamrollers towards conflict with colleagues and editor alike. Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a teetotal, clean-living nice guy - a cartoonist - who is gently mocked by his colleagues for his lack of vices. Then the case gets under his skin and his life takes a darker turn. The interplay between the three gives the films its dynamic. The recreations of the murders, veering between almost absurdly comedic and truly terrifying, give it its darkness.

Overall, Fincher directs with restraint, his usual visual flair taking a backseat in favour of attention to period detail and his coaxing of great performances from his cast (Brian Cox, Elias Coteas and John Carroll Lynch shine in supporting roles). This said, there is one typically Fincher moment, typed excerpts from the Zodiac’s letters floating through a montage of day-to-day life at the newspaper office.

And while the killer was never brought to justice, Fincher (adapting Graysmith’s non-fiction book of the same title) is confident in pointing the finger. You're left in no doubt that Graysmith and Toschi knew who their man was, too. But even if the Zodiac’s identity were still a gaping void, a complete enigma, the film would be no less powerful: it's the sense of denied closure that clings to you as the end credits roll that provides the film’s final chill.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Casino Royale

How to revitalise a movie franchise: appoint a director who's going to give the proceedings a bit of energy. After a number of increasingly stodgy Bond films helmed by John Glen, Martin Campbell called the shots on ‘Goldeneye’ and the result was a bloody good action thriller. Sadly, the Brosnan Bonds alternated between slick entertainment (‘Goldeneye’, ‘The World is Not Enough’) and self-indulgent tedium (‘Tomorrow Never Dies’, ‘Die Another Day’ - which started well enough but lost the plot in the spectacular fashion).

Then Campbell got back in the director's chair for Daniel Craig's first outing as 007 and instead of just revitalising the franchise for a second time, he pretty much re-invented it. It helped, of course, that he had Neal Purvis and Robert Wade’s script (with contributions from Paul Haggis): the concept’s a stroke of genius.

‘Casino Royale’ simply disregards the twenty Bond films that came before it and sets itself up as the first instalment. It also goes back to an original Ian Fleming novel, for the first time in a couple of decades. Obviously, it throws in a few big crowd-pleasing set pieces but on the whole it's a pretty faithful adaptation, right down to a cringe-inducing torture scene where Bond gets it (to be blunt) in the balls. His antagonist, Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), opines that he doesn't see the point of contrived torture scenes - a bit of basic brutality is so much more effective.

It's a neat moment, meant to strip away the clich├ęs of previous outings. Other elements of the film echo the sentiment. Q is absent; there are no ludicrous gadgets. Cheesy one-liners are also off the menu (making this, if you’ll pardon the pun, a royale without cheese), replaced by genuinely snappy dialogue. “Shaken or stirred?” a bartender asks an ashen Bond, his cover blown, the operation seemingly in tatters. “Does it look like I give a damn?” 007 snaps.

Craig’s portrayal of Bond gets right back to the character of the novels: he’s rash, he makes mistakes. He's a more human incarnation than the unkillable smart arse of the later films. Craig makes the best Bond since Connery. In fact, I’m going to put all my chips on the table: Craig is as good as Connery.

Any criticisms? At two and a half hours, it’s slightly overlong. Certainly the poker scenes could have been trimmed. At times, the midsection feels like half an hour’s worth of Channel 4’s ‘Later Night Poker’ found its way into the editing room and got spliced in. Minor quibbles. ‘Casino Royale’ put the series right back on track in fine style, the ending pointing towards the next film … which has been saddled not only with an unwieldy title (‘Quantum of Solace’) but Marc Forster as director.

Oh bollocks.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Taking Liberties

Chris Atkins' documentary 'Taking Liberties' - that's documentary in the same way that 'Fahrenheit 9/11' is a documentary, btw, which is to say a hugely entertaining polemic that also happens to be downright fucking disturbing - begins with this voiceover:

"Welcome to Britain, a land of fine cuisine, exciting nightlife and animal lovers" ... accompanied by images of a pan of baked beans, a troupe of morris dancers and a bunch of toffs on horseback participating in a fox hunt ... "but most of all a land of freedom. In 2003, Tony Blair and George Bush started spreading this freedom to Iraq."

The soundtrack swells with Elgar's 'Pomp and Circumstance March No 1' - better known, in its sung version, as 'Land of Hope and Glory'. Belted out by flag-wavers every year at the last night of the Proms, 'Land of Hope and Glory' is arguably more of an anthem than the actual national anthem. The way Atkins uses it is about as rub-your-nose-in-it anti-establishment as Kubrick decking out the droogs in bowler hats in 'A Clockwork Orange'.

(Parethetically, Elgar wrote 'Pomp and Circumstance' as a purely orchestral march, its very title indicating a satire on the nationalistic, jingoist Victorian attitudes that were, even in his lifetime, hopelessly outmoded. The flag-wavers at the last night of the Proms not only miss the point but dishonour Elgar. Atkins, whether he was aware of this context or not, effectively reclaims the piece.)

So. 'Taking Liberties' starts as it means to go on: plenty of ironic humour to sweeten the pill, but making no bones as to its agenda. Chris Atkins goes gunning for Blair with the tenacity and heightened sense of moral outrage with which Michael Moore goes gunning for Bush. I feel I should strive for objectivity here and consider 'Taking Liberties' purely as a film, when what I actually want to do is punch the air, whoop and yell "Right on, Chris, kick that smug little bastard's arse!"

But then again, why shouldn't I? Let's not forget Herzog's dictum (appropriated as the mission statement for this blog): "film is not analysis, it is the agitation of the mind". 'Taking Liberties' agitates the mind. It agitates the emotions. It makes you angry. And with good reason.

The first incident Atkins considers, 'Land of Hope and Glory' still ringing out, is that of a busload of protestors against the war in Iraq who boarded a bus in London and headed to a US military base in Fairford, Gloucestershire, where they intended to stage a peaceful protest. En route, they were stopped by a phalanx of over 100 police officers. They were detained on the coach (without toilet facilities) for two hours before being escorted back to London, the coach boxed in by police motorcyclists, under the Public Order Act on the grounds that, had they reached their destination, they might have created a disturbance.

Think about that. They were persecuted for something they might have done.

Bang! In one fell swoop, two of Britain's oldest civil liberties - the right to protest, and the right to be considered innocent until proven guilty - trampled into the ground. And that's only the first of many similar stories.

Take the case of Maya Evans and Milan Rai who were arrested for standing by the Cenotaph (a monument in London honouring the dead of the Great War) and reading out a list of names of everyone who had died to date in the Iraq war. In other words, a casualty list - for both sides. The first question is: can you even consider this a protest? Surely it's a consciousness-raiser for the general public. The next question is: why aren't the police nicking real criminals?

Take the arrest of peaceful protestor Brian Haw. After numerous arrests and - crucially - court rulings in his favour, the government introduced Section 132 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act. Quite apart from the fact that one man peacefully protesting in no way fits the description of organised crime, what is truly horrifying is that the government made up a law purely to silence that one man. And then enforced it by sending 78 police officers to arrest him - "like Nazis in the middle of the night", as Haw himself describes it.

I could take this post into the realm of several thousand words, rehashing every example cited in the film of the flagrant abuse by Blair's government of the most basic and fundamental rights of the everyday citizenship (and I'm still fuming at the physical ejection of 82-year-old Walter Wolfgang, a man who had fled to Britain from the tyranny of Hitler's dictatorship, from the Labour Party conference for doing no more than shouting "Nonsense" during a speech by Foreign Secretary Jack Straw*) - but ultimately the film tells it better than I could and I would urge anyone who reads this blog to seek out a copy of 'Taking Liberties', watch it, press it on to all of your friends and - god damn it! - get angry.

Atkins identifies our basic civil liberties as: ban on torture, no detention without charge, innocent until proven guilty, right to privacy, right to protest, freedom of speech.

The Blair administration has chipped away at each of these, either by changing existing laws (the political equivalent of shifting the goalposts) or creating a welter of new ones. Atkins quotes an alarming statistic: in the 10 years Blair was in power, over 3,000 new laws were passed. That's 300 a year. Allowing for weekends, vacations and bank holidays, that pretty much equates to one new law for every working day he was in office. What makes it worse is the degree to which Blair's policies owed to his lapdog-like slavering at the table of George W Bush.

Of course, with Blair now out of office ('Taking Liberties' suffered a limited theatrical release which saw it limp round the last few cinemas even as Blair was clearing his desk), the risk is that the film could be perceived as redundant. But Blair's legacy is still casting a shadow. Driving to work yesterday, the lead news story on the radio was the government's announcement of the timescale for introduction of national identity cards, a controversy that the film tackles head on.

It would be a mistake to think that because another leader is in 10 Downing Street - or even if another party was in power - things would suddenly and drastically be different. Governments like to have power. It makes their people easier to govern. 'Taking Liberties' ends with the words of Thomas Jefferson:

When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty.

It's also worth bearing in mind the words of Bill Hicks:


All governments are lying cocksuckers.



*For the record Jack Straw was, in fact, talking nonsense.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

The Isle

‘The Isle’ was my second exposure to the films of Ki-duk Kim after the mesmerising and profoundly philosophical ‘Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter … and Spring’, and like that film ‘The Isle’ is often strikingly beautiful. It’s also gut-wrenchingly disturbing.

One paragraph in and I’m already over-doing it with the adjectives. But Kim’s cinema cries out for them. At its most beautiful, ‘The Isle’ isn’t just beautiful – it’s achingly beautiful; haunting; painterly. Given that Kim all but dispenses with narrative, ‘The Isle’ emerges as a visual poem.

The setting is a Korean fishing village … but not, as western audiences might expect, a village that has sprung up around a port or harbour. The village is actually a flotilla of huts dotted across a lake. Raft-like in construction, these huts resemble chalets that have detached themselves from a beachside resort and gone floating off of their own accord.

A mute woman, Hee-Jin (Jung Soh) – who is as strikingly beautiful as the film itself – single-handedly oversees the fishing village, rowing the fishermen (mostly boorish businessmen on vacation) out to the huts and back, supplying them with food, coffee and bait, and occasionally prostituting herself.

Unable to communicate verbally, and with no outlet amongst her loudmouthed and misogynistic clients to communicate emotionally, Hee-Jin has become dangerously unpredictable and prone to acts of violence.

Such narrative as there is focuses on her sort-of relationship with Hyun-Shik (Yoosuk Kim), on the run after murdering his faithless partner and her lover, who holes up in one of the huts, passes the time making minimalist sculptures out of bits of wire, and considers killing himself.

This is where we get to the gut-wrenchingly disturbing bit. His first attempt – gun-to-head – is foiled when Hee-Jin surprises him and he drops the pistol into the lake. Second time around, a police motorboat buzzing around the lake, he swallows a handful of fish-hooks.

If you’re cringing just reading that, then it’s probably best if you avoid ‘The Isle’. This scene – and its immediate aftermath, Hee-Jin delving into Hyun-Shik’s mouth with a pair of pliers to remove the hooks – is almost unwatchable. That Hee-Jin then picks this moment, having spurned his advances earlier, to have sex with Hyun-Shik ups the ante on Kim’s commitment to controversy.

But having said that, nothing in ‘The Isle’ feels like deliberate directorial shock tactics (compared to, say, the work of Michael Haneke), even when Hee-Jin, jealous at Hyun-Shik’s relationship with a young prostitute, engineers the circumstances which result in the girl’s death and, guilt-ridden, stages her own act of fish-hook-aided self-mutilation. The specific details are something I don’t even want to type – I’ll just throw out a passing reference to Ornella Muti in ‘Tales of Ordinary Madness’ and leave it to your imagination.

Perhaps the most potent image, though, is reserved for the final frame. After the lake is dredged (courtesy of the film’s only lapse into narrative contrivance), Hee-Jin holes her rowing boat, attaches the outboard motor to Hyun-Shik’s hut and they … well, it all gets rather metaphysical here. A long shot seems to suggest that the lake has taken on the enormity of an ocean, the hut a small dot in a shimmering expanse. Then Hyun-Shik breaks the surface of said body of water, as if coming up from a dive (or awake from a dream). He flounders, looks around, swims towards a circular mass of reeds. An overhead shot shows him disappearing amongst them. A pull back reveals the thatch as Hee-Jin’s pubic hair; she is lying naked and presumably dead in the bottom of her waterlogged rowing boat.

Visually on par with the image that closes Tarkovsky’s ‘Solaris’, emotionally ambiguous, open to interpretation, it’s a perfect encapsulation of the whole film.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Runaway Train

'Runaway Train' has an interesting pedigree. Set in Alaska and detailing an escape from a maximum security prison that takes an unexpected turn when cons on the run Manny (Jon Voight) and Buck (Eric Roberts) board a freight train whose driver keels over from a heart attack, it's directed by a Russian (Andrei Konchalovsky), from an original screenplay by a Japanese film-making legend (Akira Kurosawa) better known for his historical samurai dramas, rewritten by (amongst others) a former convict who later became an icon thanks to his role as Mr Blue in 'Reservoir Dogs' (Edward "Eddie" Bunker).

Acting wise, Voight is manic and unrestrained, Roberts plays the whiny fake tough guy so convincingly that you want to slap him every time he opens his mouth, and somewhere along the line the decision was taken to cast Rebecca de Mornay (who pretty much fits the bill as far as glamorous is concerned) as Sara, the short-haired, grubby-faced railroad worker caught napping on the titular locomotive. (Still, the frankly gorgeous Charlize Theron has played a putty-faced serial killer and a world-weary factory worked, so what do I know?)

Narratively, the film adheres to the classic three-act structure. Act one: prison; in which sadistic Warden Ranken (John P Ryan) is compelled by a court order to release notorious prison-breaker Manny from the cell he's been welded into for three years, Manny's fellow inmates herald him as a one-man fuck-you to authority, a hit on him fails and he breaks out with the help of Buck, who insists on accompanying him. Act two: the train/the railroad offices: in which Manny and Buck stow themselves onboard one of the unmanned locos making up a four-car unit hauling freight, only for said mode of transport to gather speed as it hurtles out of control, their lives in the hands of controller Frank Barstow (Kyle T Heffner) whose immediate reaction is to derail the thing rather than risk further damage and/or loss of life. Act three: the train/the helicopter: in which Ranken, his prison ablaze from rioting, discovers that Manny is on the train and heads off for a mano-a-mano confrontation.

If the above paragraphs make 'Runaway Train' sound (respectively) schizophrenic, tiresome and formulaic, then all I can say is that it should be.
I ought to be able to write it off as an exercise in macho bullshit, replete with endless phallic imagery.

However ...

'Runaway Train' is the kind of film that lives up to the mission statement of this blog: it doesn't lend itself to analysis; and while it might not agitate the mind, it certainly agitates the nerves. 'Runaway Train' is a raw, edgy, unrelenting thriller. The prison scenes are brutal. The Alaskan backdrop is snowy, harsh, desolate. The characters are hard-bitten and their dialogue reflects it (Sara: "You're an animal"; Manny: "No. Worse. Human"). The train itself - particularly after a brilliantly executed set-piece where an oncoming freighter is diverted off the main line into a siding, only for the runaway to pulverise the boxcar as it ploughs ever forward - is a twisted hunk of metal.

The speed of film is keyed into the speed of the train. Most films build to a climax; 'Runaway Train' bears down on it - inevitably, irreversibly. That Manny quotes Nietzsche at one point ("What doesn't kill me makes me stronger") only emphasises the point: without any artsy digressions or intellectualising, 'Runaway Train' is a perfect existential film, cutting across the screen as forcefully as the train cuts a dark line through the wintry landscape.