My 10 Favourite Films of 2011

In no particular order:

Tree of Life (dir. Terrence Malik)

Cinema, in part, is life writ large. Terrence Malik's masterpiece is life writ bloody humungous. Like an over-inflated sense of one's own awsomeness. Soft and tender, like the downy hairs on a frowning woman's face and floatily sensual like a helium-engorged silver cats head. Try and find it silly and pretentious and it will turn around and groggily hug the very softest membranes of your inner organs. Literally all of life is here, and it's a gossamer fist slid through a star-filled tube of gas. Why wouldn't you love it? It loves you.

A Separation (dir. Asghar Farhadi)

This isn't bad, trite, ill-observed, weak, emotionless, with nothing to say about people, Iran, the middle classes, working classes or religion. In fact it's the opposite. I hope my tone is conveying how good it is. Ha-ha. Now I'm grabbing you by the lapels and saying how wonderfully acted it is. Ha-ha. Now I'm shaking you. Perhaps you should see it.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (dir. Tomas Alfredson)

A fuggy, hand-rolled mix of elegant wallaper, age-aware-agents and unspoken irrelevant malice. Like breaking into an apartment untouched since the 70s to be told 'things are changing' by a group of immaculately dressed, highly intelligent, very sad, betrayed ghosts.

Of Gods & Men (dir. Xavier Beauvois)

Tremendous trapped trappists. This film is so much more than those 3, awesomely unimaginative words. Elegiac, haunting, loving and spiritual in a way that has nothing to do with those simpering, essential-oil burning, kaftan-wearing freaks who infect the very earth we walk on. The best use of music in a film this year.

True Grit (dir. Ethan CoenJoel Coen)

At this stage, the Coen Brothers don't care what you think. They just want to make a movie. As if by accident this one chimes with you. They complete you. A Western.

Submarine (dir. Richard Ayoade)

To a one-time insufferable, self-obsessed young adult whose belief that they are the centre of the universe over-rides their concern for others, I can jive with this joint. Its funny, different, confused and lovingly done. The film in my head is happy to include a reference to this film in a script that doesn't even fucking exist yet!

Green Lantern (dir. Martin Campbell)

A comic-book movie that acts and behaves like a comic-book movie. Funny, thrilling wish-fulfilment fantasy which speaks to anyone who ever just wished a purple chap would turn up and say "You are special. I'm making you a super-hero".  Just think! You would want that!!

Black Swan (dir. Darren Aronofsky)

If you're making a psychodrama, make sure you add a healthy, talking-apes-worth of psycho with that drama. What would happen if you took random snippets of everything written on Linkedin and then diffused them with a common-or-garden hand-spray onto a film about losing oneself. Then make it more-so. With an unhappy frown. And a mirror made crack'd with a sprinkle of mental. Dressed as a prettier version of a duck.

Senna (dir. Asif Kapadia)

Formula 1's greatest driver. If you like people who are far more talented than you will ever be in your miserable, fetid, bed-sitted life, you will like this. If you don't, you will like this. If you like Formula 1 then a petrol-fumed icing has just been applied liberally to what you call "my cake".

and finally a bit of TV derived from film...
This is England '88

Just like the film of the same name minus the 88 and This Is England 86, this is a drama with characters in. And by characters I mean real people on your vid-screen. And like in real life almost everyone is, at heart, benevolent, funny, thinking, breathing, sweating, copulating and being. Every line is delivered like words spoken from a mouth, every image make mundanity achingly pretty. The best drama on a TV. 


After Hours review (1985, dir. Martin Scorsese)

When did you last find yourself trapped somewhere on a night out? A tragic victim to fate when a potential encounter turned out to be something else or a wrong turn led to unheralded possibilities? I’ve more than once found myself wandering rain-washed streets long after the last train has rattled down the tracks of circumstance. I’ve no doubt neon signs reflected in pools of oily rain-water were involved too.

And that’s why I love After Hours.

A twisted, tormented trip through the dark streets of down-town Manhattan awaits Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne) reminding us that hell can often be found on earth. The bare bones of this modern fable bring to mind Dante’s epic poem ‘Inferno’. Every time Paul escapes from one circle of tortured souls, he seems only to fall into another. Compounding his agony are characters who resurface only at the worst times to hound him and push him further into the depths. Franz Kafka is frequently referenced by the screenplay – in the book Paul reads, and in some of the dialogue which is lifted in whole sentences from Kafka’s writing. Writer Joseph Minion draws parallels with the anguish in the face of absurdity which characterizes Kafka’s stories.

After Hours can also be read as an emulation of Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. A simple object, a ‘plaster-of-paris cream-cheese-bagel paperweight’ in this case, stands in for the White Rabbit, leading the protagonist down The Rabbit Hole into a dreamscape menagerie of weird creatures. Those who seem at first to be friends turn on the merest whim, while even an innocent request can be misconstrued by a paranoid brain. After Hours is New York. A collection of differing – dare I say ‘kooky’? – types thrown together in a confined space, rubbing up against each other with often explosive results.

It takes place over the space of a single night. Paul tries to pick up Marcy (Rosanna Arquette) in a coffee bar. Taking her number, his libido forces him to call right away on the pretence of collecting one of her roommate’s paperweights. He calls her and, after a strained conversation, travels to Soho in a taxi, losing all his money through the cab window. Paul is ensnared, unable to return home without a fare, frustratedly unable to progress his relationship with Marcy (has he misread the signals? Is she deeply scarred physically and emotionally?) and at the mercy of fate.

After Hours features some of my favourite US actors, including a perky turn from Terri Garr, a benevolent John Heard, a giddy Catherine O’Hara, stoner comedians Cheech & Chong and a hysterically disturbed turn from Rosanna Arquette. Other familiar faces turn up as bondage artistes, criminal low lives, punk clubbers and misunderstood gay men. Vertiginous camera moves and nervy acting from Griffin Dunne help propel a fast-paced narrative.

Watch After Hours in conjunction with King of Comedy as an exploration of Scorsese’s black comedy oeuvre. Stylistically this certainly feels like the same New York as Taxi Driver. Or show the film to someone as a historical lesson on what a night out was like before the ubiquity of cash machines and mobile phones. For anyone who remembers those ‘dark ages’ it will strike chord and possibly make one yearn for a time when it was possible to be truly alone in a city.


Grindhouse Trailer Classics 3 review (DVD, 2011)

If you weren't lucky enough to frequent a certain type of picture-house of the 60s, 70s and early 80s, you've lost your chance to experience the true Grindhouse effect in all its filthy glory.

The next best thing is the Grindhouse Trailer Classics collection!

This feature-length collection of cinematic previews has it all - nudity, ninjas, violence, sexual deviancy, samurai, sadism, exploitation, drug-use and cult favourite, John Saxon! As you'd expect (perhaps even demand), dirt, scratches and clicks blight the video and audio, enhancing the sense of decay and depravity. The colours are as garish and vibrant as they ever were. And the majority are voiced by the instantly recognisable basso profundo of Paul Frees.

Leading your clammy, shaking hand in to this wonderful, lost world is critic and cult-film expert Kim Newman. A gloriously enthusiastic and informed voice in the obscure and esoteric, even Newman is a neophyte to some of the weirdness here. Additionally, his passionate explanation of Grindhouse can be found in the extras section of the disc to help define the experience for the uninitiated.

Nucleus Films have curated a museum of the very strangest previews you will perhaps ever see. To find fault with these trailers on grounds of quality or content would seem a little churlish. These films are no less valid for not being “art-house” or “worthy”. In a lot of these trailers many you'll find a subversive aesthetic missing from most contemporary cinema. In an age when film-makers were pushing boundaries of acceptability, a cinema of fun and excess grew and flourished.

I find an amateurish but passionate film more interesting than a technically perfect, safe piece. What isn't exciting about beautiful Cannibal Girls pick-axing victims to the sound of bells ringing to warn patrons of excessive destruction and eroticism? You'd peek wouldn't you? Superchick may be something of a male fantasy, but isn't an ass-kicking woman more invigorating than a passive, screaming victim? Aren't budgetary constraints the mother of invention? Dogs trained to rob banks? I fear some of these trailers may be superior to the films they are selling!

Admittedly there are some troublesome trailers here for modern sensibilities. A film about the first black CIA recruit tackles racial politics of the time whilst still portraying other black characters as hoods and pimps. Nazi Love Camp 27 risks treating the holocaust as sexual fantasy, though seems to have an admirable budget compared to other films here. And rape seems to be a recurrent narrative device, always used as a prime motivator for revenge and violence on the perpetrator. Whether this in any way excuses its use is up to the viewer.

Grindhouse Trailer Classics 3 is released on December 5th through Nucleus Films. Personal favourites include Linda (possession, nudity, crazy make-up and crabs!), Black Mama/White Mama (inter-racial revenge violence meted out by some of the feistiest women you'll ever meet) and the very curious The Doberman Gang. This extensive and impressive assortment achieves the original intent: to titillate and excite the viewer into seeking out the full feature. Treat yourself to a trip back in celluloid time to a cinema filled to bursting with degradation, sleaze, deviancy and excess. I guarantee there are things here you simply won't experience anywhere else. And that can't be a bad thing.


The Spanish Prisoner review (1997, dir. David Mamet)

Steve Martin? In a serious role? It works. That all-too-coiffured white hair, which has never not been white, is really rather austere anyway.
David Mamet’s The Spanish Prisoner (1997) isn’t Hitchcockian, but I’ve mentioned Hitchcock now, and as you can see I haven’t edited it out. You can see where one might make such a comparison: it features an innocent man in over his head thanks to the machinations of people far more insidious than himself. There’s much in the way of confusion, obfuscation and dastardly plots lying in wait for him too as he uncovers the machinery behind the curtain.
You won’t find swishes of Hitchcock’s bravura visual style here, or his knack for keeping things moving at a steady but heart-tickling speed. Our territory here is most assuredly Mamet-ian. David Mamet prefers the theatre with all its rhythms and artificiality intact. The characters here speak exactly as real people don’t. And the plot moves steadily and deliberately.
This isn’t why you’re going to watch The Spanish Prisoner, though. You’re here for the twists, the turns, the twisty-turns and the smarty-pants dialogue. What you thought was going to happen happens, then it doesn’t, then it does again and then that sequence repeats but backwards. Not all of the revelations will be entirely unexpected, or even convincingly revealed, but the creaky bits are obviously homage to thrillers from another era, so you can forgive it that.
Joe (Campbell Scott) is the inventor of a process. Something very valuable which has to be hidden away. It doesn’t matter what it is and we never find out anyway. What’s important is that people want it and are prepared to go to mind-bending lengths to get it.
Scott turns in an everyman performance and that’s fine; it’s what’s needed. Rebecca Pidgeon is maddeningly perky and amateurish but it suits her character, and anyway, she’s married to the director, so that’s fine too. Ricky Jay is here because he’s a seasoned Mamet actor and Mamet has to have him in his films. It’s a law of nature. Ben Gazarra is typically charismatic and inscrutable. And Steve Martin is playing out of type, which is good because he’s really rather adept at throwing his acting chops around. I can’t understand why he doesn’t take more of these roles.
I can’t tell you more; I really can’t. I don’t want to spoil the surprises on offer. Pay rapt attention, though. Every object is imbued with implication, every glance can be interpreted two or more ways and every word drips with meaning. And all will be referred to later on in some form of satisfying pay-off. You’ll need to concentrate and at the end you can give yourself a hearty pat on the back for doing so.
The Spanish Prisoner is available on DVD, though out of print, so some copies can fetch a high price.


Red, White & Blue review (2010, dir. Simon Rumley)

Sitting in a darkened room with 15 people, my toes were so curled I could almost kick my kneecaps. Across the room I saw winces, hands across eyes and heads fully turned from the screen. “Oh my…” breathed the woman behind and I wondered who would pass out. They stoically clung on with me, though. We made it through.
The second half of Simon Rumley’s Red, White & Blue kicks your punished psyche into some pretty deep, dark holes. Thankfully your trust is earned with the fascinating drama of the first half. Erica (Amanda Fuller) vacuums by day and vamps by night. In a new bar every night she picks up men with ease, never sleeping with the same one twice. Anyone who gets too close is shunned.
Franki (Marc Senter) is in a band, possibly on the verge of success. They practise rock music in a garage until it’s time for Franki to donate blood to his sick mother. Some of the most heart-rending scenes are between Franki and his mother. That he loves her and wants to help her is never in question.
Nate (Noah Taylor) lives in the same boarding house as Erica. A confessed torturer of animals and CIA operative (or fantasist), Nate tries to break down Erica’s barriers by declaring everything to her. Their initially faltering relationship is frustrated by her indifference. When they do form a bond we witness a profound change in Erica. Cutting up the photo album of her sexual conquests, she finally comes to Nate’s room. They lie together and he makes a crazy suggestion…
Rumley uses a short sequence from one of my favourite films, Carnival of Souls, to signify a turning point. “I’ll never come back,” says Mary. After this moment, none of the characters is able to return to where they were. Then Franki receives terrible news. Something severe enough to change his life, and potentially those of family and friends.
Subsequently there is a rapid descent into one of the very lowest levels of hell, the slow-burn opening giving way to an incendiary denouement. Red, White & Blue is not torture porn. Nor is it gory, sensationalist or cheap. What begins to feel like Dead Man’s Shoes by Shane Meadows or even Death Wish by Michael Winner soon turns into a revenge drama of a different colour. With grim finality it goes beyond revenge into territory occupied by Takashi Miike’s Audition. Most violence is implied. Like the shower scene in Psycho, our eyes see far less than our brains think they saw. Electrifying cuts and distorted bursts of music heighten the anxiety.
Rumley’s film is most certainly a multi-headed beast, uneasily mixing human drama with staggeringly bold nastiness. The sound-design is especially impressive as are the editing and performances. Special mention goes to Sally Jackson as Franki’s mother for a tender, human portrayal of a very ill woman, as well as Amanda Fuller, who makes troubled Erica brave and then vulnerable but never insipid or weak.
Be warned: this film will shock. Yet it’s not your standard horror/revenge fare. Its messages are open to discussion (what is revealed by Nate pushing past the US flags outside Franki’s house? Are the CIA involved in torture? Why does the boy’s mother accept Erica?) but Red, White & Blue has a human heart and is just as beautiful, conflicted and unpredictable as any of us.


Carnival of Souls review (1962, dir. Herk Harvey)

Where do zombies come from? West African and Haitian folklore might be somewhere to start, but I was thinking of the Hollywood zombie, the shambling wretches whose genesis was first witnessed in George Romero’s seminal Night of the Living Dead. They owe a debt, or at least an offering of brains, to Herk Harvey and his only feature length film, Carnival of Souls.
Caked in sodden silt and muddy water, Mary crawls from a river, escaping a car plunged from the bridge above. Staggering dazedly away she appears unable to believe she lived through the accident. Restarting her life, she flees town to find new work as a church organist. Lodging in Salt Lake City, she succumbs to strange ‘episodes’; fading out of existence, invisible to the townsfolk, as all sound drains away. When she eventually slips back into reality, it is obvious something has altered her. Mary has also developed an unhealthy fascination with an abandoned seaside pavilion nearby.
Then a strange man appears at a distance, watching. He is gaunt and pale with black circles around his eyes. Here we witness our first glimpse of the look Romero would appropriate for his zombies. ‘The Man’ is a malignant presence, unseen by others and hounding Mary when she is at her most vulnerable.
More of these haunted entities rise from the ground and the water, pursuing her. As these uncanny forces block her every move, she is driven mad and cornered inside the pavilion itself where she learns her fate.
Carnival of Souls is an undeniably unsettling influence in the history of horror on film but it is far from perfect. There are some shocking instances of amateur acting and ham-fisted scripting. Witness the toe-curling, self-conscious way the local workers stop their work on cue and listen to Mary’s organ playing. Or the heavy-handed irony of the church warden telling Mary she needs to play with more soul.
Then there are performances that add texture to a simple tale. Mr Linden from the neighbouring apartment watches Mary with a voyeuristic gaze. His predatory intrusion represents a real world threat to Mary. Linden contrasts awkwardly with the plainly moralistic folk elsewhere in town. Hiligloss is adequately haughty and haunted as the heroine and carries the film well.
There are flashes of directorial brilliance, such as the transposing of the car dashboard with the knobs on the church organ, or the ghoulish reflection of The Man in the car window at night, a great example of special-effects done on a small budget. And the unforgettable climax with its dancing ghouls pirouetting before the camera. Harvey’s creative talent was possibly nurtured on German Expressionist cinema, as there are touches of Nosferatu’s Count Orlock in the long shadows cast by The Man as he enters the church.
And no appraisal of Carnival of Souls would be complete without mention of the arresting score, composed almost entirely of organ music and played by Gene Moore which accentuates the horror by being unnervingly oppressive.
In the end, Carnival of Souls plays like a short story from a Creepy or Eerie comic-magazine from the 1950s, complete with obligatory O. Henry twist ending. It is at once unforgettably haunting and almost laughably simplistic in its outlook. Yet in this tale the seeds were sown of a cinematic heritage that survives to this day, the modern zombie.
Unfortunately Harvey never made another feature length film and after its release, Carnival of Soulslapsed into obscurity. Rediscovered in the 80s and playing late at night on TV, it found new audiences and continues to this day to exert a freakish power over the viewer.


Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me review (1992, dir. David Lynch)

Reviled by many critics and ignored by audiences, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) has unjustly slipped under many film fans’ radars. Dig below the surface, scrape away years of dirt, and you’ll reveal a rich and multifaceted cinematic gem.
Sitting down to watch TPFWWM again, I am reminded of two things. First: it is one of David Lynch’s finest films as a director, and second: it is one of the greatest horror films ever made, despite the fact it has never been categorised as such and you’ll never find it in the horror section of your local online video download store-hub.
Serving as a prequel to Twin Peaks, the TV series, TPFWWM tells one story that operates on two distinct levels. The film assembles the facts behind the last seven days of Laura Palmer’s life, a high school prom queen played with tortured fatalism by Sheryl Lee. Key to understanding Laura is the revelation of the sexual abuse she suffers at the hands of the mysterious “Bob”.

Overlaid like an acetate cartoon-cell on top of the very everyday town of Twin Peaks, is the supernatural world of The Black Lodge. This is a place outside of conventional space and time whose inhabitants sometimes leave to live in a small room above a convenience store. These entities exist to inflict pain on humankind, the suffering represented by the creamed corn they consume with each soul. They release one of their own, Bob, to possess someone close to Laura with the intention of corrupting her and condemning her to torment in The Black Lodge. An equally valid counter-interpretation is that this is only in the mind of the actual perpetrator of these acts.
Our film opens on a TV screen displaying static. An axe thuds abruptly into the TV as sparks fly and a woman screams. This violently demonstrates that Twin Peaks the TV show is in the Past. Dead. Finished.
In the FBI’s Philadelphia headquarters, David Bowie’s Agent Jeffries appears for a few minutes, after 2 years missing in the field. Jeffries points accusingly at Cooper (a clue to his eventual fate) and proceeds to explain to the assembled agents of his imprisonment in The Black Lodge and the creatures he met there. Jeffries attended one of their meetings to decide the fate of Laura Palmer at the cost of his soul. His tale told, he promptly disappears again.
Meanwhile, in an unfriendly town which appears to be the emotional opposite of Twin Peaks, Agent Chet Desmond, played by Chris Issac, accompanied by Agent Sam Stanley (Kiefer Sutherland channelling Stan Laurel) investigate the murder of Theresa Banks. As Desmond closes in on the otherworldly fate of girls claimed by Bob, he too disappears without trace.
There are several scenes in TPFWWM which are instantly cinematic, unique and bold enough to distance the film from its broadcast heritage. The 10-minute “Pink Room” sequence takes place in a sleazy bar, almost all sound drowned out by pounding, rhythmic music. We can nearly discern snippets of dialogue but the overall effect is exactly the same as trying to hold a drunken, dreamy conversation in a noisy bar or club. The result is hypnotic, unsettling and ultimately leads to one of Laura’s redemptive acts as she saves her friend from a similar fate to her own. (Later DVD releases have subtitles come up at this point, but I know that the original European cinema print has no subtitles and the atmosphere it conjures is all the better for not having them.)
In another powerful scene we encounter Bob in Laura’s bedroom. The intrusion is so unexpected and visceral that we cannot still our hearts from leaping when it comes. Maybe it’s because we don’t expect the standard jumps and scares of a standard horror film here, that we are so taken aback by this.
Lynch has always been a great and unique sound designer. The eerie and omnipresent industrial rumble over Eraserhead springs to mind, or the noise the cadaver makes when moved early on inTPFWWM. When Laura and her father are accosted by a one-armed man on the road into town, his insane screeching and the revving of the car engine combine to drown out the words in a deafening overload of hate and anger.
Yes, you may gain slightly more satisfaction fromTPFWWM if you’ve seen Twin Peaks the series, and for fans of the television show most of the major players do appear in cameos, but as a stand-alone film concerning abuse, incest, loss of identity and the downwards spiral of a confused high-school girl, it is brave and fearless. As a fable about possession and evil inflicted by spirits from another world, an inter-dimensional war between gods centring on a small town and a supernatural horror, it is also triumphant. A game of two halves certainly, but both will chill, disturb and unnerve you more than most so-called horror films out there.


The Prisoner review

(I know it's not a film, but you should still see it!)

Beautiful, sartorially elegant, thought-provoking, decades ahead of its time, fun and exciting;The Prisoner deserves its position as one of the most influential television dramas ever.

The bombastic opening sequence is a short-film in its own right. From out of thunderous clouds our hero (we never know his true name) slips his Lotus 7 effortlessly through the swinging streets of 60s London. Eyes set defiantly on the vividly-hued horizon, he never remarks on how little traffic there was in those days; probably because he has far weightier matters on his mind.

Parking near Parliament, he rushes through dimly lit corridors of power to his superiors. Our hero is almost certainly employed in espionage. Slamming his fist down on the desk with enough force to smash a cup he holds aloft his letter of resignation and storms out.

Again we coo over the slender lines of the Lotus as he drives home, unaware of the following black hearse. Gathering his things in the flat, he is oblivious to a stream of gas shot through the keyhole. The towering edifice of London melts away as he falls to the floor.

He wakes in his flat. No! Not his flat. A replica of it located in…The Village.

There are many people in The Village, all known by a number. No one can leave without the say of Number 1. We never meet Number 1 as he relays all orders through Number 2. And Number 2 is never the same man. Our man is Number 6, inheriting the number from the poor soul“released”before him. Number 6 spends his time resisting integration, constantly looking for escape or ways to confound the management. Number 1 wants to know is why he resigned, a fact Number 6 wishes to keep to himself, as is his human right. Keeping up?

Even if you’ve never seen The Prisoner you are probably familiar with some of its powerful iconography. Here production design is as important as story. There’s the setting; Portmerion, a 1920s folly on a grand scale, full of winding alleys and faux-Mediterranean architecture. Then there are the straw-boaters, multi-colour umbrellas, school blazers and penny-farthings that lend the place its unique charm. And there is ‘Rover’, a featureless, globular white entity, taller than a man and with a mind of its own. Rover lives under the sea, rising from the depths to envelope escapees before either dumping them rudely back in The Village or killing them.

Seventeen episodes comprise the entire set, so it won’t take days of your life to watch the lot. Stand out episodes include A, B & C (where Number 6’s dreams are probed by Number 2 only to have Number 6 turn the tables in a startling cat-and-mouse gambit), Many Happy Returns(where Number 6 wakes to find The Village deserted, allowing him to build a raft, make it to London and confront old colleagues), Hammer Into Anvil (my personal favourite, in which Number 6 takes down the current Number 2 in a deviously vicious manner), The Girl Who Was Death (a bizarre episode where Number 6 relates a strangely prescient James Bond-style fairy story to some Village residents) and the last episode; a two-parter in which Number 2 makes one last effort to break Number 6 before we lead into the final, mind-bending hour and the reveal (or not!) of Number 1.

Intrigued? I have barely scraped the surface of the joys to be wrung from this show. Even the creators of Lost admit that a lot of their series was cribbed from The Prisoner. The Beatles were certainly big fans too, so if you like it you’ll be in illustrious company. The available high-definition Blu-Ray set is of excellent clarity and highly recommended.

In this age of ubiquitous surveillance, The Prisoner presents a chilling vision of where society is heading. It is also tremendously lively, witty and surreal in equal measures. It was conceived, largely written by and starred Patrick McGoohan, a self-confessed rebel with a personal concern for individuality and freedom. Comparison to other works is difficult but the 1964 series Danger Man (also with Patrick McGoohan) almost serves as an unofficial prequel to The Prisoner. Oh, and forget about the useless 2009 television remake with Ian McKellan. It’s an ill-judged stain on the boots of the 60s original.


Possession review (1981, dir. Andrzej Zulawski)

It’s seldom a film lunges forward, grabs you roughly by the collar, throws you up against a wall screaming dementedly in your face for nearly two hours. What is Possession? And why will it leave you sprawled and dripping with fetid ooze on your now-desecrated sofa? What happens here to leave you exhausted, razed and slightly closer to the dark and howling abyss of insanity than you were before?

Anna (Isabelle Adjani) and Mark (Sam Neill) bicker and push against each other in their Berlin apartment, as the marriage disintegrates. Symbols of separation are seen in the omnipresent Berlin Wall, frequently seen from their apartment window. Anna ends an affair with Heinrich and begins another. With angry silence from Anna and no leads to uncover her new mystery lover, Mark collapses in a prolonged and bitter, sweaty mess. On regaining his composure (though not necessarily his sanity) he sets out to find Anna’s illicit partner. Questioning the similarly unhinged Heinrich only leads to a beating, while a private detective hired to trail her disappears altogether.

Compounding the queasy puzzle, Anna returns periodically to the flat in various states of anger, anxiety, depression and mania. The blue dress she wears looks more stained and sweat-soaked each time, her hair matted with filth.

Before you think this mystery is the crux of the film, we learn the truth early on and the revelation savagely spins the film around from domestic drama to horror. Anna is in the thrall of a bloody, mucky, tentacled beast she makes love to and kills for. This monstrosity represents the breakdown of the relationship. It is what comes between Anna and Mark but it can’t be defined, is never seen in full, always skulking in shadow and staring malevolently.

Similar themes are explored in Lars Von Trier’sAntichrist, and as a study of failing relationships, madness and body-horror it is hard not to see a direct influence. Possession also recalls the work of H. P. Lovecraft, a writer who explored the intrusion of disturbing, tentacled monsters into everyday life and the consequences on the sanity of anyone witnessing them.

The performances in Possession are brave, edgy and quite theatrical, the whole cast going over the top with glee. The stand-out performance undoubtedly comes from Adjani in her subway miscarriage scene. Walking through the underground station, groceries in hand, Anna starts giggling and grimacing, her eyes bulging crazily. With escalating hysteria her laughs explode into full-blown screams as her body writhes and contorts. The groceries spray across the tiles and she disfigures her face while blood and milk flow from under her dress and across the floor.

An equally macabre scene sees Anna and Mark cutting their bodies with an electric meat carver. Such is the mental anguish of their emotional separation, even slicing their necks and arms provokes no reaction as the blood flows.

Towards the end, as pieces unravel, the story takes oblique twists and turns. The son’s school teacher appears as a doppelgänger of Anna, raising questions of identity. Heinrich’s mother turns out to know more about what is going on than it seems. This will require multiple viewings to be understood.

Possession has only recently been scooped up and slopped in a quivering mass onto DVD in the UK after its incorrect labelling as a video-nasty in the ’80s. Watch the film and you realise it eludes genre classification altogether. The horror aspects are brief and often comical, and the creature itself, while disgusting, is only glimpsed briefly. Possession‘s over-riding theme is the portrayal of the banally traumatic process of divorce. Zulawski drew heavily on his own experiences to reach deep into his soul and spew forth the bitter and rank contents into this film. It’s about the grinding down of a relationship between people descending into derangement which ultimately results in their own loss of identity. I have an unashamed and rather dirty love for Possession and I only hope you search whatever dank corners you need to find a copy for yourself.


Brick review (2005, dir. Rian Johnson)

In the 3rd term of my 5th year at primary school, Rosa disappeared. One day she was at school then…gone. I interviewed the whole playground to check alibis. (I knew how to do this from watching Saturday matinées on BBC2.) The trail went cold quicker than a corpse in a fridge. Nobody had seen anything, there was no body, and I’m pretty sure that the apple core left on the drain was a message to leave well alone. After three weeks I applied the screws and one of the teachers sang like a canary. Turns out Rosa had moved to Israel with her father. Oh well, on to the next case: The Mystery of the Dirty Mattresses, dumped next to the climbing frame.

Later, as a self-obsessed, bored teen, I would ask myself: “Where are all the murders to solve? Why can’t my life be more like a Dashiell Hammett novel? Why can’t I find my own femme-fatale (and not fat-femmes)?” Which is why this unique and beautiful high-school detective tale holds such a special place in my heart.

Think of film-noir and you probably imagine strips of light filtered through a venetian blind splayed across a ramshackle office. Maybe an immaculately dressed woman standing in a shadowy alley on an illicit rendezvous. Such images are part of a cinematic movement which emphasised style and mood as much as story. It came as a reaction to The Depression in the 30s and 40s with films made on tight budgets, borrowing heavily from German Expressionism and presenting cynical characters from the rougher end of town.

Rian Johnson’s Brick isn’t just a classic film noir transposed to a high-school setting. And it isn’t a parody of a detective yarn either. The story is too compelling in its own right to be written off that way. It gives an effective demonstration of how noir elements can be picked up, placed in an entirely different setting and still function. The dialogue in the film is a good example. Characters use their own form of slang and talk with the breakneck speed and economy of the very best detective stories. I guarantee that one view of this film won’t be enough to take in everything that is said.

Our hero Brendan (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is like the battered hero of Hammett’s bookThe Maltese Falcon, stumbling through the case and chancing on leads more through luck and determination than skill. Brendan’s girlfriend has turned up dead and the leads point to a crime boss known as The Pin (Lukas Haas) and his hired muscle, Tug. When Brendan gets too deep he is punished for it with violence. No noir hero ever had it easy.

With an obsessive zeal Brendan pursues the case, driving himself close to death. His one ally comes in the unlikely form of his bookish friend, The Brain. In Brick’s world adults are barely visible. The Vice Principal acts as embittered police chief to Brendan’s put-upon private eye while The Pin’s mother serves as jarring comic relief, pouring our young adversaries some country-style apple juice with a cheery smile.

Alan Parker’s Bugsy Malone bears superficial comparison to Brick, both featuring young hoodlums and a world (largely) free from adult interference. The difference is that Bugsy exists only as parody; Brick has a reverential relationship with its source. Closer in spirit to Brick are films like Bladerunner and Chinatown, both of which took the feel of noir, added colour, moved the pieces around and then revelled in the atmosphere, perversion and violence of those classic detective tales. Brick also finds a cultural sibling in the form of the US TV series Veronica Mars about a seemingly unstoppable high-school super-sleuth.

This is a film about an underworld of 30s-style crime, long shadows, moodiness and danger re-purposed in a sterile Californian town. It is exciting, funny, tense and well-paced. It ranks with some of the very best modern detective stories and, with its youthful cast, is such a novel take on some well-trodden ground that I can’t help but recommend it highly.

Back at my own school, I traced the abandoned mattresses over the fence and through the woods. I was chased and nearly caught by some skinheads. Maybe it’s just as well my detective career ended there.


My Neighbour Totoro (Tonari no Totoro) review (1988, dir. Hayao Miyazaki)

My Neighbour Totoro, from animation house Studio Ghibli, is a beautiful tale of humanity brushing against the gods of nature. There are monsters, but only playful, whimsical souls helping those who need it. And these creations sow the seeds of what comes in Ghibli’s far darker Spirited Away.

Studio Ghibli was founded in 1985 by several prominent players in the animation industry. Outside Japan the best known of these is director Hayao Miyazaki. It owes its creation to the success of his eco-parable Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Since then it has almost exclusively produced his films. My Neighbour Totoro was released in 1988 to modest success. Only later, with repeated showings on Japanese TV, was it catapulted to success with the character of Totoro now one of the most popular in Japan. In some parts of the world he has the cultural pervasiveness of some of Disney’s beloved characters.

The slight plot opens with two young girls travelling to the countryside in the back of a ramshackle van with their father. They move to a summer house which exists in an indefinable place anywhere from modern day to the late 1800s. Peppered throughout are appropriated Western influences. There are buses and trains idling alongside old-English pastoral vistas and horse-drawn carts. Farmers work the land in peasant gear while younger women dress Little House on the Prairie-style. This post-modern mixing pot of charming styles reminds us that this is fairytale land and while anything is possible ultimately no one is going to get badly hurt.

The girls, Satsuki and Mei, clear out the long-deserted house, bumping into dust sprites (free-floating, sooty balls with eyes) and the initially scary old woman who lives next door. With the place occupied, the dust-sprites secretly process from the house that night, returning to the large camphor tree nearby; the home of the king of the forest, Totoro.

Mei finds him first. With her mother in hospital debilitated by Tuberculosis and her father out teaching, the girls have all day to explore. Finding a tunnel in the bushes, she follows it to the underside of the camphor tree and the home of Totoro. The king looks like a cross between a rabbit, a bear and perhaps a squirrel or a badger; it’s hard to tell. Totoro is characteristically hard to define. His eyes grow and shrink to extremes depending on his mood. The mouth grins toothily and then opens as wide as his own body. This “monster” may not move and act according to our physical laws but he allows Mei to fall asleep on his belly before delivering her, still sleeping, safely back to the family.

The tale treads some well-worn ground while Mei struggles to make herself believed. When older sister Satsuki meets Totoro at a bus-stop in the rain we witness two spectacular sequences from the film. His small umbrella creating a drumming noise as the larger drops of rain fall from the trees, Totoro jumps up and down, laughing with manic glee as he shakes more of these drops loose. They fall satisfyingly down on the umbrella as he revels in the “real-world” magic he has created.

Then there is the arrival of the film’s most wondrous creation, Cat-bus. The design recalls the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland. The grinning face flows into a bus-shaped body with holes in the side serving as doors and windows. Travelling on about 12 small cat feet and with mice for indicator lights, Cat-bus runs through the forest ferrying forest spirits between the trees, invisible to the farmers he runs past. As with the Totoro’s body he stretches and contorts unnaturally.

My Neighbour Totoro is really about two young girls struggling to cope with the desperate illness of their mother. The forces of nature who rise up to help them bring to mind Pan’s Labyrinth and the vulnerable heroine who retreats from horror into a fantasy world. In the end, Totoro provides real physical and emotional help. It also features some of Studio Ghibli’s strongest character design. The creatures announce their otherworldliness through animation techniques that separate them convincingly and imaginatively from the “real” people.

This film will appeal to all ages and is a perfect demonstration of how a world without any real conflict and danger, un-rooted in any time and place, can charm and stun us with its magic.


Vanishing Point review (1971, dir. Richard C. Sarafian)

There’s a transcendental point you reach driving fast down a straight, deserted country road, turned on and tuned out. At one with the car, you forget your problems and switch all primary brain functions to moving as smoothly and effortlessly as possible. Check yourself in the mirror. That introspective face reflected back is Kowalski’s face. The face of a man leaving his demons behind in a cloud of dust.

Kowalski (“Christian name…and last name”) agrees to deliver a white 1970 Dodge Challenger from Colorado to Frisco in less than 15 hours. Such a high-speed run is welcomed by a man on the run from the ghost of a dead lover (a discarded newspaper reveals she died surfing at sea), a nihilistic career racing cars and a job in a corrupt police department that has left him disillusioned. On the road he is pursued by police from state to state as his journey intersects with drugs culture and the rawness of life in modern America.

The imagination of Super Soul, a blind radio DJ, is fired up by Kowalski’s challenge. He offers spiritual support in the form of a gloriously uplifting soundtrack of soul and gospel music and evangelical words of encouragement. They never meet except for a few reality-blurring moments when Kowalski talks back to him through the car radio.

Vanishing Point’s other major character is the Dodge Challenger itself. Richard C. Sarafian directs with a pornographer’s eye, always choosing the sexiest angle to shoot from, fetishising every wheel spin and drift. “Look at the curves down there.” “Look at the headlights on that!” This is the director showing you a thing of beauty in all its lascivious detail. And sitting emotionless in her driver’s seat is Kowalski; a god of the freeway. Living the American dream as a naturalised Polish immigrant, driving through the heart of the country where you get what you want, how you want, as fast as possible.

Despite the 1971 release date this is absolutely a product of the 1960s. Super Soul might be like a prophet to his fans (one child tries to touch his hand before a policeman pulls him away) but he is not immune to the racism of the era. His radio station is ransacked by white supremacists who smash the windows and equipment and beat up his engineer. Only Kowalski notices the hint of coercion in Super Soul’s performance after this, sensing that something bad has surfaced from the old days of America.

When Kowalski is forced by police road blocks to take a detour into the desert, he uncovers more facets of America. Nature nearly ends the journey there when he is bitten by a rattlesnake, but he is saved by an old man. Later the same man introduces him to the “new people” of America – young Christians singing of love and harmony in the wilderness. They are curiously unfriendly and ignore him in favour of the hedonism of their spiritual lifestyle. One strange interlude has Kowalski picking up two overly camp men on their honeymoon. They pull a gun on Kowalski who ejects them forcibly from the car. Is Sarafian saying that the new America is fostering gay men who represent danger? Or exploiting them to highlight the unbridled masculinity displayed by Kowalski? The intent is strangely garbled in these scenes.

Within the film, Kowalski meets several women who seem to remind him of his lost love, all of them displaying her defining long, fair hair or freckles. A petrol station attendant fascinates him briefly early in the journey. At a later stop-off, a naked girl on a motor bike rides out of the desert. They exchange friendly words and as he tries to leave she offers herself to him, suggesting he might be happier if he stays there with her, taking drugs and making love all day. Kowalski refuses and rides out. The third woman comes at night on the side of the road. A young Charlotte Rampling stands waiting for a ride dressed in a black shawl. Her loose, dark clothing suggests ancient times. Perhaps she represents the death of Kowalski’s lover in contrast to the life and freedom represented by the naked motorbike girl. Kowalski lets her in and in mystical tones she reveals that she has always been waiting for him, always wanting him. They get stoned and have sex. When Kowalski wakes in the morning there is no sign of her. Kowalski shrugs it off and the quest resumes. Curiously, this scene was cut from US prints of the film and was only present on the UK version. Although it has recently been reinstated in the US, it is odd that such an important scene was ever left out. Maybe it was thought too supernatural for a film setting out to tackle real issues.

The film ends where it began. The prologue to Vanishing Point finishes with two cars passing just before they reach a road block of unyielding bulldozers. The film freezes and one of the cars, the Dodge Challenger, fades out, leaving the other, a black Chrysler. Kowalski is now in the Chrysler, delivering it before his next mission begins; the chase back to Frisco in the white Dodge Challenger. This is one of many vanishing points in the film, where black and white cross. The haze on the horizon where the road disappears represents a physical vanishing point. The end of one phase of American history as it morphs into the next represents another. Maybe the wanton destruction witnessed in Kowalski’s racing career was his Vietnam. A place of extremes that leaves young men desensitised and emotionally wrecked. The analogy would be understandable given the mood of the country at the time the film was made.

In the small-town scenes the camera picks out the faces of old men watching on from behind screen doors or through their windows. Some wear cowboy hats, symbols of the old America. They don’t understand what’s going on. They remember the spirit of the old west: to ride out and explore the country. Kowalski represents that pioneering spirit, but he is largely indifferent to what he finds. It’s clear that the new America bears only a superficial resemblance to the old. Kowalski takes drugs to recapture the thrills of his racing days and to escape from the truth of his past. The lawless interstate journey inspires others to see him as a symbol of freedom. An outsider who has shaken off laws and social norms. Look closely at the end scene and you might be lucky enough to see the escape he yearns for. Or is he doomed to repeat events? The answer to that will require your interpretation and a scroll back to the start of the film.

Kowalski is a romantic hero living a life of hedonistic individualism that no one can tame. In refusing to obey the laws of the old order, he achieves near mythical status. In the telling of this story, Vanishing Point becomes an important film about the death of innocence in the wake of Vietnam, personal liberty, freedom of expression and the changes in American society from the 1960s onwards.


Trust review (1990, dir. Hal Hartley)

I only recently heard the news about the death of Adrienne Shelley. I feel bad because it happened in 2006 and I'd let her slip from my memory. In the early 90's I had her picture on my student wall and a medium-sized crush. Chances are you haven't heard of her though and that's OK because she never broke into the Hollywood big leagues. Shelley started her career a young, sweet and spunky actress working in small budget and short films. Later she added directing to her resume.

Tragically, just before the release of Waitress, her biggest film as director, she died when strangled in her New York apartment by an opportunist thief. The killer, in a perversely filmic touch, managed to dress the scene so it appeared she'd hanged herself. Shelley's husband and young daughter believed this for only nineteen days until her remorseful murderer handed himself in.

Of Shelley's acting work the best was under the directorship of Hal Hartley. And my favourite of those films is Trust. More on Adrienne Shelley can be found here: http://www.adrienneshellyfoundation.org/

The first thing to say about Trust is that work is required on the part of the viewer. This isn't a criticism but a warning for anyone new to the films of Hal Hartley. The characters all speak with the voice of the director; it's you who will invest them with a personality distinct from their creator. Let me explain:

Hartley's style is to direct his actors to speak their lines without betraying emotion. In turn the audience has nowhere to go but to project their own emotions, back-stories and desires onto them. None of the conventions of film drama delivery are followed. This is Hartley's universe and that makes it hard to break the layer of stylistic veneer he has brushed over this film. When you put away your preconceptions, fall into the groove and go with it, Trust is a cinematic treat that will have you eagerly hunting down more by this director.

The script is cynical and glacially cool, each character speaking with the same enigmatic voice; (Hartley's) voice. Everyone knows the cleverest thing to say at any given moment. There are no pauses, pondering or any kind of tic that might have a parallel in the “real world”. And all of this delivered to a mostly static camera. A camera that plays no active role in the narrative except to record the events and leave you to fill in the rest. A similar process can be seen in the films of David Mamet but the plot of Trust is less arch than, for example, Mamet's House of Game and without any of the twists and turns in the plot. But both regard film as an extension of the theatre stage, delivering complex, wordy scripts with a passive eye for motion.

Hartley casts the charismatic but criminally underrated Martin Donovan as television engineer Matthew Slaughter - a brooding, violent loner, who carries a live grenade at all times “just in case”. Matthew is an unnaturally talented repairer of electronics but finds himself unemployed after forcing his bosses head into a vice. His anger is exceeded only by that of his controlling father, who keeps their house spotlessly clean. This violent paternal OCD propels Matthew from the house and into a chance encounter.

Adrienne Shelley plays the immature and pregnant high school girl, Maria. Life is turned around for her when she announces her pregnancy to her family. Maria's father calls her a slut, she slaps him and he drops dead on the spot of a heart attack. All very cold, all very Hartley. Turned out of the house by her mother and abandoned by her jock boyfriend she is found by Matthew and reluctantly opens up to him. Luckily Matthew's overbearing father has left town for a few days allowing him to offer Maria place to stay. She repays him by discarding her clothes and cigarette butts all over the house. When the father returns the ensuing violence forces them both out onto the street again. A frustrated Matthew walks into and out again of his thankless television repair job, spitting bile at the world. Only in the face of Maria’s determinism to have her baby does he calm down and recognise a fellow pariah.

On the surface the story of a pregnant girl being turfed out onto the streets may sound an unoriginal premise, but Hartley peppers the whole thing with asides and nuances that take the film to an unexpected place. Look at the scene where a family friend gives an unexpected speech on how great it is to be pregnant, which is strangely incongruous given the context of the film. Another scene at the train station suddenly presents us unexpectedly with a group of men who all resemble Jaques Tati. Trust is not afraid to be surreal and in doing so avoids any detraction in not confronting head-on the abortion protesters that rear their heads when Maria visits a clinic. The fact that she decides to have her baby and then changes her mind when she falls in “love” is simply stated and the film never condemns or endorses her decisions.

Maria’s use of the “c” word in the abortion clinic, when discussing how her previous boyfriend sees her as a “thing”, is one rare moment of true shock. For one thing it seems unlike Hartley to use the word itself but very much his style in that it is delivered so nonchalantly. It prefigures the use of this word in American Beauty almost a decade later; coming again from the mouth of a high-school girl similarly delivered in an everyday manner. The teenage pregnancy plot also reminds us of Juno but Hartley's world is darker and spikier than that adolescent fable.

Motherhood plays a central role in Trust and not just Maria's impending birth. From Matthews absent mother who's dress Maria later wears to Maria's own controlling mother who throws her daughter out for murdering her husband only to let her and Matthew return in a moment of compassion. As we discover this is a ruse to let her try to set up Matthew with her older daughter Peg (played by a young Edie Falco from The Sopranos and Hartleys 2005 film The Girl From Monday).

What's surprising is the real beauty and charm that leaps out of this artifice as Matthew and Maria's relationship develops. When they discuss the nature of love and trust in Hartley's clipped dialogue you sense that these characters genuinely care for each other, for although the style works against them, the power of the relationship draws us back. One theory I have is that despite himself, Hartley allows the actors to sneak in elements of real emotion through his own almost Fascistic methods of film-making. It may seem far-fetched but Hartley's work is so knowing and so carefully constructed it seems a moment of weakness from him that he ever allowed these characters to become so likable.

Trust is a rare commodity. An independent film dealing with society’s outcasts that beats with a real heart at its core. Adrienne Shelley plays a tenacious and stubborn character with great strength and presence; a reminder of a talented life cut tragically short.