Tuesday, 4 March 2014

I Might Buy That for a Dollar: Robocop Review



The story of José Padilha and RoboCop is, by many accounts, an unhappy one, so troubled by studio interference that Padilha supposedly swore off another stint in Hollywood. Parsing the rumours suggests the usual story of studio mandates systematically headbutting artistic intentions - a tale further dogged by the fact that many feared Padilha’s sensibilities would stray too far from the bite of Paul Verhoeven’s original.

The 1987 RoboCop is a classic example of Reaganite cinema, satirically taking the excessive living and unfiltered ambition of the Baby Boomer generation to its soul-destroying endpoint. It comfortably sits with the likes of Videodrome and Wall Street as enduring touch points of the period - an accolade any remake would struggle to replicate. 

Yet, for all of this, the fearful accusations hurled at Padilha’s take on the run up to its release could just as easily be hurled at the original franchise’s increasingly hollow sequels; Irvin Kershner’s RoboCop 2 is the rotten byproduct of the original’s cynicism eating itself whole (and, in hindsight, the first signpost of writer Frank Miller’s descent into madness), whilst the turgid third feature was little more than a two hour marketing exercise (oh, the irony!). The franchise is by no means a sacred cow, and, for all of its differences, RoboCop 2014 manages to be far truer in spirit to the original than any of its later iterations, though remains fundamentally flawed.

Part way through the 21st Century, the American OmniCorp company dominates in the field of robotics and AI, yet whilst their medical innovations continue to see success on home shores, the company’s series of highly effective robot soldiers are limited to foreign peacekeeping, when the real money lies in civilian law enforcement. Public opinion, however, is strongly against justice being dealt out by merciless robots, but a timely accident for policeman Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) gives OmniCop CEO (Michael Keaton) and beleaguered scientist Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) the chance to circumvent governmental sanctions by putting a man inside a machine, swinging public opinion enough to ensure lucrative future contracts with Police Departments across the country.

Joshua Zetumer’s script again uses its future narrative to address the concerns of the day, but here, privatisation and big living take a back seat to manipulative marketing and PR, with RoboCop purely designed to acclimatise the public to robots before rolling out pre-planned “advanced” models (a wry extension of our complicity in buying products designed to be replaced each successive year), though beyond this, what Padhila really seems interested in is the frustrated marriage of man and machine; something touched upon only very broadly in Verhoeven’s take.

Wrestling as he does against his RoboCop persona, Kinnaman’s Murphy is rather more developed than Peter Wellers’, and comparisons to The Wizard of Oz’s Tin Man abound as Murphy is forced to fight ever harder to keep his “heart”. Unfortunately, whilst there’s some interesting stuff going on here, the PR tack is far more engaging, with Keaton chewing up the scenery as a camp CEO with a head for selling. For all of his soul searching, Kinnaman’s Murphy ultimately lacks that real bite we need to rally against Omnicorp’s steady war of attrition on his sense of being. Ultimately the film doesn’t commit enough time or attention to either strand, and by the end credits leaves both as promising avenues only half explored.

Yet the fact that RoboCop decides to do its own thing rather than just being slavish to the original is really to its credit, and whilst it doesn’t even attempt to run with the anarchic vein of black humour coursing through the original, it does make the occasional nod toward it in Samuel L Jackson’s superb jingoist commentator Pat Novak. On its own terms, RoboCop is an alternately interesting and plodding re-take on the tale that shouldn’t be outright dismissed. Nevertheless, watching it reminded me of just how desperately contemporary cinema needs the same kind of bitter medicine Verhoeven and his peers were so good at administering in their hey-day. Where is our generation’s Videodrome?




Sunday, 2 March 2014

Dangerous Liaison: Stranger by the Lake Review


The reception to little-known French filmmaker Alain Guiraudie's Stranger by the Lake has largely fallen into two camps: celebration of its atypically frank and unsensational depiction of homosexuality, and, conversely, criticism for its association of a gay cruising sub-culture with acts of brutal murder. In fact, this minimalist thriller falls somewhere in-between, adopting a refreshingly sober, no-nonsense approach to its exploration of human sexuality in all its contradictions and conflict, without ever completely succeeding in marrying its prevailingly naturalistic style with its moody genre affectations.

 The story is deceptively simple. At a gay nudist beach somewhere in rural France, a young man called Franck spends his summer afternoons swimming in the sapphire-blue lake, sunbathing, and engaging in casual sexual encounters with the other patrons. These liaisons are fleeting, the men involved exchanging very few details about one another, and the only other regular whom Franck has anything approaching a long-term relationship with is Henri, an older man who has taken to visiting the beach and sitting alone since separating from his wife.

  One day, he notices a strikingly handsome new man who calls himself Michel and is something of a Clark Gable lookalike. Franck quickly develops a fascination with him, and one evening after everyone else has left he unintentionally witnesses Michel deliberately drown the man he has been sleeping with, seemingly having tired of his affections. Instead of reporting the apparently psychotic and dangerous Michel to the authorities, Franck embarks on a passionate affair with him, continuing to let his blossoming feelings for the murderer prevent him from blowing the whistle even as a police detective descends upon the community searching for evidence of foul play.

  Any concerns that the film might try to establish a crude and nasty link between the bathers' lifestyle and criminal amorality are quickly dispelled. Despite the movie's setting, Stranger by the Lake is primarily interested in uncomfortable universal truths about the human sexual impulse. Although at first glance the nudist beach appears to be a sort of earthly paradise where individuals can indulge their desires freely and without pain, it soon becomes clear that this garden is just as postlapsarian as everywhere else. Behind the delirious pleasures of the flesh, its residents cannot keep their jealousy, fear, selfishness and grief at bay, and unruly, destructive human emotion constantly threatens to break through the lake's placid surface.

  This theme is brilliantly supported by the sensual cinematography, which captures both the environment's languorous, sun-drunk beauty during the day, when entwined bodies can be glimpsed between the lush vegetation, and its suffocating darkness at night, when it suddenly resembles a sinister hunting ground for the id.

  Disappointingly, however, once Guiraudie has established his self-contained world as a metaphor for our own, he struggles with the question of where to take the story next. In the lead roles, Pierre de Ladonchamps and Christophe Paou do a great job of conveying Franck's almost childlike innocence and Michel's arrogant, worldly charisma, but they are given too little material to make their relationship truly compelling. We are seemingly meant to believe that their relationship has moved beyond sex towards something darker and more complex, but as viewers we rarely see the characters engaged in anything other than lovemaking, and so what is intended to come across as a forceful, fateful attraction starts to risk feeling monotonous instead.  It is also rather unconvincing when the film abandons its insistently unhurried pace in the final act and shifts gears to become a more conventional thriller, complete with a rapidly escalating body count.

  For those interested in seeing a movie committed to exploring uncharted waters within genre cinema, Stranger by the Lake is well worth a dip, but swimmers should be warned that the dive is ultimately somewhat shallower than one might have hoped.



Sunday, 23 February 2014

Lars and the real girl: Nymphomaniac Review


The crux of Nymphomaniac, Lars Von Trier's latest wilful expedition into the jungle of human behaviour, is probably the moment in the second volume of the four-hour theatrical cut when Joe, the jaded connoisseur of carnal pleasures played respectively as a young woman and a middle-aged woman by Stacy Martin and Charlotte Gainsbourg, defiantly rejects the label of 'sex addict' thrust upon her by a self-help group, identifying instead with the title given to her by the film. 'I am a Nymphomaniac, and I love myself as one' she declares, before walking away proudly, leaving her shell-shocked fellow patients in her wake.

  At the beginning, Joe is found beaten and unconscious in a gloomy alleyway by a bookish middle-aged virgin called Seligman, who carries the mysterious woman to his nearby apartment and tends to her wounds whilst she recounts the story of her life from childhood to her present situation. It quickly becomes apparent that it has been a life ruled by sexual adventure (not to mention misadventure), and sensual excess. But although Joe warns her mild-mannered confessor that it will be a 'moral' tale, any such expectations of proselytising are quickly shattered by the film's freewheeling, wonderfully mercurial structure.

  As Joe sees it, and as Von Trier obviously wants to suggest to us, the diagnosis of 'sex addict' would seek to make her simply a passive victim, gripped by a pathological disorder beyond her control. This is the depiction that we find in Steve McQueen's Shame, informed by the language and the worldview of psychiatry, where Michael Fassbender's life is ruined by his almost vampiric dependency upon sexual gratification. But it is no such straightforwardly 'moral' perspective that drives Von Trier's exploration of the subject.

  The antiquated, almost mythic idea of a 'nymphomaniac', allows Joe to see herself and us to see her as having assumed a liberating agency and self-determination divorced from what she comes to see as the assimilating and neutralising tendencies of society, sinister forces cloaked in a benign promise of treatment.

  Of course, although this moment with the self-help group may represent a small victory for Joe, obviously it doesn't make her chosen way of life any easier or more comfortable. She exposes herself to a torrent of heartache, abuse, degradation, and loneliness in her struggle for sexual freedom.

  Oddly, to return to Steve McQueen, Nymphomaniac can be seen as a continuation of some of the themes raised in the Brit's latest acclaimed drama, 12 Years A Slave. Solomon Northup's story is one of overcoming adversity and escaping bondage, where the promise of freedom represents the end point of his journey. Von Trier takes up where McQueen leaves off, exploring the issue of what happens once freedom has supposedly been obtained in a modern democracy.

  Nymphomaniac challenges the notion that humans want freedom. Most of us, it intimates, are more interested in security, comfort, and belonging. Joe, somebody seemingly more committed to the concept of freedom than most of us, doesn't even seem particularly convinced by it herself, repeatedly bemoaning the loss of loved ones brought about at least in part by her irrepressible sexual urges.

  Von Trier's movie is more complex than McQueen's because it does not present freedom as an unchangeable goal, but as something nebulous and painful that must be constantly negotiated, bargained with and assessed by every individual. It is, for Von Trier, not so much the key to a set of chains, as it is a magnificent coat of thorns.

  Steve McQueen portrays suffering as an aberration, whether it is the mortal anguish of an individual or the physical subjugation of an entire people; something which has been allowed to encroach upon the equilibrium of life and which can be eradicated by moral effort. Von Trier sees suffering as the condition of life: to be alive is to make destructive choices and to commit all types of self-sacrifice, therefore to live is to suffer.


  If all of this makes Nymphomaniac sound overly dour, then don't worry. Whilst it certainly has its share of tragedy and gloom, particularly in the more downbeat second volume, the prevailing mood is one of sly humour and aesthetic playfulness. Von Trier has stated that the drama represents a new cinematic genre he has named 'digressionism'. As with most of his statements, this should be taken with a heavy pinch of salt, but there is a very distinctive flavour to the way the story unfolds. There's a touch of Tristram Shandy to the way the narrative is frequently interrupted by Seligman's increasingly eccentric analogies and flights of intellectual fancy, with the autodidact pulling together subjects as disparate as fly-fishing, the music of Bach, and the death of Edgar Allan Poe by way of commentary on Joe's experiences.

  Likewise, Von Trier never lets a single tone become too well established before he pulls the rug out from under us. For instance, by suddenly blasting into a thunderous Rammstein song after a near-silent and serenely beautiful opening montage of snowflakes falling in a back alley, or mixing comedy with pathos in the scene where Uma Thurman's scorned wife (a scene-stealing performance) confronts Joe and her adulterous husband in our hero's flat, dragging along their three young boys for the ensuing fireworks. It all adds up to an uncommonly addictive and entertaining piece of cinema, rarely dragging despite its indulgent length.

  At the end of Nymphomaniac, very little has been resolved, and as an audience it's unclear how we're meant to feel about Joe's experiences. A shocking, unexpected crime is committed, the screen cuts to black, and Von Trier gleefully hurls the jigsaw pieces that he has collected for our perusal up into the air again, inviting us to assemble them ourselves. In effect, to step in and assume the role of Seligman, the fascinated interpreter of Joe's perplexing story. This is, perhaps, one mark of a great filmmaker as opposed to a merely good one. A good filmmaker makes films that are about something, whereas a great filmmaker makes film that could be about many things. McQueen remains only a good filmmaker at present, but with Nymphomaniac Lars once again demonstrates himself to be a filmmaker of strange, diabolic genius.


Saturday, 8 February 2014

Northern Soul: Revival Squared



To enter the world of northern soul is to enter into a culture unashamedly trapped in the past. Even in the movement's seventies heyday it was a retroist movement, isolated both in time and space. The essence of it is that some time in the late sixties a number of mod clubs in the north of England began to move away from eclectic rosters consisting of various forms of jazz, R&B and other black American music, and instead began to focus solely on danceable fast-paced soul influenced by the output of Detroit's Motown label. The original Northern Soul club, the Twisted Wheel in Manchester, closed in 1971 under pressure from the authorities for its reputation as a drug haven. By this time however, the culture of the music and the associated all-night amphetamine fuelled raves, where dancers were renowned for their skill and stamina, had spread to other parts of the North and the Midlands. Nights were held at famous venues such as Wigan Casino and Wolverhampton's The Catacombs.



The movement reached its zenith in the mid to late seventies, and by this time musical exclusivity was the focus of most of the DJs who operated within the scene. This is mirrored currently in the penchant within UK bass music for VIP mixes and other commercially unreleased tracks which can only be found within mixes by the most respected DJs. Rarity was prized and DJs often would secure their bookings on this basis, perhaps by being the owner of the only known copy of a particular record. As such the scene was based upon failures; records by US mid-western artists which had not made an impact upon their release a decade prior were now esteemed in an entirely different context to that from which they emanated. As such, besides the DJs there were no real stars of the Northern Soul movement, the artists having long since faded into obscurity, had they ever left it.


In the intervening years Northern Soul has itself somewhat disappeared, but now it seems to be coming back, giving us a revival of what was also originally a revivalist movement. Instead of events taking place in the original venues, which have long since moved on to other things, they now occur in working men's clubs and similar halls across Britain. There are even events down in London, making Northern Soul no longer quite so northern. The attendees seem to have lost their insatiable desire for rarity, with many events featuring DJs who were major players in the old scene now advertising as "Northern and Crossover" soul, and playing more well known records. They finish much earlier too, with all-dayers now far more common than the previous all-nighters.




I recently paid a visit to one of these nights, at a Labour Club in The Black Country, not `quite sure what to expect. Initially I was greeted with a largely empty hall, and an even emptier dancefloor. It was an odd sight; most attendees were well into their fifties at least, and were sat dotted around the room which looked more like a church hall decked out for a poorly attended OAP’s club. The cobs wrapped in foil on sale next to the bar hardly helped, and neither did the faux hand pumps from which the "real" ales were served at the bar. Little more than an hour later, however, and the dance floor was almost full, and covered in the talcum powder traditionally used by dancers to facilitate exuberant sliding moves across the room. The vigorous dancing had long since given way to arthritic joints and were more shuffling than the acrobatic shapes that would have been on show over three decades ago, but those on the floor seemed not to care, just happy to be back moving to the music of their youth with like-minded people. It was fantastic to have seen men and women dancing and enjoying themselves without pretence, not looking around to see who has their eye on them, and "keeping the faith". Perhaps this is something that some of the clubbers of today could learn from.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

'Her' Review


Whether it’s the result of a weird little door in a dwarfed office block, a case of authorial envy, big shaggy monsters or a disarmingly chipper AI, there’s a distinct yearning for affirmation - even completion - running through all of Spike Jonze’s oeuvre, varied as it is. Her might have initially raised laughs at its “Siri goes a’smoochin’” premise, but there’s much, much more going on in this not-quite-sci-fi story of the relationship between a man and his OS. Carrying its soul on its sleeve, Her polishes up many of the thematic concerns of Jonze’s most recent projects, offering something as heartfelt as it is slick.


Still racked from the breakdown of his marriage, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) spends his days writing handwritten letters of love and friendship for those who struggle to reveal themselves fully. Theodore has retreated from the world into videogames and his work, though maintains a close friendship with game designer Amy (Amy Adams). Enticed by the latest upgrade to his PC and Smart Ear Phone, Theodore soon finds himself in the company of a complex, adaptive OS called Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), who quickly fits into Theodore’s life and becomes his confidant.


What could easily have been Lars and the Real Girl for the digitally connected generation circumvents any awkwardness by making clear just how permissive Theodore’s society is toward this budding dynamic between humans and AI. It comes to show the possibility for new points of connection (and frustration) rather than tell, at once exploring this novel concept whilst also presenting the very real lifespan of an intense relationship between two people. If Jonze’s short I’m Here used technology as a metaphor for the process of giving oneself to another, here, the possibilities of the future creates, at times, an uncomfortable frisson between the roles of the creator and the creation that firmly captures the initial excitement and wish fulfillment of any relationship. As Samantha evolves however, so too does the relationship - for better and for worse.


It helps, of course, that Jonze has ensured his film is impeccably dressed (and its stars too - there’s a reason Twombly’s minimalist chinos are available to buy), offering an optimistic take on the coming 21st century that Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography joyfully soaks up. Arcade Fire and Owen Pallet’s soundtrack, meanwhile, whilst perhaps overrated after all of the Oscar hype, nevertheless builds up to match the film’s unabashed, climactic moments.

We’re only a month into 2014, and it’s already looking like a year of cinema to be thankful for, but of all the sterling releases so far, it’s Her that has stayed with me the longest after viewing - I’m still finding new threads in the nuances of its script. With so many films looking back to the past, it’s refreshing to see one that’s actually hopeful for the future - particularly when so much cinema at the moment feels like one giant funeral for the 20th century.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Best of 2013: Film Pt.2


(Check out Part One here)


Hors Satan

Forget hobbits, Bruno Dumont's mist-veiled meditation on good and evil is authentically magical cinema for those with the stomachs for it. Set in the austerely beautiful coastal regions of Northern France, it tells the deeply enigmatic story of a hermit-like man living amongst this wilderness who befriends a young woman and kills a series of people who attempt to harm or possess her. As the events gradually unfold, it becomes clear that this mysterious protector is invested with supernatural powers, although whether he is saint or devil remains teasingly and hypnotically ambiguous as his actions alternate between the tender and the shockingly violent.

Emulating the metaphysical dramas of Danish master filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer (particularly the tremendous Ordet), Dumont makes us confront the question of the spiritual latent in the material world head-on, challenging us to suspend our disbelief in a universe where divine and demonic influence can not only be spoken of, but keenly felt in everyday life. You don't have to be a believer to find his fiercely idiosyncratic style of cinema strangely captivating. (Nick Pierce)


In The Fog

As metaphors go, the 'fog of war' would seem as hackneyed as any. It's doubly to writer-director Sergei Loznitsa's credit then, that he should not only have crafted one of the finest and most incisive dramas in years about the condition of warfare, but that he should also have made its recurring visual motif of murky, misty landscapes seem vital and bold.

When the film begins, we're following two tight-lipped and grim guerilla fighters stalking through the barren woodland of Belarus during World War 2. Stopping at a remote cottage, they forcibly remove a third man from his family and march him out into the night, fully intent on murdering him, believing that he has betrayed some other locals to the Nazi occupiers. By the end of the trio's journey, we have learned a great deal about their personal histories, and the vagaries and contradictions of human nature as brought into relief by the inferno of war.

Favouring extremely long takes and telling his story through silences as much as through words, Loznitsa's work here is historical tragedy stripped down to its bare essentials, so that the universal truths emerge like bone through skin. (NP)


Only God Forgives

Whilst many expected Nicolas Winding Refn’s second collaboration with Ryan Gosling’s mute face to merrily follow in Drive’s footsteps, what actually followed was – in spite of its lip-biting scenes of ultra-violence – far more indebted to Kubrick in its formal approach, tinged with something rather Lynchian in its slow-burning, dreamlike state. Offering a pitch-black take on both Freudian psychology and Old Testament judgement, this neon-soaked nightmare found its God and Devil in Vithaya Pansringarm and Kristin Scott Thomas, the latter in particularly loving every minute she spends bullying hapless son Julian (Gosling) into avenging the murder of his degenerate older brother. Refn himself has meanwhile acknowledged that Pansringarm’s figure of justice is a third interpretation of the red-blooded knight figure seen in both Drive and Valhalla Rising; a violent corrector in barbaric lands. (Tom Dunn)


The Place Beyond the Pines

A story of fathers, sons, and the lasting ramifications of the pursuit for male power and glory, Derek Cianfrance’s latest feature may have concerns far removed from those of Blue Valentine, but it’s just as critical of self delusion. Initially focusing on Ryan Gosling’s stunt driver Luke Glanton, who turns to bank robbing in order to support his newly discovered son, The Place Beyond the Pines soon opens up into a wider study of US society, both politically and morally. Bradley Cooper’s portrayal of the film’s central figure, Avery Cross, magnificently plays up the character’s tragic sense of self-preservation, with the film’s three distinct acts offering one epic piece of high drama, backed up by stunning shots of New York state’s oppressive, shadowy forests and a quivering score from art-rock maestro (and personal hero) Mike Patton. (TD)


Prisoners

Loaded with a sense of unshakeable dread throughout its length, this criminally neglected thriller, together with The Place Beyond the Pines, offered a scathing critique of masculinity in the dark heart of America, with Jake Gyllenhaal’s obsessive hunt for two missing girls clashing against the stubborn, violent quest for revenge conducted by grieving father Hugh Jackman. Casting Philadelphia as a barren hell hole, where blind faith – whether in a god, a lover, or even yourself - offers little but pain and regret, Prisoners in many ways felt like a spiritual successor to Gyllenhaal’s other great police procedural, Zodiac – and owes a fair debt to many of David Fincher’s prior works. Nevertheless, with its trio of scintillating central performances – rounded out by the ever engaging Paul Dano, claustrophobic cinematography from Roger Deakins, and Villeneuve’s assured hand, it’s a film that ultimately stands on its own two feet. (TD)


Spring Breakers

In Harmony Korine’s neon pastel wonderland, it’s Spring Break Forever. Notoriously casting former Disney teen stars into his gang of morally bankrupt pleasure seekers, Korine’s vision of this staple in US collegiate life somehow manages to at once condemn, applaud, and merely observe what is surely indicative of the 21st Century American Dream, as four destitute college girls hold up a fried chicken store in order to fund their pilgrimage to Florida’s tacky, sun-bleached streets. Guiding them ever deeper into this fantasy land, where any and all pleasures can be found, is the lecherous Alien. A far superior companion piece to Korine’s equally apocalyptic look at the American suburb, Trash Humpers, Spring Breakers successfully took this recent trend for garish, grindhouse-flecked genre cinema, and made it into something far more monstrous. (TD)


Upstream Color

If Primer was a 4D Rubik’s Cube, constantly growing more complex the more you tried to unravel it, Shane Carruth’s latest feature is a half-remembered dream, its logic becoming clear on a far more primal level. Hitting the ground running with some feverish body horror, the story of graphic artist Kris losing her life to an inventive identity thief quickly becomes something else entirely, being far less concerned with teasing out the details of its narrative than in looking at the very human need to connect, and how deep-felt, implicit understanding can be far more rewarding – and indeed necessary – than any surface knowledge. The unique relationship between Kris and Jeff is a fantastic metaphor for the steady dissolve into one that happens between any two people in love, with human interaction offering a gestalt-like approach in conquering life’s frequently unknowable trials. (TD)


V/H/S

Whilst its sequel threatened to undo much of the good work done by this inventive horror anthology, the sheer sense of visceral terror than ran throughout all of V/H/S’s six short films was – along with the similarly executed Maniac – a serious kick up the arse for a stagnating genre. Breathing new life into the ‘found footage’ genre along the way, this collection of terrible tales covered everything from alien abduction and pagan rituals to voyeuristic crimes of passion, each naturally incorporating the reason for it being filmed. Rather than relying on gloss and jump scares to keep things going, V/H/S did what many of the best horror films do, rooting in deep and playing on our sense of security rather than just seeking the next cheap thrill.


What Richard Did

Haneke comes to a sleepy Irish seaside town in this claustrophic tragedy from Lenny Abrahamson, which looks at just what happens when the local school’s golden child goes ahead and lets his possessive streak get the better of him. Nathan Nugent’s claustrophic editing, coupled with the film’s marked lack of a soundtrack, makes the story’s quiet revelations all the more harrowing, but its Jack Reynor as the eponymous Richard who steals the show, visibly struggling to keep a hold of his charismatic self-image as his world crumbles around him. With everyone looking to blame someone else for the murder of a troubled teenager during a house party brawl, What Richard Did is just as much a look at how far self-deception can run as it is a study of the middle class tendency to ameliorate or ignore events until “civilised” life can pick up as normal. (TD)


Zero Dark Thirty

Following up on her bomb-disposal B-movie The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow caught a lot of critical flack for her epic, excruciating depiction of the decade-long hunt for Bin Laden. The comparisons to Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl were obtuse at best (this is more 'Failure of Reason' than Triumph of the Will), although right in one crucial detail: like that pioneering female moviemaker, Bigelow excels at muscular, visceral cinema.

But unlike her overrated Oscar winner, Thirty doesn't let gung-ho genre thrills get in the way of its unrelentingly ugly and desperate narrative. There are overtones of Hannah Arendt's notion of the banality of evil in screenwriter Mark Boal's wide-ranging examination of USA government employees going about their daily business of torture and killing, seemingly without sparing a thought for the wider ethical quagmire of their actions. And giving a human face to a supra-human process, Jessica Chastain is excellent as CIA analyst Maya, our cipher for the entire United States, her face visibly transforming over its 2-hour-plus run-time from Mid-Western homecoming queen to haggard, hollowed-out death mask.

When the bullets finally do fly, in the masterfully-staged recreation of the siege on the Abottabad compound, the overwhelming sensation is not adrenaline but nausea. As in Paul Greengrass' Captain Phillips, also released this year, when the American military enters the fray there's no pussyfooting around their devastating, terrifying force.

This deeply disturbing rendition of recent history swells like a howl of anguish from an empire growing ever more aware of its tenuous, blood-slicked grip on the moral centre. (NP)


Honourable mentions: Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Maniac, The Selfish Giant, To The Wonder, Post Tenebras Lux, Iron Man 3, Behind The Candelabra, Flight, Side Effects, In The House, Trance, Museum Hours, Lore, Captain Phillips, Blue Jasmine, The Gatekeepers, Silence, Paradise: Love

Friday, 3 January 2014

Best of 2013: Film Pt.1


Read on to find out what treats from the past year grabbed our attention and lingered in our minds long after viewing...


The Act Of Killing

Perhaps it's unfair to make other films compete against Joshua Oppenheimer's one-of-a-kind documentary; it's almost certainly an act of trivialisation to rank this monumental record of human evil and repression alongside the other releases this year, as great as many of them were. For all of 2013's cinematic innovations and emotional wringers, The Act Of Killing stands alone as a text with genuine historical import. It functions as a harrowing record of the too-little-known genocide in Indonesia in the second half of the twentieth century as told from the point of view of its garlanded, disturbingly ordinary perpetrators.

But its exploration of an important event is not alone what makes it an important piece of cinema. Rather, it's Oppenheimer's twisty, treacherous approach, freighting the national trauma with reflections upon the mass media's role in constructing the past, received truth, and the modern psyche. The killers, drunk on their own celebrity, are invited by Oppenheimer to re-enact their crimes for the camera, and embark on an increasingly haunted journey into the heart of darkness. For anyone interested in the possibilities of film, its capacity to encode complex ideas about the nature and the nightmare of reality, this is an essential watch. Extraordinary. (Nick Pierce)


Beyond The Hills

Like his riveting abortion drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, Romanian Cristian Mungiu's latest is another merciless dissection of his home country's social malaise and economic privation. Using the real-life incident of the Tanacu exorcism as its starting point, in which a young member of a Moldavian monastery died during an exorcism ritual, Hills depicts the tragic fallout from the arrival of a headstrong, worldly woman, Voichita, into an isolated religious order. Having come to be reconciled with her childhood girlfriend, with whom it seems that she could be in love, Voichita finds herself at loggerheads with the fiercely conservative and quietly controlling male head of the community.

Mungiu keeps the camera distant at all times, letting the scenes play out in long takes, and refusing to pass judgment on the worldview of this very alien, antiquated order. Slowly, engrossingly, the story reveals Mungiu's preoccupation with his country's subjugation of women's freedom and bodies; a power that - as we learn here - is often bought at a terrible price. (NP)


Blancanieves

Does the world really need another retelling of the Snow White story? Yes, it seems. At least, it needed one as deliriously inventive, endlessly fun, and sensuously shot as this Spanish silent film. If there was any justice in the world, the far more deserving Blancanieves would've captured audiences' imaginations in the same way that The Artist managed two years ago. Unlike that Oscar-winner, which effectively treated the grammar of silent cinema as little more than a novelty for winning press attention, this update of the Brothers Grimm narrative hearkens back to the expressive, visually dynamic heyday of the form in the 1910s and 20s. References abound, to the frenetic crosscutting of Eisenstein, and the creepy surrealism of early Bunuel, but they never distract from the drama.

The revisions to the plot are inspired: setting the fairy tale in and around the world of bullfighting, and having Snow White herself become a celebrated matador, allows for several action scenes that border on the poetic. And the script restores some of the darkness of the original folklore, recasting the evil stepmother as a sadism-fuelled dominatrix, and totally disposing of the Disney version's insipid romance and reassuring ending. (NP)


Blue is the Warmest Colour

The hoohah surrounding the lesbian relationship at the centre of Abdellatif Kechiche's three-hour romantic tour-de-force, and the accusations that the film is a male, heterosexual view of female, 'transgressive' sexuality, are a bit of a red herring: Blue is the Warmest Colour is just as much if not more of a drama about social class, and the way it shapes our conception of and expectations from life.

Called The Life of Adèle - Chapters 1 & 2 in France (a third chapter is reportedly potentially on its way), it follows the eponymous heroine, a working-class teenager enrolled at her local college and studying to be a primary school teacher. Hard-headed, pragmatic, and schooled in the value of money by her frugal background, when she meets blue-haired middle-class artist Emma and embarks on a passionate love affair, she is introduced to a whole new world of intellectual and sexual liberation facilitated by affluence. Although Adèle is the younger of the two, and not as 'worldly' as her lover in some respects at first, it becomes clear over the course of the movie that she has an emotional maturity fostered by her upbringing alien to the flightiness and arguable shallowness of Emma. But aside from its digs at middle-class solipsism, Blue is also, despite its slightly self-indulgent length, just a very involving and visceral love story, brilliantly acted by its two leads. It would be a tremendous shame if the mudslinging it has generated in the press, much of which has nothing to do with the movie itself, was allowed to overshadow its obvious quality. (NP)


Computer Chess

Following its quiet release a decade ago, the DNA of Andrew Bujalski’s funny ha ha still lingers on in today’s current trend for depicting Generation Y as hopelessly adrift. Computer Chess sees the low-fi aesthetic of the Mumblecore movement Bujalski helped create reinterpreted as the visual language for the birth of the Information Age, Bujalski’s hand held cam perfectly complementing the film’s initial presentation of its cast as eccentrics and losers operating on the fringes of society though. What follows, however, soon shifts from a caricature of the 80s’ DIY ‘punk’ programming culture into a bizarre and unsettling debate on life versus automation, with a barely-together tournament ultimately becoming the unwitting background to a clandestine battle for the future. It’s easy to dismiss Computer Chess as a wry, nostalgic look at a time so close yet so far removed from our post-Internet world, but it has a hell of a lot to say about just where it is we’re all blindly heading towards. (Tom Dunn)


Django Unchained

Neither as blisteringly innovative as Pulp Fiction nor as deliriously unhinged as Inglourious Basterds, Django is perhaps primarily notable for being Tarantino's most heartfelt and soulful movie since 1997's Jackie Brown.

Racism has always been a thematic pressure-point in his pictures, but never so boldly and unflinchingly addressed as it is in this spaghetti Western set amongst the cotton fields and colonial mansions of 19th-century Mississippi, a Southern empire built on the bodies of African slaves. Tarantino has fashioned something akin to a photo-negative of Birth of a Nation or Gone with the Wind, those epic apologias for institutionalised white supremacy: here we have a portrait of America whose Caucasian citizens are uniformly despicable and ridiculous, tainted one and all by their tacit complicity in, if not outright support of, this so-called 'flesh for cash' business.

Unlike his other recent offerings, where the characters seem to exist in isolation from one another, Django shows Tarantino anchoring his narrative in two loving relationships: that between freed slave Django and the wife, Broomhilda, from whom he has been cruelly separated by his former masters, and the burgeoning friendship Django experiences with his saviour and subsequent partner, Dr. King Schultz.

It might forego any measure of subtlety, but the fact that Tarantino can get such an excoriating satire made and released to huge commercial success is surely impressive enough. (NP)


A Field in England

British auteur Ben Wheatley is that rarest of beasts: a genre-movie director with a genuinely art-house sensibility, unapologetically relishing of the chance to splash gore and scatological humour across the screen, but equally unafraid to challenge his audience with unconventional narrative and stylistic choices. Both of these impulses find a demented, gleeful outlet in his fourth feature about a group of English civil war deserters coerced by a malevolent alchemist into helping him search for buried treasure. The result is something like a diabolic chemistry experiment in its own right, mixing equal parts League of Gentlemen gallows humour and Lynchian trippiness. It's great fun, supremely creepy, and one-of-a-kind. (NP)


Frances Ha

I love Lena Dunham and all, but she must have been taking a long, hard look at the latest script for Girls after watching this enchanting collaboration between indie super-couple Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach. A world away from their previous cinematic portrayal of the ultimate wet weekend, Greenberg, this latest character study is full of life, eschewing weighty / self-serving commentaries on the plight of entitled twenty-somethings in favour of something that, in spite of its frequent allusions to Truffaut and Godard, feels far more true and warm. Gerwig’s take on Frances is fully aware of the character’s foibles without letting them define her, and in its more jubilant approach to life in New York, ironically offers some stark criticism toward many of its celebrated peers. (TD)


Gravity

Gravity must be this year's most flawed excellent movie, a truly daring and contradictory piece of work from director Alfonso Cuaron. For every focus on scientific realism (no explosion sounds in space) there was another entirely implausible aspect (an astronaut in space after 6 months training). To read too much into it, however, is to miss the point; this was a masterclass in roller coaster edge of the seat action that still managed to push boundaries. At times plot devices were obvious (case in point: the back story of Sandra Bullock's Ryan Stone), but this was overridden by the genuine sense of peril created by the Spanish director, and one of the first intrinsic but gimickless uses of 3D. There may have been many smarter, more plausible movies this year, but I seriously doubt there were many nearly as exciting. (George Bate)


The Great Beauty

Depending on your point of view, either Paolo Sorrentino's picaresque panorama of life in present-day Rome transcends the limitations and formula of story, or simply forgets to include a proper one. What story there is concerns ageing playboy-cum-journalist Jep Gambardella. Having conquered high society early in life, Jep has spent the intervening years growing fat and lazy indulging in its intoxicating but frivolous pleasures. Now in his autumn years, he's still tumbling from bedroom to bedroom and nightclub to nightclub, but beginning to sense that once upon a time he might have traded in any possibility of genuine fulfilment.

It doesn't take a genius to recognise that Sorrentino is indebted to Fellini's kaleidoscopic late-60s masterworks like La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2, which similarly attempted to encapsulate the entire pageantry of human life, the divine and the profane, in a city seemingly designed for such philosophical meanderings. So beholden is it to these classics, in fact, that Beauty never quite escapes from their shadow, but that doesn't make it any less enjoyable, or the sudden ambushes of pathos any less painful. Plus, it looks ravishing: an orgy of luminous dancefloors and womb-red ruins, like a perfume advert with elephantiasis. (NP)

Ten more films for 2013 will be announced tomorrow, completing our look at last year's best in cinema and sounds. Until then!

Friday, 27 December 2013

Best of 2013: Yeezus


Album of the Year: Kanye West - Yeezus

Those who compared West's left-turn with Yeezus this year to Radiohead's uncompromising career reinvention post-OK Computer are only half right. The Brit icons' change in direction, whilst undoubtedly alienating some early acolytes, won them both a greater degree of admiration amongst critics and new fan-bases within avant-garde circles. It helped transform them from a musically-accomplished and respected rock band to a genuine unit-shifting phenomenon, penetrating everything from video games to the BBC philharmonic.
Whilst it is demonstrably true that West shares the same high-art ambitions, he is unlikely to ever gain the same level of acceptance from the arbiters of culture. What's more, by eschewing his trademark, seductive ostentation for conceptual austerity and deliberate sonic ugliness, he's begun to haemorrhage listeners to other luminaries of the introspective hip-hop landscape he largely created (hello Drake). His relative lack of success might have something to do with genre: whereas alternative rock tends to be receptive to even the most egregious of highbrow pretension, rap music (or at least the mainstream) and its audience doesn't yet know how to process the performance-art eccentricities now being practised by its brightest star.
 But then, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. Kanye West has always been a musical outsider, albeit one who somehow managed to make pop crowds want to be a freak like him. Yeezus feels like a major statement from this newly-liberated artist, comfortable enough with his own proven talent to switch off the smoke and mirrors and force us to look at his wart-ridden flesh. Lyrically, he delineates and deepens the contradictory persona we've all come to find so oddly fascinating: a man aware of his heritage as an African-American, and accustomed to bumping his head against glass ceilings, but with all the petty arrogance and sexual double-standards one comes to expect from wealthy male patriarchs.
 Every track instantly sears itself onto the memory, West packing in an extraordinary number of highlights given its very brief duration. There's the glam-rock rhythm track swaggering through 'Black Skinhead', the itchy, agitated beat in 'New Slaves' blossoming into a full-blown, Frank Ocean-assisted soul coda, and West's disembodied duet with the ghost of Nina Simone on the utterly fantastic 'Blood on the Leaves'.
 West has crafted a Notes from the Underground for hip-hop heads. It isn't often pretty, but it's frequently beautiful. (Nick Pierce)

Thursday, 26 December 2013

Best of 2013: Music Pt.3




Burial - Rival Dealer

It's another case of evolution not revolution on the latest release from production-genius William Emmanuel Bevan (aka Burial). Although only an EP, clocking in at just under half an hour, it somehow contains an audiophile's treasure trove of riches requiring many weeks to be properly absorbed and obsessed over. The basic Burial sound remains: vinyl crackles, ghostly vocals alternating between the melancholic and the ominous, beats that rumble under foot like a passing subway train. But this time out, Bevan has opted to add a few dashes of colour to his typically monochrome palette: 'Hiders' reveals its New Wave melody when the candy-stripe synths and motorik beat kick in, whilst 'Come Down To Us' leaves behind its gorgeous Weeknd-channelling beginnings to become a full-blown pop ballad.

At the end of the record Bevan drops in excerpts from Matrix co-creator Lana Wachowski's touching acceptance speech for the Human Rights Campaign's Visibility Award, discussing her gender reassignment and desire to be true to herself. Much like the unmistakeable, sui generis music of its creator, the ultimate message of this mini-masterpiece is a celebration of self-acceptance and self-expression. (Nick Pierce)


Oneohtrix Point Never - R Plus Seven

Daniel Lopatin, aka Oneohtrix Point Ever, features heavily in Simon Reynolds’s 2011 book Retromania, which compares his cut up and collage techniques with those of France's music concrete pioneers. This technique arrives at its zenith on R Plus Seven, a gorgeous yet divergent record, more tangents than regularity. Whilst thematically everything is tied together by soft synth pads and Enya-alike vocal samples, individual sounds and melodies disappear with no warning to be replaced by something completely new. Whilst at first this can be distracting, repeated listens reveal a dense dream-like world entirely bereft of convention. Like his partner, Ina Cube (aka Laurel Halo), who appears elsewhere on this list, Lopatin is not comfortable resting on his laurels (pun not intended), instead preferring to build bizarre and beautiful soundscapes, dazzling yet still comforting. R Plus Seven deserves its place here as a pioneering effort. (George Bate)


El-P and Killer Mike - Run the Jewels

The dynamic duo heavily teased on Cancer 4 Cure and R.A.P. Music finally came together this summer for a half hour of serious power rap. Whilst not quite as consistent in greatness as Kanye’s foray into so-called ‘alternative hip hop’, El-P’s production here is an impeccable reminder of who came to the game first, with his paranoid rhymes finding an equal in the charisma of Killer Mike’s Southern flow. The way the two complement and contrast throughout the album’s runtime puts similar pairings to shame, though it would have been nice to have a few moments of Funcrusher Plus level venom thrown into the mix – Run the Jewels is perhaps El-P’s most accessible record, but at times it feels as though he might be holding back as a result. That said, “Sea Legs” easily stands toe to toe with “Black Skinhead”. (Tom Dunn)


Disclosure - Settle

Disclosure were the group which spawned the most cringeworthy newspaper articles this year (I'm looking at you Guardian), as writers attempted in vain to keep up with a zeitgeist which had long since left them behind. Far more interesting than reading Alexis Petridis's "down with the kids" shtick was their actual debut record, which despite it s "deep" house (oh but is it "deep" house? Who knows? More importantly, who cares?) sound is also one of the slickest, most well written pop albums of recent years. Choosing guest vocalists on their own merit rather than for their star status, here Disclosure curate a work with an incredibly wide appeal; from casual pop radio listeners to wide-pupilled club kids, Settle’s very British allure seems to have infested every corner of the nation and beyond. (GB)


The Knife - Shaking the Habitual

As the title suggests, Olof and Karin Dreijer Andersson’s latest record makes clear that the decompressed, ambient sound of Tomorrow In a Year wasn’t just a fluke, instead building upon it and eschewing the shriller techno pop last seen on Karin’s Fever Ray. Often arresting – and very occasionally too aloof for its own good – Shaking the Habitual is the duo’s vastest, and to my mind most accomplished album yet. Alternately sweeping and machine-gun like, at times this full-frontal attack on neo-liberalism can come off as rather po-faced, and in the case of “Fracking Fluid Injection” there’s such a thing as overstretching the point, but highs like “Full of Fire” and its gender-bending message, alongside the record’s bundled “End Extreme Wealth” comic, more than make up for any misfires – sonic or soap-box. (TD)


Fuck Buttons - Slow Focus

Whilst previously solid if occasionally uninspired in its output, Andrew Hung and Benjamin John Powers’ Fuck Buttons project really came into its own on this third record, rejecting their previously crystalline soundscapes in favour of something black as tar and full of menace. Yet the somewhere deep beneath the gloopy sounds the DNA of Tarot Sport is still apparent, and whilst Slow Focus is unlikely to see any of its tracks backing the next Olympics, its heaving bass and synths see the two continuing their work as builders and experimenters, crafting work that is immediately evocative and rewarding. The initial hammering of “Brainfreeze” makes way for ‘The Red Wing’ and its neon sleaze, as Slow Focus works it way through something at once visceral and cold. Tellingly, while the London 2012 Opening Ceremony found place for “Surf Solar”, it’s Channel 4’s return to gritty, innovative TV as part of its ‘Born Risky’ campaign that seeks out the darkness of “Hidden XS”. (TD)



Prurient - Through the Window

Dominic Fernow has been making a cacophony of all sorts of different types of music (with plenty of different monikers to boot) since his first releases in the late 90s, but always with a focus on the darker end of the sonic spectrum. It's this darker focus that makes London's Blackest Ever Black label a natural home for the misanthropic American. His first release for them sees a more ambient take on his Prurient alias, all pulsating keyboard motifs and regular kickdrums in place of pummelling white noise structures. As with much techno the strength here is in the glorious repetition; Fernow finds something darkly wonderful and sticks to it. Releases as Vatican Shadow later in the year saw Fernow operating in a more "business as usual" kind of manner, but Through the Window is now the standout release amongst dozens, if not hundreds, of Fernow recordings. (GB)


Justin Timberlake - The 20/20 Experience Part One

Justified and FutureSex/LoveSounds are quite rightly considered two of the best pop records from last decade, so the fact that Justin Timberlake’s comeback manages to hold its own against those two behemoths is no small feat. Whilst the radio debut of “Suit & Tie” hinted at a more soulful direction for JT and Timbaland, this compact single betrayed the sheer expansiveness of the full record to follow; every track on The 20/20 Experience Part One is a suite in itself, switching keys, changing in mood or dropping heavily distorted sounds and samples before confidently veering off somewhere else. Carrying a real sense of space and sexiness, The 20/20 Experience Part One was easily one of the year’s most soulful records, and should have remained as a one-off. (TD)


Machinedrum - Vapor City

Machinedrum has said in recent interviews that he envisioned his latest record as a walk through a dystopian city (Will Self would be proud), with each track representative of a different sector within that metropolis. The cover image to Vapor City is a visual rendering of that place. It seems that the residents of Vapor City are fans of an interlocking series of related high-BPM electronic subgenres, with juke, jungle and drum'n'bass all playing a part in their soundtrack, and an overlaying of Machinedrum's highly polished sheen and texture binding everything together. Standout track "Gunshotta" sounds like a lost classic hiding somewhere in DJ Hype's record bag, whereas other more ambient pieces come directly from Burial's school of atmosphere; "Vizion" could almost have been copied and pasted from Untrue, but it's no worse off for it. Elsewhere in Machinedrum's busy 2013 schedule he found time for a BBC Radio 1 essential mix and one of the most interesting and cohesive mixes of the year in his Resident Advisor podcast. (GB)

All that remains is our album of the year...you can get up to speed with almost all of our choices for the year with the Spectrum Best of 2013 Spotify playlist.