A short while ago on PPH, we brought you the news that, at last, rollerskating’s Cliff Richard was to star in a ribald sex comedy with Danny Dyer. We thanked our lucky stars, and dared not dream it could get any better for the British film industry which, according to the Guardian, is experiencing a golden age.
In its article, the Guardian failed to mention Run For Your Wife. But its oversights didn’t end there. It also somehow neglected to cite the upcoming Kill Keith, which (as a number of publications have already revealed, I’m sure) features TV personality and erstwhile Naked Jungle host Keith Chegwin embarking on a murderous rampage as he tries to kill off celebrities such as Tony Blackburn, Joe Pasquale and Vanessa Feltz.
The truth is, I have to go out now, and I’ve already stretched this item as far as it can go. So I’ll leave you with the film’s QT-aping poster and its marvellously unattributed poster quote.
Shit just got real:
In Everything Must Go, based on the short story ‘Why Don’t You Dance?’ by Raymond Carver, Will Ferrell stars as Nick Halsey, an alcoholic salesman who, having lost his job and wife on the same day, finds all of his belongings strewn on the lawn. Soon, he forms a tentative bond with a lonely, overweight neighbourhood kid, and resolves to stage a 5-day yard sale in front of his house, initially borne of a bloody-minded obstinacy to stay put, and eventually to purge his demons and advance tentatively toward a new beginning.
The key themes of memories, loss and new starts are nothing new for an American indie, and neither are the burnished, gentle tones of the cinematography, insistent bursts of sad acoustic guitar or drifting evocations of suburban disquiet and disillusionment. There is a gentle humour at work, occasionally tinged by a more scabrous edge; one explicit yet incongrous scene pitches for Lynchian suburban hell, but just feels wrong.
Laura Dern, appearing and appealing in one scene, is underused, and Rebecca Hall’s lonely, pregnant new neighbour is really used as little more than a device to bring us to the conclusion that Ferrell’s egregious externalisation is a mere variation on the rest of the world’s desire to keep their troubles behind closed doors.
The melancholy vibe, however, is pervasive and Ferrell, with his sad eyes, furrowed brow and gently imposing presence, gives the film real heart. With his relentless drinking, morally questionable past and salesmanship patter, he appears to have walked in from Steely Dan’s world of dissolute drifters, lapsed family men, addicts and schemers; a Deacon Blues or Cousin Dupree for our times. I wouldn’t be surprised if the film’s title has been taken straight from the sardonic duo’s 2003 album.
Gentle, absorbing and entertaining, Everything Must Go is a promising debut for writer-director Dan Rush, and well worth a watch.
Everything Must Go is in cinemas now. A version of this review first appeared in PPH coverage of the 54th BFI London Film Festival in October 2010.
Bay-dar bay·dar/ˈbādär / noun: the ability to deduce from a trailer that a film may consist of nothing more than a mindless cacophony of action and noise.
Upon first viewing the trailer for Real Steel, the latest effort from director Shawn Levy, I was surely not the only one whose Baydar tingled with the fear that this may be yet another film with nothing more to recommend it than the prospect of more large robots beating the Megatron out of one another. So, are we dealing with Rocky VII: This Time It’s Robots, or can Levy and leading man Hugh Jackman bring subtlety to the robo-blockbuster format?
In Real Steel, we find ourselves in the year 2020, a time when the primal violence of traditional boxing has been replaced in the public’s affection by the altogether more visceral thrills of huge, human-controlled machines fighting to the ‘death’ in the ring (think Robot Wars on a WWE scale). Jackman is Charlie Kenton, an ex-boxer who now cruises the highways of Texas and Nevada, fighting his rusting robot for small change and evading creditors at small town fairs.
Following the death of an ex-girlfriend, Kenton finds himself at a court hearing regarding the custody of his estranged son, leading to him strike the kind of deal which both stains his character in ways which seem impossible to overcome and sets up the father and son road trip which defines the film. The younger Kenton, Max, is a fan of the World Robot Boxing League and it is this common bond which offers Charlie’s shot at redemption.
Max is beautifully played by 12-year-old Dakota Goyo, whose previous roles include the young protagonist in Thor. His is a show-stealing, witty and wonderfully nuanced performance which avoids the brat trap that has snared so many child actors before him, and he easily overshadows Jackman’s cynical Charlie. There are echoes of the recent Super 8 in the uneasy, Spielberg-esque relationship which develops between Max, Charlie and Atom, the outdated robot, discovered by Max, which they take together into the seedy underworld of the low boxing circuit.
Whereas most of the fighting automatons resemble humanoid versions of the aforementioned Robot Wars contraptions (names such as ‘Noisy Boy’ being typical), Atom is more like Ted Hughes’ Iron Giant in a fencing mask. His glowing eyes possess a strange humanity that hint ambiguously throughout the film that he may indeed by sentient. Meanwhile, in the background, the supposedly unbeatable World Heavyweight Champion, Zeus, lurks like an end of level baddie.
There are some complaints: Zeus’ owner is a laughable Russian oligarch, whose accent and cold war frostiness recalls Dolph Lundgren in Rocky IV (“If he dies, he dies”). There is also a strangely undeveloped relationship between Charlie and his ex-trainer’s daughter, played by Evangeline Lilly, who possesses a faith and trust in Kenton that his behaviour scarcely warrants. Our major villain, Ricky (another ex-prize fighter) also meets a less than satisfactory fate.
Ultimately, Real Steel lives or dies by its fight sequences, which are spectacular. As a film clearly aimed at a young demographic, the substitution of robots for humans allows a level of violence which would put Scorsese’s Raging Bull to shame. Using the legendary pugilist Sugar Ray Leonard as an adviser has ensured that many of the bouts are more realistic in terms of tactics than some traditional boxing movies, with the climactic battle bearing more than a slight resemblance to the celebrated doc Rumble In The Jungle. The novelty of placing the warring machines within the boundaries of the ring also allows for a visual focus that the roaming brawls of Michael Bay’s dreadful Transformers series lacks.
The mystery over how aware or otherwise Atom is adds something close to pathos to the fight scenes, as Max clearly cringes at the blows his adored discovery is forced to endure. Though lacking the broadly human characteristics of previous lovable robots – WALL-E and Short Circuit‘s Johnny 5 spring to mind – Atom’s simple underdog status is enough to inspire us to root for him as he battles the odds, not to mention a ten-foot colossus.
After a fairly dull first half hour, Real Steel turns into an enjoyable and accessible film, with the outstanding Goyo and the excellent special effects (many of the sequences are improved by the use of animatronics rather than CGI) particularly successful. So, rather than simply Rocky with robots, this is a film which provides action and even a modicum of emotion in surprisingly effective measures, even offering an ending which is not quite as predictable as its story arc suggests.
Contributor Michael Mand can be followed on Twitter @grindermand. Real Steel is released in cinemas on Friday October 14.
Media coverage abounds in memoriam of Steve Jobs, and I must say, I’m pleasantly surprised that 1) I’m not bored, and 2) I actually feel refreshingly inspired by his story. He may not have invented the iPod, the Mac or the iPhone himself, but it was his brand of leadership that inspired those around him to give us what we wanted but didn’t think was possible.
Before reading all this coverage, I had no idea that Jobs owned Pixar for two decades (1986-2006). But it makes perfect sense – just as Apple products distinguish themselves from PC products, Pixar films distinguish themselves from the other animated films on offer. Think Toy Story (1995) vs. The Lion King (1994). Monsters Inc. (2001) vs. Shrek (2001). Finding Nemo (2003) vs. Shark Tale (2004). Before Disney bought Pixar, their animated films banked on headstrong fantasy characters singing pop songs in exotic locales. DreamWorks Animation added more star power and humour to this formula, making sure to wink at the kids. But Pixar wasn’t afraid to feature humbler characters that don’t sing, often in familiar locations. Pixar’s pioneering films are bold enough to leave the simplistic cartoonish stuff behind and opt for more realism mixed in with the fantasy, developing more complex plots, modern themes and deeper character relationships. Because of this, Pixar films offer much greater social relevance than its contemporaries, expanding the scope of animation’s reach.
The social commentary in Pixar films sneaks up on us grown-ups, who are usually just watching these films to keep the kids occupied. WALL-E is the most obvious example of this. You expect a film about an endearing robot, but you also get a glimpse of a possible future in which Earth is littered with so much garbage it’s uninhabitable, leaving people stuck on spaceships with nothing to do but eat and stare at screens all day while machines do all the work . Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Finding Nemo is also clearly pro-sustainability – every time a human is featured, he’s attacking Nemo and his peeps. Nemo gets captured by a scuba diver and imprisoned in a dentist’s fish tank, then almost gets snared again by a fishing net. This realism is a far cry from Sebastian the crab conducting pond creatures in a serenade in The Little Mermaid fourteen years earlier.
You could even argue that Toy Story 3 has social resonance in today’s struggling economy. Yes, it’s about Andy going off to university, and we don’t hear about his tuition fees. But those toys have essentially been made redundant. Their employer Andy no longer needs them, and they feel like they’ve lost their purpose in life. On the rebound, they get new jobs at a day care, where they get bullied and abused by a treacherous, overstuffed boss. In the end, they escape that awful company and seek a quiet place to enjoy retirement. Even the young one they left behind (i.e. Barbie) has unionised the workers to improve conditions. Okay, I know it sounds like a stretch. But look at some of Toy Story 3‘s contemporaries: Shrek is a fairy tale and Kung Fu Panda is an expanded fable. The non-Pixar films don’t approach reality, let alone social commentary. And yes, recent films like Persepolis and Waltz with Bashir utilise animation for social commentary too, but they’re definitely niche films with more limited box-office appeal.
The social resonance of Pixar films would hardly be possible if they hadn’t utilised beautiful filmic language to tell their stories. WALL-E contains so little dialogue that it’s more like a modern silent film with brilliant sound design. And that four-minute montage of married life in the beginning of Up moves any person with a functioning heart to tears, without using a single word. While other animated films may be visually tricked-out, Pixar has a way of humanising computer animation in innovative ways.
On their website, Pixar credits Jobs for their successes: “The one thing he always said was to simply ‘make it great’. He is why Pixar turned out the way we did and his strength, integrity and love of life has made us all better people.” Pixar’s people may be better because of Jobs, but so are those of us who got a fresh look at society by watching their films.
Will Peach is one of the site editors over at Gap Daemon, the gap year community website for backpackers and gap year travellers. Currently living in Spain, you can find out more about his language learning pursuits at myspanishadventure.com.
If you’d asked me a few months ago what I found to be the single most offensive thing about film, I really wouldn’t have been able to tell you. My interest was only ever a passive one. However, now that I find myself in Spain in a wild attempt to learn the language, get under the skin of the culture and finally reveal just what it is exactly that can be found lying beneath that aging mask of Zorro, my apathetic opinion of the past is being challenged by a particular vagary of foreign viewing. That’s right: dubbing. In the absence of one single, universal language, I have had to learn to cope with this aural game of smoke and mirrors.
It all began one evening when I settled down in front of my Spanish apartment’s fuzzy Sony mini-TV and switched on Bangkok Dangerous in the hope of drowning out the tunes pumping out of the gay bar from the street below. The jet-black mullet of the balding Nicolas Cage hoved into view, his bovine eyes narrowed, and his lips opened. And then… what the hell was that?! Cage’s mannered, trademark bark had been replaced by the disarming tones of an effete, lisping Spaniard.
If it’s bad in the case of a two-bob action film, it’s worse with the classics. Two nights ago I tried to watch Rocky, a film so popular here that the iconic image of the first film can be spotted on the T-shirt of at least one passing Spaniard per day. Given my experience of watching it here, and the dubbing massacre that ensued, I doubt if any of the film’s fans would be able to recognise the actual voice of star Sylvester Stallone. Not that they would care (ignorance is bliss after all) yet, for someone like me, a long time fan of the movie, watching it without hearing the infamous drawl of the down-and-out Philly southpaw was a rather painful experience. If the television programming body or the Spanish Film Commission did away with the process of dubbing, at least I’d have the option of hearing how ridiculous Stallone’s voice really is, instead of the finely clipped Spanish-voice actor kicking back with a far-too-casual “Adddrrrriiiiiaaaaannnnn” before launching full pelt into a 100mph delivery of inaudible dialogue.
The same thing happened with Pulp Fiction, which I was only able to watch for half an hour before the impact of the film became so lessened by the act of dubbing. It’s strange to think how suddenly a good film can become, despite being cinematically arresting, unwatchable, when the voices of characters fail to match the actions on screen. Unlike subtitles, dubbing has a distancing effect which often fatally disrupts the internal logic a film tries so hard to achieve to get you to believe in what you’re watching.
The problem with dubbing and its impact on the portrayal of character extends to dialogue in film too, in particular cursing which, for me, can lift any stale drama or action feature and is especially warranted out here in Extremadura where I haven’t heard a public “shit”, “fuck” or “cunt” in a month. The Spanish way of cursing, when applied to the dubbing of foreign films, leaves me unsatisfied. How can the Spanish “agillipollao”, for example, represent “asshole”, “cocksucker” and “motherfucker” all at once? This lack of diversity, or rather lack of creativity in translation, is robbing me of one of my greatest joys in film, namely the ability to seek solace in nasty language.
Language, for me, is what it’s all about. I never used to mind dubbing before I became a language student. I used to find the whole process of replacing another actor’s voice with a foreign equivalent largely comical. It was something mainly reserved for holiday hotel rooms, where’d you get in from a day of battling Germans for sunbeds to switching on the TV and watching, for a few minutes at least, The Last Action Hero, before eventually finding something better to do. Or, as I’d like to more accurately point out, school trips to Western Europe where you and your mates would joyously stumbe upon the local porn channel to find a big-titted American blonde overdubbed with the grinding (if you’ll excuse the pun) accent of a French native. Back then, in circumstances of youth and folly, dubbing was inherently innocent and forgivably foreign. It would never deprive you and your monolingual mates of taking it in turns to stand about in the lavatory while the other gets prime viewing in front of the foreign cable box, tissue-paper clasped firmly in hand.
Now that I’m possession of a foreign language, and I’m that much more grown up, dubbing is a nuisance. The last thing I want to do at the end of the day after listening to my Spanish Rasta housemate harp on about Frisbee and “hierba” for hours, is watch what I know is a half-decent film, spoiled by the shortcomings of more incomprehensible foreign gibberish.
Can’t I just have the original again please? I’m tired of all this.
P.S. It’s not all bad. Check out this video for some improvisatory dubbing gold. If only dubbing was always this creative.
In its first appearance since its inaugural event in December 2008, Film Africa, the London African Film Festival will return, taking place from the 3rd – 13th November 2011 in venues including Hackney Picturehouse, Brixton Ritzy, RichMix and SOAS. The festival programme will showcase more than 50 of Africa’s best films and 15 UK premieres, as well as a wide-ranging selection of Q&As, panel discussions and live performances.
Film Africa will open with the multi-award winning film Microphone, featuring a special presentation by the Egyptian actor, director and human rights activist Khaled Abol Naga and a live performance by Dele Sosimi and Dudu Sarr.
Other guests in attendance will include filmmakers and actors Zina Saro-Wiwa, Sarah Maldoror, Ariane Astrid Atodji, Dorylia Calmel, Sara Blecher and Kamauwa Ndung’u, all of whom will be present to talk to audiences during the festival.
As well as an exciting programme of African experimental film (which itself includes five premieres), there will be a special focus on Africa’s foremost women filmmakers. Sarah Maldoror – the first woman to make a feature film in Africa – will be in attendance to present her film Sambizanga and do a Q&A with audiences.
Other programme highlights include the inauguration of The Distribution Forum, featuring panellists who are committed to improving the distribution and exhibition of African film in the UK (Sunday 6 November, SOAS, free and open to the public); and The Silver Baobab Award for Best Short African Film, with EcoBank sponsoring a prize of £2000 for the winning film, to be presented by filmmaker Sarah Maldoror.
If that wasn’t already enough, there will also be live entertainment throughout the festival, with 9 nights of sounds from a host of London’s most exciting African-inspired musicians and DJs, including Grupo Lokito, the Krar Collective, Mashasha&Sam, Namvula Rennie, Bumi Thomas and DJs Rita Ray, Africathy, Volta 45 and Suga Kan’n.
In summing up the importance of the event, Film Africa Co-Director and Senior Lecturer in African Film at SOAS, Dr Lindiwe Dovey, says: ‘There has never been greater interest in African film, and Film Africa aims to celebrate and participate in this movement. A half-century after Africans started making their own films, supplanting the patronising iconographies evident in colonial cinema set in Africa, African Cinema is finally being recognised across the globe.’
It looks essential, and PPH can’t wait!
Visit the Film Africa website for more information.
Paddy Considine’s 2007 Dog Altogether was one of the shorts of the season, winning the Venice Silver Lion, a BAFTA and a BIFA for the Best Short Film. Tyrannosaur is its feature length offspring; a film about inherent violence and its rebounded effects. Considine said of Dog Altogether that his intention was to get the audience to sympathise with a monster, and Tyrannosaur expands on that premise, fleshing out the story of the original two protagonists.
Taken at face value, it’s as bleak as can be; Gary Oldman’s Nil by Mouth immediately springs to mind. Joseph (Peter Mullan), a widower, is a slave to his anger. Blindly seeking sanctuary from his world of rage, he stumbles into the life of Hannah (Olivia Colman) – a woman seemingly held together by her Christian faith – through the door of the charity shop where she works. She is kind to Joseph, makes him a cup of tea and shows concern, and says she’ll pray for Joseph. In return he has nothing but contempt and spite for her generosity. The repulsion is all Joseph’s but he is drawn to the unconditional kindness and gradually begins to open up to Hannah, she helping him through the death of a friend. As Hannah’s friendship guides Joseph to a better personal understanding of himself, Hannah’s life begins to fall apart, and Joseph finds himself confronted with feelings of responsibility.
Joseph’s role is tailor made for Mullan (think of Swanney in Trainspotting or Joe in My Name is Joe), a man eaten away by his own anger to almost nothing but snarling viciousness. Colman’s performance is remarkable, and the stand out of the two, though not simply because she is best known as Sophie in the Channel 4 comedy, Peep Show. Over the course of the film Hannah’s visage of calm compassion weathers away like chalk, the shit her abusive husband gives her gradually chipping away at her charity-shop volunteer façade. As her story comes to a conclusion, there is a climactic scene in which her world finally collapses into a distraught, devastated release of a paradoxical freedom. It’s a fantastically powerful, painful moment and worthy of recognition.
Considine succeeds in presenting a beautiful monster, and it’s the little flashes of humanity and compassion, in small gestures, that balance the bleak reality of the characters’ lives. As the film progresses, the love buried under years of anger is delicately teased from Joseph’s character through Mullan’s acting and Considine’s direction. Coming home or leaving, Joseph invariably passes Sam (played by Samuel Bottomley), a neighbour’s little boy seemingly permanently evicted from his own home to ‘play outside,’ whilst his mum’s cruel boyfriend visits with his snarling Staffordshire bull terrier. The concern and respect they show one another despite the staccato form their contact exists in is built slowly for the spectator, deepening with every meeting, conveyed subtly in a simple, “What you up to?” or a silent moment of eye contact. The humanity glows in each scene they share.
Where Tyrannosaur begins to feel false is in the forced attempts to show the humanity of the characters. After the funeral of Joseph’s close friend, for example, the wake scene bears the heavy handed prescription of a set piece. The tense relationship Joseph evidently had with the dead man’s daughter slowly subsides under alcohol and merriment. Songs are sung, things said in honour of the newly departed and a kind of dreamy montage stretches to timelessness, a snapshot of working class authenticity; but it’s a cliché. The common joy that builds as the mourners celebrate life through death is simply too predictable. The soundtrack must take responsibility for this too. At times it is overbearing, too leading in its lack of subtlety and clumsy lyrics. The original music is by Dan Baker and Chris Baldwin, both guitarists in Riding the Low, a band fronted by Considine.
The opening sequence is enough on its own for one to get excited about the future of Considine as a director, though. The film opens with Joseph, can of Red Stripe in hand, shouting abuse through the doorway of a pub he is leaving, drunk and livid, his dog tied up outside. A parallel montage sequence begins between this scene and another in which he sits on the edge of a bed thumping his own head with the handle of a shovel like a slow metronome, the actions of the past (née present) echoing with the actions of the present (née future) and vice versa; the sound, image and edit marry in a rhythm that bridges the presented temporal dichotomy of the action/consequence of kicking your own dog to death. Considine is capable of capturing the minutiae of introspective human emotion to reveal a tragic beauty.
Tyrannosaur is in cinemas from Friday 7 October.
In critical terms “quirky” is a much-derided word these days, often with good reason. It’s twinned with derisory adjectives like “arch” and “knowing”, and screenwriters like Diablo Cody get taken to task for cobbling together character from a series of meaningless phrases like “honest to blog” and “homeslice”. Look around, though, and quirk is everywhere; widespread and readily accessible. Quirky Zooey Deschanel has made a career out of it. Quirky Natalie Portman won an Oscar by subverting the common perception of her as a sweet nothing who coaxes Zach Braff out of affected bouts of melancholia that involve paralysing his mother with a dishwasher. Her quirky predecessor and Black Swan co-star Winona Ryder regained some credibility by playing off a similar typecasting that had stuck with her since Reality Bites. There are countless other examples of women quirking it up in different films over the years – Parker Posey for Hal Hartley, Christina Ricci for Vincent Gallo, Renee Zellweger for Cameron Crowe, Meg Ryan for Rob Reiner – to varying degrees of success. Currently Greta Gerwig reigns supreme amongst her peers, occupying roles for Noah Baumbach and Whit Stillman identical to the ones she played in the string of meaningless mumblecore movies years earlier, and which require her to do little more than spout ponderous drivel about the futility of her existence.
Quirk has become accessorised and streamlined to an absurd degree – the cynicism of which can be observed in the likes of already largely forgotten efforts like Smart People and Adam. In cases such as these, wayward protagonists make some profound mystical connection via music or a film, or are otherwise reduced to a series of thuddingly obvious pop cultural clichés. Juno strums out a meaningless ditty by The Moldy Peaches. Portman insists Braff listen to The Shins. Deschanel implores the viewers that one day they’ll be “cool” in Almost Famous with her bug eyes and a box of old vinyl. Deschanel, again, woos Joseph Gordon-Levitt in (500) Days of Summer with a mutual admiration for The Smiths (appropriate – everyone in that film appears to think the sun shines out of their behind) and sobs at the climax of Mike Nichols’ The Graduate. He repays the favour by getting drunk and belting out ‘Here Comes Your Man’ by The Pixies at a karaoke bar and dancing with cartoon birds to Hall & Oates. The madcap family in Little Miss Sunshine, riddled with more diarrhoeic quirk than Pauline Quirke on a prune-only diet, work out their collective differences by bopping to ‘Super Freak’ by Rick James at a talent contest.
If there a was modicum of ingenuity about any of these choices – say Deschanel was a massive fan of Delta 5 and The Wild Swans and broke up at the end of Nichols’ The Day of the Dolphin (tagline: “Unwittingly, he trained a dolphin to kill the president of the United States!”) instead – perhaps I’d have more tolerance for this sort of thing. As it is, I usually leave the cinema feeling sullen, wonder if I’m secretly a replicant incapable of feeling human emotion, and entertain for a moment punching out the next passer-by who has the temerity to venture that if I cheered up and started feeling good about myself “it might never happen”. Perhaps if we all made an effort to be quirky and ironically wore pork pie hats at a jaunty angle, life would be better. We could all wallow around in this fetid pool of mutually-agreed cultural epithets (usually they involve making a Star Wars reference), and everything would be ok. Personally it makes me feel like the harried Laura Linney barking “von Sternberg!” at her confused lover in The Savages, after he’d mistakenly identified Eric von Stroheim as the director of The Blue Angel, but instead of cinematic trivia pedantry I’m screaming in the rain at holistic Seth Rogen-esque dickheads doing their zillionth Darth Vader impression whilst pimp their Animal Collective EPs as if they were the first people in the universe to happen across them.
Nowadays “quirk” in film and TV terms is a by-word for normalcy and banality. The attractive kids from Glee are supposedly quirky outsiders, not the ones from My So-Called Life and Freaks and Geeks. The word “kook” is similarly debased – once used to describe Julie Christie in Petulia, now more likely to be about the simpering Emma Roberts in The Art of Getting By or It’s Kind of a Funny Story. But then mainstream comedies used to look like Shampoo and not I Don’t Know How She Does It, Jack Nicholson used to make films like The King of Marvin Gardens, and Robert Pattinson and Orlando Bloom had yet to be born. The genuine daring of independent films in the 90s like Citizen Ruth, Pi, Schizopolis, Slacker, Spanking the Monkey, Stranger than Paradise and Poison have never seemed further away, with their respective directors advancing into more mature territory, leaving no-one to pick up the slack. Even a tough-edged film like Brick saw its director Rian Johnson follow things up with the arch, knowing and – yes – quirky as hell The Brothers Bloom.
Fittingly, Gus van Sant doesn’t make films like Mala Noche anymore. He makes films like Restless. Viewers have been keen to point out van Sant’s liberal lifting from Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude as inspiration, though it superficially appears to have more in common with the recent Kate Hudson/Gael Garcia Bernal terminal illness rom-com, A Little Bit of Heaven. Elsewhere the specificity of Wes Anderson’s vision is often lifted wholesale and rammed into conventional shit-your-pants bad material (Ceremony; Rocket Science; Charlie Barlett) or conjured for effect, and the only independent alternative going is the last-gasp wheeze of the rapidly aging ‘iconoclasts’ of yore, Harmony Korine and Gregg Araki, who wave around their moth-eaten pom-poms in an effort to still seem ‘with it’. Perhaps only Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, a romantic comedy from 2003 about an emotionally-stunted man-child who appears to be genuinely suffering from crippling depression and not a loose approximation of the real thing, seems to endure with any sense of lasting vitality.
All of this is a roundabout way of saying things were better for American cinema in the late 60s and early 70s. “No shit”, you might mutter, with the likes of Bonnie and Clyde, The Godfather and all the other classics that are wheeled out, usually in the summer months when critics have tired of sitting through The Smurfs or Marmaduke. Screenwriter Lem Dobbs dedicates a large chunk of a recent, wide-ranging interview to discuss that very subject. One thing that stuck for me as slightly incongruous was Dobbs’ antipathy towards the period when the rot of quirk had begun to take hold. In his words:
When we talk about how “great” the 60s and 70s were, if you forced me to discard or discount certain movies, it would probably be those ones that anticipated the kind of shit we get now — those films that were prematurely quirky, that were then referred to as “offbeat” or “oddball.” I can’t say I’ve ever really warmed to even the best or most highly-regarded of them.
It struck me that of the “prematurely quirky” ones Dobbs’ cites by name – Where’s Poppa?, Lord Love a Duck, Little Murders and Stay Hungry – the writer’s diagnosis is a little off. Stay Hungry, granted, has Jeff Bridges doing the dirty with Sally Field on the stairs, a fitness instructor who insists on being called “Thor” and a madcap jet-skiing sequence set to wacky music that has little bearing on the plot. But it also has some of the most disturbing and incongruous sex scenes in cinema history, as Thor has his way with a prostitute and finishes the deed by hanging her up on some gym equipment, whilst his co-worker Wamba (supposedly the “Jungle Bomb”) ties a buxom woman to a massage table and gags her mouth shut to keep her quiet. Not one screaming out for a Zooey D and JGL remake.
The other three are similarly stuffed with acts of obvious provocation. Carl Reiner’s Where’s Poppa?, for instance, opens with George Segal calmly getting out of bed, donning a gorilla suit, before bursting into the bedroom of his senile mother (Ruth Gordon) and attempting to scare her to death. To his dismay, she survives. Moments later he fantasises about her being eaten by a dog or – better yet – simply shrinking into nothingness. Gordon’s degenerative mental illness is played for broad comedy. In one memorable sequence she pulls down Segal’s trousers, mistaking him for her dearly departed husband, and kisses his bare backside whilst declaiming, “I’d know that tush anywhere!” This zaniness extends to Segal’s professional career as a defence lawyer. Having recruited a nubile young nurse with a chequered sexual history (the last man she loved “made a caca on the bed”) to take care of his demented mother, he spends some time mounting a defence of a “punk” who called out an army colonel for being “full of shit”. The colonel initially wins the judge’s sympathy, before descending into an anti-hippie tirade about the amount of “gooks” he shot through the brain in Vietnam and revealing his son keeps one of the offending organs in a jar as a bedroom souvenir. Shortly thereafter Segal returns home with the nurse he’s sexually attracted to and assures his mother, “If you mess this one up, I’m gonna punch your fuckin’ heart out.” She reveals his penis size over dinner, and he eventually commits her to a retirement home.
Reiner’s film also contains one particularly indefensible scene, in which Segal’s brother, dressed in the aforementioned gorilla suit, is forced by a group of African-Americans to rape a woman in a park. The character is overcome with wanton carnality (shockingly the men tell him it’s part of their natural “heritage” and scream the victim is “rape tight”) and he proceeds to carry out their instructions with seeming delight. Upon being arrested and detained at the local police station, it transpires the person he violated sexually was actually a male police officer or, more specifically, “one of those guys who walks around in drag, looking for purse snatchers.” Fearing he’ll be locked up forever, the situation soon dissipates when a guard produces a bouquet of long-stemmed roses from the victim, with a card asking for his phone number and inscription “Thanks for a wonderful evening.” He’s flattered by the gesture, and coos about the flowers in a taxi on the way home. This is comedy in horror-film garb and arguably as black as anything Todd Solondz ever produced, though there are shades of Jack Lemmon being briefly mistaken for a child molester in The Out-of-Towners and chased down by the police for his troubles.
Little Murders is equally bewildering. One of Alan Arkin’s early directorial efforts, it boasts Gordon Willis as cinematographer and Jules Feiffer (Carnal Knowledge) as screenwriter, whose career as a cartoonist speaks for itself. It features a mortally jaded Elliot Gould as a photographer who “shoots shit” for Harper’s Bazaar, marching slowly towards marriage with Marcia Rodd, whilst both are plagued by a mysterious breathy caller who never reveals his or her identity and a city that boasts 345 unsolved or “little” murders. Early on in the film Rodd ventures of Gould, “Are you really so down on people or are you just being fashionable?” and introduces the man to her parents over dinner. The result is a scene almost Dadaist in its abstraction. Gould is presumed to be a “fag”; we learn Rodd’s younger brother is a layabout at graduate school reading something called Lesbians of Venus. When Rodd bursts into the room, her parents start giddily screaming “Patsy!” in unison like something out of The Evil Dead and she rugby tackles her little brother to the ground, claiming she’s “always head this mad thing” for him and panting sexually. The evening takes a turn for the worse when, having scrutinised their daughter’s use of eyeliner by candlelight, her father degenerates into a fit of hysteria over being called “Carol”. It’s a nightmarish hellscape – Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner by way of the Leatherface family.
When the two finally do attempt to get married, it’s by the only pastor (Donald Sutherland) who’ll consent to a Godless ceremony (though Gould insists he’s more an “apathist” than an atheist) who starts the proceedings with howlingly inappropriate anecdotes about the futility of marriage and trills about having married off a musician the preceding week “who wanted to get married in order to stop masturbating”. The ceremony devolves into a violent free-for-all between various members of the congregation. Later Gould tries to identify the root cause of his general disdain for humanity by interrogating his parents with a tape recorder. Unable to communicate with their son outside of incoherent psychobabble – they chalk it up to “sphincter morality” and his subconscious desire to rob his father of his penis – the most substantive fact Gould coaxes out of them is that they “don’t remember” much of this upbringing. Later he bonds with his would-be wife’s immediate family by taking pot shots out of a window with a sniper rifle. They have dinner afterwards, throw lettuce leaves about and fall about laughing. Though it goes without saying, this is a million miles away from Garden State.
Meanwhile the protagonist of George Axelrod’s Lord Love a Duck is equal parts Billy Liar and Mick Travis, a florid fantasist who anticipates and transcends the flights of fancy conjured up in the likes of Altman’s Brewster McCloud and the recent Submarine. Styling himself as “Mollymuck”, a bird thought to be extinct “but isn’t”, the then middle-aged Roddy McDowell plays ostensible high-schooler Alan Musgrave, a man with a “psycho-suicidal personality” who squawks incessantly and is prone to running over members of his graduating class with diggers. He’s hopelessly in love with Barbara Ann (Tuesday Weld), a “total vulgarity of our time”, whose mother is a cocktail waitress but dresses like a Playboy bunny, insists that “Everybody has got to love me. Everybody,” is named after Barbara Stanwyck and Ann Sheridan and longs to be a movie star. Barbara Ann melds two of Axelrod’s chief concerns in his work as a screenwriter – the sweat-soaked male gaze of unrequited sexual rapacity in The Seven Year Itch and the oddball female kitsch of Breakfast at Tiffany’s - and drags them kicking and screaming into the tail end of the 1960s, and arguably several decades beyond that.
As you’d expect, Lord Love a Duck is summarily obsessed with sex. Barbara Ann and Alan happen across a movie producer who suggests she star in I Married a Teenage Bikini Vampire on Some Kind of a Fish for him. The school principal upbraids a botany or “plant skills for life” teacher for teaching the kids about plant reproduction and “the stamens and the pistons”. “Get your mind out of the gutter, man!” he barks. In the film’s most disturbing sequence Barbara Ann and her estranged father visit a sweater store in order to join the school’s prestigious “Kashmir Sweater Club” (don’t ask). She tries on the garments one by one, begins fondling the material and orgasmically screeching their suggestive names like “Periwinkle Pussycat!” and “Papaya Surprise!” with her father braying in the background like a crazed donkey. Eventually they roll around in the clothes in ecstasy, maniacally laughing. It’s a terrifying scene, topped only by the revelation later in the film that Barbara Ann’s mother has overdosed on pills and killed herself. Upon learning the news, Barbara Ann entertains becoming a prostitute and Alan remarks that the woman’s tragic death has rejuvenated his “faith in suicide.”
At one point during Axelrod’s film Alan pours out a bottle of wine, admiring the drink’s “impudent artlessness”, in oblique acknowledgement to the film’s inherent absurdity. But if we are to have ‘quirky’ films that are essentially conciliatory, marred by distasteful feel-goodery and ones which propagate nonsense about the nature of modernity and romance; I’ll stick with the beserko-comic, horrifying, artlessly impudent run of films during the 70s over the bland homilies of (500) Days of Summer any day. The true horrors on the cinema screens of our own time are not the unexploded taboos of rape, incest, murder, mental illness and the other societal mores the films listed above attempted to interrogate, but the insufferable, rampantly merciless ennui of Post Grad and – God forbid – Away We Go. But what’s that, you say? Cheer up? It might never happen? Too bad. It already did.
For some Friday Fun™ on Permanent Plastic Helmet, here’s an oldie (at the time of writing it’s only had a mere 2,284,155 views) but a goodie; a trailer for Stanley Kubrick’s classic 1980 chiller The Shining recut to resemble an uplifting family comedy. If the clip doesn’t make you howl with laughter, then some of the YouTube comments wildly missing the point certainly will. Credit goes to PPH contributor Guillaume Gendron (about to embark on journalism school in Paris – do wish him luck) for reminding me of it, and YouTuber neochosen for the upload in the first place. Enjoy:
“If I drive for you, you give me a time and a place. I give you a five-minute window, anything happens in that five minutes and I’m yours no matter what. I don’t sit in while you’re running it down; I don’t carry a gun… I drive. ” – Driver
Adapted from the 2005 novel of the same name by James Sallis, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive arrives in UK cinemas accompanied by an extraordinary critical buzz accentuated by the presence of man-of-the-moment Ryan Gosling in the leading role, and Refn’s victory (for Best Director) at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
In Drive, Gosling plays an unnamed mechanic and stunt driver for the movies who, when not working in the garage of Shannon (a grizzled, shifty turn from Bryan Cranston), moonlights as a devastatingly punctual getaway driver. Driver falls for his neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan), who has a young son and a ne’er-do-well husband soon to be released from prison. Upon the husband’s release, Driver becomes embroiled in a violent game of cat and mouse involving robbery, revenge and some vicious gangsters.
From the very first minute onwards, Drive is a film obsessed with surface and artifice. The bright pink typeface used in the opening credits immediately explodes any notion of restraint, and intimate details of cars and costume alike are fetishistically lingered over by Refn’s camera. Driver himself is a role player – as a stuntman an anonymous, spookily-masked cog in the Hollywood machine, and then as a protector; a white knight defending a damsel in distress - who only really seems to be whole when at one with his car; this, perhaps, is the central relationship of the film.
In keeping with the recent cultural retromania for the 1980s that can be traced in the music of Phoenix and M83, the look of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, the never-ending stream of period Hollywood remakes (The A Team, Miami Vice, Footloose) and perhaps most appositely, Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (upon which Refn’s film seems to be squarely aesthetically based), Drive‘s style is all-consuming. Shot on gleaming HD digital in glorious widescreen and underpinned by a constant, synthetic low-end thrum and an arch, retro (and thoroughly excellent) soundtrack that’s indebted to Wang Chung’s work on William Friedkin’s inexplicably underrated To Live And Die In L.A. it’s a treat for the eyes and ears.
Furthermore, Winding’s determinedly European sensibility, epitomized by the deliberate pace, repeated use of slow, langourous takes and minimal dialogue, infuses an American movie staple location with an otherworldly quality; think Wim Wenders in Paris, Texas for a particularly good example of such Americana-obsessed outsider art, and Wim Wenders’ The End of Violence for a particularly bad example. Extras are kept to a bare minimum, so the spatial landscape is as sparsely populated as the dialogue in the script.
The minimalism extends to Gosling’s character, nameless and shorn of a backstory primarily to engender a sense of mystery. His assumption of the lone wolf/avenging angel archetype is a mythical concession from Refn, but also lends a vaguely troubling undercurrent to Drive. Driver is prone to bouts of near-cloying sentimentality (in getting involved with Irene and her son in the first place) and seems to be on some kind of moral crusade (he doesn’t actually have to get involved in any of this) but is also increasingly psychotic, dispensing vigilante justice in a series of acts of sickening brutality. Despite the contradictions inherent in the character, and Gosling’s charisma, Driver never quite registers as a compelling force, rather he appears as a “man who isn’t there”.
Drive is a film which wears its influences on its (sleek satin) sleeve, and in citing Melville’s Le Samourai, Peter Yates’ Bullitt and George Stevens’ Shane (the all-American hero narrative) as key base texts, Refn is clearly a man of good taste. However one title absent from much of the discussion of the film is Walter Hill’s astonishingly similar 1978 thriller The Driver in which a nameless, taciturn getaway driver (sound familiar?) played by a perfectly cast Ryan O’ Neal finds himself inveigled in a complex plot of cross and double cross on the burnished, neon streets of L.A. In fact, at least two scenes appear to have been lifted wholesale (the opening car chase, and the bed-based intimidation of a duplicitous lady) from Hill’s film, and it’s difficult not to compare. Whereas Refn (who revealed at the BFI he hadn’t seen The Driver before commencing work on Drive) muddies the ethical waters by affording Gosling’s driver an emotional spectrum of sorts, Hill leaves O’Neal as a total blank; The Driver absolutely boiled down to existential essentials, whilst Drive has a weirdly sentimental streak that sits ill-at-ease with the flagrant death and destruction on display.
With appearances key, the casting in the film is interestingly off-kilter but not 100% successful. A resurgent Albert Brooks (referred to by Refn at a recent Q&A at London’s BFI Southbank as “Woody Allen’s psychotic twin brother”) and the imposing Ron “Hellboy” Perlman both combine menace and humour to great effect, but Carey Mulligan is miscast in a pivotal role. She comes across as sweet, but lacks the presence and depth that the role surely requires to make Driver’s fiercely emotional response to her ring true. The lack of chemistry between the pair also accounts for the sluggish first half hour of the film; Refn is clearly aiming to build tension and create an atmosphere, however the stolen looks between the two amount to little more than a series of pretty widescreen pictures; tellingly, the film only comes to life when the expertly choreographed and edited (yet sometimes laughably O.T.T.) violence explodes. To achieve certain gruesome effects, Refn reportedly consulted with French enfant terrible Gaspar Noe to find out how he achieved the delightful head-smashing sequence in Irreversible.
Ultimately, Drive is an enjoyable ride; slick, often unbearably tense and extremely stylish. It’s also a case of sheen over substance, but deliberately so, and to criticise the film on these terms would be like taking Michael Bay to task for being bombastic (as opposed to simply a terrible filmmaker). Unfortunately though, it’s the hollowness at the heart of Drive which precludes emotional investment in the drama, and stops it from rising above the level of a very entertaining technical exercise to scale the heights of greatness. It’s several cuts above your average thriller, though, and thanks to the combination of the popular Gosling, the iconic aesthetic, memorable set pieces and the brilliant soundtrack, it’s surely destined to become a cult classic.
A note: I normally post the film’s official trailer to accompany a review. However, I have neglected to in the case of Drive, as I feel the trailer – which mirrors almost exactly the arc of the narrative – simply gives away far too much of what is already a spare story to begin with, to the extent that a number of scenes in the film simply didn’t have the impact they would have had I gone into the film blind. Instead, here is a clip from the excellent opening sequence, followed by the opening sequence of Walter Hill’s The Driver, for complementary and comparison purposes.