Category Archives: Films that you probably haven’t seen but definitely should

Films that you probably haven’t seen but definitely should #10 – Marwencol (2010, dir. Jeff Malmberg)

“Everyone wants an alter ego who can do stuff they can’t.” So speaks Mark Hogancamp. He has a powerful incentive to focus on the contents of a parallel existence. Ten years before Jeff Malmberg’s cameras found him, he, aged 38, had every memory beaten out of his head after five men pounced on him outside a bar. He spent nine days in a coma, then forty in hospital relearning how to walk and talk from scratch. Of his life until that point, “only single frames” were left.

So far, so tragic but let’s return to that point about alter egos. When the Medicaid ran out, Mark, a talented artist before the attack, developed his own form of therapy. He built a miniature World War II-era Belgian town, which he christened by combining the first syllables of his name with the first syllables of two beloved female names (Mark + Wendy + Colleen = Marwencol). He used anything he could get his skilled hands on to furnish the town with all plausible conveniences, and a few implausible ones. A time machine is made from an eviscerated VCR player, its control panel is a Nokia phone cover and the seat a phone holder. The whole effect is a masterpiece of industry and attention-to-detail. Imagine a tiny Borrowers-style universe that doubles as a constant visual reminder of Mark’s need to hide in fantasy.

If the infrastructure of Marwencol is one source of awe then its inhabitants are another. The town is populated by dolls, each possessing a well-developed character and backstory. Some are fictionalised versions of the people he knows while others are fantastical creations. Storylines are devised and photographed and, once again, provide a mirror to his mood. Mark’s yearnings for female companionship materialise in weddings and love triangles while violent fights take place when Mark is angry about what happened to him.

Malmberg got ninety percent of his film’s quality by stumbling upon Mark Hogancamp. He adds the extra ten percent by whole-heartedly embracing the logic that governs Mark’s two-pronged reality. The narrative is broken into sub-titled chapters, each introduced by a doll propping up a cue card. Malmberg himself ends up with a doll incarnation running about in Marwencol. This is an honour reserved for those who have earned Mark’s trust.

Although mainly a showcase for Mark’s story, told through his robotic monotone and the scanned-in photo narratives that provide a timeline for Marwencol, Malmberg successfully provides the social context to Mark’s strange life through a cross-section of revealing interviews. Supportive friends and family talk of Marwencol almost as seriously as Mark does, while a doctor gives the blunt lowdown on the physical and mental damage he has suffered.

What is truly compulsive about this documentary is its timing. At ten years since the trauma and the consequent creation of Marwencol, Mark is ready to challenge the confines of his bubble universe. The film has progressed incrementally to this narrative pivot reflecting Mark’s slow return from the fringes of life. At the cusp of a big personal leap, he is self-aware and conflicted. “I don’t want to get hurt, mentally or emotionally or physically ever again”, he says. It’s a sentiment people frequently voice, but most have never had their worst fears come true in such violence.

Having started the film by detailing the attack in all its senseless brutality, Malmberg ensures that when opportunity comes knocking for Mark, you’ve never wanted anything to work out so badly. The temptation to print a T-shirt with his face and the words, “Go on, my son” written underneath is immense.

By leading the audience gently to this point and by clearly illustrating Marwencol as a work of creative genius and refuge from the storms and uncertainties of real people, Marwencol does an incredible thing. It shows mental illness as a logical response to terrible events. But more than that, it provides a rounded character study of an extraordinary man, it shows how kindness can mean colluding in someone’s fantasy world, and it shows how (although in one respect trauma never disappears) a traumatised person can develop around this bullet in their brain.

In an industry saturated by films that claim to be about issues they merely name-check, Marwencol is an unmissable work of documentary and humanity. I defy anyone to watch it and not come away feeling deepened, humbled and hopeful in a way too profound to fully describe.

Marwencol is now available on Netflix. Contributor Sophie Monks Kaufman can be followed on Twitter @sopharsogood.

Films that you probably haven’t seen but definitely should #9 – The Business of Strangers (2001, dir. Patrick Stettner)

My heart always sinks slightly when I realise a film has been made by a debut writer-director. In most cases these hyphenates are very capable at punching out the words and are no slouch behind the camera, but combining the two disciplines for the first time usually leads to a worrying lack of distance from their material, and an inability to know what works well and what doesn’t. This usually becomes most apparent in the last 20 minutes of the film when the viewer’s buttock muscles determine that a more objective eye would have pruned away some of the stuff that the cutting-room floor was crying out for.

Patrick Stettner proves a very welcome exception to the rule. The Business of Strangers is an assured and compelling piece of work that weighs in at a nicely lean 84 minutes. Despite being nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and winning Stockard Channing the London Critics’ Circle award for Best Actress, it made little impact at the box-office and failed to lead on to greater things for Stettner, whose only subsequent bash at direction was the distinctly underwhelming The Night Listener. But let’s not hold that against him. The Business of Strangers is just as perceptive as Neil LaBute’s In the Company of Men (another writer/director’s debut that explored power games in the workplace with a sexual twist) but without the characteristically bitter aftertaste of the LaBute recipe.

As brilliant as she is, Stockard Channing’s award (and nominations from other bodies) feels acutely unjust with respect to this film. It is the sparky interaction with the equally brilliant Julia Stiles that lingers long after the copyright information has disappeared off the top of the screen. Elsewhere on this blog, I have written about the ‘first female buddy movie’ in which the two actresses flounder in underwritten and over-directed material. The chief pleasure with The Business of Strangers is in watching two actresses at the top of their game, letting rip in roles that are perfectly in sync with their talents.

The opening scenes act like a dry run for Up in the Air. Stockard Channing plays Julie, a high-ranking, high maintenance businesswoman, inhabiting the same platinum air miles, executive hotel suite, hand-baggage-only milieu as George Clooney in the later film. She power-strides from airport to boardroom to hotel-room, wheeling her perfectly packed existence behind her, mobile phone clamped to her ear, the omnipresent muzak reverberating in her wake. Julie is a woman who has sacrificed much for her success: fearing for her job when one of her superiors calls an unexpected meeting, it is her therapist whom she phones for support. Learning instead that she is to be made CEO, her secretary is the only one she cares to share the good news with.

"Channing and Stiles are both superb, exuding intelligence and shouldering the film effortlessly between them"

Julia Stiles is Paula, a subordinate of Julie, but only in terms of job description. Her first encounter with Julie is brief: she is 45 minutes late for a meeting and, without being able to offer an explanation, summarily fired. Later, quietly basking in the glow of her promotion, Julie hears Paula yell a typically uncompromising “Fuck off!” at a man in her hotel bar. The dynamic of this second meeting is fascinating as the women jockey for the upper hand. When Julie attempts to apologise for the earlier firing without actually saying sorry and by offering a drink, Paula picks the most expensive cognac on the menu – ‘A double’ – shooting her superior the cockiest look in her repertoire. The woman she refers to as ‘überfrau’ is not to be allowed to diminish her again.

As the alcohol lubricates the friction between them, Paula admits that her real love is non-fiction writing: “The whole fiction thing is too neat – I like the sloppiness of real life.” Which is pretty much the feel of the evening that these two women spend together. Their relationship shifts constantly, with Paula an unpredictable catalyst. Sporting a spider tattoo in the nape of her neck, she gives the impression of spinning her own web, veering from arrogant to vulnerable via reckless and flirtatious. “You know a number of pornos are directed by women? They’re very similar but there’s less sex and more foreplay…”, challenging Julie with another of those meaningful looks. There is a palpable sexual undercurrent as they scandalise the occupants of a lift by joking about strap-ons and fool around in the hotel pool, but how seriously are we to take either of their intentions?

It would be unfair to reveal much more about plot, but suffice to say the dynamic changes markedly when a slick headhunting colleague of Julie’s oils his way into their company. There is a marvellous moment of transition when the women enter an area of the hotel under construction and are illuminated by a plane taking off from the nearby airport. Stettner uses slow motion and an ominous music cue to indicate that the larky power games are about to be played for higher stakes. And as scotches are downed, pills are popped and inhibitions are dulled, the boundaries that divide the poor girl made good and the slumming rich girl become increasingly indistinct.

Channing and Stiles are both superb, exuding intelligence and shouldering the film effortlessly between them. Hollywood should be ashamed that their talents have been so neglected. To watch Julia Stiles slump from her purple patch a decade ago to playing a barely-there character in the Bourne films and the lead in (shudder) The Omen remake is bitter proof that talent alone is not enough. And although I am aware that Stockard Channing has done something called The West Wing and won an award or two for it, what we really want to see is Rizzo clutching her Oscar, clad in Pink Lady jacket, cigarette dangling from lip – right?

Contributor Fintan McDonagh can be followed on Twitter @Fintalloneword.

Films that you probably haven’t seen but definitely should #8 – Mikey and Nicky (1976, dir. Elaine May)

John Cassavetes as the wide-eyed Nicky

No-one tends to come out of Peter Biskind’s books particularly well. Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, the key pop-history text on ‘New Hollywood’, is marked by the author’s heady brew of salacious tittle-tattle and unsubstantiated rumour; maintaining claims to historical accuracy whilst engaging in the sort of schoolyard ‘who-blew-whom’ gossip unseen since the likes of Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon. This reached new, dizzying heights in the author’s recent Warren Beatty biography, Star. Beatty is portrayed as a lascivious playboy and a control-freak megalomaniac, whilst Five Easy Pieces screenwriter Carole Eastman comes off like a woman in need of psychiatric help for her part in blundering through the making of 1975’s The Fortune. Beatty’s high profile ex-squeezes Julie Christie and Diane Keaton, too, are written as mercurial creatures enslaved by Beatty’s carnal gaze, kept, in Biskind’s eyes at least, as the actor’s on-call bitches-in-chains.

One of the other women in Beatty’s life, Elaine May, is treated with a similarly mercenary approach. May, a writer and comedian probably still best known for her partnership with Mike Nichols in the late 1950s, is painted by Biskind as an ethereal kook who lucked into career as a major film director almost by accident. Here was a woman who “could get lost in a closet” with her madcap, uncontrollable behaviour, whose reckless impulses were to spectacularly boil over in the late 1980s during the filming of mega-turkey Ishtar and eventually end her career behind the camera.

Whatever the case, Biskind’s sensationalist claims about May’s inherent nuttiness – for good or ill – seem to hold water once we delve into the production history of the film that predates her dalliances with Beatty, Mikey and Nicky. The film, shaped by Biskind as the root cause of her professional madness, was a small, improvisational, blackly funny crime drama that would eventually grow into a monster and display “the full flowering of [May’s] looniness”. Mikey and Nicky famously burned through three times the amount of film Selznick did for Gone with the Wind, and spent over two years in an editing suite before being unceremoniously dumped by a changed regime at the studio who had apparently been expecting – somewhat amazingly given the film’s content — “a comedy for the summer”.

Thematically, the film has little in common with May’s earlier comedic successes, A New Leaf and The Heartbreak Kid, and is riddled with (presumably deliberate) continuity errors. Its two stars, John Cassavetes and Peter Falk, were hardly known for their conformist behaviour either. Added to this, the film’s plot is throwaway. On paper it reads like a reheat of Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, only with most of the religious issues excised and the two leads aged ten years or so. Crucially both the successes and weaknesses of the film hinge on the chemistry between Falk’s straight-laced Mikey, with Cassavetes as the wide-eyed Nicky – a vainglorious, proud man whose reckless behaviour informs the film’s louche attitude towards its own plotting.

The film opens with Nicky holed up in a hotel room, gun in hand, sweating bullets, greased all to hell and contemplating suicide. Mikey hammers on the door, insisting he be let in. We quickly learn that Nicky is being pursued by a gangster named David Reznick (Sanford Mesiner) for embezzling money, and a lackey (Ned Beatty) has been deployed to bump him off.

"Whaddya mean there's no ice? You mean I gotta drink this coffee hot?" Mikey (Peter Falk) takes exception to some sub-standard service.

After Nicky warbles, “I don’t shave, you know that? I don’t wanna take care of myself. I think if I don’t care of myself and I sit still and don’t move then maybe they’ll forget about me”, the two spend the rest of the night in transit, ostensibly en route to the airport so Nicky can skip town, but are perpetually waylaid by his impulsive tomfoolery and their fractious, adversarial relationship which stems from their time together as younger men and their respective frustrated ambitions.

Most of the film’s scenes are vignettes that play like the flip side of the Seinfeldian Schadenfreude that Larry David has since made the norm for American sitcom, only where David plays society’s inherent foibles and frustrations for laughs, May splices them with the intensity of Cassavetes’ own Faces. There’s a rawness to her exposé of the underside of civilisation’s inveterate ugliness and absurdity, one prone to descend into petty violence and petulant squabbling at a moment’s notice. This is truly what marks the film out as exceptional and unique, replicating the aesthetic of the films Cassavetes directed himself, but recasting the man as a bullish, asinine thug.

There are several examples of this. Early in the film, Mikey vaults the counter at coffee shop and starts beating up the attendant for his lax commitment to serving his complicated order. Falk’s explanation? “Cause I’m crazy!” Later the pair frequent a bar peopled mostly by African- Americans. Nicky wilfully goads most of the bar’s patrons to the verge of a fistfight by provoking racial tensions (“How come you’re black?”) seemingly not out of any entrenched bigotry on his part, rather for the hell of seeing what would happen. In one of the film’s toughest sequences, Mikey strikes out with a girl that Nicky assured him puts out to all the boys. When she rebuffs Mikey’s lecherous advances – particularly galling, given that he spends much of the film’s running time on the phone to his wife and fretting about his son – he smacks her round the face. “I guess most girls are pretty dumb,” is all she ventures. Nicky goes back to her apartment towards the film’s end and slaps her about some more.

It’s a barbed, vacillating performance from Cassavetes, and he plays every scene with a jackal-like grin on his face, whether he’s blowing up at random members of the public, teetering on the brink of emotional anguish, or bickering with Falk about who should wear his coat when crossing the street in order to avoiding getting shot by unseen goons. Falk and Cassavetes had already played this game to perfection in 1970 with Husbands, and would repeat the trick four years later for A Woman under the Influence. In the hands of lesser performers, one can imagine the conceit not coming off at all, but although the film is sometimes prone to getting lost in its own conversational dead-ends, the chemistry between the two is dynamite, a relationship that explodes the limitations of the dumb critical criterions we’re often beholden to in our own times (to wit: ‘buddy movie’, ‘bromance’) and a filmic alchemy that can’t be matched.

The stand-out scene of the film is one on a public bus, where May’s shoot-from-the-hip freewheeling attitude pays off most richly. After Nicky lights a cigarette, a passenger takes him to task for flouting the rules of the bus. “I’m gonna tell the bus driver,” she insists. “I’m gonna tell your mother,” Nicky shoots back, before blowing a loud raspberry in her face. He then verbally abuses the driver (veteran character actor M. Emmett Walsh) for not letting him flout “company regulation” and exits via the front door. The driver initially tries to stand his ground, but Nicky grips him in a headlock until he relents. In the next scene, Nicky breaks up hysterically laughing at his mother’s grave whilst Mikey attempts to recite the Kaddish from memory, having already been thrown by Mikey’s dismissal of a conversation about his own mortality as “stupid”.

It’s frustrating that May’s career has been defined in the shadow of the men with whom she worked (Beatty, Nichols), or otherwise remains largely unknown by the general public. Mikey and Nicky, too, would likely not have been possible were it not for the presence of Falk and especially Cassavetes, whose insurrectionary approach to American independent cinema had begun with Shadows a decade and a half prior. Only in the case of The Heartbreak Kid did May’s specific brand of frantic humour, simultaneously a self-loathing neurosis and a morbid narcissism, really seem to shine through. There are flashes of that same mad energy in Mikey and Nicky, though May herself simply states her run of bad luck stems from her “just be[ing] a pain in the ass.”

Mikey and Nicky hangs in an odd limbo between comedy and drama; between financial disaster and artistic accomplishment. It’s a maudlin, fitfully comical piece that always feels as if it’s on the verge of darting off a precipice – something that was surely mimicked off-screen as well as on. But what Peter Biskind pejoratively wrote off as May’s downfall – her “looniness” – I see as her primary attribute as director. In Cassavetes on Cassavetesthere’s an anecdote that bears this out. Falk describes Cassavetes mounting the table they were sitting at and crying out:

What do you think? I don’t know Elaine May can write? I don’t know you can act? You think I’m one of these businessmen! You think I am like you and have to have everything figured out before I begin something? That I have to have all the details in place? That I’m afraid to take a chance? Elaine’s making it; you’re in it; that’s all I need to know.” 

It’s a story that takes on a ghoulish and depressing quality if you take account of a recent Q&A May gave. When asked by a member of the audience what she was up to in these days of unadventurous studio comedies starring Adam Sandler, May simply replied, “Nothing.”

Contributor Sam Price runs the film blog A Tremendous Amount of Wheat. You can follow him on Twitter @_wheat.

Films that you probably haven’t seen but definitely should #7: Massacre at Central High (1976, dir. Rene Daalder)

We are told on director Rene Daalder’s website that Massacre at Central High, a forgotten 1976 horror-thriller, “predicted punk and Columbine”. It’s a bold claim, but one not hard to substantiate once you take into account its subject matter: teenagers that kill people. It’s a rough, tough, divey little film that presents a portrait of humanity at its bleakest. Education, in the film’s eyes, is nothing but a horrorshow parade of grotesques, with its denizens either suppressed by their fascist overlords or clamouring for power themselves. It doesn’t care if you like it, but it demands your attention anyway.

Not that you’d know it to look at. Compositionally, it’s a total mess. Corridors that are populated one second are empty the next. Characters’ eye lines barely match up. There’s leaden acting to put cinema’s current Queen of Lethargy, January Jones, to shame. All the characters, apparently high-schoolers, look double their ostensible ages. The more laudatory quotes about the film being a socio-political allegory in the vein of Animal Farm (Daalder’s own website collates the best ones) tend to overlook the fact that any connoisseur of low-rent 1970s pornography would likely feel at home with its intermittent bouts of softcore canoodling on beaches by firelight. This skin-flick titillation is even deployed, most shockingly, to enliven a scene of attempted rape. When the body count begins to mount up, the period 1976 dialogue tends to undercut the dramatic tension. “It’s time you all dug it! We’re talking heavy changes.” spouts one of the teens after a number of students have met with unfortunate ‘accidents’.

What Massacre at Central High has going for it, though, is a brutal originality. Already lionised by Danny Peary in his second volume of Cult Movies, its exploitation title may conjure associations with the telekinetic horror of Carrie, the demented array of killings in Happy Birthday to Me, Stockard Channing’s plastic-surgery vengeance in The Girl Most Likely To and the dull carnage of forgotten shocker Slaughter High. But its protracted ‘massacre’ remains mostly bloodless; its indiscriminate killings more disturbing by their lack of accompanying real-world context. If the film does have a cinematic cousin, it’d probably be Larry Clark’s Bully which, like most of Clark’s work, writhes around looking for exploitation credentials with a look-at-me desperate audacity to compensate for a lack of profundity. Massacre at Central High, though is less concerned with such histrionics, even if its killings, which include a dolt skydiving into some power lines after his equipment is sabotaged, are in the end more eccentric than shocking.

The film opens with a tonally ambiguous display of ‘social protest’ – a hippie scrawling a swastika on a locker door to stick it to “the little league Gestapo” terrorising the school – and ends with a thwarted attempt to blow up the entire school. That last narrative trick is, by now, old hat. Buffy Summers managed to do it in the late 1990s, though in that case she was keeping the evil contained inside the building (a demonic Mayor and petulant Principal) from getting out, rather than incinerating everyone inside with the blank, violent and unexplained nihilism of Massacre at Central High’s David (Derrel Maury) whose psycho-pathology is chalked up to a case of him merely being a self-declared “madman”.

David enters the film supposedly as our moral guide. He’s a transfer student who’s following in the footsteps of his jockish buddy Mark (a young Andrew Stevens, later to crop up in The Fury). Stumbling through a corridor looking for the student lounge (we’re later told it’s like “the fucking country club”), he hits on the school hottie Theresa (Kimberly Beck). David, at the behest of Mark, is invited to join the influential power clique of four boys that run the school: Bruce, Paul, Craig and – somewhat reluctantly – Mark himself. David goes along and witnesses the gang’s several acts of bullying. The four hi-jack and trash an idiot’s car with glee. They bully “lardass” Oscar for not being able to jump rope very well and then kick him about in the locker room. They harass a nasal student librarian, Arthur, about an overdue book loan and then wreck the place. Unimpressed, David shuns the group.

The boys think David’s spoiling for a fight but Mark insists “He’s just aloof, that’s his nature” and that he doesn’t “understand how things work around here”. But after the boys drop a car on David’s leg for his insolence, he goes on a calculated killing rampage to enact revenge after being made a “cripple” by the accident. In actuality David’s physical disability amounts little more than to a slight limp but – no matter! – he uses this as a pretext to engineer the deaths of the bullies. When he runs out of these antagonists, he fixes his gaze upon their former victims, who now are looking to muscle in on the action. He kills them as well. Finally, when killing everyone else in the school proves untenable, he kills himself, either in a confused act of martyrdom or by accident.

Many are keen to point out the similarities between Massacre’s central nutcase David and the psychopath at the heart of Michael Lehmann’s Heathers, Jason ‘J.D’ Dean. Sometimes these exercises can be useful. Most people recognise Black Christmas as a forerunner to Halloween and When a Stranger Calls. Everyone accepts Reservoir Dogs owes a heavy debt to City on Fire. Forcing a lineage between an influential film (like Thelma & Louise, say) and a cult flick that came before it with tangentially similar subject matter (like Assault of the Killer Bimbos, say) is more problematic. It’s true that what’s explicit in Heathers – J.D wants to create a warped “Woodstock for the 80s” where people will observe “there’s a school that self-destructed not because society didn’t care, but because that school was society” – is subtextual, or at least unspoken, in Massacre at Central High, which tends to solve its problems by having its characters violently explode when they’ve outlived their narrative usefulness. But, thematically speaking, the two are poles apart.

A useful comparison is between the uses of music in both films. Heathers is shot through with snippets of a fictional song penned by Big Fun, ‘Teenage Suicide (Don’t Do It)’, which is an indication of the wicked-black, fickle satire at the heart of Daniel Waters’ screenplay. Massacre, by contrast, opens with a drippy love ballad that opens with the line “You’re at the crossroads of your life/A runner chasing dreams that could come true…” which seems thoroughly unironic in its sincerity. What separates the two out from each other is the Massacre’s moral void. It’s hard to tell if its scenes of macabre death – such as a luckless swimmer headplanting into an empty swimming pool in the dark – are intended to elicit cackles or genuine chills without the ballast of Winona Ryder’s reluctant killer Veronica Sawyer at heart of it all. Similarly the film’s understanding of power structures (any position of authority corrupts absolutely) is too simplistic to be read as anything other academic posturing.

With all its self-evident low-budget foibles, it’d be shame for the film to pass into further obscurity, given that the words ‘high school’ and ‘horror’ are now more commonly associated with the self-aware irony of Scream, The Faculty, and Cherry Falls. What was given shonky sub-Mel Brooks treatment in Student Bodies is now either recognised as standardised horror fare to be recycled (Tamara, Jennifer’s Body) or rendered the stuff of stony-faced ‘social commentary’ (Elephant). But the dark heart that beats at the core of Daalder’s film is one that teen cinema has never bothered to reclaim. In its unremitting impurity it’s a film with no parent, and few children. Something to bear in mind when you next happen across an episode of Glee.

Contributor Sam Price runs the film blog A Tremendous Amount of Wheat. You can follow him on Twitter @_wheat.

Films that you probably haven’t seen but definitely should #6 – Helen (2008, dirs. Christine Molloy, Joe Lawlor)

A sunny local park. A girl in a bright yellow jacket walks across the grass with some friends. We watch in slow motion, to the sound of glacial, discordant music, as she stops to kiss them goodbye. She walks on, passing a boy with a clarinet, some kids with a ball, a girl with a skipping rope. The title screen appears: Helen. We see her closer, directly from behind. Then the music stops, and we cut to another park scene with figures in black uniforms, looking downwards, walking slowly across a pathway as if part of some sombre line-dance. We immediately know: the girl is missing. These were her last known steps.

Released in 2008, Helen is the feature debut by directing partnership Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor, whose other work consists of a series of shorts called ‘Civic Life’. Like those films, the style here never really changes: long shots, slow camera movements, drawn-out music. Unprofessional actors recite stilted dialogue. Sound unpromising? Somehow, from this concoction, a genuine resonance is created – and if you’re anything like me, before you know it the credits will be rolling and you’ll realise you’ve just spent 75 minutes utterly transfixed.

From a directing partnership whose interest clearly lies in style and mood over conventional narrative, you wouldn’t necessarily be expecting wonders from the plot. But this film’s central premise is a brilliant one: to help search for Joy, the girl we see in the opening scene, the police call upon Helen, her schoolmate, to play her part in a filmed reconstruction. It turns out Helen is an orphan from a local care home, and so a pair of voids is set up – her parentlessness, and Joy’s parents’ childlessness – which cannot help but come together in strange and unsettling ways.

The girl in the yellow kagoule

There’s a satisfying dovetailing of working method and output here in that ‘reconstruction’ is so close to what Molloy and Lawlor are doing as filmmakers themselves. Entering a location, they will find members of the local community to participate in a given project as actors and ask for their thoughts on such matters as what the film should be about, what they would like to say, or even where the camera should be placed. The results are openly fictional and highly stylised but nevertheless firmly based in the reality of their subjects’ lives.

Moments in this film demonstrate that ethic clearly: at one point, we see a teenager playing guitar in a dance studio – then someone comes in, says something, and the boy unplugs and vacates the room. In file some schoolchildren followed by a police-officer, and a scene proceeds which does indeed have relevance to Helen’s narrative. But what of the guitarist? We never see him again, but he seems to be there to tell us: rooms aren’t just film sets, where one (prioritised) single story takes place; they’re real locations, housing multiple individual experiences day-to-day. ‘Civic Life’ indeed. And Molloy and Lawlor’s habit of pointing their camera where others wouldn’t pays off as the scene progresses: we are shown not the policewoman speaker but the children listening, and are left to search their faces for meaning and reaction. Is that blank look boredom or fear? Did one of them just smirk?

The acting is limited but it’s almost as if it brings out an extra dimension in the script by its very lack of bombast. When Helen first meets Joy’s parents there’s something unnerving about how quickly they settle into asking about homework. Then, when she visits their house for dinner – a wonderful Haneke-esque scene where middle-class niceties struggle to contain the horrors beneath – you feel as if an intruiging puzzle has been set by the fact that the father breaks down on the phrase “unknown constant” (referring, ostensibly, to maths). Later, it’s possible to detect just how fully this process is taking over Helen’s life: showing an old photo to Joy’s ex-boyfriend (she’s really getting her feet under the table at this point) she says, in true police-procedural style: “Can I ask you to describe what you see in this picture?”

By writing this piece, in fact, I’m quickly discovering that this is one of those films which gets richer and richer the more you think about it – always a good sign. Alas, I have a word limit, but I think you get the gist. This is bold, thoughtful and distinctive filmmaking – the type we should be celebrating – and, if you haven’t seen it already, I urge you to give it a try.

Contributor Jamie Ruszczynski runs the film blog Shot Through A Window.

Films that you probably haven’t seen but definitely should #5 – Ms. 45 (1981, dir. Abel Ferrara)

Big thanks to YouTuber Mrgavyadha for uploading the full version of King of New York director Abel Ferrara’s unusual, stylised and disturbing rape-revenge thriller Ms. 45 (1981), in which a mute, reticent seamstress, after having been raped twice in one day, goes on a gun-crazy rampage.

Clearly modelled on the likes of I Spit on Your Grave and Death Wish, Ferrara imbues his rather tawdry source material with a distinctly sleazy New York sensibility (the clothes! the streets! the music in the first scene!) – a vein that he would go on to mine in later films – and an almost incongruously stylish sheen which belies its low budget, and adds to the oppressive mood. The closing party sequence, filmed in slow-motion, is exquisitely unsettling and almost unbearably tense.

Ms. 45 is played by the stunning Zoe Lund, who went on to co-write and star in Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant, before dying of cocaine-assisted heart failure in Paris in 1999.

‘Enjoy’ is perhaps not the right word, but this is absolutely worth a watch.

A full post on Ferrara’s The King of New York is coming soon.

Zoe Lund as the Angel of Vengeance - subtlety not necessarily Ferrara's strong point

Films that you probably haven’t seen but definitely should #4 – The Murder of Fred Hampton (1971, dir. Howard Alk)

The deeply charismatic Fred Hampton

The most recent of the British Film Institute’s African Odysseys strand – a series of films and events which explore the African Diaspora on screen – saw a double bill of little-seen works that shed light upon two key figures of the Black Power movement in America in the late 1960s and early 1970s, both of whom were tragically, and almost inevitably murdered by the state.

The Murder of Fred Hampton is a bracing documentary from 1971, made by the Chicago Film Group, about the death of the titular chairman of the local Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party. Bookended by the dispiriting and utterly shambolic cover up of the murder by Chicago police and State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan, the majority of the film is an unobtrusive, fly-on-the-wall study of Hampton making speeches, mobilising supporters and preparing for his upcoming court case (Hampton was jailed for allegedly looting an ice-cream van; “I’m big, but I can’t eat 710 ice creams!”), which has a grainy, raw and vital quality entirely appropriate to the subject matter.

The relatively lesser-known Hampton (in comparison to nationally recognised contemporaries such as Panther founders Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton) was an electrifying, rhythmical orator, and his myriad talents are captured at close range here. Confident, driven and preternaturally assured for his age, Hampton, amazingly, was just 21 years old when he was slain in his sleep in a state-sanctioned 4am raid. Capturing a moment in time, The Murder of Fred Hampton is an essential primer for anybody unfamiliar with the period, the politics or the man, and the intricate explorations of the crime scene and disgraceful cover-up are darkly fascinating.

The Murder of Fred Hampton was accompanied by Death of a Revolutionary, a 30-minute World in Action special from 1972 followed by an illuminating Q&A with its producer Dick Fontaine. A study of the ‘Soledad Brother’ George Jackson, who was assassinated in San Quentin penitentiary,  Death… was a meditative piece rather than overtly political, and largely focused on the community and national reaction to his death, interspersed with readings of his poetry and writings. The film was interesting, moving and only slightly marred by a hilariously flat, overly casual voiceover from an unnamed Brit. It is very difficult (if not impossible) to imagine such a poetic, neutral and nuanced study making it onto prime-time television today.

The essential work that the BFI Education department does in promoting a wider cultural experience was underlined and epitomized by a refreshingly mixed crowd occupying a sold-out auditorium. So overscribed was this screening that there was a last-minute (and ultimately unsuccessful) attempt to have it switched into a larger theatre.

African Odysseys will continue in March with I Heard It Through The Grapevine from 1980 (again by Fontaine) in which the legendary author James Baldwin revisits his past and reappraises the Civil Rights movement.

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Films that you probably haven’t seen but definitely should #3 – Hollywood Shuffle (1987, dir. Robert Townsend)

Another day at Winky Dinky Dog

Next on the list of films that have probably passed you by, but you must see, is this wicked satire on 1980s Hollywood’s racial mores, farcically still unavailable on DVD in the UK.

Elegantly shot on a super-low budget by future Mulholland Dr. DP Peter Deming, Hollywood Shuffle stars Robert Townsend (who also wrote and directed) as Bobby Taylor, a young actor struggling not only to find work but to avoid the unilaterally stereotyped roles of pimps, criminals and slaves being offered to black actors. Over the opening credits, we can hear a barrage of hackneyed, histrionic ‘jive talk’, revealed to be Taylor rehearsing for his latest audition in front of the bathroom mirror, while his little brother looks on amused. From the first minute, we are in no doubt that Taylor is aware of the innate ridiculousness of his situation.

As the film continues, Taylor is faced with problems from all sides; competition and opprobrium from his fellow actors, the crab-in-a-barrel negativity of his moronic colleagues at his day job at Winky Dinky Dog (his Napoleonic boss is played by House Party’s John Witherspoon) and the clueless, venal posturing from a triumvirate of white Hollywood exec types, who demand “more blackness” from the hopeful actors. Most touchingly, he also faces opposition from his loving Grandmother, whom he lives with in a settled family unit. His Grandmother wants him to make it, but is astute to the self-sacrifice (and potential self-abasement) that comes with throwing oneself into offensive, racially stereotyped roles. When Taylor claims, “(at least) It’s work!”, she counters with “There’s work at the post office”.

The film’s premise is simple but the form is daring and complex; in one scene, Taylor is being lectured by a hypocritical fellow actor on the dangers of selling out and ‘Uncle Tomism’. A troubled Taylor beings to daydream a parody of 70s exploitation film Mandingo, in which he pops up as a distressed butler named Jasper.  Without warning, this film-within-a-film segues into a commercial starring Taylor (now with a bizarre English accent) advertising ‘Hollywood’s First Black Acting School’ (taught, of course, by white coaches) and offering classes such as Jive Talk 100 and Shuffling 200. The scene is funny – its supposed to be – but it is also telling.

Genre parodies are rife in Hollywood Shuffle, but this is no Scary Movie (despite the involvement of the Wayans Bros) – every parody here serves to skewer stereotypes, highlight Hollywood’s racial hypocrisy and educate on the recent history of black cinema. The hoary old detective story is given a fresh spin in another film-within-a-film Death of a Breakdancer, which tells the story of Detective Sam Ace’s attempts to track down master criminal Jheri Curl. Ace (also played by Townsend), despite the humorous tone of the parody, is a rounded character; he is allowed to fight (not kill), fuck (not rape), solve crimes (not commit them), be articulate (not a jive turkey). Having watched the film on TV, Taylor remarks to his girlfiend, “That’s the kind of role I want”, drawing into sharp focus the one-dimensionality of the roles he repeatedly goes for.

Blaxploitation, the moneyspinning 1970s genre in which black sexual potency was key, is also challenged by Townsend. In a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot, the screenplay for the hopeless Afros vs. Mexicans film that Taylor successfully auditions for bears the preposterous name of Mandrill Man Vacuum – an obscure yet arch riff on Melvin Van Peebles, director of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song

Townsend also offers a moment of pure horror, in which the execs repeatedly demand an “Eddie Murphy type” while the camera pans across a row of bare-necked, leather-jacketed black actors (some of the lighter-skinned actors are blacked up) giving it their best Murphy-style shit-eating grin; the message – if you don’t want to be a crim or a pimp, then ape the one guy that made it. The shot settles on Taylor who, against his will, as though possessed, convulses into a wave of Murphy-esque ‘he-he-he’s. A star Murphy may have been, but he didn’t have it all his own way in Hollywood either. Consider the lengths to which the makers of Beverly Hills Cop went to ensure he didn’t sexually engage with co-star Lisa Eilbacher. His only relationship in that film is a pseudo-homosexual one with his murdered friend. Ergo, Hollywood was happy for Murphy to be funny, but he wasn’t going to touch their women.

Hollywood Shuffle, despite its breezy, funny exterior is also complex, challenging and disturbing; in its lazer-sharp evocation of the world of personal compromise and Hobson’s Choice faced by black actors, it reveals a multitude of uncomfortable truths barely hidden by the successes of the likes of Richard Pryor and the aforementioned Murphy in the 1980s. At a shade over 80mins, Hollywood Shuffle is one of the finest films of the 1980s, and though the proliferation of online shopping has made it a less bitter pill to swallow, it is alarming that a film of this insight and quality remains unavailable for purchase in the UK.

Films that you probably haven’t seen but definitely should #2 – Portrait of Jason (1967, dir. Shirley Clarke)

“My name is Jason Holliday.  My name … is Jason Holliday.  My name … is Aaron Paine”

And with that note of ambiguous identity, so begins Shirley Clarke’s mesmerising and profoundly unsettling quasi-documentary Portrait of Jason, screening as part of the 24th BFI London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival in its Contexts and Rediscoveries strand.

In a comfortable-looking living room, Jason, a gregarious, homosexual male prostitute with dreams of performing a nightclub act, raps incessantly to the camera, constantly drinking and smoking as he goes.  Jason fills the frame for the duration of the piece, save for the haunting, blurry fades at each reel’s end, where, visually distorted (and resembling the human skull that lurks menacingly in the corner of the frame for much of the film), he will tail off and then re-appear, either reinvigorated or even more drunk, melancholy and exhausted.

Initially, Portrait of Jason is a performance piece, full of laughter and high camp.  Ultimately, though, proceedings take a turn for the vicious, as the detached nature of the film-makers subsides for a more aggressive brand of prompting and prodding – “Tell the truth, motherfucker”.  The camera itself,  hitherto dispassionate, assumes a searching, intrusive quality, and the mood shifts to intense discomfort.

In many ways, Jason feels like a prototype for a Big Brother video audition. Whilst never quite attaining BB7 walking-open-wound Shahbaz levels (he, unlike the wayward Scot, appears able to control himself to an extent) Jason shares the shameless instinct and drive for self-promotion as viewed in every BB contestant to date.  In a hilarious moment towards the end, when told by his interviewer to “be real for once”, he abruptly curtails his histrionics, and gives an “OK, you got me” shrug.  Jason, always an outsider, is well practiced in the art of performance and deception, and one of the true pleasures of this piece is trying to figure out when he is having us on, and when he’s being sincere.  It’s not easy.

Furthermore, although he is never especially likeable, Jason is wildly compelling.  The film’s 105 minutes rattle by, as Jason spins lewd yarns, touchingly recounts his childhood ass-whoopings from father ‘Brother Tough’, and, at one point, breaks into song, showcasing an unexpectedly sonorous (yet not necessarily always in key) singing voice.  This moment recalls the scene at the end of Martin Scorsese’s criminally underrated The King of Comedy, when Robert de Niro’s deranged Rupert Pupkin finally takes to the stage to deliver his act and … actually isn’t that bad at all. The King of Comedy is another piece of work which coolly predicted today’s “do-anything-to-be-famous” culture (as embodied by the likes of BB.  And Tool Academy) through the prism of an unbalanced individual.

Director Clarke is heard to trill in the film’s final words, “…the end, that’s it, it’s over.  The end”, and Jason disappears from your screen, but not your mind.

Films that you probably haven’t seen but definitely should #1 – The Men’s Club (1986, dir. Peter Medak)

In the future, I will use this space to write about and recommend little seen films and hidden gems that have sneaked under my radar, and that I would like to share with others.

This first entry, however, is simply an excuse to show the following clip again.  In truth, I haven’t seen this film – and I probably never will.  But if this 9 second snippet is representative of the rest of the film, then it must be worth a shot.

Take it away, Harvey – (prepare yourself, reader, for the greatest delivery of a single line in movie history)