Saturday, 27 July 2013

The Reel Deal: The Tenant, 1976, Dir. Roman Polanski (or A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Madman)

Few filmmakers have enjoyed such success and infamy in equal measure as Roman Polanski. His notorious past is well documented, and was splashed across the headlines again recently when he was arrested in Switzerland in 2009 and faced extradition to the United States to face criminal charges for the sexual assault of a thirteen-year-old girl in 1977.

This unavoidably horrible act, for which he remains unpunished, has stained his reputation ever since (although it has not stopped him from continuing to work with some of the best of Hollywood's talent), and informs, however invisibly, the critical response to his work. But there is no film he has made up to this point to which this episode in his past seems more relevant than the film he completed in the previous year, The Tenant. Dismissed upon its release, it is still often neglected in the official history of Polanski's career. In some respects it's easy to see why: it's not an obvious and timeless masterpiece like Chinatown or an impeccable exercise in arthouse thrills like Knife in the Water and Rosemary's Baby; it's a flawed and supremely odd work in that unmistakeably 70s mould of auteur cinema, but nevertheless it is one of his most interesting films.

The story, or what there is of one, concerns a lonely, unprepossessing bachelor named Trelkovsky, played by Polanski himself, who moves into a dingy apartment in Paris only to discover that the previous occupant, Simone, tried to commit suicide by jumping out of the window. When he visits the broken woman in hospital, where she lies bandaged from head to foot except for her eyes and yawning, ghastly mouth, she screams chillingly at the sight of him. Shortly after, he learns that she has succumbed to her injuries and died. Drawn into disputes over anti-social noise between his neighbours, and himself accused of disruptive behaviour, his mind starts to fray, paranoia sets in, and he starts to believe that the other tenants want him to adopt the persona of the dead woman he has replaced so that they can drive him to the same nasty end.

That The Tenant is one of Polanski's most autobiographical works would seem obvious from the fact that he cast himself in the lead role. A very demanding role at that, given that for large parts of the film he is the only person onscreen, and is called upon to convey charm and innocence giving way to burgeoning hysteria, or possibly even insanity. But the eeriest thing about the movie, watching it now all these years after its release, is that it seems almost to predict Polanski's subsequent fall from grace and offer a complex insight into its creator's conflicted mind. The story is a fiction, of course, and yet the drama bleeds out into reality and the future past, becoming a confession, a psychological memoir, and even a narcissistic attempt at self-exoneration.

On the one hand, Polanski portrays himself as the victim of a communal persecution. It is at least in part a film about the way that groups impose identities upon others so as to control, ostracise, and even destroy them. Trelkovsky begins to suspect that everyone who lives in or near the apartment building wants him to behave like Simone. When he goes to the local cafe, the owner insists on providing him with the same order that his predecessor would always enjoy there.

Although it's never made explicit, the ghosts of the Holocaust, which claimed the lives of both of Polanski's parents and forced him to masquerade as a Catholic child to avoid deportation, are ever present. The film may nominally be set in 70s Paris, but the architecture of the apartment block where most of the film takes place could easily have existed during the Occupation. And like low-rent Nazis, the busy-body neighbours in the building appear to target those who are obviously different: Trelkovsky because of his outsider status, and a female neighbour because of her disabled daughter. What's more, authority figures that he encounters repeatedly tell him that he's not French, despite his protestations that he is a citizen of that country. The implication is that he cannot be French to them, because he is Jewish.

On the other hand, Polanski does go some way towards an admission of guilt for his character's predicament. It's frequently hinted that Trelkovsky's suspicions, or at least the more outlandish ones, are figments of his overheated imagination, and the film gives us the option of inferring that these phantoms, if that's what they are, might stem from his uneasy conscience.

There is one scene in particular that has increased significance for viewers today. When Trelkovsky impulsively visits the funeral service for Simone, he sees the young and pretty, disabled daughter of his neighbour staring at him with an accusatory expression. The priest begins to lecture the congregation about the corruption of the flesh and its ultimate mortality; Trelkovsky becomes so distressed, so choked by an unnameable fear, that he immediately flees. The film suggests that our protagonist is in need of redemption, and that he is unwilling to confront it, although what exactly it is would have been unknown in 1976. Now we know all too well.

In the remarkable last act of The Tenant, Trelkovsky fully embraces his identity as Simone, purchasing a woman's wig, wearing her dresses and applying her makeup. Finally, he re-enacts her fate. Lying in the same hospital bed where he once met Simone for the first and only time, he looks up and sees his earlier self looking down at him, and starts to scream. What are we to make of this? Is Polanski dramatising the impossibility of the consciousness's flight from itself? Is he making the pessimistic argument that the mind's torment that it must be precisely one person instead of another is one of the unavoidable tragedies of life? If so, this could be read as an all-too-easy means of evasion by Polanski, cynically using the atrocities of 20th century history as a glib and unconvincing explanation for his personal failings.

But ultimately it is this confusion of purpose that makes the film fascinating: as a peek through the looking glass of a fractured, solipsistic and restlessly creative mind - as a portrait of the artist as a young madman, it remains indelible viewing.

Here's the enjoyably corny trailer: 

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Last Orders - The World's End Review

So the end is nigh, it seems, for Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright's affectionate, gently satirical brand of genre-mashing comedy. Sadly, however, this particular apocalypse is more TS Eliot than Roland Emmerich, going out with a whimper instead of a bang.

The World's End, being billed as the third and last in the duo's retrospectively-created 'Three Flavours Cornetto' trilogy, once again employs American pop-art conventions to offset and colour its quintessentially British style of lightly mocking, bathetic comedy. This time we follow early forties burnout, Gary King (Pegg), as he rounds up his similarly aged mates from sixth form, all of whom are, to say the least, unimpressed by his reappearance, and emotionally blackmails them into recreating the legendary (at least in King's mind) pub crawl they once attempted around their home town. Unluckily for them, things quickly go all Invasion of the Body Snatchers, as King and cohorts discover that their childhood stomping ground has been overtaken by an invading alien force.

A local population turned into dead-eyed drones? A foolhardy quest for an alehouse? I'm surely not alone in thinking that this is all very reminiscent of the creative team's first feature, Shaun of the Dead? And this is precisely the problem with The World's End: just as the gang quickly realise that every pub in town has been assimilated and homogenised by a commercial chain, the audience is liable to encounter a creeping and unshakeable sense of déjà vu from the opening minutes.

Much has been made of the central love-hate relationship between Pegg's idiotic man-baby (or 'maybe' as one character labels him) and Nick Frost's buttoned-down corporate lawyer, Andrew Knightley. Andrew has grown increasingly resentful of the irresponsible King, who yaps at his heels like a demanding pet, playing on his decency and pity to drag him into embarrassing or even dangerous situations. Although this friendship goes to darker places than in their first cinema pairing, it is essentially a retread of the turbulent bromance between Shaun and Ed, which is similarly forced to a head by extraordinary events outside of their control, and it has to be said that their respective roles as straight guy and buffoon in that film, here reversed, felt like the more natural and comedic fit.

And what of the rest of their cohorts? You'll notice that I haven't even named them yet, and that's not just because of my sloppy writing technique (although it could partly owe to that). Honestly, it doesn't really matter whether you ever get to know their names, seeing that they pretty much fade into the background shortly after being introduced, and are given little to do besides serving as ringside spectators at the Pegg and Frost emotional boxing match, which quickly becomes the only interesting element of the narrative. When you have performers with the dramatic chops and proven comic ability of Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan, and Martin Freeman, this surely amounts to some sort of Bible of Screenwriting cardinal sin.

Not as big of a sin for a comedy, mind you, as the quite alarmingly thin spread of jokes. I kept waiting for it to start getting funny...and waiting...and waiting...and it never happened. For the most part the cinema I saw it in was deadly silent, broken by an occasional titter that often felt more obligatory than genuine. It is curiously flat, lacking both the acutely-observed characterisation of Shaun of the Dead or even the camp, enjoyable ridiculousness of Hot Fuzz. In place of comedy set-pieces there are endless and increasingly dull fight and chase scenes, to the point where one begins to suspect that the movie's extreme fast-pace is designed to trick one into not noticing that the humour content is in short supply. Even more disappointingly, it lacks the colourful cast of supporting characters on such ample display in the preceding films. To be fair, this might have something to do with the fact that the townsfolk have been replaced by soulless replicants, but then this raises the question of whether having a comedy script that requires a bunch of people behaving coldly identical is really conducive to laughs.

And that is the overwhelming impression with which I walked away from The World's End: one of squandered potential. There is obviously so much richly humorous and poignant material to be sucked from its central conceit of grown men observing the gulf between themselves and their adolescence, but instead of draining this concept to the dregs, Pegg and Wright nurse at it like a great aunt with a half-pint of shandy.

I'm sure Wright and Pegg will go on to do better work again; they're both too talented not to. And to give him credit as a visual stylist, Wright does once more demonstrate his flair for bringing dynamism, panache and Hollywood production values to his rendering of British suburbia. It's just a shame that his third attempt at filming the oft-neglected cultural wastelands of Middle England should have turned out so middle-of-the-road.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Pacific Rim Review

According to Stacker Pentecost, the giant robots of Pacific Rim aren’t just here to save the day, they’re cancelling the apocalypse. Whilst their success is basically assured for the goodwill of audiences everywhere, director Guillermo Del Toro’s isn’t. Putting one of contemporary cult cinemas biggest names at the helm of a smash-em-up monster movie was always going to raise a hope disguised as cynical intrigue amongst critics, at once apathetic to the post-Transformers blockbuster landscape and eager for someone to come along who just might shake things up. Yet whilst Del Toro, unlike all the other mini-Bays out there, clearly has a love of the material, it’s this unabashed admiration of tokusatsu cinema that is the man’s undoing; this film is a fanboy’s splurge with a multi-million dollar budget, and it rides the significant highs and lows accordingly.

Creatures are emerging from a fissure on the Earth’s sea bed, gigantic reptilian ‘Kaiju’ beasts pockmarked with neon, wreaking wanton destruction on our major cities. When traditional weaponry falls short, the Earth’s governments band together and push forward the ‘Jaeger’ program; giant mecha controlled by two pilots sharing an intense neural link. However, when the program is seen to be falling short in the face of an increase in Kaiju events, its leader, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), is forced to bring former star pilot Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) out of retirement in a last ditch effort to stop the beasts.

If this sounds textbook, it is, and Pacific Rim truly suffers for it. Del Toro’s vision of giant robots battling monsters pays plenty of smart references to the films of the past (Godzilla’s iconic scream appears within the first five minutes), but that’s where the ingenuity in the script ends. Hunnam is likable enough with what he has to work with as our poor, broken lead, but the film’s attempts to shun the cynicism of recent cash-in features lends it an earnestness that betrays an outright slavishness toward the Saturday morning cartoons of yore – you saw this film twenty years ago, and it probably had a name like “Power Rangers: The Movie.” 

This cookie-cutter approach is given a foil in the form of Burn Gorman and Charlie Day as two bickering scientists with seemingly opposed views on the Kaiju threat, always at each other's throats in the backdrop while the “real men” fight it out in neon-soaked Hong Kong or day-glow bright Sidney. Their roles in their film, whilst attempting to add levity, instead act as further unnecessary padding to an over-long film, with Charlie Day only succeeding in becoming more annoying with each scene he appears in. Frustratingly, his character arc touches upon concepts in the plot that could have been developed much further – the neural link between pilots, so clearly intended as some thoughtful new take on the genre, is left to rot as a flashy gimmick.

But who am I to bemoan plot? People pay to see these films for total destruction, and in this area Pacific Rim rules. Guillermo Navarro’s cinematography excels where so many other tentpole action films currently fail – showing the heft and weight in each blow, lingering over the action obsessively rather than giddily hopping about and hoping the camera pan conveys the impact CGI often falls short of. There’s real attention to detail in the designs of the Kaiju and Jaeger, and for any fans of the genre it is in the moments of battle where the film really shines.

Unfortunately, even these scenes are marred by an awful choice of soundtrack, whilst the epic Hong Kong sequence is followed up by an attempt at humour so shockingly lame, you will believe you’re watching Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla. And I very much doubt Del Toro wants you to be thinking of that monster feature over this beast’s 2.5 hour run time, even if Pacific Rim does manage to muster up a little more charm than that ugly duckling can lay claim to.

Colour me apprehensive for Gareth Edwards’ turn at the genre next summer.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Apocalypse Wow: 5 great films about the end of the world

With two knockabout comedies concerning the end of the world (This is the End and The World's End) crashing into cinemas within weeks of each other like so many deadly asteroids, it appears that Armageddon remains a potent and fertile subject matter for filmmakers. Whether either of these features joins the canon of apocalyptic cinema remains to be seen, but if so they will be in very illustrious, if often decidedly gloomy, company. Here are five of the very best that this very broad genre has to offer. Will they help avert imminent global catastrophe? No. Will they instruct you in how to survive in a ravaged wasteland without resorting to cannibalism? Nope. Will they blow your socks off? Hells, yes.

The Seventh Seal, 1957, Dir. Ingmar Bergman
Leave it to cinematic depressive par excellence Ingmar Bergman to weave together the Book of Revelations, plague-ridden Medieval Europe and existentialist agonising over the absence of God into one timeless and majestic tapestry, so lodged in cultural memory that it even recently received its own Google doodle. The Swedish master filmmaker's parable creates a vivid world of self-flagellating religious zealots and travelling players oppressed by forebodings of the day of judgment. Bergman's substitute for himself in the narrative is an atheistic knight of the crusades, played by Max Von Sydow, engaged in a chess battle with Death and desperate for a glimpse of meaning and hope in the universe.
The miracle of this movie is how Bergman's delicacy of touch and mastery of technique turns a story that could have been very heavy-going into an absolute pleasure to watch. The moment at the end when Death leads the cast of characters in a merry jig across a hilltop is a perfect metaphor for the film's peerless blend of terrifying, universal themes and life-affirmingly beautiful storytelling: a dance with death, indeed.

La Jetée, 1962, Dir. Chris Marker

The enigmatic and hugely erudite film essayist Chris Marker's science-fiction gem is often ranked amongst the greatest short films ever made. A male prisoner in the aftermath of the Third World War narrates his own fateful story of being sent backwards and forwards in time "to call past and future to the rescue of the present". Whilst carrying out his mission in pre-war 1960s France, he falls in love with a young woman and seeks to escape his involuntary occupation in order to join her in the past.

Marker's unique vision is on full display, the intellectually-inclined filmmaker jettisoning nearly all of the conventions and tropes of sci-fi cinema (spectacle, gadgets, alien life-forms) to dwell upon the philosophical riches and melancholy beauty of his material. Obviously La Jetée is most famous for being a series of still photographs instead of the usual celluloid stream at 24 frames per second, and as well as giving the work an aura all of its own, it's the perfect style for what the film has to say about the allure and pain of memory, transforming the movie into a collection of snapshots of a life already lived out. Appropriately enough, once seen, this film is never forgotten.

And you can watch the whole damn thing on Youtube right now:

Invasion of the BodySnatchers, 1978, Dir. Philip Kaufman

This genuinely chilling 70s version of the oft re-told 'bodysnatchers' mythology is something rarer than the unicorn, Jersey Devil and Beast of Exmoor combined: a remake better than the original. Not that I want to slight the better known 50s thriller about an invading force of pods from outer space which quickly start replacing Earth's human inhabitants with soulless replicants, as it remains a creepy and atmospheric slice of McCarthy-era 'reds-under-the-beds' paranoia. But whilst Kaufman's version keeps the same basic story and structure, it cranks up the menace from slightly worrying to downright terrifying.

If you're anything like me, then you'll agree that the most unsettling of all primal fears is that your loved ones might mean you harm and have sinister designs upon you. Well, this little bastard mercilessly taps, nay, drills, into those very same anxieties for the best part of two hours with the aim of leaving its audience a gibbering, nervous wreck. In the best possible way, of course.  

 Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, 1984, Dir. Hayao Miyazaki

The first feature-length film released by Japanese animation powerhouse Studio Ghibli and the East's (superior) answer to Walt Disney, director Hayao Miyazaki, is, like most of their work, a thoughtful and compassionate joy.

Set a thousand years after a war that almost extinguished humanity, it tells the story of princess Nausicaä, determined to prevent conflict between her people and the gigantic, armoured insects called Ohmu that populate a nearby jungle. Although by no means up to the standard of Miyazaki's later masterpieces like Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, it establishes many of the deeply humanistic and prescient  themes of caring for one's environment and seeking understanding instead of dominance that would come to characterise his style and elevate his work above the increasingly conservative output of the Mouse House. Also mercifully free of wisecracking animals.

 Melancholia, 2011, Dir. Lars Von Trier

Melancholia begins with a slow-motion sequence depicting Earth's destruction as it collides with a newly-discovered planet in our solar system. It's so drawn-out and visually ravishing that it begins to resemble some kind of disaster pornography, making Roland Emmerich's orgies of destruction like 2012 seem positively restrained by comparison. Perversely, perhaps, Von Trier has crafted an end of the world movie where said event is not to be feared, but revelled in as some sort of blessed, cathartic relief from what he apparently sees as nature's inherent evil.

Structurally, the film is as innovative as any Von Trier has ever made. Beginning as a fly-on-the-wall document of the fallout at a weekend country wedding between two members of the affluent upper middle-class, one of whom is manic depressive Justine (Kirsten Dunst), by the second half it has morphed into a low-key chamber drama unfolding beneath the shadow of the planetary crisis.

In some way the movie is a negative image of The Seventh Seal, replacing Bergman's appeal to human love and sacrifice as the meaning and value of life with a wholehearted, provocative, and surely repulsive for many, embrace of death. But the often misunderstood Von Trier's ambition is not as hopelessly nihilistic as that sounds: in Justine's recognition of the futility of existence and our pointless attempts at exercising control over it, he finds something oddly liberating and even hopeful. 

Saturday, 6 July 2013

A trip through time - A Field In England Review

"This country is on the edge of something," declares one character towards the end of Brighton-based filmmaker Ben Wheatley's fourth feature, A Field In England. It's not alone: Wheatley himself has, over the last couple of years, innovated and subverted his way to the cutting edge of British cinema with films that echo those of other all-English one-offs like Nicolas Roeg and Derek Jarman in their formal gymnastics and flagrant disregard of propriety and convention.

Of all his provocative output so far, England is undoubtedly what would be called the most 'out-there'. Almost totally lacking in the usual comforts of narrative coherence, it recounts the terrifying ordeal of a motley gang of English civil war soldiers, brilliantly played by a cast of British character actors, who, fed up with the constant fighting, abscond from the battlefield through a hedgerow and head off in search of an ale house supposedly located nearby. Unfortunately for them, they end up the captives of an arrogant and sadistic alchemist, O'Neill, played with exquisite menace by Michael Smiley, and are forced to dig for a treasure the magician believes to be buried in the vicinity, whilst subsisting on a diet made almost exclusively of hallucinogenic mushrooms gathered from the local flora.

Needless to say, things quickly descend into madness and hysteria, both for the characters onscreen and the grammar of the cinematic storytelling itself. Wheatley conjures a peculiar, pungently otherworldly atmosphere via the recurring use of esoteric tableau vivant, the cast suddenly breaking the fourth wall by arranging themselves in motionless living pictures, as if illustrating that the characters are frozen in remote historical time, or pointing towards some inaccessible metaphysical truth underlying their plight.

Indeed, there does appear to be a philosophical dimension of sorts to the film (albeit in a mode much more stimulant-fuelled rambling late-night student argument than rigorous lecture hall debate). Wheatley has said that he chose the Civil War as a backdrop not simply because it is a criminally underrepresented period in British moviemaking, but because it marked a revolution in thought as well as civil life, with the English throwing off the shackles of received wisdom about authority and religious superstition. The fractured structure of England would appear to be striving to emulate what it perhaps felt like to be living on the jagged edge of a new world. Interpreted in this way, the story of the soldiers attempts to free themselves from the bondage of the tyrannical O'Neill functions as a microcosm of what the country was undergoing psychologically and sociologically at the time.

But one probably shouldn't take its mysteries too seriously: Wheatley has said that his intention was to make a modern successor to the spate of 'midnight matinee' movies that became enormously popular in the late seventies, such as Rocky Horror Picture Show and Eraserhead. In other words, this is a film striving for cult status, and indeed it's certainly possible to imagine fans gathering in the future, dressed in filthy period rags and reciting the ripe and knowingly ridiculous dialogue.

Using the Empire method of film review, one could indeed say that it comes off as a feature-length episode of Blackadder directed by David Lynch. Like the great American pop surrealist, Wheatley has no qualms about using editing and sound design as a way of assaulting the audience, as exemplified in one incredible, brain-splitting sequence where the film evokes a mushroom trip by cutting back and forth between different shots at incredible speed, an effect designed to overload the viewer's cerebellum as it attempts to process multiple images simultaneously.

And like Lynch, Wheatley is concerned to establish a mood of unnameable and un-placeable dread. What the demonic energies that possess the field actually are remains unanswered, but Wheatley and his screenwriting partner Amy Jump are at pains to suggest something intangibly awful lurking beneath the surface. One moment, where Reece Shearsmith's cowardly academic Whitehead emerges from the alchemist's tent, bound to a rope and sporting a monstrous grin straight out of a Chris Cunningham music video, is the most inexplicably creepy thing you'll see all year.

With its unruliness and experimentalism, A Field In England is unlikely to be for everybody. In fact, it's probably hardly for anybody (hence the 'cult' vibe). But in my opinion and those of others who admire Wheatley's singular, gutsy vision, whilst the distant past might have been very dark indeed, the near future - of British cinema at least - is looking much brighter.