Wednesday, September 20, 2017
Okay: I exited the auditorium from a quarter-full screening of Darren Aronofsky’s ‘mother!’ (only two people walked out), went for a pint, got my thoughts in order, came home, poured another drink, cracked my knuckles, fired up the laptop aaaaaand … holy fuck fuckety fuck, I have no idea where to start.
I don’t know whether to write a straightforward review of the film – plot synopsis, quality of acting, effectiveness of cinematography and production design, you know, the usual kind of thing – or to come at it obliquely via a review of the reviews.
‘mother!’ – which is already starting to piss me off with its wannabe e.e. cummings fixation on lower case and its needless exclamation mark*, and I’ve only typed it three times – has been variously described, by some fairly high profile critics, as being About** the state of the nation, the Syrian refugee crisis, the creative process in general, Aronofsky’s creative process in particular, the dark side of fame/celebrity, a deconstruction of cinema itself, and the inability of Man to aspire to God because of our pettiness and selfishness.
Let’s start with the latter reading. Yes, the film is obviously a religious allegory. It’s obviously an allegory since it begins with Javier Bardem’s character (none of the characters are given names***, but Javier is billed as “Him” just to make it fucking obvious) placing a crystal on what is basically a mini-altar. What the crystal is and where it came from is revealed at the very end, but by then you’ll probably be too busy Googling Aronofsky’s address so that you can go round and punch him to care. What the placing of the crystal on the altar does is trigger a cosmic reset button: a burnt out house is restored to its basic, undecorated, structure and a lifeless husk in a bed revivifies in the form of a woman (Jennifer Lawrence). Which is basically like Aronofsky texting every member of the audience with the message None of this is real, everything’s a stand in for something else” followed by a parade of emojis, including thumbs up, fist bump, devil, angel and the shit emoji. To the best of my knowledge emojis symbolising human heart flushed down the toilet, eviscerated baby and film director giving his audience the wanker sign haven’t yet been designed, but I’m sure our Darren has put in a commission. Oh, and it also robs the film of any shred of tension – with one hour fifty-nine and a half minutes still to go.
So yes, it’s an allegory, and yes it’s a religious allegory since we have Cain and Abel (here depicted as spoiled millennial twats fighting over a will), God so loving the world that he makes a spectacularly bad parenting decision vis-à-vis His only son, and a self-aggrandising plea that said child’s death be forgiven. There’s also a tip of the chapeau towards the virgin birth inasmuch as Lawrence’s character demands of Bardem’s “how come you never fuck me?” I’m not a big reader of the Bible, but I rather think she was paraphrasing there.
But an allegory along the lines of ‘God gives us nice things but we can’t have them because we’re selfish gits’? Hmmm. Two problems: (i) the script so thoroughly puts the audience in sympathy with Lawrence’s litany of entirely reasonable requests that the exponentially burgeoning parade of interlopers put down things, stop breaking things, quit abusing her hospitality and, finally, get the hell out of her house that the only way the metaphor can work is that Aronofsky is slapping every member of the audience in the face with a j’accuse, rather than presenting them with a concept to mull over (a surefire way, in other words, to alienate rather than engage the audience), and (ii) he’s essentially cast his girlfriend as the living embodiment of humanity’s selfishness. Way to go, Romeo.
Okay. Let’s take it as a state of the nation piece instead. It’s quickly established that one’s home is not a safe place; that men treat women badly; and that slightly-embarrassed prissiness is the default mode of behaviour for the haves, spitefulness and vandalism for the have-nots and passive-aggressiveness for those stuck resentfully inbetween. As social commentary, the first two observations are thuddingly obvious and thrown out in a manner that adds nothing to any meaningful debate, while the third is reductive to the point of stupidity. The extended final act trades in the imagery of fan worship, religious cults, social upheaval, the police state, political factionism, oppression, anarchy and everything else up to and including the kitchen sink, the bathroom sink, the bath itself and most of the plumbing. Plus maybe the kettle, the teapot and most of the crockery.
As a deconstruction of cinema? That only works if it’s a genuine dismantling of the form itself (rather than the ‘High-Rise’ style orgy of onscreen destruction that it so patently is); moreover, any claim to deconstructionism is intellectually cancelled out by its plethora of borrowings: from Polanski, from Fellini, from Tarkovsky, from von Trier, from Wheatley, from Romero, from Fulci … even from Cavani if you squint hard enough. It’s a stitching together of other works, from the highbrow to the lowbrow by way of the obscure, and the only point I can see is to demonstrate just how damn much cinema Arofonsky has absorbed. Well, you know what? Tarantino does exactly the same thing, but makes it his own and never claims that he’s doing anything other than indulging a lifetime’s love of cinema. There’s no love of anything in ‘mother!’, just a leaking bile duct dribbling its nasty effluent over the screen for two hours.
An investigation into the creative process? Well, I personally know enough people who are creative – poets, musicians, novelists, filmmakers – to know that while certain terrors and traumas and obsessions go into the great melting pot of artistic creativity, none of these people are misanthropic and emotionally destructive. If ‘mother!’ is to be read as what someone has to go through in order to create – not to mention what they put those around them through, and the degree to which they leach off other lives and tragedies – then it’s possibly the greatest statement of anti-art and anti-thought and anti-creativity since Donald Trump, Theresa May and Nigel Farage were collectively conceived.
As a commentary on the Syrian refugee crisis? Only if you’re an inveterate fucking racist.
Here’s what I think it’s about, and we’re back in allegory territory: imagine that the entire history of cinema is a blog post. The people who go to the movies to be entertained are the people leaving a single comment on the comments thread that effectively washes their hands of it. The people who go to the movies to theorise and critique are the ones playing nice on the comments thread and genuinely trying to arrive at some form of collective agreement. Darren Aronofsky is the troll.
*With the sole exception of Powell and Pressburger’s ‘I Know Where I’m Going!’, exclamation marks have no freaking business in movie titles whatsoever.
**The whole thing is so stultifyingly pretentious – right down to its all-in-lower-case-except-for-one-character end credits – that it demands you accept it as being About something.
***Art film alert!
Tuesday, September 19, 2017
‘It’ arrives in cinemas on a wave of such critical adulation that you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a modern classic of the genre and the best Stephen King adaptation by a country mile.
The latter is a disingenuous tag anyway. King has been remarkably ill-served by adaptations: Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’, while technically brilliant, ditches everything that’s pure King in favour of a bunch of things that are pure Kubrick; de Palma’s ‘Carrie’ again favours technical prowess over storytelling; Tobe Hooper’s TV mini-series of ‘Salem’s Lot’ is an honourable attempt at adapting a dense novel whilst strictured by budgetary limitations and the aesthetics of the small screen; the same goes for Tommy Lee Wallace’s original take on ‘It’.
Elsewhere, the likes of ‘Silver Bullet’, ‘The Lawnmower Man’, ‘Maximum Overdrive’, ‘Sometimes They Come Back’, ‘The Mangler’ and ‘Sleepwalkers’ proliferate, while the less said about King’s pretentiously self-declared “novel for television” ‘Storm of the Century’, the better. Compared to much of what’s on offer, the likes of ‘1402’ and ‘Secret Window’ seem like highpoints.
In fact, there’s a case to be made that unless a Stephen King adaptation has “directed by Frank Darabont” in the opening credits, it probably won’t be much cop.
All of which brings us to Andy Muschietti’s ‘It’. Or ‘It: Chapter One’, given that this film concentrates only on the sections of the novel set in 1950s small town America. Only Muschietti and his various screenwriters have transposed these sections to the 1980s. Superficially, it makes sense – ‘It’ concerns a cycle of disappearances that afflicts the seemingly bucolic tower of Derry, Maine, every 27 years, and having the kids as kids in the late 80s means the filmmakers can set ‘It: Chapter Two’ contemporarily. But it’s a decision that immediately creates two problems. First, the way kids behaved in the 1950s is nothing like the way kids behaved in the 1980s. A kid housebound through illness who makes a paper boat for his brother? 1950s, yep. 1980s, they’d both be playing Nintendo. A kid so fascinated by a red balloon that he follows it into a library basement? 1950s, okay I buy it. 1980s, hell no. Second, the 1980s period trappings – indeed, the very look of the film – is pure ‘Stranger Things’. Throw in that show’s breakout star Finn Wolfhard as the foul-mouthed Richie Tozier and the whole edifice becomes top-heavy. Half the time, I thought I was watching ‘Stranger Things: The Movie’ and not a Stephen King adaptation.
Did I say Wolfhard’s character was foul-mouthed? And. Fucking. Then. Some. Remember the honed dialogue of the novel and the 1990 miniseries that establishes the bonded-as-outcasts friendship of the Losers Club? Here, it’s dialled down to a constant stream of dick jokes and “your momma” ripostes. Ordinarily, swearing in movies doesn’t bother me, and in numerous cases – ‘In Bruges’, step forward – it’s crucial to the aesthetic, but hearing the young cast of ‘It’ spewing an incessant stream of fuck fuck fuck dick your momma for two and a quarter hours became as tedious as it was dispiriting.
There are other problems: the first hour resolutely avoids any hint of narrative, instead leaping all over the place as a series of loosely related vignettes; the jump scares are telegraphed so predictably that there may as well have been a countdown timer in the top left hand corner of the screen; the score, by Benjamin Wallfisch, is so intrusive that it’s as if Wallfisch were sitting in the seat next to you, continually telling you, in a loud whisper, that the next bit is, like, really really scary … all the way through the motherfucking film; the adult cast are saddled with clichéd, one-dimensional roles; and the entire production design is over-designed. When the kids venture into a spooky old house, it’s self-consciously spooky rather than being organically creepy. When they descend into the drains to battle Pennywise, you’d think there was a whole Jeunet and Caro metropolis down there, not just a drainage system. Oh, and positively the worst thing the film does it take everything that was interesting in the novel about the black kid and either cut it out entirely or gives it to the fat kid. In its own way, it’s as bad as the whitewashing in ‘Ghost in the Shell’.
What ‘It’ does have in its favour is two bona fide great performances: Bill Skarsgård gives us a Pennywise that not only survives comparison with Tim Curry’s evergreen performance but actually makes the character his own; and Sophia Lillis as Bev just radiates star quality. She turns in a nuanced piece of characterisation that belies her 15 years. Every bit of emotion that the film achives (rather than faking in a very Spielbergian way) is down to Lillis. Damn shame, then, that the film both objectifies the hell out of her and reduces her to damsel-in-distress for the finale when she’d been allowed to be so capable in earlier scenes.
‘It’ isn’t a bad film - it’s floating around at the higher end of the second division in terms of King adaptations - but there’s just something so ordinary about it; it looks and feels no different to any horror film made in the last decade and a half. A sense of missed opportunity pervades. Tommy Lee Wallace’s small screen adaptation – for all its budgetary constraints and naff special effects – remains the better work.
Friday, September 08, 2017
‘The Limehouse Golem’ is a darkly entertaining little film that takes a perverse delight in monkeying with genre tropes and audience expectations. It starts out as a cop-and-killer/cat-and-mouse thriller, with jaded Scotland Yard detective John Kildare (Bill Nighy) – considered reputationally expendable by his superiors due to whispers about his sexuality – saddled with the sensationalist case of the title, a series of bloody murders that hark back to the Ratcliff Highway killings immortalised in Thomas de Quincey’s essay ‘On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts’. Throw in the Victorian London setting and we’re firmly in proto-Jack-the-Ripper territory.
Then director Juan Carlos Medina and writer Jane Goldman (adapting Peter Ackroyd’s novel) pull the rug as one of Kildare’s four suspects – failed playwright John Cree (Sam Reid) – is killed, ostensibly at the hands of his ill-treated wife, former musical hall star “Little” Lizzie (Olivia Cooke). The cases overlap. Lizzie’s trail becomes as sensational as the Golem murders. The prosecution case stacks up against her. It’s not long before she’s facing the gallows. Suddenly the film has become a courtroom drama with Kildare’s investigation ticking away in the background.
Then there’s another structural and (to a slightly lesser degree) tonal shift as Kildare, convinced that unveiling Cree posthumously as the Golem will both save Lizzie and benefit his career, visits Lizzie in prison and cajoles her into recounting her relationship with John, eager for any snippet of information that might help. We’re now in flashback territory and along for the ride in what could easily have been a trite rags-to-riches story except that Lizzie’s rise to fame is played out against a backdrop of greasepaint, illusion and backstage rivalry, the musical hall a cauldron of simmering tensions and blurred sexual identities. Lizzie’s erstwhile protector and mentor Dan Leno (Douglas Booth) is a female impersonator; Lizzie makes her music hall debut dressed as a boy. There’s a late-in-the-game bit of troilism where Lizzie’s arch-rival Aveline (Maria Valverde) assumes Lizzie’s “wifely duties” (to muddy the waters further, it’s heavily hinted that Aveline is bisexual). Even the troupe’s impresario (Eddie Marsan) – a man so avuncular that everyone calls him Uncle, for God’s sake! – has certain peccadilloes.
So we’re in sleazy potboiler territory. Only we’re not. I mentioned the de Quincey connection earlier, and ‘The Limehouse Golem’ has one eye at all times on the literary. Of course it does. The source material is by Peter Ackroyd, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature who has a Somerset Maugham Award and two Whitbread Awards on his mantelpiece*. Which is why a fog-wreathed murder mystery with all the genre tickboxes well and truly checked – from the haunted copper at the end of his career to the third act race to the gallows – has walk on parts for Karl Marx (Henry Goodman), George Gissing (Morgan Watkins). Dan Leno was also an historical figure. There’s no small amount of delight to be had in seeing the grumpily pragmatic Kildare going up against them – one of the film’s niftiest conceits is playing each of the murders as if one or other of them is guilty of it, depending on whom Kildare is interviewing at the time.
But for all of its literary pretentions, ‘The Limehouse Golem’ is at its best as a treatise on theatricality. The swapping of identities, one individual playing many parts; the nature of hagiography, brutal violence restaged for crowd-pleasing thrills; the interchangeability of gender. But it also says much about the misplaced ethos of masculinity, specifically with regard to how three men in particular want to save or redeem Lizzie and various others just plain use her.
It’s fair to say that ‘The Limehouse Golem’ has a hell of a lot bubbling away during its brisk hour and three quarter running time. It could easily have been a mess – artless and disjointed – even in the hands of an experienced director. Which makes it something worth praising that it is only his second feature-length outing, following 2012’s ‘Painless’ – a film I now have every intention of seeking out. Medina is savvy enough to give the audience what they want – there’s plenty of blood and gore, the streets of London are depicted as appropriately dark and dangerous and seedy, brothels and opium dens abound, and everything is foggy or shadowy – and keep the procedural element of the film happily bouncing from clue to clue, doubling down on the genre beats even as he subverts them.
He’s also adept with actors. Granted, Nighy – who took the role after Alan Rickman stepped down owing to ill-health (he passed away soon after) – doesn’t need much prompting: the role of Kildare fits him like a glove. Mays, a perennially underrated actor, does sterling work and who’d have thought that a Bill Nighy/Daniel Mays double act would form the backbone of the film? Booth, Marsan and Valverde are pitch perfect, the latter taking a role that was basically written as Bitch Queen From Hell and emerging with a nuanced character. And then there’s Cooke, who graduates from a cluster of good performances in indie films and TV dramas in impressive style. ‘The Limehouse Golem’, through all of its shifts in structure and perspective, is finally Lizzie’s story and Olivia Cooke gives us a Lizzie who is unforgettable.
*I’m speaking figuratively here. I don’t know whether he keeps them on his mantelpiece or not. It’s not like I’ve ever been round his gaff.
Wednesday, September 06, 2017
It would be an easy and reductive way to start this review by observing that ‘Logan Lucky’ is the white trash B-side to Steven Soderbergh’s earlier heist movie ‘Ocean’s Eleven’.
Easy. And reductive. And not without a glimmer of truth. It would also be worth noting that ‘Logan Lucky’ enjoys the benefit of being an original piece of work rather than a remake (albeit one that surpasses its Rat Pack source material).
‘Logan Lucky’ is a film of two halves and myriad incidental pleasures. It’s not as taut or as impeccably constructed as ‘Ocean’s Eleven’, but it unfolds with the amiability of a shaggy dog story narrated by a consummate storyteller and it’s just as impressive in its casting. It is, in fact, enough of its own film that I ought to do the decent thing and knock off the ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ comparisons right here and now.
Yeah: let’s do that.
The basic set up of ‘Logan Lucky’ – though there’s a hell of a lot more going on than the merely narrative – is that Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum), the elder scion of a family not known for having the vaguest hint of good luck shine on them, ropes siblings Clyde (Adam Driver) and Mellie (Riley Keogh) into a speedway robbery, a scheme that also compels him to recruit imprisoned safecracker Joe Bang (Daniel Craig) and his brothers Fish (Jack Quaid) and Sam (Brian Gleeson).
So why does an honest working stiff like Jimmy suddenly want to embrace a life of crime? Well, it’s partly because he’s been laid off from the very construction job that’s given him an intimate knowledge of the layout and financial workings of the speedway; partly because he’s parvenu ex-wife Bobbie-Jo (Katie Holmes) and her car-dealership-owning new husband Moody (David Denman) are about to move to another state, effectively severing Jimmy’s contact with his daughter Sadie (Farrah MacKenzie); and partly because robbing the shit out of a speedway during a NASCAR event is a big fuck you to obnoxious English racing impresario Max Chilblain (Seth MacFarlane), a wanker of the highest order who is first introduced flanked by an entourage and picking a fight with one-armed bartender Clyde. Clyde lost said arm on active service in the US army.
If that very very brief overview - one, I should add, that doesn’t even touch on Sadie’s beauty pageant obsession, Moody’s attempts to chat-up/sell a car to his sort-of sister-in-law, Jimmy’s potential romance with medical outreach worker Sylvia Harrison (Katherine Waterston), or the odd tonal shift in the last third when a heist movie suddenly becomes a police procedural – leaves you thinking that there’s more going on here than just good-ole-boys-rip-off-NASCAR, then you’re thinking as smart as … well, that’d be telling if I let on exactly whom the savviest character in the movie is.
I said earlier that ‘Logan Lucky’ is a shaggy dog story, and that’s certainly what it is first and foremost, as well as being the narrative and intellectual register in which it functions most effectively. But it’s also a study in defeated working class machismo (Jimmy was the high school quarterback destined for glory whose life actually came to nothing; Clyde went into the army in an attempt to live up to his brother’s stature and was left disabled in an explosion); the role that luck plays in how one’s life pans out (the film’s subtlest joke is the repeated denial that the Logans’ luck isn’t really cursed because Mellie’s done all right for herself: she’s a hairdresser); the social divisions created by simple earning potential (for all his business acumen, Moody is a serious trade-down for Bobbie-Jo from Jimmy); the wanton misuse of money (compare the outrageous concession stand prices at the speedway with Sylvia’s rueful commentary on how the outreach programme relies on donations); and the casually dismissive way that corporationism makes, breaks and resets the rules (the speedway management can’t determine exactly how much they lose, but sure seem happy with the insurance payout; Chilblain calls the shots over experienced drivers because his shitty energy drink pays for the race team).
I also said earlier that ‘Logan Lucky’ is a film of two halves: the first is basically a three act progression from Jimmy-gets-pushed-to-breaking-point to Jimmy-plans-the-job-and-puts-together-the-team to Jimmy-and-the-team-pull-off-the-heist, and every minute of it is an unalloyed joy; the second focuses on an FBI hardass Sarah Grayson (Hilary Swank) who tries to make sense of the case’s many weird elements and damn near puts it together. While this section is narratively valid – unlike ‘Ocean’s Eleven’, ‘Logan Lucky’ doesn’t have a Terry Benedict figure against whose oleaginous villainy even vault-cracking and multi-million theft is justified, therefore Grayson’s investigation is the mechanism by which the corporationalist shenanigans which turn victimhood into insurance-funded profit is laid bare – these scenes seem like they’ve wandered in from a different movie, and Swank’s performance seems oddly out of kilter with everyone else’s.
Steven Soderbergh’s always been something of an awkward bugger, never quite cohering to even his staunchest fans’ expectations, and it’s somehow fitting that such a luminary as Swank should emerge as the weakest link in one of his films. That said, everyone else is on form: Tatum and Driver form the best double act I’ve seen in ages (their use of “cauliflower” as a code word for Jimmy’s criminal endeavour is way funnier than it ought to be, particularly in the disgusted tone Driver uses to repeat the word, dragging it out as if it contained four times as many letters); Waterston shines in what’s basically a glorified cameo (her ‘bitch please’ look when Jimmy suggests that Sylvia is “an old lady name” is a joy to behold); Craig has more fun with a role than I’ve seen anywhere else in his filmography; and the Agitation Man of the Match Award is jointly awarded to Dwight Yoacham as a prissy prison governor beleaguered by the most hilarious prison riot ever, and Riley Keogh, who sashays through the film with insouciant cool, all haughty looks and witheringly flippant remarks.
‘Logan Lucky’ is about one degree short of a modern classic but offers so much that it’d be criminal to carp. That it shamelessly rips off ‘Two-Way Stretch’ for its most crucial subplot … aw, hell, I’m in a magnanimous mood. Full pardon granted!
Tuesday, August 15, 2017
Just over halfway through David Lowery’s ‘A Ghost Story’ – that is to say after fifty minutes or so of minimal dialogue and the communication of ideas and emotions via imagery, music and deliberately slow pacing – there’s a party scene in which a completely random character delivers a five-minute monologue on the passing of time, the inevitability of death, the impulse to leave something behind and the nature of what endures in the name of humankind and why and whether this enduring is, in and of itself, inherently meaningful.
A five-minute scene, in other words, in which writer-director Lowery finds it necessary, for some bewildering reason, to have a not particularly charismatic actor stodgily verbalise everything the film has communicated thus far in a beautiful, poignant, hypnotically compelling and quintessentially non-verbal manner. It’s an annoying scene – as inelegant conceptually as it is unnecessary intellectually – and if Lowery were to take ‘A Ghost Story’ back into the editing room and snip it out he would immediately transfigure a very very good film into an outright masterpiece.
‘A Ghost Story’ concerns itself, essentially, with two characters although plenty of other people drift through the film. The fact that we never really get to know any of these other people is a purposeful aesthetic decision. Their lives are almost on fast forward, so quickly do they enter the film, inhabit a very specific place for a brief period, then move on. The lives of our main characters, however … well, that’s where the film finds what I might otherwise describe as its heart or soul, but a better description for ‘A Ghost Story’ would be its memory and its terrible sense of endlessness.
Our main characters are called only C (Casey Affleck) and M (Rooney Mara). C is a musician and an introvert. He clings onto a ramshackle house that M wants to move out of, claiming it has “history” (“not as much as you’d think,” she shoots back in a line that comes loaded, by the time she delivers it, with bitter irony), while M despairs of his lackadaisical attitude to life and tendency to hedge decision-making and responsibility. Still, what they have together seems to be the real deal – certainly if M’s grief after C dies in a car accident is anything to by. That wasn’t a spoiler, by the way.
M says goodbye to C’s mortal remains as he lies on a mortuary gurney. She pulls a white sheet back over him before she leaves. Returning home, it takes her a lot longer to say goodbye. M – or at least M’s ghost – rises from the gurney and makes a slow, defeated journey to the house they shared. Where he remains.
The first brilliant, beautiful thing that Lowery achieves is to have a man wearing a sheet with eyeholes cut into it as his ghost and it actually come across as heartbreakingly sad rather than utterly ridiculous or camp. Later, when M sees a fellow ghost in a neighbouring house, this other ghost’s sheet is patterned with flowers. It took me a moment or two: M died on a morgue trolley, this other spirit died at home under a patterned bed sheet. The attempt at communication between these remnants, and the abrupt departure of the latter when she (I strongly got the impression of the feminine though I’m not sure why or how) realises no-one she knew is going to return, will also break your heart.
The film’s notorious pie-eating scene – which is already coming to wrongly define ‘A Ghost Story’ – isn’t quite as poignant, but it says a lot about grief, survivor’s guilt and how it’s a bad idea to shoulder the pain of bereavement alone. Like everything that ‘A Ghost Story’ does – which is to say, everything single frame of it bar the lousy party scene – the communication is purely visual, slowly paced and forces the viewer into observing events from the ghost’s perspective. Not his literal POV, I hasten to add (the ghost is often in the same shot as other characters), but his perspective. The difference is crucial.
Lowery uses extended takes that recall Tarkovsky, while the look of the film is reminiscent of David Lynch’s small town Americana. The Tarkovsky touchstone is the more important. What Lowery achieves – miraculously, given that slender 92 minute running time – is to document the passage of time: fast for the various residents who inhabit C and M’s house after M finally packs up and leaves to start a new life; slow, painfully slow, for M in the immediate aftermath of C’s death; and functionally endless for C.
At some point after the party scene (have I mentioned how much I dislike the party scene?), Lowery throws the mother of all curveballs and poses the question: what happens when even a ghost tires of (un)life? How he answers that question is something I can imagine frustrating the hell out of a lot of people. At least one writer on film, whose opinions I hold as damn close to gospel, outright hates the direction ‘A Ghost Story’ takes in its last third. Personally, and with an eye discreetly turned to one specific temporal cheat, I found Lowery’s approach daring, provocative and philosophical. This would be a good moment, however, to acknowledge how important Daniel Hart’s score is vouchsafing Lowery’s overall vision. Hart’s soundtrack is a thing of beauty.
With the exception of that one damned scene, ‘A Ghost Story’ is as close to perfection as any film I’ve seen on the big screen this year has come. It is the most serious and mature discourse on the nature of love that you’re likely to see without there being subtitles at the bottom of the screen. It is the most affecting enquiry into death, memory and the nature of what remains that has been produced this decade. Its cinematography, performances and music (did I mention how much I love Daniel Hart’s score?) synergise to beautiful effect.
That fucking party scene. It comes stumbling into a movie that should have been a perfect ten and knocks it down a whole half a point.
Sunday, August 06, 2017
So maybe we should just call it ‘Laureline and the Wet Lettuce Leaf’. Or, in ‘Friends’ stylee, ‘The Old Where a Gamine Catwalk Model Gives a Better Performance Than Clive Owen, Ethan Hawke or Herbie Hancock’. Or, in abject frustration that it seems to be heading towards being a flop, ‘The Luc Besson Sci-Fi Opus That’s Actually Better Than The Fifth Element and Fuck the Haters’. Or given how deliriously action-packed, joyously colourful and exuberantly imagined it is, ‘The Curiously Overlooked Summer Tentpole Release That’s a Fuckton More Entertaining Than Anything Marvel Have Tossed in Our Direction For Ages’.
Personally, and for the purposes of this review, I’m going with ‘Laureline: The Movie’. After a handful of nothing roles in unremarkable productions (‘Anna Karenina’, ‘The Face of an Angel’), a likeable turn in indie film ‘Paper Towns’ and being utterly wasted in the cluster fuck that was ‘Suicide Squad’, Delevingne grabs the role of Laureline with both hands and reinvents herself as the kind of sexy, sassy heroine who demands the camera’s unconditional worship. On this showing alone, I’d put her up there with the bona fide icons of Hollywood’s golden age. So, at the risk of Mrs Agitation consigning me to the doghouse, here’s a raised glass to Cara Delevingne, the Rita Hayworth or Ava Gardner of the Instagram generation.
*ceases typing … takes cold shower*
Where was I? Oh, yes. Luc Besson’s
I’m not even going to bother synopsising the plot. Besson overcomplicates it to allow for more genre tropes and more world-building. This is a movie whose visuals are the raison d’être and the narrative exists to move Valerian and Laureline from one location, one alien race, one production design orgasm to another. This is no bad thing: ‘Laureline: The Movie’ is the most visually gorgeous and extravagantly imagined work Besson has ever put his name to; it is, at one and the same time, a big-hearted homage to a certain era of sci-fi, and an expression of Besson’s credentials as auteur.
Narrative as a justification for moving an audience around a filmic chessboard, pausing here and there to deliver the kind of set piece that exists purely to demonstrate its own bravura, is a tag you can hang everyone from Hitchcock to Nolan by way of Clouzot, Frankenheimer, Friedkin and Tarantino, not to mention everyone who ever directed a giallo. Which is to say that most of the criticisms levelled against ‘Laureline: The Movie’ are total bollocks weighed against the pantheon of accepted classics. So you’re hating on Besson’s latest for the very same reasons that you unironically love ‘Barbarella’ as a camp delight? Yeah, whatever.
‘Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets’ has two problems. The first is DeHaan – a likeable enough actor elsewhere on his CV but wrong for the role of Valerian in the way that John Inman would be wrong for a biopic of Bendigo or Dwayne Johnson as Charles Hawtry. The second is Rihanna, making the jump from shit pop singer to shit actress. To mitigate Rihanna’s performance, her intro is cannily staged to resemble a music video, thereby establishing a pop culture rationale for her character. No such excuse exists for DeHaan. The only reason any fucking scene he’s foregrounded in or line of dialogue he delivers works is because of Delevingne’s reaction shot. It’s as if, thirty seconds into the first day of shooting, Besson realised that she was his film-length insurance policy.
Beyond DeHaan and Rihanna, though, the film is just pure delight and spectacle from the stand-up-and-applaud brilliant opening sequence (played out to David Bowie) to the tense but mercifully not over-egged finale … and can I just say here, thank you thank you thank you for not dragging out the climactic setpiece to four times its feasible length the way every other fucking blockbuster of the last decade has.
Spectacle. Set design. World building. Brain-searingly gorgeous visuals. And on top of it all, Develingne in excelsis. Yes, I accept that I’m in something of a minority here. Maybe I’m in the weird yet privileged position of Luc Besson having spent hundreds of millions in making a film for me alone. If so, merci beaucoup; I owe you one.
Tuesday, July 25, 2017
At its best, ‘Dunkirk’ is a tense, immersive and visceral experience that practically screams to be seen on the biggest screen possible. The dogfights are staged so that the vast expanse of sea and sky are abruptly juxtaposed with the claustrophobic interior of the Spitfires. Scenes of men trying to escape torpedoed or dive-bombed ships strive for a Brueghel-like level of hellish intensity.
There is enough in ‘Dunkirk’ that works – and works well – for me to hesitate in calling it a failure or even outright say that I was disappointed. I was perplexed, though, that’s for sure – Nolan makes some aesthetic and narrative decisions that are frankly baffling – and I was more than often frustrated.
Things start interestingly enough with a group of English soldiers, who may have been separated from their unit or may be deserters – sneaking through the narrow streets of Dunkirk, seeing what they can steal from deserted households. German planes are dropping propaganda leaflets, two of which our immediate and ostensible hero Tommy* (Fionn Whitehead) grabs from the air and stuffs down the front of his trousers. Not too much later on, he’ll drop his breeches on the beach to take a shit and the inference is that he’s saved Adolf’s best efforts at demoralisation purely to wipe his arse on. But Nolan, for all that he’s half an hour off gleefully wallow in blood and bashed-in heads and third-degree burns, tiptoes away from Tommy’s required toilet break and even stages the scene such that Tommy might not have answered the call of nature anyway.
Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not suggesting that Nolan should have gone all real-time defecation à la ‘Kings of the Road’, but if you’re starting your movie with an I-wipe-my-arse-on-Hitler’s-propaganda note, then don’t be fucking coy about it. Anyway, Tommy’s possibly postponed poop sees him make the acquaintance of Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) whose name is subsequently revealed not to be Gibson but the script doesn’t give him any other name so I’ll continue calling him Gibson. Tommy and Gibson decide to get off Dunkirk beach by any means necessary, first by impersonating stretcher-bearers (they’re booted off the ship by the medical orderlies), and then by a feigned act of heroism in front of an officer which sees them herded onto the next troopship. Which is promptly torpedoed and they find themselves back on the beach.
Their travails are intercut with the sea crossing of Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and their friend George (Barry Keoghan) after the navy requisition Dawson’s pleasure yacht as one of the flotilla of “little ships”; and a dogfight with the Luftwaffe by RAF flyboys Collins (Jack Lowden) and Farrier (Tom Hardy). I use “flyboys” not as a derogatory term but to indicate how the script portrays them. Remember that ‘Family Guy’ episode where Stewie, on trying to join the RAF, is asked what his qualifications are and replies, “I have a British accent, I’m possibly homosexual and my wife’s just awful”? Well, that’s the level of characterisation on display here.
Nolan straight-up tells the audience from the outset that these three points of view occupy temporally different spaces: a week for the scenes on the beach, a day for the “little ships” to make the channel crossing, collect survivors and return; and an hour for the dogfight. He proceeds to intercut between them according to dramatic beats and the rhythms of Hans Zimmer’s score**. And at the cost of any sense of continuity. Granted, when he pulls all three timelines together with the tension ratcheted to the absolute maximum, it’s a genuine coup de theatre and pretty much justifies the ticket price.
The fact that we’re two-thirds plus through the film before he effects this coup de theatre, however, is indicative of the wider problem. As with so much of his work, Nolan approaches the story of Dunkirk as an exercise in non-linear experimentalism and showy imagery. His grasp of character and how men interact in the theatre of conflict is flimsy at best. Peckinpah would have focused on group dynamics and the mindset of the soldier; hell, even David Ayer would have known where to focus the drama. Nolan, to put it bluntly, misses the real story even as he continually stumbles over bits of it.
Case in point: Tommy tries to join a line of soldiers on the beach and is basically told to fuck off (“Grenadiers, mate,” a gruff squaddie says, eyeballing him). The military as a class system in microcosm: a fascinating angle Nolan could have explored, but no – a single throwaway line of dialogue and the theme is never revisited.
Case in point: James D’Arcy’s colonel is appalled by the bland assurances of Kenneth Branagh’s commander and seems, just for a moment, as if he were about to vent anger at the callous idiocy of the top brass back home, but no – the moment passes and he remembers he’s a British officer in a war movie.
Case in point: someone notes that the tide is coming in, another character asks how they know, and the curt response is that the incoming tide washes the dead – those drowned, burned or shot during an earlier (failed) evacuation attempt – ashore. Cut to a column of men, knee deep in the sea, waiting on a ship that might not even fucking exist, pushing away from them said incoming corpses. They do so hesitantly and respectfully but not without some measure of disgust. Or maybe despair.
And I couldn’t help thinking that this is where the real drama was. Imagine being one of those men on the beach. Lined up in columns. A pretence of military discipline enforced even in the aftermath of abject defeat. No certainty of rescue. The Germans pushing ever closer. Stukas strafing the beach. The promise of being on the next ship cruelly mocked by the previous ship erupting in flames then keeling over and being taken by the cold grey waves. This is where the drama is: the hope, the despair, the terror, the horrible sense of inevitability as the whine of a Stuka’s engine cuts across the sky. This is the story Nolan should have told. And yet he takes pains – and teeth-grindingly clichéd and melodramatic pains at that – to keep Tommy and Gibson off the beach. His only real focus on the men on the beach is the opportunity they present to frame a shot. He flips from the OCD delight of constructing purely geometrical images, to the childish delight in flipping over the first domino in an elaborately constructed sequence and chuckling as he watches them fall.
Likewise, the focus on Dawson does real damage to his portrayal of the “little ships”. For eighty solid minutes, you’d swear it was only his pleasure yacht making the channel crossing. Nolan doesn’t show a single other non-naval vessel until the last 15 minutes when a metric fuckton of them suddenly appear out of nowhere and Hans Zimmer loses control of himself on the soundtrack. What should be the key moment is reduced to here-comes-the-cavalry cliché.
What really kills the film, though, is two moments of bilious melodrama – one in a beached fishing boat where Tommy, Gibson and some other deserters basically re-enact that ‘Twilight Zone’ episode about the nuclear shelter but with a fishing boat instead of a nuclear shelter; and one on Dawson’s boat which makes the histrionics of ‘Dead Calm’ look like a piece by August Strindberg. Nolan’s preference for these moments over the genuine human drama of the men waiting on the beach speaks volumes about the film ‘Dunkirk’ could have been.
On a technical level, there’s little to dispute, however the performances are serviceable at best. Branagh squints and delivers his lines with all the engagement of a man who’s wondering when the pub opens. Rylance is dismal, trying for Everyman but forgetting that only the super-rich – whether it’s 1940 or 2017 – own yachts; his line readings are stilted and I’m still trying to figure out what accent he was attempting. Everyone else is basically forgettable. In fact, it says something that Harry fucking Styles is the film and his “performance” is functionally better than Mark Rylance’s!
Then we have the score. If the film itself hangs together at odds in the sum of its parts, weird tonal and aesthetic disconnects jarringly obvious from scene to scene and even within individual scenes, then the score summarises that feeling. I can only describe it as a score of two halves, not that it delineates so neatly in terms of its application throughout the film’s running time. It’s as if two entirely different scores had been commissioned, chopped up, and scattered across the film. The first uses two atonal motifs – one suggesting the inevitability of the tide, the other a thuddingly obvious “ticking clock” motif – and in the second is the kind of let’s-rip-off-Elgar-and-Vaughan-Williams orchestration that wouldn’t be out of place in a Hovis or Warburtons commercial.
But the biggest failing is Nolan’s insistence that the audience’s engagement be entirely based on a handful of cardboard cut-out characters. Dunkirk was an evacuation. The experience was collective. The odds against both soldiers and the pilots of the “little ships” were phenomenal. For all that he fills the film with carefully constructed long shots of beach and sea and columns of men, Nolan fails to communicate any sense of scale.
*Yes, Nolan wrote a script where an English soldier’s name is Tommy. Yes, my reaction was pretty much as you’d imagine.
**I will have more to say about Hans Zimmer before this review is over. It will not be pretty.
Thursday, July 13, 2017
Trey Edward Shults’s second feature film is an austere and controlled enquiry into what happens when— … No, wait. Almost wandered into spoiler territory there.
The genius of ‘It Comes at Night’ is that is takes a set of immediately recognisable genre tropes and— … Bollocks! Almost did the spoiler thing again.
It’s going to be very difficult to talk about this film in anything but the vaguest terms without inadvertently giving something away. Or rather giving away the one incisive point that every aspect of the film is moving toward, and to which every aesthetic decision by its writer/director contributes.
Subject of its writer/director: Shults is twenty-eight. This is his second film. It’s almost sickeningly well made. He worked on Jeff Nichols’s modern classic ‘Midnight Special’. The star of that film – Joel Edgerton – took the lead role in ‘It Comes at Night’ and lent weight to the project by acting as producer. Trey Edward Shults – I say this again – is twenty-eight. Talented bastard!
The film opens in Romero territory with a small group of people – in this case a family – holed up in a farmhouse in the backwoods. It’s either the present or the very near future. Some form of virus is sweeping America, possibly the world. Patriarch Paul (Edgerton) has adapted to the crisis by the application of strict routine and rigorous self-discipline, the better to protect his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr). Measures include donning gas masks when venturing outside, obsessive personal hygiene, and maintenance of a small armoury in case of attempted intrusion. One such intrusion is by Will (Christopher Abbott), who mistakenly believes that the house is abandoned. Swiftly disarmed by Paul, Will tells him that his family are holed up at a residence some miles away and while they have sufficient food they are running low on water. His incursion was to scavenge for same. Paul and Sarah discuss the situation, the latter being of the opinion that moving Will and his family and whatever supplies they have into their house offers strength in numbers against possible other intrusions. Against his better judgement, Paul accompanies Will on a journey through a stretch of woodland that might not be entirely empty of antagonist.
That’s really all I can say. What follows relies on character dynamics and interactions. There’s Paul and Sarah’s interracial marriage – no big deal in the twenty-first century, huh? But the sight of Paul (white, bearded, rifle slung across his shoulder) barking orders at his (black, wary, slightly subservient) wife and son gives the audience something uncomfortable to think about. The contrast between Paul and Will is handled effectively; in a screenplay that doesn’t waste words, every scrap of dialogue between them accumulates meaning. Nuances, pauses, a slip that could be lie, half-truth or simple misunderstanding – these things keep the audience unsure. Where, if anywhere, do your sympathies lie? Then there’s Travis, on the cusp of adulthood, vulnerable to the attentions of another father figure, not to mention— … ah, but I very nearly went waltzing down Spoiler Street again.
‘It Comes at Night’ is cannily scripted and, once you get past a draggy and rather po-faced first 15 minutes, generates slow-burn tension with a single-minded focus. Shults perhaps overuses Travis’s recurring nightmares to generate a horror movie vibe; the “jump” scares he effects by such means are the most generic aspects of the film and not as effective as the genuine moments of horror that are derive from the darker corners of the human psyche. Nor is he quite as acute a chronicler of the way men behave around each other as, say, Sam Peckinpah or Walter Hill, but that might be down to his comparative youth. Shults has talent to burn two years shy of thirty. There’s nothing to suggest that he won’t, in the coming years, deliver some outright masterpieces.
If ‘It Comes at Night’ doesn’t quite stretch its toe into masterpiece territory, it’s still damn good. Shults is smart enough to take his time and let his characters drive the narrative rather than the other way round (a failing of plenty of filmmakers twice his age). He knows how to stage a scene for maximum squirmy tension, how long to hold a shot and when to cut away. Self-evident stuff, you might think, but done with such intuitive confidence that half an hour into the film I hitched up onto the edge of my seat and, despite all of the bleakness and lack of hope on offer, grinned in anticipation of how it would play out, knowing that I was in the hands of a filmmaker who really knows what he’s doing.
Tuesday, July 04, 2017
I went into Edgar Wright’s ‘Baby Driver’ not knowing what to expect – the trailer couldn’t have been more generic if it had tried – but with the mindset that all it had to do was be a damn good car chase movie. It’s been too long since we’ve had a good car chase movie. (And anyone who’s rehearsing a “but the ‘Fast and Furious’ franchise” argument can leave by the garage door: those things are what a Michael Bay movie would be if the Transformers stayed as vehicles; they’re porn with Turtle Wax instead of cum shots.)
‘Baby Driver’ is the opposite of porn: it’s a pure romance. It’s a love letter to cinema. A love letter to music. A love letter to movement – be it a car chase, a foot chase, or some ad hoc dance moves on a city street – and the exuberant energy of things simply being in motion. A love letter to enigmatic loners who don’t say much and the winsome girls who fall for them anyway. A love letter to smart-talking crims and meticulously planned heists. A love letter to abandoned warehouses and underground car parks. A love letter to the city and the freeway.
It’s almost a romantic musical and certainly a love letter to a city, and it does a damn sight better job in both respects than ‘La La Land’.
And at its absolute best – at its purest and most joyously infectious – it’s an abstract work of cinema that meshes kinetics and soundtrack for the sheer love of what it can do with music and motion, iconography and editing. As such, there’s little point in talking about the plot (a wholly derivative affair) or the acting except to note that everyone turns in a performance that is exactly what the film requires to sustain its non-car-chase bits. Kevin Spacey is typically deadpan, John Hamm ought to have a bigger film career, and Eiza González wins the Agitation of the Mind Girls With Guns Award for being a total badass and hot as hell with it.
Where ‘Baby Driver’ finds itself on shakier ground its during the last half hour or so where Wright suddenly remembers that he’s supposed to be making a genre film and the tyre-squealing fun gets cudgelled and locked in the trunk and the film goes on a slow plod through the demeaned streets of Cliché Town. Wright clearly wants to have his cake and eat it à la Ben Wheatley’s ‘Free Fire’, another film-as-experiment where the genre trappings provide a comfort zone for a mainstream audience; but whereas Wheatley mines a cynical vein of gallows humour that is integral to his film’s aesthetic (there is a streak of cruelty that runs through all his work), Wright never fully convinces when he piles on the macho thrilleramics in the last act. It just comes across as hollow posturing. Likewise, the series of flash-forwards that conclude the protagonist’s story are just plain dull: the moment Ansel Elgort slides from behind the wheel or doesn’t have Lily James’s too-sweet-to-be-true waitress to interact with, he ceases to hold any interest for the viewer.
It’s not a bad enough ending to derail the film entirely (I’m looking at you, ‘The Forest’!), but it certainly undoes some of the good work that’s gone before. In a perfect world, there’s a 90 minute cut of ‘Baby Driver’ with 50% less dialogue, where the cars get star billing and Eiza González firing off two machine pistols fulfils the quota of gunplay. That film would be a pop-art masterpiece.
Sunday, June 25, 2017
Julien Temple’s ‘The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle’ posits that there’s no such thing as rock ‘n’ roll. It does so by mapping out a fictive account of the Sex Pistols’ formation and rise to notoriety, every aspect stage managed and the band’s popularity nothing but a money-grabbing con job. When even something as working class and reactionary as punk is little more than another establishment sleight of hand, Temple seems to be asking, what can you trust?
Paul Sng’s ‘Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle’ asks a similar question: when the very concept of affordable housing is unmasked as anything but, what hope is there for the working class, the poor, the vulnerable, the disenfranchised? What quality of life for those whose only aspiration is a roof over their head?
The similarity in titles is no coincidence: Sng’s previous film ‘Sleaford Mods: Invisible Britain’ showcased the UK’s angriest band kicking against the country’s political culture of austerity. Sng is keyed into the reality of life lived without support, sympathy or safety net. Two films into his career and he emerges, already, as an exemplary chronicler of the social underbelly and the establishment’s investment in keeping the poor and vulnerable poor and vulnerable.
Clocking in at a taut 82 minutes, ‘Dispossession’ economically deals with over half a century of social history, charting the progressive achievements of Clement Attlee’s post-war Labour government to provide for its least-advantaged citizenry, to the free-market driven attitude of the Thatcher era. The right-to-buy scheme turned council houses into pieces in a huge property game, and the prevalent socio-political model was one that rewarded greed, divided communities and trampled on the underprivileged.
Thatcherism is something Britain has never quite recovered from: last year’s referendum scratched the surface of the country and right-wing belligerence came bubbling up; since then, Theresa May’s increasingly out-of-touch leadership has seemed more and more like a Z-grade Margaret Thatcher tribute act. The cluster of disasters on her watch during, and just after, the ill-advised snap election culminated in the Grenfell Tower fire. I saw ‘Dispossession’ at Nottingham’s Broadway cinema just days after the Grenfell disaster and it gave an already hard-hitting documentary even greater relevance.
Sng focuses on the St Anns estate in Nottingham, Tower Hamlets and Cressingham Gardens in London, and Govanhills and the Gorbals in Glasgow. In respect of the latter, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon appears in interview and admits that improvements are unlikely to happen along a timeline that residents would wish for. She presents as calm and reassuring but Sng’s DoP Nick Wood captures images that tell a different story. Still, kudos to Sturgeon for appearing; she and Green Party leader Caroline Lucas are the only MPs who contribute.
Elsewhere, councillors and property developers (and those with fingers in both pies) decline to put forward their side of the story. The silence is particularly damning from those behind the Cressingham Gardens redevelopment, where the current residents, who put forward a “People’s Plan” to regenerate the estate, are ignored despite their plan being highly workable and their protests visible. The proposed redevelopment will see the estate bulldozed and replaced by luxury flats. Of the 1034 homes that look set to be demolished – ‘Dispossessed’ ends with Cressingham residents vowing to continue the fight – only 82 of a proposed 2704 new residences are earmarked for social housing. The result will be the death of a community, with families (as well as single and/or vulnerable residents) scattered and rehoused in any number of far-flung places. The only winners here will be the property developers.
But that’s what this is all about. We haven’t come that far from the slum clearances and dodgy landlords of the Victorian era, a fact that ‘Dispossession’ identifies with palpable bitterness. The film also tackles the concept of gentrification, noting that historically this was a gradual process of social development. Gentrification nowadays is a bullyboy council wielding a compulsory purchase order on behalf of a property developer with an eye on overseas investment.
With the odds stacked in the establishment’s favour, what can be done? Education, to begin with – see the film, visit the website, read up on the various campaigns. Then be active: support said campaigns, badger your MP, use social media. Get angry. Demand that the government be held to account.
Narrated by Maxine Peake (one of the most socially conscious and politically active talents in British cinema), ‘Dispossession’ is a film for our times. I can’t think of a single more important documentary feature to come out of Britain in the last decade.
Sunday, June 18, 2017
As a director, Tommy Lee Jones isn’t exactly prolific: four features in just over twenty years, two of them – ‘The Good Old Boys’ and ‘The Sunset Limited’ – for television. His big screen directorial debut was ‘The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada’ (2005), a contemporary western concerned with revenge and redemption that has about it more than a touch of Peckinpah. It’s a damn good movie; close as all hell to being a modern classic.
‘The Homesman’ is a western set in the 1850s concerned with failure and redemption that has about it more than a touch of Michael Cimino. In both films, Jones acknowledges his influences and draws on them subtly and respectfully in the service of the story he’s telling. ‘The Homesman’ has the stateliness and the visual grandeur of Cimino circa ‘Heaven’s Gate’ – cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto is the film’s unsung hero – the better to contrast with the dour narrative and its unsettling accretion of detail.
The film opens with three women in a hardscrabble Nebraska township emerging from a particularly vicious winter having succumbed to mental illness. “Mad women”, as the townsfolk are quick to label them. The parson, Reverend Dowd (John Lithgow), arranges for their care to be given over to a preacher’s wife in Iowa and calls upon one of his flock to make the journey: an undertaking of several weeks. When farmer Vester Belknap (William Fichtner) – husband to the afflicted Theoline (Miranda Otto) – refuses to take part in a drawing of lots to determine who gets the job, spinster of the parish Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) takes his place.
No prizes for guessing who ends up playing chauffeur to the disturbed women?
In addition to Theoline, Mary Bee’s charges number Arabella Sours (Grace Gummer) and Gro Svendson (Sonja Richter). I’ll not reveal that nature of their mental illness: an unflinchingly blunt sequence early in the film – fleshed out by a couple of flashbacks around the midway point – spells out their suffering. Mary Bee – brittle, pious, frustrated in her attempts to find a husband – isn’t the ideal candidate for the company of the demented. Early in the journey, the incessant wailing of one of her charges drives her to despair. The hard realities of the journey don’t sit well with her, and the arrangement she enters into with petty criminal George Briggs (Jones) to assist on the trail as recompense for saving him from hanging is also fraught; they’re opposites in gender, age, social standing, theological views and general outlook on life.
As the journey progresses, Jones – co-scripting as well as directing (film is based on a novel by Glendon Swarthout*) – maps the gradual thawing of their relationship, only for things to take a sharp and unexpected turn. Again: I’m remaining tight-lipped. Suffice it to say that the last third of ‘The Homesman’ plays out under the shadow of the event in question, giving it the feel of an extended coda … notwithstanding one scene of stone cold ruthless violence that is cathartic only to a point.
‘The Homesman’ is a fascinating piece of work, primarily because of its focus on mental illness. It’s a theme that wrong-foots you as a viewer, subverting what you expect from a western even as the production design, cinematography and music evoke the genre as classically as in anything by Ford, Cimino or Eastwood. Inasmuch as Jones can only portray his female cast in terms of the few social roles that the rampant patriarchy of frontier life afforded women, ‘The Homesman’ can also be considered a feminist western. Jones as director has great respect for the film’s treatment of its anti-heroines and even two scenes depicting the grubby realism of personal hygiene on a long trial are shot without recourse to exploitation.
Any film so strongly grounded in character succeeds or fails by its performances. Jones gives a minimalist, elegiac variation on a type of character he’s played several times before and can play to perfection. Except where Briggs is required to be the focal point for a scene’s dynamic, Jones he is careful to keep himself to the side – if not in the background – and cede the film to his co-stars. Swank is as brilliant as you’d expect: I don’t think anyone else could have played Mary Bee.
Otto, Gummer and Richter, notwithstanding that they barely have a word of dialogue between them, turn in genuinely affecting character work. Streep, in a five minute cameo, does her best work since Eastwood’s ‘Bridges of Madison County’. Hailee Steinfeld, popping up at the end to literally be nothing more than an indicator of Briggs’s capacity for good, suggests soulful depths to a character that is pretty much one-dimensional on the page.
Everything else about ‘The Homesman’ works beautifully and in concert. It is a stunningly well-made film, glacially paced as befits its narrative; a film of telling minutiae and elegantly nuanced grace notes; it is mature, intelligent and deserves to be seen by as wide an audience as possible. Which, sadly, it failed to find on the big screen. But that’s what DVD, streaming and on-demand are for. Seek this one out, engage with it on its own terms, go through what its characters experience. It’s transformative.
*Robert Rossen’s ‘The Came to Cordura’, Henry Levin’s ‘Where the Boys Are’, and Don Siegel’s autumnal classic ‘The Shootist’ are all based on Swarthout’s work.
Wednesday, June 14, 2017
Pete Travis’s ‘City of Tiny Lights’ – adapted by Patrick Neale from his own novel – does three things superbly well, fumbles the ball elsewhere, and outright drops a bollock in two places. On of these bollock-drops is crucial, the other an annoyance.
Here’s what ‘City of Tiny Lights’ does best: it gives Riz Ahmed a gift of a lead role and gives him the space to knock it out of the park. I’ve yet to see Ahmed give even a lazy performance; he’s certainly come nowhere near a bad one. The guy has charisma to burn and an effortlessness in front of the camera. I’m convinced he can play pretty much any character. Here, he essays the role of Tommy Akhtar, a chain-smoking ex-cop eking out a precarious living as a private detective.
Which brings us neatly to the second thing the film does brilliantly: it allows itself to be as hard-boiled as fuck. Akhtar is cynical and world-weary and not adverse to using violence if need be, and all of these things spew from the still open wound of his defeated romanticism. Tommy Akhtar is a private eye in the grand tradition of Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe; his odyssey through the city’s underbelly is as dark and labyrinthine and as riddled with distrust and ghosts from the past as any of theirs. The narrative is almost deliberately complicated, the pinball of Akhtar’s investigation pinging from murdered call girls to low-level politics to crooked property deals by way of radicalisation and fundamentalism.
It’s a distillation of everything that’s wrong with a metropolitan city: corruption, careerism, capitalism, corporationism, racial disharmony and the arrogance and entitlement of power. With Josh Brolin or Jake Gyllenhaal in the lead role, you could easily imagine it unfolding against the neon soaked backdrop of New York. But no, we’re in London but that doesn’t stop Travis shooting the city as if were the rotten half of the Big Apple. He also shoots London without feeling the need to shoehorn any of the obvious landmarks into the background. This is a London that doesn’t recognise the Eye, Big Ben, Tower Bridge or the Spire. Even the most upwardly mobile of the film’s characters wouldn’t get within spitting distance of West India Quay.
Akhtar is variously aided, distracted and emboldened in his investigations by new client, high class call girl Melody (Cush Jumbo – who ought to be a major star in two years’ time if there’s any justice), old flame Shelley (Billie Piper, sadly underused) and his memory-addled, cricket-loving father Farzad (Roshan Seth). Subject of whom: third massive plus-point in the film’s favour. Seth is nothing short of awesome, imbuing his role with poignant dignity even as he provides comic relief in the early scenes. His pivotal moment in a tense scene late in the game is something I absolutely won’t spoil; suffice it to say he walks away with the film.
Here’s what the film doesn’t do so well (I’ll keep this part of the review brief, because I’d rather retain my positive impressions of ‘City of Tiny Lights’): It has a terrible title. Yes, I know it’s from a song by Frank Zappa, but Zappa never gets a mention and Akhtar isn’t established as a music fan in the way of, say, Inspectors Rebus, Resnik or Morse. It’s a good title for a song, but not for a film, and certainly not for a hard-boiled film. Unfortunately, it’s a title that seems to have inspired DoP Felix Wiedemann to go overboard with the focus pulls, the cityscapes behind Akhtar drifting, time after time, into a blur of … well … tiny lights. It’s a thudding example of a visual aesthetic bludgeoned into literalism, and after a while it becomes wearying. The decision, too, to render a couple of dramatic pursuits as an impressionist blur of colour and motion might have sounded conceptually brilliant during storyboarding, but just comes across as arty-farty and an impediment to the film’s pace. And during those moments where the film slows long enough to let you think about it too much – its 110 minute running time is excessive; it should have been a fast and brutal 90 minute thriller – it’s difficult to fathom any reason why Akhtar persists with his investigation in the face of at least two very convincing warnings-off.
Which brings me to the two big failings. For all that Billie Piper brings the star presence to the role of Akhtar’s lost love, the series of flashbacks prompted by her reappearance – which cumulatively account for about a fifth of the overall film – are both unconvincingly staged and only peripheral to the plot. The big thing that’s been haunting Akhtar all these years is revealed in decidedly ho-hum fashion, and the connection between his wasted youth in the 90s and a character he reencounters contemporaneously, could have easily been effected with recourse to the rampant melodrama on display here. The 90s scenes are terrible and come damn close to derailing the film.
The job is almost done for them by the very last scene. It’s one thing for an anti-hero to find personal redemption after encountering the very depths of human venality; just like it’s one thing for a terminal loner to find himself, at film’s end, with an ersatz family (Clint Eastwood’s ‘The Outlaw Josey Wales’ pulls this trick off perfectly, without ever being saccharine). Unfortunately, ‘City of Tiny Lights’ tries to deliver both in a single scene, ending on a truly god-awful final line. It sends you out of the cinema choking on a sugar lump of pure schmaltz.
‘City of Tiny Lights’ has garnered cautious reviews at best, and struggled to finds its audience on the big screen. Maybe it will have an afterlife on DVD. I hope so, even though I know it’s not a film I’d get many repeat viewings out of. I would like to see Ahmed play Tommy Akhtar again, though; this time with a paired down script, directed with ruthless narrative drive, and free from even the vaguest strand of sentiment.
Sunday, May 07, 2017
High concept goes lo-fi in this British comedy that treads similar territory to 2013’s ‘Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa’. Hell, Steve Coogan’s in both of them. Here Coogan plays Peter Eastman, an actor who’s done rather well in a forensic detective TV drama called ‘Windjammer’, a spin off of 1980s hi-tech cop show ‘Mindhorn’ whose protagonist was played by insufferable egomaniac Richard Thorncroft (Julian Barratt) and which ended after three seasons when an embarrassingly drunk and coked up Thorncroft publically humiliated himself on a talk show, offended everyone associated with the show, dubbed the Isle of Man (the series’ setting) a “shithole”, and announced that he was off to Hollywood.
Twenty five years later, having abjectly failed to make it in Tinseltown, Thorncroft is reduced to making commercials, attending auditions for rubbish parts, and haranguing his long-suffering agent (Harriet Walter). When Paul Melly (Russell Tovey), the chief suspect in a murder case, contacts the Isle of Man Constabulary to say that he will only talk to Mindhorn, Chief Inspector Newsome (David Schofield) and D.C. Baines (Andrea Riseborough) reluctantly contact Thorncroft and ask him to resume his old role. What follows – as you’ll probably guess, given the involvement of both Coogan and ‘Mighty Boosh’ regular Barratt – is a comedy of embarrassments that is, by turns, genuinely funny, dispiritingly predictable and ploddingly laboured. The moments where it really hits its stride are certainly worth the ticket price, but ‘Alpha Papa’ it isn’t.
One of its funniest set pieces is the opening, which sets up the dynamic of the ‘Mindhorn’ TV show. Full of macho posturing, overly-dramatic line deliveries and opening credits delivered in a hideous font, it’s a spot on piece of spoofery. Imagine ‘Mindhorn’ as a cross between ‘The Six Million Dollar Man’ and ‘Bergerac’ with Thorncroft’s performance akin to that of “John Actor” playing Monkfish in the recurring ‘Fast Show’ sketches. (Mindhorn/Monkfish: I’m stating the obvious here, aren’t I?) Indeed, Thorncroft’s casual sexism recalls Monkfish’s “put your knickers on and make me a cup of tea” ethos.
Director Sean Foley, whose first film this is, mines a lot of humour from the cult of 1980s. A running gag about ‘Mindhorn’ merchandise pokes fun at any number of American hit shows of the era, while the ATV logo is sneakily inserted in the ‘Mindhorn’ opening credits. And there are a handful of bitchy jokes about ‘Bergerac’ (the John Nettles starrer that was set on Jersey). Essie Davis’s role as ‘Mindhorn’ co-star and romantic interest Patrica Deville is a thinly veiled nod to Louise Jameson’s nothing role on ‘Bergerac’.
But beyond nostalgic box-ticking for 80s TV fans, what does the movie have to offer? Sad to say that Barratt is probably the least of its attractions: not only does Thorncroft have to be an arrogant price for 90% of the running time to make the concept work, but Barratt seems to enjoy playing the façade a little too much, and when the time comes for the character’s redemption in the final act, it all feels very forced. Fortunately, everyone else is on form – Davis, Riseborough and an hilariously irascible Schofield are a delight to watch, Tovey takes a very trickily written character (Melly’s mental deficiency, while again necessary to the plot, verges on exploitative) and does fine work, and Simon Farnaby nabs the Agitation ‘Man of the Match’ award for his broadly comedic yet oleaginously creepy turn as Clive, Thorncroft’s former stuntman and now romantic rival.
The hour twenty five minute running time is just right. The pace is generally decent, except when Foley takes too long to set up a joke or labours the payoff (some business involving a switched videotape is a case in point). There’s one set-piece – an assassination attempt and a high speed getaway that are assumed to be part of a civic parade, a bored dignitary giving a running commentary on the whole thing – that is inspired in its concept and pitch perfect as an archetype of British humour. Had ‘Mindhorn’ scraped together another three or four moments this good, and Barratt redialled the performance just a tad, it could have been great. But there’s no reason why the same team, with just a slightly sharper approach, can’t deliver a bona fide belter next time round.
Saturday, April 08, 2017
Let’s be honest: under any set of objective analytical criteria, ‘Going in Style’ is a pretty average movie. Its screenplay isn’t just predictable: you can literally cue in every narrative beat on a scene by scene basis. Matters pertaining to the gift of a watch and the capturing of a specific bit of CCTV footage are set up in such thunderously obvious style that their later relevance is something you can see coming like an ocean liner on a duck pond. The look of the film and its production design are entirely utilitarian. And with the exception of one whirlingly terrific scene where the sketching out of a bank’s floorspace segues into a “planning the job” montage, helmer Zach Braff doesn’t bring a single directorial flourish to the table. Had ‘Going in Style’ been made with a lesser cast than Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Alan Arkin, Christopher Lloyd, John Ortiz and Ann-Margret (who, at 75, still has more va-va-voom than many starlets a third her age), it wouldn’t have had much to recommend itself beyond the obvious anti-establishment satisfaction of watching a bunch of old dudes pull off a heist. (And let’s face it, Arkin’s contemporary Frank Langella set the seal on that concept in fine style with ‘Robot & Frank’ five years ago.)
That Caine and Freeman would play off each other in fine style was a done deal. That Arkin would bring his deadpan sarcasm A-game, ditto. Eccentric, scene-stealing supporting work from Lloyd? Guaranteed. Ortiz being cool just by underplaying? The man has the patent on it. Now throw in perfectly acceptable work by Matt Dillon as a determined FBI guy, Peter Serafinowicz (an actor often denied sympathetic roles) as Caine’s son-in-law, and Joey King as Caine’s granddaughter. Everyone’s engaged and, for the most part (Josh Pais as an unctuous banker is the over-egged exception), the cast pitch their performances to each other’s strengths; sure, Freeman, Caine and Arkin are the top billed talent, but ‘Going in Style’ is inarguably an ensemble piece.
The plot shouldn’t need a rehash for anyone who’s seen the trailer (hell, even a glance at the poster would probably do the job), but for the sake of completeness, here goes: three OAP buddies who worked at the same steel plant together are robbed of their pension when the firm undergoes financial restructuring; family commitments, health problems and an increasing awareness of their own mortality add to their woes. When one of their number is witness to a bank robbery, one that the media widely reports the perpetrators as getting away with, they decide to pull a similar job. That the bank is administrating the steel plant’s restructuring is the decider: they agree to take only what was depleted from their pension, superannuated by their assumed remaining lifespan (the scene where they each speculate how much longer they have is one of the best moments the film delivers).
Hands up everyone who’s pegged ‘Going in Style’ as ‘Hell and High Water’ with a free bus pass. Yeah: me too.
It’s derivative as all hell. At one point, Braff has his protagonists watch ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ on TV (“I don’t want to see the ending” one them muses) and the inclusion of footage from such an edgy and powerful classic almost sinks ‘Going in Style’. Elsewhere, the tone veers from meditations on the indignity of ageing that wouldn’t be out of place in ‘The Straight Story’ to knockabout farce that makes the average ‘Keystone Kops’ two-reeler look like Tom Stoppard.
And yet … and yet … despite everything – despite the fact the screenplay presents less a fluid narrative than a shunted-together collection of vignettes; despite the fact that the performances from the name-above-the-title triumvirate constitute screen work they could do in their sleep; despite the poundingly unsubtle sops to the audience’s emotions – it works. ‘Going in Style’ somehow finds a way to benefit from its hoariness, its obviousness, its lack of originality. It reminded me of ‘Papadopoulos & Sons’ in its conversion of comfort-food aestheticism into a fictive zone in which the characters are presented to you like old friends, their journey unfolds exactly as you expect (and moreover want) it to, and you’re simply allowed to enjoy the ride.
Thursday, April 06, 2017
Let’s start by shooting the elephant in the room. And why not, since everything the fuck else gets shot in Ben Wheatley’s new film? ‘Free Fire’ is a technical exercise and nothing more. It’s an experiment in the spatial possibilities of a single location utilised to its maximum. It’s the work of a filmmaker, in thrall to every cool crime flick made in the Seventies, wondering how long he can drag out the shoot-out for. For almost the entire movie, it turns out.
As a narrative, ‘Free Fire’ can be summarised in less than twenty words: various crims converge on a warehouse to do an arms deal; everything goes tits up; gunplay ensues. Sure, I could pad that out to tell you who the characters are and who they’re played by, but that wouldn’t get us past the fact that they’re all ciphers, so let’s just think of them at the One With The Bad Sooth Ifrikaan Accent, the Moody Oirish One, the Snivelling Little Weasel and the Wiseass Douchebag whose mutual antipathy prompts the conflagration, the Too Cool For School One, and the Token Chick. That’s not me being sexist, by the way. Brie Larson’s character is basically referred to as a “chick” or a “bird” and only the actress’s natural screen presence allows for any characterisation beyond that.
As a crime drama or thriller, ‘Free Fire’ does nothing you haven’t seen before. The abandoned warehouse/decayed urban setting is reminiscent of ‘Reservoir Dogs’, ‘Trepass’, the last scene of ‘The French Connection’ and several dozen others at least. The dialogue – save for a handful of throwaway lines used to comic effect – is functional at best.
And even reckoned as an entry in cinema’s century-long pantheon of great shoot-outs – the film’s self-acknowledged raison d’être – it never comes close to achieving the catharsis of Sam Peckinpah’s ‘The Wild Bunch’ or the sheer visual poetry of John Woo’s ‘The Killer’. Candles, fluttering doves and balletic dives by cool guys in long coats and shades firing two-handedly are notable in ‘Free Fire’ only by their absence. Nor does Amy Jump’s script engage with the interrelationships of the various groups who find themselves at odds and out to kill each other. Peckinpah would have rigorously interrogated the psychology, motivation and group dynamics so that even the longest and most visceral climactic bout of violence would have felt earned, devasting and inevitable. For Wheatley and Jump, the shoot-out exists for its own sake.
And therefore we have to evaluate ‘Free Fire’ purely for its technical prowess, since its so resolutely disavows any other frame of reference. Which is probably just as well since the performances – apart from Larson and Wheatley regular Michael Smiley – are generally terrible, the use of music cues is hackneyed, and the attempts at Scorsese- or Tarantino-style iconography near the start is mere copyism. Indeed, there’s precious little in the first 15 minutes to remind you that Wheatley was the dark, provocative talent behind ‘Kill List’, ‘A Field in England’ and ‘High-Rise’.
Still, it takes no more than those first 15 minutes to establish ciphers (sorry, characters) and setting and get everyone edgy and trigger happy. And once the shooting starts, Wheatley’s directorial prowess leaps to the fore. Unlike so many contemporary films – where choppy editing and shaky camera work conspire to leave the viewer in abject confusion as to who is where and shooting at whom; or where spatially finite interiors suddenly take on Tardis-like dimensions as heroes and villains range over seemingly endless square-feet of foot space and they squeeze off round after round – ‘Free Fire’ sets out its stall quickly and precisely in terms of the warehouse’s dimensions, the antagonists’ spatial relationship to each other and the ballistic capability of the weaponry on display, and plays scrupulously fair by its own rules.
What I took away from ‘Free Fire’ – more so than the observation that even the world’s worst perm, a coating of grime and some blood splatter can’t make Brie Larson anything less than radiant – is how incredibly well thought-out the film is. This wasn’t just a case of handing over the action stuff to a second unit; this is the work of a director who is genuinely interested in the aesthetics, logistics and challenges of shooting action, and the film benefits immeasurably from Wheatley’s complete engagement. He also makes a wise decision in not taking the material seriously, instead allowing it to unspool as an absurdist black comedy. Which isn’t say that ‘Free Fire’ is entirely fun-with-guns or muzzle-flash-and-quickfire-gags; the cynical cruel streak that runs through all of Wheatley’s oeuvre is present and correct here.
Full disclosure: I enjoyed ‘Free Fire’. It delivered up some decent belly laughs and it was just ridiculous enough to appeal. I can’t fault it on a technical level (the sound design, in particular, is something to be marvelled at). But I can’t help wondering what Wheatley’s motivation was. For all its strong points, so much of it seems like a showreel to demonstrate what he can achieve with a small budget ($10million) and that he can be trusted to deliver standout set pieces. What I’m hoping is that ‘Free Fire’ is a letter of introduction to the money men whose chequebooks can make possible his much mooted remake of ‘Wages of Fear’. If this is the case, we should all go out and see it, and maybe in 2019 or 2020 I’ll happily be reviewing the film that I’m convinced will be Wheatley in excelsis.
Tuesday, March 21, 2017
When Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) take their relationship to the meet the parents stage, it’s a one-sided deal. Chris’s single-parent mother died when he was eleven. He’s beaten the disadvantage of class, race and economic background and is starting to make a name for himself as a photographer. Rose, however, is pure ivy league and it’s to her parents’ sprawling country estate that they repair for the weekend.
The last stage of the journey is down one of those ominously empty and tree-lined roads so beloved of horror-movie directors. Their car goes off the road after they hit a deer in one of those worse-to-come foreshadowing moments so beloved of horror-movie directors. At the Armitage residence, Rose’s parents – Dean (Bradley Whitford) and Missy (Catherine Keener) – are effusive in their welcoming of Chris. Perhaps a little too effusive. But still, here’s Rose’s loose-cannon brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) to balance things out with some outright hostility. And we haven’t even met the Armitages’ retinue of decidedly oddball friends yet – all of whom are characterised by the slightly unhinged performances so beloved of horror-movie directors.
Does it sound like I’m gently satirising writer/director Jordan Peele? Far from it: his rigid adherence to the genre playbook is the film’s strength. Peele obviously knows his horror movies and loves them – but loves them with enough ironic remove that he can bend the formula to his particular agenda. And does he ever? And with such aplomb! ‘Get Out’ uses the structure, iconography and narrative expectations of the genre to lead its audience happily into a ‘Stepford Wives’-goes-torture-porn comfort zone, while sneakily engendering a dialogue on race, identity, cultural appropriation and the façade of liberalism.
The latter is one of the sharpest satirical blows Peele lands and I can imagine an entire tranche of Caucasian filmgoers bristling against it. It’s one thing having Bubba and John-Boy and any number of their dentistry-challenged, IQ-deficient cousins going all psycho on a black protagonist in a horror movie, but it’s quite a different dynamic when the villains are the very people for whom white-man’s-guilt hand-wringing and fiscally permitted entitlement combine to well-meaning but often wincingly patronising effect. “I’d have voted for Obama a third time if I could,” Dean espouses with deadpan sincerity at one point; “best president of my lifetime.” Missy, meanwhile, fixates on Chris’s smoking as unhealthy and badgers him to undergo hypnotherapy.
It doesn’t take Chris long to figure out that something is amiss. The too-forced jollity of the Armitages’ groundsman and housekeeper (both African-American); the token black man, all dapper outfits and plummy vowels, in their circle of friends; the parties where guests pry a little too intimately; the warnings of Chris’s best bud, airport security guard Rod (LilRel Howery, earning himself a Man of the Match award), that these aren’t the kind of people he should trust.
I wouldn’t dream of blowing the gaffe on where all of this is heading, although a fairly redundant pre-credits sequence drops some pretty heavy hints. ‘Get Out’ uses its surface as camouflage – and its surface has “dumb shlocky horror flick” written all over it. This is nowhere near as evident as in the third act, which is as dumb and schlocky as it gets, boasting some scientific shenanigans that make ‘The Man with Two Brains’ and ‘Frankenhooker’ look like documentary realism. And yet as conceptually daft as the third act gets, it’s still the best metaphor for cultural appropriation that genre cinema has yet concocted.
The film has very few flaws: it’s slightly overlong, some of the early scenes play out longer than necessary, the cinematography is a tad pedestrian in places (but only in places, mind: DoP Toby Olivers delivers a handful of genuinely striking images), and there’s no real chemistry between the leads. Although maybe that was intentional.
What it gets right, it gets right in fine style. Keener’s the best she’s been for ages, effortlessly creating an inscrutably creepy character; the comic relief (mostly courtesy of Howery) is perfectly balanced against the slow-burn tension and the gory shocks on the final act; and the use of the seemingly ordinary to create suspense, menace and imbalance is pitch perfect. This is, after all, a film in which the most antiseptically clean of guest rooms comes to feel like the dingiest of prison cells, social etiquette is revealed as racism with a university tenure, and a delicate bone china cup and saucer with the dinkiest of teaspoons can rightly take its place alongside Leatherface’s chainsaw, Freddy Krueger’s manicure and the driller killer’s toolkit as one of the most squirmily horrible instruments in contemporary horror cinema.